No magic wand, Professor Rajan? Oh but there is…2013 (Plus: 7 Jan 2016 “Professor Rajan stays or goes? My answer to a query”)

7 January 2016
rajan

3 June 2014

from World Economy & Central Banking Seminar at Facebook

Professor Rajan’s statement “I determine the monetary policy. I say what it is….ultimately the interest rate that is set is set by me” equates Indian monetary policy with the money interest rate; but monetary policy in India has always involved far more than that, namely, the bulk of Indian banking and insurance has been in government hands for decades, all these institutions have been willy-nilly compelled to hold vast stocks of government debt, both Union and State, on their asset-sides…and unlimited unending deficit finance has led to vast expansion of money supply, making it all rather fragile. My “India’s Money” in 2012 might be found useful. http://tinyurl.com/o9dhe8d

11 April 2014

from World Economy & Central Banking Seminar at Facebook

I have to wonder, What is Professor Rajan on about? Growth in an individual country is affected by the world monetary system? Everyone for almost a century has seen it being a real phenomenon affected by other real factors like savings propensities, capital accumulation, learning and productivity changes, innovation, and, broadly, technological progress… A “source country” needs to consult “recipient” countries before it starts or stops Quantitative Easing? Since when? The latter can always match policy such as to be more or less unaffected… unless of course it wants to ride along for free when the going is good and complain loudly when it is not…. Monetary policy may affect the real economy but as a general rule we may expect growth (a real phenomenon) to be affected by other real factors like savings propensities, capital accumulation, learning and productivity changes, innovation, and, broadly, technological progress..

22 September 2013

“Let us remember that the postponement of tapering is only that, a postponement. We must use this time to create a bullet proof national balance sheet and growth agenda, which creates confidence in citizens and investors alike…”

I will say the statement above is the first sensible thing I have heard Dr Rajan utter anywhere, cutting through all the hype…I should also think he may be underestimating the task at hand, so here’s some help as to what needs to be done from my 19 Aug 2013 Mint article “A wand for Raghuram Rajan” and my 3 Dec 2012 Delhi lecture:

“Rajan has apparently said, “We do not have a magic wand to make the problems disappear instantaneously, but I have absolutely no doubt we will deal with them.” Of course there are no magic wands but there is a scientific path forward. It involves system-wide improvements in public finance and accounting using modern information technology to comprehend government liabilities and expenditures and raise their productivity. It also involves institutional changes in public decision-making like separating banking and central banking from the treasury while making the planning function serve the treasury function rather than pretend to be above it. It is a road long and arduous but at its end both corruption and inflation will have been reduced to minimal levels. The rupee will have acquired sufficient integrity to become a hard currency of the world in the sense the average resident of, say, rural Madhya Pradesh or Mizoram may freely convert rupees and hold or trade foreign currencies or precious metals as he/she pleases. India signed the treaty of Versailles as a victor and was an original member of the League of Nations, the United Nations and the IMF. Yet sovereign India has failed to develop a currency universally acceptable as freely convertible world money. It is necessary and possible for India to aim to do so because without such a national aim, the integrity of the currency continues to be damaged regularly by governmental abuse. An RBI governor’s single overriding goal should be to try to bring a semblance of integrity to India’s money both domestically and worldwide.”

 

 

19 August 2013

A wand for Raghuram Rajan

9 August 2013

No magic wand, Professor Rajan? Oh but there is… read up all this over some hours and you will find it… (Of course it’s not from magic really,  just hard economic science & politics)

Professor Raghuram Govind Rajan of the University of Chicago Business School deserves everyone’s congratulations on his elevation to the Reserve Bank of India’s Governorship.  But I am afraid I cannot share the wild optimism in India’s business media over this.  Of course there are several positives to the appointment.  First, having a genuine PhD and that too from a top school is a rarity among India’s policy-makers; Rajan earned a 1991 PhD in finance at MIT’s management school for a thesis titled “Essays on banking” (having to do we are told “with the downside to cozy bank-firm relationships”).   Secondly, and related,  he has not been a career bureaucrat as almost all RBI Governors have been in recent decades.  Thirdly, he has been President of the American Finance Association, he won the first Fischer Black prize in finance of that Association, and during Anne Krueger’s 2001-2006 reign as First Deputy MD at the IMF, he was given the research role made well-known by the late Michael Mussa, that of “Economic Counselor” of the IMF.

Hence, altogether, Professor Rajan has come to be well-known over the last decade in the West’s financial media. Given the dismal state of India’s credit in world capital markets, that is an asset for a new RBI Governor to have.

On the negatives, first and foremost, if Professor Rajan has renounced at any time his Indian nationality, surrendered his Indian passport and sworn the naturalization oath of the USA, then he is a US citizen with a US passport and loyalty owed to that country, and by US law he will have to enter the USA using that and no other nationality.  If that happens to be the factual case, it will be something that comes out in India’s political cauldron for sure, and there will arise legal issues and court orders  barring him from heading the RBI or representing India officially, e.g. when standing in for India’s Finance Minister at the IMF in Washington or the BIS in Basle etc.   Was he an Indian national as Economic Counselor at the IMF?   The IMF has a tradition of only European MDs and at least one American First Deputy MD.   The Economic Counselor was always American too; did Rajan break that by having remained Indian, or conform to it by having become American?  It is a simple question of fact which needs to come out clearly.   Even if Rajan is an American, he and the Government of India could perhaps try to cite to the Indian courts the new precedent set by the venerable Bank of England which recently appointed a Canadian as Governor.

Secondly, does Professor Rajan know enough (or “have enough domain knowledge” in the modern term) to comprehend let aside confront India’s myriad monetary and public finance problems?  Much of his academic experience in the USA and his approach to Western financial markets may be quite simply divorced from the reality of Indian credit markets and India’s peculiar monetary and banking system as these have evolved over decades and centuries.  Mathematical finance is a relatively new, small specialised American sub-field of economic theory, and not a part of general economics. Rajan’s academic path of engineering and management in India followed by a finance thesis in the management department of a US engineering school may have exposed him to relatively little formal textbook micro- and macroeconomics, monetary economics, public finance, international economics, economic development etc, especially as these relate to Indian circumstances  “Growing up in India, I had seen poverty all around me. I had read about John Maynard Keynes and thought, wow, here’s a guy who managed to have an enormous influence on the world. Economics must be very important.”… He ran across Robert Merton’s paper on rational option pricing, and something clicked that set him on his own intellectual path. “It all came together. You didn’t have these touchy-feely ways of describing human behavior; there were neat arbitrage ways of pricing things. It just seemed so clever and sophisticated,” he said. “And I could use the math skills that I fancied I had, so I decided to get my PhD.”

Let me take two examples.  Does Rajan realise how the important Bottomley-Chandavarkar debates of the 1960s about India’s rural credit markets influenced George Akerlof’s “Market for Lemons” theory and prompted much work on “asymmetric information”, 325.extract signalling etc in credit-markets, insurance-markets, labour-markets and markets in general, as acknowledged in the awards of several Bank of Sweden prizes?  Or will he need a tutorial on the facts of rural India’s financial and credit markets, and their relationship with the formal sector?  What the Bottomley-Chandavarkar debate referred to half a century ago still continues in rural India insofar as large arbitrage profits are still made by trading across the artificially low rates of money interest caused by financial repression of India’s “formal” monetised sector with its soft inconvertible currency against the very high real rates of return on capital in the “informal” sector.   It is obvious to the naked eye that India is a relatively labour-abundant country.  It follows the relative price of labour will be low and relative price of capital high compared to, e.g. the Western or Middle Eastern economies, with mobile factors of production like labour and capital expected to flow accordingly across national boundaries.   Indian nominal interest-rates in organized credit markets have been for decades tightly controlled, making it necessary to go back to Irving Fisher’s data to obtain benchmark interest-rates, which, as expected, are at least 2%-3% higher in India than in Western capital markets. Joan Robinson once explained “the difference between 30% in an Indian village and 3% in London” saying “side by side with the industrial revolution went great technical progress in the provision of credit and the reduction of lender’s risk.”

What is logically certain is no country can have both relatively low world prices for labour and relatively low world prices for capital!  Yet that impossibility seems to have been what India’s purported economic “planners” have planned to engineer!  The effect of financial repression over decades may have been to artificially “reverse” or “switch” the risk-premium — making it lucrative for there to be capital flight out of India, with real rates of return on capital within India being made artificially lower than those in world markets!   Just as enough export subsidies and tariffs can make a country artificially “reverse” its comparative advantage with its structure of exports and imports becoming inverted, so a labour-rich capital-scarce country may, with enough financial repression, end up causing a capital flight.  The Indian elite’s capital flight out of India exporting their adult children and savings overseas may be explained as having been induced by government policy itself.

431314_10150617690307285_69226771_n

Secondly, Professor Rajan as a finance and banking specialist, will see at once the import of this graph above that has never been produced let aside comprehended by the RBI, yet which uses the purest RBI data.  It shows India’s mostly nationalised banks have decade after decade gotten weaker and weaker financially, being kept afloat by continually pumping in of new “capital” via “recapitalisation” from the government that owns them, using more and more of the soft inconvertible currency that has been debauched merrily by government planners.  The nationalised banks with their powerful pampered employee unions, like other powerful pampered employee unions in the government sector, have been the bane of India, where a mere 30 million privileged people in a vast population work with either the government or the organised private sector.  The RBI’s own workforce at last count was perhaps 75,000… the largest central bank staff in the world by far!

Will Rajan know how to bring some system out of the institutional chaos that prevails in Indian banking and central banking?  If not, he should start with the work of James Hanson “Indian Banking: Market Liberalization and the Pressures for Institutional and Market Framework Reform”, contained in the book created by Anne Krueger who brought him into the IMF, and mentioned in my 2012 article “India’s Money” linked below.

The central question for any 21st century RBI Governor worth the name really becomes whether he or she can stand up to the Finance Ministry and insist that the RBI stop being a mere department of it — even perhaps insisting on constitutional status for its head to fulfill the one over-riding aim of trying to bring a semblance of integrity to India’s currency both domestically and worldwide.  Instead it is the so-called “Planning Commission” which has been dominating the Treasury that needs to be made a mere department of the Finance Ministry, while the RBI comes to be hived off to independence!  

Professor Rajan has apparently said “We do not have a magic wand to make the problems disappear instantaneously, but I have absolutely no doubt we will deal with them.”  Of course there are no magic wands but my 3 December 2012 talk in Delhi  has described the right path forward, complex and difficult as this may be.

The path forward involves system-wide improvements in public finance and accounting using modern information technology to comprehend government liabilities and expenditures and raise their productivity, plus institutional changes in public decision-making like separating banking and central banking from the Treasury while making the planning function serve the Treasury function rather than pretend to be above it.  The road described is long and arduous but at its end both corruption and inflation will have been reduced to minimal levels, and the rupee would have acquired integrity enough to become a hard currency of the world in the sense the average resident of, say, rural Madhya Pradesh or Mizoram may freely convert rupees and hold or trade foreign currencies or precious metals as he/she pleases.

3dec

India signed the Treaty of Versailles as a victor and was an original member of the League of Nations, UN and IMF.  Yet sovereign India has failed to develop a currency universally acceptable as a freely convertible world money. It is necessary and possible for India to do so. Without such a national aim, the integrity of the currency continues to be damaged regularly by governmental abuse. 

Professor Rajan will not want to be merely an adornment for the GoI in world capital markets for a few  years, waiting to get back to his American career and life and perhaps to the IMF again.  As RBI Governor, he can find his magic wand if he reads and reflects hard enough using his undoubted academic acumen, and then acts to lead India accordingly.  Here is the basic reading list:

“India’s Money” (2012)

“Monetary Integrity and the Rupee” (2008)

“India’s Macroeconomics” (2007)

“Fiscal Instability” (2007)

“Fallacious Finance” (2007)

“Growth and Government Delusion” (2008)

“India in World Trade & Payments” (2007)

“Path of the Indian Rupee 1947-1993” (1993)

“Our Policy Process” (2007)

“Indian Money and Credit” (2006)

“Indian Money and Banking” (2006)

Indian Inflation

“Growth of Real Income, Money & Prices in India 1869-2004” (2005)

“How to Budget” (2008)

“Waffle but No Models of Monetary Policy: The RBI and Financial Repression (2005)”

“The Dream Team: A Critique” (2006)

“Against Quackery” (2007)

“Mistaken Macroeconomics” (2009)

“The Indian Revolution (2008)”

https://independentindian.com/2013/11/23/coverage-of-my-delhi-talk-on-3-dec-2012/

Enjoy!

Posted in Academic economics, Academic research, Asia and the West, asymmetric information, Banking, Big Business and Big Labour, Bretton Woods institutions, Britain in India, Capital and labour, Deposit multiplication, Economic Policy, Economic quackery, Economic Theory, Economic Theory of Growth, Economic Theory of Interest, Economic Theory of Value, Economics of exchange controls, Economics of Exchange Rates, Economics of Public Finance, Financial Management, Financial markets, Financial Repression, Foreign exchange controls, Governance, Government accounting, Government Budget Constraint, India's Big Business, India's credit markets, India's Government economists, India's interest rates, India's savings rate, India's stock and debt markets, India's 1991 Economic Reform, India's agriculture, India's balance of payments, India's Banking, India's Budget, India's bureaucracy, India's Capital Markets, India's currency history, India's Foreign Exchange Reserves, India's Foreign Trade, India's Government Budget Constraint, India's Government Expenditure, India's Macroeconomics, India's Monetary & Fiscal Policy, India's nomenclatura, India's Polity, India's poverty, India's Public Finance, India's Reserve Bank, India's State Finances, India's Union-State relations, Inflation, Inflation targeting, Interest group politics, Interest rates, International economics, International monetary economics, International Monetary Fund IMF, Land and political economy, Microeconomic foundations of macroeconomics, Monetary Theory, Money and banking, Paper money and deposits, Power-elites and nomenclatura, Public Choice/Public Finance, Public property waste fraud, Raghuram Govind Rajan, Raghuram Rajan, Rajiv Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, Statesmanship, Unorganised capital markets. Leave a Comment »

A New Drachma? Thinking further on the need for a new Greek domestic currency to revive trade: Is the Greek/German Eurozone problem the mathematical dual of Gresham’s Law?

from Twitter 2015 June July

 

What is my argument against € in #Greece= #grexit? It’s that Greeks didn’t need a hard world currency to turnover their real transactions… Eg suppose everyone in India was compelled to use grains of gold to buy fish or veg in the mkt or to get a haircut: mightn’t trade slow down? even if a barber gives you a haircut and accepts a grain or two of gold in exchange, he may then *hoard* that, not use it in further trade… would you use grains of gold in India to get a haircut or buy fish? if forced to,Velocityof Circulation would slow…

People would tend to hoard the gold, liquidate assets to acquire it, wait to see how things went…rather than actually trade as they used to..

My surmise has been Greeks who had assets & could liquidate did so, gaining windfall profits, then leaving/emigrating…hedging their bets..

The public debt left for those w/o assets…meanwhile velocity of circulation of the currency slowed, domestic trade& hence income collapsed.

 

From Facebook discussions:

March 2010:  …My view on Greece appears different. In my view, a transition to a new Drachma will be drastic but will not be any more catastrophic than the present trap Greece has put itself in.

The current path makes a fetish of the fiscal side when the problem at root has been monetary, arising from a purported monetary union, a *superficial* monetary union being created, when there were wildly different underlying fiscal histories and fiscal propensities and preferences.

Money has two main functions, being a medium of exchange and a store of value; the Euro has become too (implicitly) expensive for Greeks to be an effective medium of exchange, while the threat of a Greek default makes the Euro a risky store of value for Germans, Dutch et al. Greeks would have been hoarding Euros, reducing the velocity of circulation, and causing domestic trade to turnover more slowly and hence damaging national income; at the same time, others would have been wondering about a flight to safety outside the Euro. Introducing a soft inconvertible domestic money in Greece would allow the medium of exchange function to be fulfilled and revive domestic trade and income; it would have to be accompanied by exchange and import controls, leaving the Euro as a hard currency for external transactions. The present route being followed of trying to improve Greece’s fiscal situation by compulsion may worsen the situation without any new equilibrium path being anywhere near to be found.

The aim is to have a soft flexible inconvertible domestic currency *which facilitates, indeed stimulates, the turnover of domestic trade*, and allows equilibrium domestic relative prices to be found and adjusted towards. There would have to be a

(a) clamping down overnight on capital exports followed by forex rationing;
(b) closing the trade borders and imposing import controls (smuggling is inevitable);
(c) deciding a new price for the Drachma, say something like 500 or 1000 to the Euro (the aim is for equilibrium domestic relative prices to be adjusted towards and for domestic trade to turnover properly and expeditiously and indeed stop its collapse);
(d) exchanging all forex/Euro-denominated financial assets held by domestic residents to New Drachma-denominations at the new rate automatically;
(e) Euro-denominated liabilities incurred by domestic residents remain Euro-denominated: if it is the Government, they can negotiate how much or all if it they will repay over time; if it is private, private assets may be converted to pay it and/or there will be individual defaults or delays (restructuring) or write-offs.
(f) Exchanging all cash forex/Euro held by domestic residents to New Drachmas, through “licensed authorised dealers” as well as e.g. by ordering all commercial establishments to give New Drachma change in transactions.

Would Greece have “left the Euro”? Yes and No. It would not be part of the Euro Area but the New Drachma would be a Euro-standard currency where the Government guaranteed to buy up all Euro held by domestic residents at the fixed price in exchange for New Drachmas and held its forex reserves in Euros.

I have spent decades arguing *against* all this in the Indian case but have to say it is what Greece may need now, for a period of adjustment of half a dozen or so years.

Is the Greek/German Eurozone problem the mathematical dual of Gresham’s Law?
17 October 2011 
 
Money according to economic theory has two main functions, namely, being a medium of exchange and a store of value; I have been saying that I think the Euro has become too (implicitly) expensive for Greeks to be an effective medium of exchange, while the threat of a Greek default would make the Euro a risky store of value for Germans, Danes et al. If I am right, Greeks would have been hoarding Euros, reducing the velocity of circulation, and causing domestic trade to turnover more slowly and hence damaging national income; at the same time, the Germans, Danes et al would have been wondering about a flight to safety outside the Euro. Some young mathematical economist may take my idea and develop it it intelligently as the *dual* problem to Gresham’s law http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gresham%27s_law inasmuch as weak fiscal positions are causing, through a common money, stronger fiscal positions to weaken…
 
Addendum Oct 25 2011
My guess has been the Euro has become a de facto hard currency for Greeks, who will then hoard it and slow the velocity of circulation, damaging the turnover of normal domestic trade and hence damaging national income; i.e. it has become too expensive as a currency to properly fulfill the medium of exchange function of money in Greece; at the same time, Germans, Dutch and others in fiscally strong economies relatively have to account for the added risk of Greek infirmity and hence find the Euro less of a store of value than otherwise, causing incentives to flee to other denominations. Introducing a soft inconvertible domestic money in Greece would allow the medium of exchange function to be fulfilled and revive domestic trade and income; it would have to be accompanied by exchange and import controls, leaving the Euro as a hard currency for external transactions. The present route being followed of trying to improve Greece’s fiscal situation by compulsion may well worsen the situation without any new equilibrium path being anywhere near to be found.
 

Thinking further on the need for a new Greek domestic currency to revive trade
16 September 2011 
 
Subroto Roy: Re  “it is still not clear what will actually happen”, what will happen is there will be an inevitable recognition that the introduction of the Euro was premature, probably irreversible, and likely to be catastrophic as it unwinds.
 
Edward Hugh Yes, well…. and apart from that little detail Suby, what else do you forsee. I absolutely agree, by the way, that these madmen (and women) have taken the global economy to the brink of disaster through their inability to listen.
 
Maria Tadd When words like catastrophic are used, they obviously send fear into the hearts of many. Suby and Ed, how do you envision the fall out to look like?
 
Subroto Roy    There has to be a clear way out for a currency to exit; that has never been thought out beforehand; creating a monetary union is the *final* step from a free trade area to a customs union to an economic union to a monetary union.  A purported monetary union, or rather a *superficial* monetary union was created, when there were wildly different underlying fiscal histories and fiscal propensities and preferences. Now Greece needs, as I have said over two years, an inexpensive inconvertible domestic money which allows domestic trade and savings to take place normally; the Euro would have to become a hard currency for external use.
 
Edward Hugh Do you mean like what has been happening in Croatia Suby?
Subroto Roy I am afraid I have to admit ignorance of Europe’s facts, what I am working on is my (quite sound) knowledge of monetary economics acquired from Hahn, Friedman, Walters, ACL Day, Griffths, Hicks via Miller, etc. Thinking about Greece overnight: if the Euro has become a de facto hard currency there, its velocity of circulation will fall as people tend to hoard it, causing domestic transactions & trade and hence national income to fall too; hence further the need for an inexpensive domestic currency (under capital controls) for domestic trade and transactions to be revived.
 
(Capital controls imply import restrictions and the rationing of foreign exchange so Greeks will not be big tourists in the rest of the world for a while but what the heck they have so much to see in their own country.)
 
 
Oct 3 2011:
 
“What I have said for two years now is that Greece needs to introduce a soft inconvertible domestic money to facilitate domestic trade and revive growth; it would have to be accompanied by import controls and forex rationing with the Euro becoming a hard currency in Greece for external transactions. Why? Because the Euro has probably become a de facto hard currency for Greeks who would then tend to hoard it, slowing velocity of circulation and causing domestic transactions to be reduced. (At the same time, Germans, Danes and others have an incentive to leave the Euro for the safety of some other hard currency in view of a possible Greek default.) Money has two main functions, being a store of value and a medium of exchange. In present circumstances, the Euro is becoming a dubious store of value for the Germans et al while becoming too scarce to be a proper medium of exchange for the Greeks. All this is good standard monetary economics, which no one in the ECB, IMF, financial journalism etc somehow seems to be able to recall. Instead they have made a fetish of the fiscal side, and that is destined to neither address the root problem nor to bring civil peace….”

My “Reverse Euro” Model of June 1998, and my writings on a new money for Greece: letter to the Wolfson Economics Prize donors by Subroto Roy on Thursday, 20 October 2011 at 18:51 ·
 

Hello,
In June 1998, I gave an invited lecture at the Institute of Economic Affairs on a “Reverse Euro” model for India, i.e., on how India could and should consider creating (under certain conditions) more than a dozen state-monies to coexist with a national currency too in the interests of a better fisc and some slight pretence to monetary integrity. In doing so, I also expressed my very grave foreboding about what the Euro was intended to be doing the following year in actual practice in Europe; I remember visiting a prominent British  Euro-optimist too and making my argument in contrast about the Euro’s arrival.

Subsequently, Milton Friedman and I corresponded too about my idea, and he found merit in it in describing an exit route for, he said, Italy for example, if that country needed such an exit route given its fiscal condition to depart from the Euro in due course. I also talked briefly about the subject at an invited lecture at the Reserve Bank of India in April 2000, as well as elsewhere.

Over the last two years, I have (and I think was the first to do so) suggested Greece needs a New Drachma, and how this should be gone about.  This has been outlined by me with many economists informally by email, as well as discussed at Facebook at some length.

I have little doubt what I am saying is broadly right — in the sense that it is the most consistent with the formal body of economic theory known as monetary economics.  I was taught monetary economics very well in the mid 1970s at the LSE by, for example, ACL Day, Alan Walters, Brian Griffiths, Marcus Miller (a student of JR Hicks) and others which came to be followed by my doctoral dissertation at Cambridge under Frank Hahn, and postdoctoral work in America with Jim Buchanan.  Plus Milton Friedman became a friend and stood for me as an expert witness in a US federal court (the only time he ever did that)!  My most recent work is a book edited with John Clark titled Margaret Thatcher’s Revolution: How it Happened and What it Meant published by Continuum in 2005 — that has an essay relevant to this subject commissioned by us and done by Patrick Minford of Cardiff.

So I do plan to write something for your prize but whatever I do write will not be worth the vast sum of money you are offering — in fact, I would say you need to break it up into little bits in due course and parcel it out to the most fruitful ideas.  The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing… This is a fox problem, not a hedgehog one.  Perhaps you should commission a journal or a multi-essay volume or a set of volumes or monographs rather than hand out one big cheque to someone who will not deserve it. (And please say no more about the moneys the Bank of Sweden gives away every year in the name of the advancement of knowledge in economics…)  

The problem you have raised is a fundamental one and should have been raised decades ago, not merely by Eurosceptics in the occasional lecture or newspaper article but in many formal academic doctoral theses and journals all over Europe, long before the Euro came to be introduced — and note that the jump from the unification of Germany (with the 1:1 DM:Ostmark problem) was less than a decade before that.  That did not happen.  So now your belated initiative is most welcome, better late than never, better something than nothing.

Do let me know please what else I need to know to send in my theoretical thoughts on this.

Cordially

Suby Roy

February 21 2012:

My idea has been far better (because it is based on standard monetary economics which the ECB, IMF etc bureaucrats appear to have all forgotten or never learnt) …

[Devaluation refers to exchange-rates. There are no exchange-rates, that is precisely the problem; exchange-rates are prices, and as such market signals. By getting rid of them, market signals were lost. The point I am making in my notes is that there is still an *implicit* shadow exchange-rate if you like, so the Euro being used in Greece actually has a different local price in terms of real goods and services than the same Euro being used in Germany!]

Hans Suter: A Drachma at a discount of 40% would certainly push tourism by a 20% ? That would be a 3 to 4% jump of GDP.)

Subroto Roy: A New Drachma can be at 0.1 of a Euro, or less. But at least *local* trade and business will be revived and slowly national income will grow. The Greeks will feel free and self-confident and sovereign. Yes they cannot buy any more BMWs or tour Paris or Italy any more. But they can go and visit the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids perhaps. [And they can take 100 years to repay their Euro debts instead of 50 years…]

Subroto Roy hears “If the Baltics can, then why not Greece?”, and says the Baltics are the Baltics, God Bless them, Greece is Greece… I have no idea about the Baltics. The closest I got to them was an Estonian friend in Helsinki many years ago. In Greece what I am saying is that the money that is being used, the Euro, is no longer a natural money, and for that matter, it never was a natural money — money and banking evolve naturally out of trade and commerce, and to truck, barter and exchange are natural human propensities. Creating a monetary union is the *final* step from a free trade area to a customs union to an economic union to a monetary union. A purported monetary union, or rather a *superficial* monetary union was created, when there were wildly different underlying fiscal histories and fiscal propensities and preferences. The Euro has been an artificial money that eradicated the vital market signalling function that exchange-rates played (since exchange-rates are prices). A new inconvertible soft domestic money for Greece would allow domestic transactions to turnover properly once more and hence revive trade and national income. Greece could still be “in” the Eurozone nominally in the sense of having a fixed exchange-rate with the Euro which would be used for external trade. But there would have to be capital controls and import controls and foreign exchange rationing. At least for a while, probably a long while. Greece’s Euro debt would take 100 years instead of 50 years to repay. But at least the Greeks would feel free and sovereign and self-confident again, and adjust to their domestic economic realities in peace.

From Facebook May 14 2012
Diran Majarian
“The big issue here is how to deal with the debt overhang after the drachma transition since this must apply to both assets and liabilities.”

Subroto Roy The New Drachma has to be an inconvertible soft currency and Greece has to have import controls and capital export controls. Euro denominated assets held by domestic residents become Drachma-denominated (at a fixed, not a market-determined rate, e.g. 1:500 or 1:1000); Euro-denominated liabilities incurred by domestic residents remain Euro-denominated: if it is the Government, they can negotiate how much or all if it they will repay over time; if it is private, private assets may be converted to pay it and/or there will be individual defaults or delays (restructuring) or write-offs.

May 14 2012
The famous Professor Wilhelm Buiter (Cambridge BA 1971, Yale PhD 1975) has said this? “The instant before Greece exits it (somehow) introduces a new currency (the New Drachma or ND, say). Assume for simplicity that at the moment of its introduction the exchange rate between the ND and the euro is 1 for 1. This currency then immediately depreciates sharply vis-à-vis the euro (by 40 percent seems a reasonable point estimate). All pre-existing financial instruments and contracts under Greek law are redenominated into ND at the 1 for 1 exchange rate. What this means is that, as soon as the possibility of a Greek exit becomes known, there will be a bank run in Greece and denial of further funding to any and all entities, private or public, through instruments and contracts under Greek law. Holders of existing euro-denominated contracts under Greek law want to avoid their conversion into ND and the subsequent sharp depreciation of the ND. The Greek banking system would be destroyed even before Greece had left the euro area”…

Excuse me? This from the Chief Economist at Citi bank and “Professor of European Political Economy” at my alma mater, the London School of Economics and Political Science? What a load of rubbish Professor Buiter! Whom did you learn your monetary economics from? OK, ok, I should be polite: what makes you think a 1:1 exchange-rate should be fixed? Why not 1:500? Or 1:1000? The aim is to have a soft flexible inconvertible domestic currency *which facilitates, indeed stimulates, the turnover of domestic trade*, and allows equilibrium domestic relative prices to be found and adjusted towards. And why should Greece default on its Euro debt?! It might merely take a little longer to repay it. The change in currency is a conceptually distinct problem from that of credit-worthiness. Here is what I have said instead over two years, and for free:

Reintroducing the New Drachma would require

(a) clamping down overnight on capital exports followed by forex rationing;
(b) closing the trade borders and imposing import controls;
(c) deciding a new price for the Drachma, I would say something like 500 or 1000 to the Euro (the aim is for equilibrium domestic relative prices to be adjusted towards and for domestic trade to turnover properly and expeditiously and indeed stop its collapse);
(d) exchanging all forex/Euro-denominated financial assets held by domestic residents to New Drachma-denominations at the new rate automatically;
(e) exchanging all cash forex/Euro held by domestic residents to New Drachmas, through “licensed authorised dealers” as well as e.g. by ordering all commercial establishments to give New Drachma change in transactions. Would Greece have “left the Euro”? Yes and No. It would not be part of the Euro Area but the New Drachma would be a Euro-standard currency where the Government guaranteed to buy up all Euro held by domestic residents at the fixed price in exchange for New Drachmas and held its forex reserves in Euros.

A New Drachma?
Facebook April 29 2010:
Subroto Roy thinks a New Drachma is inevitable sooner or later but remains deeply puzzled at the possible ways it may get reintroduced. The examples of such monetary reforms are all long gone from memory, in the immediate aftermath of WWII. It seems clear the Euro will become an increasingly scarce currency not suitable for fulfilling the normal medium of exchange function in domestic Greek transactions and will become a rationed hard currency under capital controls for external transactions only. It may already be hard or impossible to restrain a capital flight, perhaps underway. How will the actual transition be made? Perhaps by allowing Greek government debt denominated in a new local money, call it the New Drachma, to become tradeable? I said in my *Reverse Euro* model for India lecture in June 1998 at London’s IEA that the Eurozone could end up looking less like America’s monetary union than India’s.
 
April 8 2010:
Subroto Roy, reading “It is hard to know how to interpret this large decline in deposits”, says “Not really. The Euro is becoming a *scarce hard currency* in Greece, i.e., it is becoming too expensive to use Euros to satisfy Greece’s transactions demand for money, the medium of exchange function, hence Greece has an increasing need for a new local currency which will satisfy that function while the Euro is retained for use in Greece’s international transactions”.
 
Subroto Roy thinks the only sustainable long-term solution may be the reintroduction of a New Drachma, which will need time to stabilize behind a period of foreign exchange controls and rationing. The DM/FFr-based Euro would become a hard currency relative to a New Drachma.
 
March 24 2010:
Subroto Roy expects the US, Britain, ANZ and everyone else in the IMF who is not in the Eurozone may legitimately ask why the effective subsidy of Greece by its Eurozone partners should be transferred to the rest of the world.
Subroto Roy thinks the Europeans have enough clout in the IMF to, say, insist some of their own IMF-directed resources be directed towards Greece specifically, which would spell the unravelling of the IMF if it became a general habit.
 
Subroto Roy says “I had a very productive few months in 1993 as a high-level consultant working for Hubert Neiss at the IMF (consultants are, or at least were, very rare at the IMF unlike at the World Bank etc) when I came to understand a little of how the place works (leaving aside all the theory). The French Managing Director is a politician and not an economist or even a central banker, and I am sure France and Germany can swing some IMF money towards Greece. But of course, the IMF can by definition give no *monetary* or exchange-rate advice to Greece because there is no sovereign monetary authority in Greece any more. Hence all it can do is add the same fiscal (and political) advice and conditions as the rest of the Eurozone countries have done plus make the piggy bank larger with some IMF money. It may work once, but if France and Germany then say, right, Portugal, Spain, Italy are next in line, that is the end of the IMF, because its European members may as well be asked to pull out altogether. On the other hand, my radical advice to the IMF might have been to propose to help Greece to reintroduce the drachma and re-establish a sovereign monetary authority of its own, which would take IMF advice and expertise as a New Drachma would take time to stabilize and there would be a period of capital controls on foreign exchange transactions.”
 
Subroto Roy gave a Jun ’98 lecture at London’s IEA on why India should have a  *Reverse-Euro* model: eg 16 major states have their own (domestic) monies with a national rupee coexisting too & free currency markets everywhere. I said I feared a Eurozone may end up *looking like India* rather than the US in this. India has papered over wild fiscal mismanagement by the States by even wilder fiscal mismanagement by the Union!
 
Subroto Roy says Europe could have been a confederation & an economic union for practical purposes without individual monetary sovereignties being lost. E.g., the drachma or peso or escudo or punt or lira could each have chosen to appropriately link to some combination of the DM, FFR, sterling etc. And a Europe-wide Euro from an ECB could have coexisted as well.
 
Subroto Roy  finds Mr Constanzo mention Gresham’s Law, and says, “Certainly there might have been currency competition in Europe, and some of the smaller currencies may have chosen to go to *that* Euro — but DM would not have done, and would have been an alternative to it.”
 
Subroto Roy  thought imposing a single newly invented money on different economies a bit like imposing a single newly invented language (like Esperanto) on different peoples.
 
Subroto Roy  says India has papered over the wild fiscal mismanagement by the States by even wilder fiscal mismanagement by the Union!
 
Subroto Roy  thinks the effective subsidy French farmers et al were getting from Germany in pre-Euro days all came to be subsumed within Euro-economics; an alternative would have been to *leave* DM as it was, & perhaps FFR too, & to have introduced a Euro for smaller economies to use (presumably to save transactions costs);*that* Euro could have been linked to the DM etc. The Germans would have been happy & the problems avoided.
 
Subroto Roy  says German unification hit the Germans badly enough and they seem hardly in any mood to keep on playing Sugar-Daddy to everyone else while still having to defer to the putative victors of WWII (France and Britain) for political leadership.
 

My One-Semester Microeconomics (Theory of Value) Course for Graduate Engineers Planning to Become MBAs

For a half dozen or so years from about 1996 onwards, I taught graduate engineers  a course on microeconomic theory  as part of an MBA syllabus.   The level would have been that of Varian’s undergraduate text as well as, where possible, Henderson & Quandt’s intermediate text (Postscript: and, I now recall, a little of Arrow & Hahn Chapter 2 if there was time).   It was quite successful as most students were very serious and had a more than adequate mathematical background.

Subroto Roy

Kolkata

Exchange, utility analysis and theory of demand

Rational decisions as constrained optimization

Theory of the firm, technology, profit-maximization, cost-minimization, cost curves

Market equilibrium under competitive conditions

Pricing under Monopoly, Oligopoly

Theory of games

Inter-temporal decision-making

Asset markets : arbitrage and present value

Decision-making under uncertainty

Mean-variance analysis : equilibrium in a market for risky assets

Mistaken Macroeconomics: An Open Letter to Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh 12 June 2009

 

 

12 June 2009

The Hon’ble Dr Manmohan Singh, MP, Rajya Sabha

Prime Minister of India

 

 

Respected Pradhan Mantriji:

 

In September 1993 at the residence of the Indian Ambassador to Washington, I had the privilege of being introduced to you by our Ambassador the Hon’ble Siddhartha Shankar Ray, Bar-at-Law. Ambassador Ray was kind enough to introduce me saying the 1991 “Congress manifesto had been written on (my laptop) computer” – a reference to my work as adviser on economic and other policy to the late Rajiv Gandhi in his last months. I presented you a book Foundations of India’s Political Economy: Towards an Agenda for the 1990s created and edited by myself and WE James at the University of Hawaii since 1986 — the unpublished manuscript of that book had reached Rajivji by my hand when he and I first met on September 18 1990. Tragically, my pleadings in subsequent months to those around him that he seemed to my layman’s eyes vulnerable to the assassin went unheeded.

 

 

When you and I met in 1993, we had both forgotten another meeting twenty years earlier in Paris. My father had been a long-time friend of the late Brahma Kaul, ICS, and the late MG Kaul, ICS, who knew you in your early days in the Government of India. In the late summer of 1973, you had acceded to my father’s request to advise me about economics before I embarked for the London School of Economics as a freshman undergraduate. You visited our then-home in Paris for about 40 minutes despite your busy schedule as part of an Indian delegation to the Aid-India Consortium. We ended up having a tense debate about the merits (as you saw them) and demerits (as I saw them) of the Soviet influence on Indian economic “planning”. You had not expected such controversy from a lad of 18 but you were kindly disposed and offered when departing to write a letter of introduction to Amartya Sen, then teaching at the LSE, which you later sent me and which I was delighted to carry to Professor Sen.

 

 

I may add my father, back in 1973 in Paris, had predicted to me that you would become Prime Minister of India one day, and he, now in his 90s, is joined by myself in sending our warm congratulations at the start of your second term in that high office.

 

 

The controversy though that you and I had entered that Paris day in 1973 about scientific economics as applied to India, must be renewed afresh!

 

 

This is because of your categorical statement on June 9 2009 to the new 15th Lok Sabha:

 

 

“I am convinced, since our savings rate is as high as 35%, given the collective will, if all of us work together, we can achieve a growth-rate of 8%-9%, even if the world economy does not do well.” (Statement of Dr Manmohan Singh to the Lok Sabha, June 9 2009)

 

 

I am afraid there may be multiple reasons why such a statement is gravely and incorrigibly in error within scientific economics. From your high office as Prime Minister in a second term, faced perhaps with no significant opposition from either within or without your party, it is possible the effects of such an error may spell macroeconomic catastrophe for India.

 

 

As it happens, the British Labour Party politician Dr Meghnad Desai made an analogous statement to yours about India when he claimed in 2006 that China

 

 

“now has 10.4% growth on a 44 % savings rate… ”

 

Indeed the idea that China and India have had extremely high economic growth-rates based on purportedly astronomical savings rates has become a commonplace in recent years, repeated endlessly in international and domestic policy circles though perhaps without adequate basis.

 

 

 

1.   Germany & Japan

 

What, at the outset, is supposed to be measured when we speak of “growth”? Indian businessmen and their media friends seem to think “growth” refers to something like nominal earnings before tax for the organised corporate sector, or any unspecified number that can be sold to visiting foreigners to induce them to park their funds in India: “You will get a 10% return if you invest in India” to which the visitor says “Oh that must mean India has 10% growth going on”. Of such nonsense are expensive international conferences in Davos and Delhi often made.

 

You will doubtless agree the economist at least must define economic growth properly and with care — what is referred to must be annual growth of per capita inflation-adjusted Gross Domestic Product. (Per capita National Income or Net National Product would be even better if available).

 

West Germany and Japan had the highest annual per capita real GDP growth-rates in the world economy starting from devastated post-World War II initial conditions. What were their measured rates?

 

West Germany: 6.6% in 1950-1960, falling to 3.5% by 1960-1970 falling to 2.4% by 1970-1978.

 

Japan: 6.8 % in 1952-1960 rising to 9.4% in 1960-1970 falling to 3.8 % in 1970-1978.

 

Thus in recent decadesonly Japan measured a spike in the 1960s of more than 9% annual growth of real per capita GDP. Now India and China are said to be achieving 8%-10 % and more year after year routinely!

 

Perhaps we are observing an incredible phenomenon of world economic history. Or perhaps it is just something incredible, something false and misleading, like a mirage in the desert.

 

You may agree that processes of measurement of real income in India both at federal and provincial levels, still remain well short of the world standards described by the UN’s System of National Accounts 1993. The actuality of our real GDP growth may be better than what is being measured or it may be worse than what is being measured – from the point of view of public decision-making we at present simply do not know which it is, and to overly rely on such numbers in national decisions may be unwise. In any event, India’s population is growing at near 2% so even if your Government’s measured number of 8% or 9% is taken at face-value, we have to subtract 2% population growth to get per capita figures.

 

 

 

 

 

2.  Growth of the aam admi’s consumption-basket

 

 

The late Professor Milton Friedman had been an invited adviser in 1955 to the Government of India during the Second Five Year Plan’s formulation. The Government of India suppressed what he had to say and I had to publish it 34 years later in May 1989 during the 1986-1992 perestroika-for-India project that I led at the University of Hawaii in the United States. His November 1955 Memorandum to the Government of India is a chapter in the book Foundations of India’s Political Economy: Towards an Agenda for the 1990s that I and WE James created.

 

At the 1989 project-conference itself, Professor Friedman made the following astute observation about all GNP, GDP etc growth-numbers that speaks for itself:

 

 

“I don’t believe the term GNP ought to be used unless it is supplemented by a different statistic: the rate of growth of the average consumption basket consumed by the ordinary individual in the country. I think GNP rates of growth can give very misleading information. For example, you have rapid rates of growth of GNP in the Soviet Union with a declining standard of life for the people. Because GNP includes monuments and includes also other things. I’m not saying that that is the case with India; I’m just saying I would like to see the two figures together.”

 

 

You may perhaps agree upon reflection that not only may our national income growth measurements be less robust than we want, it may be better to be measuring something else instead, or as well, as a measure of the economic welfare of India’s people, namely, “the rate of growth of the average consumption basket consumed by the ordinary individual in the country”, i.e., the rate of growth of the average consumption basket consumed by the aam admi.

 

 

It would be excellent indeed if you were to instruct your Government’s economists and other spokesmen to do so this as it may be something more reliable as an indicator of our economic realities than all the waffle generated by crude aggregate growth-rates.

 

 

 

 

3.  Logic of your model

 

Thirdly, the logic needs to be spelled out of the economic model that underlies such statements as yours or Meghnad Desai’s that seek to operationally relate savings rates to aggregate growth rates in India or China. This seems not to have been done publicly in living memory by the Planning Commission or other Government economists. I have had to refer, therefore, to pages 251-253 of my own Cambridge doctoral thesis under Professor Frank Hahn thirty years ago, titled “On liberty and economic growth: preface to a philosophy for India”, where the logic of such models as yours was spelled out briefly as follows:

 

Let

 

 

Kt be capital stock

 

Yt be national output

 

It be the level of real investment

 

St be the level of real savings

 

By definition

 

It = K t+1 – Kt

 

By assumption

 

Kt = k Yt 0 < k < 1

 

St = sYt 0 < s <1

 

In equilibrium ex ante investment equals ex ante savings

 

It = St

 

Hence in equilibrium

 

sYt = K t+1 – Kt

 

Or

 

s/k = g

 

where g is defined to be the rate of growth (Y t+1-Yt)/Yt  .

 

The left hand side then defines the “warranted rate of growth” which must maintain the famous “knife-edge” with the right hand side “natural rate of growth”.

 

Your June 9 2009 Lok Sabha statement that a 35% rate of savings in India may lead to an 8%-9% rate of economic growth in India, or Meghnad Desai’s statement that a 44% rate of savings in China led to a 10.4% growth there, can only be made meaningful in the context of a logical economic model like the one I have given above.

 

[In the open-economy version of the model, let Mt be imports, Et be exports, Ft net capital inflows.

 

Assume

 

Mt = aIt + bYt 0 < a, b < 1

 

Et = E for all t

 

Balance of payments is

 

Bt = Mt – Et – Ft

 

In equilibrium It = St + Bt

 

Or

 

Ft = (s+b) Yt – (1-a) It – E is a kind of “warranted” level of net capital inflow.]

 

 

 

You may perhaps agree upon reflection that building the entire macroeconomic policy of the Government of India merely upon a piece of economic logic as simplistic as the

 

s/k = g

 

equation above, may spell an unacceptable risk to the future economic well-being of our vast population. An alternative procedural direction for macroeconomic policy, with more obviously positive and profound consequences, may have been that which I sought to persuade Rajiv Gandhi about with some success in 1990-1991. Namely, to systematically seek to improve towards normalcy the budgets, financial positions and decision-making capacities of the Union and all state and local governments as well as all public institutions, organisations, entities, and projects in general, with the aim of making our domestic money a genuine hard currency of the world again after seven decades, so that any ordinary resident of India may hold and trade precious metals and foreign exchange at his/her local bank just like all those glamorous privileged NRIs have been permitted to do. Such an alternative path has been described in “The Indian Revolution”, “Against Quackery”, “The Dream Team: A Critique”, “India’s Macroeconomics”, “Indian Inflation”, etc.

 

 

 

4. Gross exaggeration of real savings rate by misreading deposit multiplication

 

 

Specifically, I am afraid you may have been misled into thinking India’s real savings rate, s, is as high as 35% just as Meghnad Desai may have misled himself into thinking China’s real savings rate is as high as 44%.

 

 

Neither of you may have wanted to make such a claim if you had referred to the fact that over the last 25 years, the average savings rate across all OECD countries has been less than 10%. Economic theory always finds claims of discontinuous behaviour to be questionable. If the average OECD citizen has been trying to save 10% of disposable income at best, it appears prima facie odd that India’s PM claims a savings rate as high as 35% for India or a British politician has claimed a savings rate as high as 44% for China. Something may be wrong in the measurement of the allegedly astronomical savings rates of India and China. The late Professor Nicholas Kaldor himself, after all, suggested it was rich people who saved and poor people who did not for the simple reason the former had something left over to save which the latter did not!

 

 

And indeed something is wrong in the measurements. What has happened, I believe, is that there has been a misreading of the vast nominal expansion of bank deposits via deposit-multiplication in the Indian banking system, an expansion that has been caused by explosive deficit finance over the last four or five decades. That vast nominal expansion of bank-deposits has been misread as indicating growth of real savings behaviour instead. I have written and spoken about and shown this quite extensively in the last half dozen years since I first discovered it in the case of India. E.g., in a lecture titled “Can India become an economic superpower or will there be a monetary meltdown?” at Cardiff University’s Institute of Applied Macroeconomics and at London’s Institute of Economic Affairs in April 2005, as well as in May 2005 at a monetary economics seminar invited at the RBI by Dr Narendra Jadav. The same may be true of China though I have looked at it much less.

 

 

How I described this phenomenon in a 2007 article in The Statesman is this:

 

 

“Savings is indeed normally measured by adding financial and non-financial savings. Financial savings include bank-deposits. But India is not a normal country in this. Nor is China. Both have seen massive exponential growth of bank-deposits in the last few decades. Does this mean Indians and Chinese are saving phenomenally high fractions of their incomes by assiduously putting money away into their shaky nationalized banks? Sadly, it does not. What has happened is government deficit-financing has grown explosively in both countries over decades. In a “fractional reserve” banking system (i.e. a system where your bank does not keep the money you deposited there but lends out almost all of it immediately), government expenditure causes bank-lending, and bank-lending causes bank-deposits to expand. Yes there has been massive expansion of bank-deposits in India but it is a nominal paper phenomenon and does not signify superhuman savings behaviour. Indians keep their assets mostly in metals, land, property, cattle, etc., and as cash, not as bank deposits.”

 

 

An article of mine in 2008 in Business Standard put it like this:

 

 

“India has followed in peacetime over six decades what the US and Britain followed during war. Our vast growth of bank deposits in recent decades has been mostly a paper (or nominal) phenomenon caused by unlimited deficit finance in a fractional reserve banking system. Policy makers have widely misinterpreted it as indicating a real phenomenon of incredibly high savings behaviour. In an inflationary environment, people save their wealth less as paper deposits than as real assets like land, cattle, buildings, machinery, food stocks, jewellery etc.”

 

 

If you asked me “What then is India’s real savings rate?” I have little answer to give except to say I know what it is not – it is not what the Government of India says it is. It is certainly unlikely to be anywhere near the 35% you stated it to be in your June 9 2009 Lok Sabha statement. If the OECD’s real savings rate has been something like 10% out of disposable income, I might accept India’s is, say, 15% at a maximum when properly measured – far from the 35% being claimed. What I believe may have been mismeasured by you and Meghnad Desai and many others as indicating high real savings is actually the nominal or paper expansion of bank-deposits in a fractional reserve banking system induced by runaway government deficit-spending in both India and China over the last several decades.

 

 

 

 

5. Technological progress and the mainsprings of real economic growth

 

 

So much for the g and s variables in the s/k = g equation in your economic model. But the assumed constant k is a big problem too!

 

During the 1989 perestroika-for-India project-conference, Professor Friedman referred to his 1955 experience in India and said this about the assumption of a constant k:

 

“I think there was an enormously important point… That was the almost universal acceptance at that time of the view that there was a sort of technologically fixed capital output ratio. That if you wanted to develop, you just had to figure out how much capital you needed, used as a statistical technological capital output ratio, and by God the next day you could immediately tell what output you were going to achieve. That was a large part of the motivation behind some of the measures that were taken then.”

 

The crucial problem of the sort of growth-model from which your formulation relating savings to growth arises is that, with a constant k, you have necessarily neglected the real source of economic growth, which is technological progress!

 

I said in the 2007 article referred to above:

 

“Economic growth in India as elsewhere arises not because of what politicians and bureaucrats do in capital cities, but because of spontaneous technological progress, improved productivity and learning-by-doing on part of the general population. Technological progress is a very general notion, and applies to any and every production activity or commercial transaction that now can be accomplished more easily or using fewer inputs than before.”

 

In “Growth and Government Delusion” published in The Statesman last year, I described the growth process more fully like this:

 

“The mainsprings of real growth in the wealth of the individual, and so of the nation, are greater practical learning, increases in capital resources and improvements in technology. Deeper skills and improved dexterity cause output produced with fewer inputs than before, i.e. greater productivity. Adam Smith said there is “invention of a great number of machines which facilitate and abridge labour, and enable one man to do the work of many”. Consider a real life example. A fresh engineering graduate knows dynamometers are needed in testing and performance-certification of diesel engines. He strips open a meter, finds out how it works, asks engine manufacturers what design improvements they want to see, whether they will buy from him if he can make the improvement. He finds out prices and properties of machine tools needed and wages paid currently to skilled labour, calculates expected revenues and costs, and finally tries to persuade a bank of his production plans, promising to repay loans from his returns. Overcoming restrictions of religion or caste, the secular agent is spurred by expectation of future gains to approach various others with offers of contract, and so organize their efforts into one. If all his offers ~ to creditors, labour, suppliers ~ are accepted he is, for the moment, in business. He may not be for long ~ but if he succeeds his actions will have caused an improvement in design of dynamometers and a reduction in the cost of diesel engines, as well as an increase in the economy’s produced means of production (its capital stock) and in the value of contracts made. His creditors are more confident of his ability to repay, his buyers of his product quality, he himself knows more of his workers’ skills, etc. If these people enter a second and then a third and fourth set of contracts, the increase in mutual trust in coming to agreement will quickly decline in relation to the increased output of capital goods. The first source of increasing returns to scale in production, and hence the mainspring of real economic growth, arises from the successful completion of exchange. Transforming inputs into outputs necessarily takes time, and it is for that time the innovator or entrepreneur or “capitalist” or “adventurer” must persuade his creditors to trust him, whether bankers who have lent him capital or workers who have lent him labour. The essence of the enterprise (or “firm”) he tries to get underway consists of no more than the set of contracts he has entered into with the various others, his position being unique because he is the only one to know who all the others happen to be at the same time. In terms introduced by Professor Frank Hahn, the entrepreneur transforms himself from being “anonymous” to being “named” in the eyes of others, while also finding out qualities attaching to the names of those encountered in commerce. Profits earned are partly a measure of the entrepreneur’s success in this simultaneous process of discovery and advertisement. Another potential entrepreneur, fresh from engineering college, may soon pursue the pioneer’s success and start displacing his product in the market ~ eventually chasers become pioneers and then get chased themselves, and a process of dynamic competition would be underway. As it unfolds, anonymous and obscure graduates from engineering colleges become by dint of their efforts and a little luck, named and reputable firms and perhaps founders of industrial families. Multiply this simple story many times, with a few million different entrepreneurs and hundreds of thousands of different goods and services, and we shall be witnessing India’s actual Industrial Revolution, not the fake promise of it from self-seeking politicians and bureaucrats.”

 

 

Technological progress in a myriad of ways and discovery of new resources are important factors contributing to India’s growth today. But while India’s “real” economy does well, the “nominal” paper-money economy controlled by Government does not. Continuous deficit financing for half a century has led to exponential growth of public debt and broad money, and, as noted, the vast growth of nominal bank-deposits has been misinterpreted as indicating unusually high real savings behaviour when it in fact may just signal vast amounts of government debt being held by our nationalised banks. These bank assets may be liquid domestically but are illiquid internationally since our government debt is not held by domestic households as voluntary savings nor has it been a liquid asset held worldwide in foreign portfolios.

 

 

What politicians of all parties, especially your own and the BJP and CPI-M since they are the three largest, have been presiding over is exponential growth of our paper money supply, which has even reached 22% per annum. Parliament and the Government should be taking honest responsibility for this because it may certainly portend double-digit inflation (i.e., decline in the value of paper-money) perhaps as high as 14%-15% per annum, something that is certain to affect the aam admi’s economic welfare adversely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6. Selling Government assets to Big Business is a bad idea in a potentially hyperinflationary economy

 

 

Respected PradhanMantriji, the record would show that I, and really I alone, 25 years ago, may have been the first among Indian economists to advocate  the privatisation of the public sector. (Viz, “Silver Jubilee of Pricing, Planning and Politics: A Study of Economic Distortions in India”.) In spite of this, I have to say clearly now that in present circumstances of a potentially hyperinflationary economy created by your Government and its predecessors, I believe your Government’s present plans to sell Government assets may be an exceptionally unwise and imprudent idea. The reasoning is very simple from within monetary economics.

 

Government every year has produced paper rupees and bank deposits in practically unlimited amounts to pay for its practically unlimited deficit financing, and it has behaved thus over decades. Such has been the nature of the macroeconomic process that all Indian political parties have been part of, whether they are aware of it or not.

 

Indian Big Business has an acute sense of this long-term nominal/paper expansion of India’s economy, and acts towards converting wherever possible its own hoards of paper rupees and rupee-denominated assets into more valuable portfolios for itself of real or durable assets, most conspicuously including hard-currency denominated assets, farm-land and urban real-estate, and, now, the physical assets of the Indian public sector. Such a path of trying to transform local domestic paper assets – produced unlimitedly by Government monetary and fiscal policy and naturally destined to depreciate — into real durable assets, is a privately rational course of action to follow in an inflationary economy. It is not rocket-science to realise the long-term path of rupee-denominated assets is downwards in comparison to the hard-currencies of the world – just compare our money supply growth and inflation rates with those of the rest of the world.

 

The Statesman of November 16 2006 had a lead editorial titled Government’s land-fraud: Cheating peasants in a hyperinflation-prone economy which said:

 

 

“There is something fundamentally dishonourable about the way the Centre, the state of West Bengal and other state governments are treating the issue of expropriating peasants, farm-workers, petty shop-keepers etc of their small plots of land in the interests of promoters, industrialists and other businessmen. Singur may be but one example of a phenomenon being seen all over the country: Hyderabad, Karnataka, Kerala, Haryana, everywhere. So-called “Special Economic Zones” will merely exacerbate the problem many times over. India and its governments do not belong only to business and industrial lobbies, and what is good for private industrialists may or may not be good for India’s people as a whole. Economic development does not necessarily come to be defined by a few factories or high-rise housing complexes being built here or there on land that has been taken over by the Government, paying paper-money compensation to existing stakeholders, and then resold to promoters or industrialists backed by powerful political interest-groups on a promise that a few thousand new jobs will be created. One fundamental problem has to do with inadequate systems of land-description and definition, implementation and recording of property rights. An equally fundamental problem has to do with fair valuation of land owned by peasants etc. in terms of an inconvertible paper-money. Every serious economist knows that “land” is defined as that specific factor of production and real asset whose supply is fixed and does not increase in response to its price. Every serious economist also knows that paper-money is that nominal asset whose price can be made to catastrophically decline by a massive increase in its supply, i.e. by Government printing more of the paper it holds a monopoly to print. For Government to compensate people with paper-money it prints itself by valuing their land on the basis of an average of the price of the last few years, is for Government to cheat them of the fair present-value of the land. That present-value of land must be calculated in the way the present-value of any asset comes to be calculated, namely, by summing the likely discounted cash-flows of future values. And those future values should account for the likelihood of a massive future inflation causing decline in the value of paper-money in view of the fact we in India have a domestic public debt of some Rs. 30 trillion (Rs. 30 lakh crore) and counting, and money supply growth rates averaging 16-17% per annum. In fact, a responsible Government would, given the inconvertible nature of the rupee, have used foreign exchange or gold as the unit of account in calculating future-values of the land. India’s peasants are probably being cheated by their Government of real assets whose value is expected to rise, receiving nominal paper assets in compensation whose value is expected to fall.”

 

Shortly afterwards the Hon’ble MP for Kolkata Dakshin, Km Mamata Banerjee, started her protest fast, riveting the nation’s attention in the winter of 2006-2007. What goes for government buying land on behalf of its businessman friends also goes, mutatis mutandis, for the public sector’s real assets being bought up by the private sector using domestic paper money in a potentially hyperinflationary economy. If your new Government wishes to see real assets of the public sector being sold for paper money, let it seek to value these assets not in inconvertible rupees that Government itself has been producing in unlimited quantities but perhaps in forex or gold-units instead!

 

 

In the 2004-2005 volume Margaret Thatcher’s Revolution: How it Happened and What it Meant, edited by myself and Professor John Clarke, there is a chapter by Professor Patrick Minford on Margaret Thatcher’s fiscal and monetary policy (macroeconomics) that was placed ahead of the chapter by Professor Martin Ricketts on Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation (microeconomics). India’s fiscal and monetary or macroeconomic problems are far worse today than Britain’s were when Margaret Thatcher came to power. We need to get our macroeconomic problems sorted before we attempt the  microeconomic privatisation of public assets.

 

It is wonderful that your young party colleague, the Hon’ble MP from Amethi, Shri Rahul Gandhi, has declined to join the present Government and instead wishes to reflect further on the “common man” and “common woman” about whom I had described his late father talking to me on September 18 1990. Certainly the aam admi is not someone to be found among India’s lobbyists of organised Big Business or organised Big Labour who have tended to control government agendas from the big cities.

 

With my warmest personal regards and respect, I remain,

Cordially yours

Subroto Roy, PhD (Cantab.), BScEcon (London)

 

see also https://independentindian.com/thoughts-words-deeds-my-work-1973-2010/rajiv-gandhi-and-the-origins-of-indias-1991-economic-reform/did-jagdish-bhagwati-originate-pioneer-intellectually-father-indias-1991-economic-reform-did-manmohan-singh-or-did-i-through-my-e/

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How tightly will organised Big Business be able to control economic policies this time?

The power of organised Big Business over New Delhi’s economic policies (whether Congress-led or BJP-led) was signalled by the presence in the audience at Rashtrapati Bhavan last week of several prominent lobbyists when Dr Manmohan Singh and his senior-most Cabinet colleagues were being sworn-in by the President of India. Why were such witnesses needed at such an auspicious national occasion?

Organised Big Business (both private sector and public sector) along with organised Big Labour (whose interests are represented most ably by New Delhi’s official communist parties like the CPI-M and CPI), are astutely aware of how best to advance their own economic interests; this usually gets assisted nicely enough through clever use of our comprador English-language TV, newspaper and magazine media. Shortly after the election results, lobbyists were all over commercial TV proposing things like FDI in insurance and airports etc– as if that was the meaning of the Sonia-Rahul mandate or were issues of high national priority. A typical piece of such “pretend-economics” appears in today’s business-press from a formerly Leftist Indian bureaucrat: “With its decisive victory, the new Manmohan Singh government should at last be able to implement the required second generation reforms. Their lineaments (sic) are well known and with the removal of the Left’s veto, many of those stalled in the legislature as well as those which were forestalled can now be implemented. These should be able to put India back on a 9-10 per cent per annum growth rate…”

Today’s business-press also reports that the new Government is planning to create a fresh “Disinvestment Ministry” and Dr Singh’s chief economic policy aide is “a frontrunner among the names short-listed to head the new ministry” with Cabinet rank.

Now if any enterprising doctoral student was to investigate the question, I think the evidence would show that I, and I alone – not even BR Shenoy or AD Shroff or Jagdish Bhagwati — may have been the first among Indian economists to have argued in favour of the privatisation of India’s public sector. I did so precisely 25 years ago in Pricing, Planning and Politics: A Study of Economic Distortions in India, which was so unusual for its time that it attracted the lead editorial of The Times of London on the day it was published May 29 1984, and had its due impact on Indian economic policy then and since, as has been described elsewhere here.  In 1990-1991 while with Rajiv Gandhi, I had floated an idea of literally giving away shares of the public sector to the public that owned it (as several other countries had been doing at that time), specifically perhaps giving them to the poorest panchayats in aid of their development.  In 2004-2005, upon returning to Britain after many years, I helped create the book Margaret Thatcher’s Revolution: How it Happened and What it Meant, and Margaret Thatcher if anyone was a paragon of privatisation.

That being said, I have to say I think a new Indian policy of creating a Ministry to privatise India’s public sector is probably a very BAD idea indeed in present circumstances — mainly because it will be driven by the interests of the organised Big Business lobbies that have so profoundly and subtly been able to control the New Delhi Government’s behaviour in recent decades.

Such lobbyist control is exercised often without the Government even realising or comprehending its parameters. For example, ask yourself: Is there any record anywhere of Dr Manmohan Singh, in his long career as a Government economist and then as a Rajya Sabha MP, having ever proposed before 2004-2005 that nuclear reactors were something vitally important to India’s future? And why do you suppose the most prominent Indian business lobby spent a million dollars and registered itself as an official lobbyist in Washington DC to promote the nuclear deal among American legislators? Because Big Business was feeling generous and altruistic towards the “energy security” of the ordinary people of India? Hardly.  Indian Big Business calculates and acts in its own interests, as is only to be expected under economic assumptions; those interests are frequently camouflaged by their lobbyist and media friends into seeming to be economic policy for the country as a whole.

Now our Government every year produces paper rupees and bank deposits in  practically unlimited amounts to pay for its practically unlimited deficit financing, and it has behaved thus over decades. Why we do not hear about this at all is because the most prominent Government economists themselves remain clueless — sometimes by choice, mostly by sheer ignorance — about the nature of the macroeconomic process that they are or have been part of.  (See my  “India’s Macroeconomics”, “The Dream Team: A Critique” etc elsewhere here). As for the Opposition’s economists, the less said about the CPI-M’s economists the better while the BJP, poor thing, has absolutely no economists at all!

Briefly speaking, Indian Big Business has acquired an acute sense of this long-term nominal/paper expansion of India’s economy, and as a result acts towards converting wherever possible its own hoards of paper rupees and rupee-denominated assets into more valuable portfolios for itself of real or durable assets, most conspicuously including hard-currency denominated assets, farm-land and urban real-estate, and, now, the physical assets of the Indian public sector. Such a path of trying to transform local domestic paper assets – produced unlimitedly by Government monetary and fiscal policy and naturally destined to depreciate — into real durable assets, is a privately rational course of action to follow in an inflationary economy.  It is not rocket-science  to realise the long-term path of the Indian rupee is downwards in comparison to the hard-currencies of the world – just compare our money supply growth and inflation rates with those of the rest of the world.

The Statesman of November 15 2006 had a lead editorial titled Government’s land-fraud: Cheating peasants in a hyperinflation-prone economy. It said:

“There is something fundamentally dishonourable about the way the Centre, the state of West Bengal and other state governments are treating the issue of expropriating peasants, farm-workers, petty shop-keepers etc of their small plots of land in the interests of promoters, industrialists and other businessmen. Singur may be but one example of a phenomenon being seen all over the country: Hyderabad, Karnataka, Kerala, Haryana, everywhere. So-called “Special Economic Zones” will merely exacerbate the problem many times over. India and its governments do not belong only to business and industrial lobbies, and what is good for private industrialists may or may not be good for India’s people as a whole. Economic development does not necessarily come to be defined by a few factories or high-rise housing complexes being built here or there on land that has been taken over by the Government, paying paper-money compensation to existing stakeholders, and then resold to promoters or industrialists backed by powerful political interest-groups on a promise that a few thousand new jobs will be created. One fundamental problem has to do with inadequate systems of land-description and definition, implementation and recording of property rights. An equally fundamental problem has to do with fair valuation of land owned by peasants etc. in terms of an inconvertible paper-money. Every serious economist knows that “land” is defined as that specific factor of production and real asset whose supply is fixed and does not increase in response to its price. Every serious economist also knows that paper-money is that nominal asset whose price can be made to catastrophically decline by a massive increase in its supply, i.e. by Government printing more of the paper it holds a monopoly to print. For Government to compensate people with paper-money it prints itself by valuing their land on the basis of an average of the price of the last few years, is for Government to cheat them of the fair present-value of the land. That present-value of land must be calculated in the way the present-value of any asset comes to be calculated, namely, by summing the likely discounted cash-flows of future values. And those future values should account for the likelihood of a massive future inflation causing decline in the value of paper-money in view of the fact we in India have a domestic public debt of some Rs. 30 trillion (Rs. 30 lakh crore) and counting, and money supply growth rates averaging 16-17% per annum. In fact, a responsible Government would, given the inconvertible nature of the rupee, have used foreign exchange or gold as the unit of account in calculating future-values of the land. India’s peasants are probably being cheated by their Government of real assets whose value is expected to rise, receiving nominal paper assets in compensation whose value is expected to fall.”

Mamata Banerjee started her famous protest fast-unto-death in Kolkata not long afterwards, riveting the nation’s attention in the winter of 2006-2007.

What goes for the government buying land on behalf of its businessman friends also goes, mutatis mutandis, for the public sector’s real assets being bought up by the private sector using domestic paper money in a potentially hyperinflationary economy.  If Dr Singh’s new Government wishes to see real public sector assets being sold, let the Government seek to value these assets not in inconvertible rupees which the Government itself has been producing in unlimited quantities but rather in forex or gold-units instead!

Today’s headline says “Short of cash, govt. plans to revive disinvestment ministry”. Big Business’s powerful lobbies will suggest  that real public assets must be sold  (to whom? to organised Big Business of course!) in order to solve the grave fiscal problems in an inflationary economy caused precisely by those grave  fiscal problems! What I said in 2002 at IndiaSeminar may still be found to apply: I said the BJP’s privatisation ideas “deserve to be condemned…because they have made themselves believe that the proceeds of selling the public sector should merely go into patching up the bleeding haemorrhage which is India’s fiscal and monetary situation… (w)hile…Congress were largely responsible for that haemorrhage to have occurred in the first place.”

If the new Government would like to know how to proceed more wisely, they need to read and grasp, in the book edited by myself and Professor John Clarke in 2004-2005, the chapter by Professor Patrick Minford on Margaret Thatcher’s fiscal and monetary policy (macroeconomics) before they read the chapter by Professor Martin Ricketts on Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation (microeconomics).  India’s fiscal and monetary or macroeconomic problems are far worse today than Britain’s were when Thatcher came in.

During the recent Election Campaign, I contrasted Dr Singh’s flattering praise in 2005 of the CPI-M’s Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee with Sonia Gandhi’s pro-Mamata line in 2009 saying the CPI-M had taken land away from the poor.  This may soon signal a new fault-line in the new Cabinet too on economic policy with respect to not only land but also public sector privatisation – with Dr Singh’s pro-Big Business acolytes on one side and Mamata Banerjee’s stance in favour of small-scale unorganised business and labour on the other.  Party heavyweights like Dr Singh himself and Sharad Pawar and Pranab Mukherjee will weigh in one side or the other with Sonia being asked in due course to referee.

I personally am delighted to see the New Rahul Gandhi deciding not to be in Government and to instead reflect further on the “common man” and “common woman” about whom I had described his father talking to me on September 18 1990 at his home. Certainly the “aam admi” is not someone to be found among India’s organised Big Business or organised Big Labour nor their paid lobbyists in the big cities.

Subroto Roy

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Waffle not institutional reform is what (I predict) the “G-20 summit” will produce

“Summits”  of global political leaders require competent “sherpas”  to do the preparations.  From what I gather about the London “G-20 summit” this has not happened adequately enough, so I expect only a lot of waffle to emerge.  (If they suddenly start talking about Global Warming or AIDS in Africa or whatever, we will know the actual talks have failed badly.)

Reforming the IMF?   Hmmm, let’s see, what happened to all that talk four years ago about reforming the Big Daddy of them all, the UN?   Oh yes,  I forget, India is now a permanent veto-wielding Security Council Member, NOT!

It has been said that academic syllabus reform at a university is like ‘”moving a graveyard”.  Reforming the world monetary system and its major institutions would be like moving thousands of graveyards.   And there is no one with the brains of a White or a Keynes to help things along.  But we should not be surprised if there were pronouncements  of this or that high-powered commission of pompous worthies  who will make recommendations for reform some time in the future.    In general, little more than waffle will emerge now — I cannot even see the UK Government following informal British  advice to stand down from its founding role at the IMF.

There is no clear path to solving the great (alleged) economic and financial crisis because no one wants to admit its roots were the overvaluation (over decades) of American real-estate, and hence American assets in general.

India’s PM shall be seen at least up and about after several months out of action, indeed he will be up and about for the  first time in months doing what he (like India’s nomenclatura in general) likes doing best, which is to travel outside India.

Subroto Roy, Kolkata

Can President Obama resist the financial zombies (let alone slay them)? His economists need to consult Dr Anna J Schwartz

The wonders of the Internet continue to surprise (and yes Virginia, there was a world before SMS and before the Internet too).  In early January, in context of India’s Satyam fraud (of a size of perhaps 1 or perhaps 2 billion dollars),  I referred here  to what seemed to me the likelihood of Satyam becoming a zombie company and I said “we in India have many such zombies walking around in the organised business sector”.    I drew attention to Andrew Beattie’s astute  definition of zombies and other such ghoulish phenomena in the financial world, and also referred to John Stepek’s excellent if brief November 2008 analysis “How zombie companies suck the life from an economy”.  Today I find Ms Arianna Huffington has made reference to Mr Martin Wolf’s reference a couple of days ago to zombie companies and to his statement that President Obama needs to “Admit reality, restructure banks and, above all, slay zombie institutions at once.”  Ms Huffington has agreed, though of course all this slaying may be easier said than done.  (It is better that zombies not be created in the first place.)

Mr Wolf has pointedly asked a question that many around the world may have half-thought about but not articulated: “Has Barack Obama’s presidency already failed?”   It would be  a grave and appalling  state of affairs if it has, within less than a month of entering office.   I am grateful to find in Ms Huffington’s article a reference to an October 2008  Wall Stret Journal interview of Dr Anna Jacobson Schwartz, perhaps the most respected voice in monetary economics today.  There have been numerous people claiming to have predicted America’s financial crisis but none may have as much credibility as Dr Schwartz.   Six years ago, in a National Bureau of Economic Research study dated November 2002, “Asset Price Inflation and Monetary Policy”,Working Paper 9321 she had said with utmost clarity: “It is crucial that central banks and regulatory authorities be aware of effects of asset price inflation on the stability of the financial system. Lending activity based on asset collateral during the boom is hazardous to the health of lenders when the boom collapses. One way that authorities can curb the distortion of lenders’ portfolios during asset price booms is to have in place capital requirements that increase with the growth of credit extensions collateralized by assets whose prices have escalated. If financial institutions avoid this pitfall, their soundness will not be impaired when assets backing loans fall in value. Rather than trying to gauge the effects of asset prices on core inflation, central banks may be better advised to be alert to the weakening of financial balance sheets in the aftermath of a fall in value of asset collateral backing loans….”

Most poignantly too, Dr Schwartz was present when Ben Bernanke said  in  a 2002 speech honouring the late Milton Friedman “I would like to say to Milton and Anna: Regarding the Great Depression. You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again.”   Dr Schwartz told the Wall Street Journal ‘”This was [his] claim to be worthy of running the Fed”.  “He was ‘familiar with history. He knew what had been done.’ But perhaps this is actually Mr. Bernanke’s biggest problem. Today’s crisis isn’t a replay of the problem in the 1930s, but our central bankers have responded by using the tools they should have used then. They are fighting the last war. The result, she argues, has been failure. ‘I don’t see that they’ve achieved what they should have been trying to achieve. So my verdict on this present Fed leadership is that they have not really done their job.'”

President Obama’s economists need to urgently consult Anna J Schwartz.

Subroto Roy, Kolkata

Postscript:  My own brief views on the subject are at “October 1929? Not!” dated September 18 2008, and “America’s divided economists” dated October 26 2008.  The latter article suggested that playing the demographic card and inducing a wave of immigration into the United States may be the surest way to move the housing demand-curve firmly upwards.

“A Dialogue in Macroeconomics” 1989 etc: sundry thoughts on US economic policy discourse

I have said here recently that some of the wisest advice President Obama or any leader anywhere can receive is that contained in Oliver Cromwell’s famous words “Think it possible you may be mistaken”.

This seems especially significant in context of new American macroeconomic and financial policies.  Mr Steve Clemons reports today there may be less intellectual diversity in the new President’s economic team than is possible or desirable; if so, conversation may become stifled and a greater propensity towards groupthink may arise, hence a greater likelihood of mistakes.

It is possible the directions that different people might like to see the conversation extended are different, and that would be a good sign of course!  For example, someone might think a Barro or a Mishkin could be the right addition of intellectual diversity, whereas others might suppose that to be the wrong direction towards more “market fundamentalism”.    But it would be a pity if the economic conversation within the new Administration came to be artificially or ideologically circumscribed in any direction.

Certainly I believe macroeconomic policy-discourse in the United States or elsewhere needs to proceed to a recognition of the existence of JM Keynes’s original concept of “involuntary unemployment” as well as to ask whether the actual unemployment happens to be or  not be of this sort.   (It may be “frictional” or “structural” or “voluntary” or “seasonal” etc, not the involuntary unemployment Keynes had meant.)  Furthermore, even if significant involuntary unemployment is identified, it needs to be asked whether government policy can be expected to improve or worsen outcomes.   The argument must be made either way, and, in John Wisdom’s phrase,  “Argument must be heard”.

“A Dialogue in Macroeconomics” which was Chapter 8 of my 1989 book Philosophy of Economics (Routledge,  Library of Congress HB 72.R69)  may provide some useful ballast.  The saga  that followed the  book’s publication left me unable to write about the US economy anymore, except briefly in 1992 and 1994-95 in Washington and New York, read only by a few friends.   Now in late 2008, I have published “October 1929? Not!” and “America’s divided economists” which may be of interest too, and which are republished below as well.

I have also added a couple of sundry points from an international perspective that I pointed to last September-October, namely

(i)  foreign central banks might have been left holding more bad US debt than might be remembered, and dollar depreciation and an American inflation seem to be inevitable over the next several years;

(ii) all those bad mortgages and foreclosures could vanish within a year or two by playing the demographic card and inviting in a few million new immigrants into the United States; restoring a worldwide idea of an American dream fueled by mass immigration may be the surest way for the American economy to restore itself.

Subroto Roy

I.

from Philosophy of Economics Routledge 1989

“Chapter 8.
A Dialogue in Macroeconomics

OUR next example is of quite a different sort, namely, the academic debate which has occurred in macroeconomics and monetary theory since Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. This has of course received a great amount of attention, with innumerable commentaries having been written by many scores of protagonists and moderators around the world. Only a brief and highly simplified summary of these many conversations can be attempted here, within our limited objective of illustrating once more how it may be possible for critical discussion to be seen to proceed freely and yet objectively in economics. In the previous chapter we were fortunate to have had an actual conversation to consider; here our method shall have to be one of constructing a model of a conversation. In honour of Plato, we might name our conversants Athenian and Stranger.

ATHENIAN Tell me, have you perhaps been following the discussions among macroeconomists? I shall be interested to know what you take their present state to be.

STRANGER Indeed I have, though of course it is not possible or worthwhile to follow all of what has been said. But yes I have followed some of it, and certainly we can make it a topic of conversation.

ATHENIAN Please begin.

STRANGER Very well. Shall we do so in ‘36 with the publication of Keynes’s book? Rightly or wrongly, this must be considered a watershed in the history of modern economics, if only because most economists since have had either to admit its arguments in some measure or define and explain their disagreement. You’ll remember at one time it was said by many that Keynes had fathered a revolution in economic science.

ATHENIAN Except Chicago and the Austrians.

STRANGER Quite so. Now more recently a renewal of neoclassical thought has been under way, and many doubts have been raised about the keynesian consensus, so much so that some of the main questions of the thirties seem in modern form to continue to be at issue today.

ATHENIAN The more things change, the more they stay the same! But when you say Keynes has been a central figure, I take it you mean only that he has been among the most influential and most discussed and nothing more. It is not to preclude judgement on the merits of his book, which is itself of very uneven clarity. Besides there has been too much idolatry and hagiography.

STRANGER Yes, there is so often a rush to belief and worship. There may have been less if Keynes had survived longer. Yet I should say the broad aim of the work is not hard to see. Keynes himself clearly believes that he is starting a revolution — going so far as to suggest a comparison with contemporary physics. The first chapter says the book aims to provide a “general” theory, which will explain the traditional model as a “limiting” case. The second chapter says the theory of value has been hitherto concerned with the allocation of given resources between competing ends; Keynes is going to explain how the actual level of employment comes to be what it is.

ATHENIAN And so begs the question?

STRANGER Or does traditional theory? That seems to be at the heart of it.

ATHENIAN Go on.

STRANGER The theory will be of the short run in Marshall’s sense of taking capital as a fixed factor. Traditional theory is said to postulate about the labour market (i) that the real wage equals the marginal product of labour, so there is an assumption of profit maximization by competitive producers giving rise to a short run demand curve for labour; and (ii) that the utility of the wage at a given level of employment equals the marginal disutility of that amount of employment; i.e., the real wage is just sufficient to induce the volume of labour which is actually forthcoming. So it can account for unemployment due to temporary miscalculations, or intermittent demand, or the refusal or inability of labour to accept a job at a given wage due to legislation or social practices or collective bargaining or obstinacy, or merely a rational choice of leisure — i.e., it can account for frictional and voluntary unemployment but not for what Keynes wants to call involuntary unemployment. What it can suggest is either such things as improvements in foresight, information, organization and productivity, or a lowering of the real wage. But Keynes’s critique will not have to do with such causes of the contemporary unemployment; instead the population is said to be seldom “doing as much work as it would like to do on the basis of the current wage…. More labour would, as a rule, be forthcoming at the existing money wage if it were demanded.” But it is not being demanded, and it is not being demanded because there has been a shortfall of “effective demand”. That is why there is as much unemployment as there is.

ATHENIAN Or so Keynes claims. And he would take it the neoclassical view would be that it must be the real wage is too high; it is only because the real wage has not fallen by enough that unemployment continues.

STRANGER Right. To which there are two observations. The first has to do with the actual attitude of workers towards the money wage and the real wage respectively. The traditional supply function of labour is a function of the latter; Keynes claims that at least within a certain range it must be workers are concerned more with the former.

ATHENIAN How so?

STRANGER By the interesting and perhaps plausible claim that workers are found to withdraw labour if the money wage falls but do not seem to do the same if the price level rises. A real wage reduction caused by a fall in the money wage and the same real wage reduction caused by an increase in prices seem to have different effects on labour supply. “Whether logical or illogical, experience shows that this is how labour in fact behaves.” And he cites U. S. data for ‘32 to say labour did not refuse reductions in the money wage nor did the physical productivity of labour fall yet the real wage fell and unemployment continued. “Labour is not more truculent in the depression than in the boom — far from it.”

ATHENIAN And the second observation?

STRANGER This may be of more interest. “Classical theory assumes that it is always open to labour to reduce its real wage by accepting a reduction in its money wage… [it] presumes that labour itself is in a position to decide the real wage for which it works…” Keynes does not find a traditional explanation why prices tend to follow wages, and suggests it could be because the price level is being supposed to be determined by the money supply according to the quantity theory. Keynes wants to dispute the proposition “that the general level of real wages is directly determined by the character of the wage bargain…. For there may be no method available to labour as a whole whereby…. [it] can reduce its real wage to a given figure by making revised money bargains with the entrepreneurs.” Hence he arrives at his central definition of involuntary unemployment: if the real wage falls marginally as a consequence of the price level rising with the money wage constant, and there is greater employment demanded and supplied in consequence, the initial state was one of involuntary unemployment.

ATHENIAN You are saying then that Keynes’s intent is to establish the existence of involuntary unemployment?

STRANGER At least a major part of the intent yes. To make the concept meaningful, to argue that it refers to a logical possibility, and also that much of the actual unemployment of the time may be falling under it, and is a result of lack of “effective demand”.

ATHENIAN The neoclassicals have been said to be cavalier about fluctuations in economic activity, when in fact Wicksell and Marshall and Thornton, let alone Hawtrey or Hayek as Keynes’s own critics, certainly had profound enough theories of the cycle. Before we go further, I think we should remind ourselves of what they actually said.

STRANGER Very well.

ATHENIAN Would you agree that can be summarized, then as now, as the quantity theory of money married to the theory of general equilibrium?

STRANGER Though it may be better to speak of divorce perhaps rather than marriage, in view of the dichotomy.

ATHENIAN From Smith to Mill, political economists broadly agree the role of government should extend and be restricted to such activities as defence, civil protection, the rule of law, the provision of public goods, education, the encouragement of competition, and so on. The traditional agenda does not as a rule include direct activity to restrain or otherwise change the natural course of trade, production, or consumption, and certainly no theory of what today is called macroeconomic policy. Underlying it is a broad belief that the competitive pursuit of private welfare within the necessary and minimal framework of the institutions of government, will result in tolerable social outcomes, and any further activity may be counterproductive. The State is after all endogenous to the economy, without any resources to its own name.

STRANGER The minimal state, though not so minimal perhaps as we sometimes think.

ATHENIAN The main function of money is seen to be that of facilitating real transactions. Hence the main component of the demand for money is the transactions demand, and the broad objective of monetary policy is the maintenance of the stability of the price of money. But this is recognized to be something elusive in practice, and fluctuations in economic activity are expected to occur in spite of the best intentions of the monetary authorities.

STRANGER How so?

ATHENIAN Well we might imagine two or three distinct but related markets: one for real investment and savings determined by intertemporal preferences, resources, and technologies; one a market for investment and savings defined in terms of money; one a short term credit market. The market for real investment and savings is, as it were, unobservable to the naked eye. Yet it drives the second and third markets for nominal savings and investment in which we actually participate. Monetary equilibrium requires the observable money rates of interest to equal the unobservable real rate of return on the market for physical capital. In particular, the real or natural rate of interest determined in the equilibrium of the first market is not, and perhaps ultimately cannot be, affected by nominal or monetary disturbances in the second or third markets.

STRANGER Why call it “natural”?

ATHENIAN In the sense it is a function of the real data of intertemporal preferences, resources, and technologies being what they are. If these data changed it should be expected to change too. But given these data, it would be the rate at which intertemporal constrained maximizations by individual agents resulted in planned present consumption equaling planned present production at the same time as planned future consumption equaled planned future production.

STRANGER In other words, real planned savings equal real planned investment.

ATHENIAN Exactly. It is the real interest rate, or rather the whole structure of own-rates and cross-rates at various terms, which is the key price signal for macroeconomic equilibrium.

STRANGER “Natural” seems to me to carry a physiocratic connotation. A better nomenclature would replace it with something else — perhaps “equilibrium real rate” or just “walrasian” rate.

ATHENIAN Very well, though I for one do not bias myself against the physiocrats! Now consider how a simple business cycle might occur on wicksellian lines. From a position of full real and monetary equilibrium, an expansion of credit has its first effect on the banks, increasing reserves and inducing more lending for reserve/deposit ratios to be restored, and so lowering the loan rate. But customers are only able to perceive a lowering of this nominal rate of interest and cannot know the equilibrium real rate has not changed. As far as households know, the relative price of present consumption has fallen and there is an incentive for greater consumption and lesser savings. As far as businesses know, the relative price of the future good has risen, and there is an incentive for greater investment. Inventories are run down, and markets for both consumer goods and capital goods are stimulated and show signs of excess demand. But if there was a walrasian equilibrium initially, then the economy will now show signs of inflation; with a gold standard, there would be increased demand for imports and an external drain of reserves, and even perhaps an internal drain if there was a panic and a run on the banks. The loan rate will have to rise once more to reign in reserves, but if the rate is now raised too high relative to the still unchanged real rate, there would be the makings of a recession.

STRANGER Your point being that economists before Keynes had recognized the decentralized economy may be fluctuating continually.

ATHENIAN Surely they had done so quite fully. A first set of causes such as wars, disasters, discoveries and migrations would change the real data of the economy, while a second set would be monetary disturbances like the failure of the authorities to adequately follow the dictates of the real data of the economy, i.e., failure to observe the equilibrium real rate of interest. It may even be intrinsic to the problem that they must fail in the attempt to observe, let aside compute, the equilibrium real rate warranted at a given time by the structure of the real data.

STRANGER Hence the conclusion that they cannot hope to do better than establish a climate of monetary and fiscal stability, such as by declaring a long term policy and staying with it.

ATHENIAN Exactly. Private economic agents already face endemic uncertainty with respect to changes in the real data, and must be assumed to not want more added by government policy. You appear to have seen my point nicely.

STRANGER Very well. But you have jumped ahead as this kind of a conclusion sounds very modern to me. You made me stop all the way back at Keynes’s notion of effective demand!

ATHENIAN As I said, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

STRANGER Let us go back a little. I think we may be able to rejoin our initial route at a point which may bring us close to where we seem to have come by the route you have taken. Specifically suppose we go back to the question of the money wage and the real wage, and of the real wage being “too high”.

ATHENIAN That has been interpreted a number of ways, has it not?

STRANGER Yes it has. One would be to say Keynes was merely simple minded and assumed money illusion on the part of workers. Another would be to say Keynes assumed a short run context of fixed prices, so it would not make a difference whether labour happened to be concerned with changes in the real or the money wage. Yet a third would be to say Keynes, whether he realized it or not, had come upon a recondite truth about the sort of complex monetary economy in which we live — namely, that when transactions are quoted and made in a monetary economy, it may become difficult ipso facto for the walrasian equilibrium to be achieved. Even workers might fully recognize the real wage to be too high and be prepared to work more at a lower wage, but be unable to signal this willingness to potential employers.

ATHENIAN So involuntary unemployment becomes another sort of equilibrium outcome.

STRANGER Exactly. Not only of labour but of machines too, along with the unintended holding of inventories. It is as if firms would have sold what they had planned to if only workers had the income to buy it, which they would have done if only they had been able to sell as much labour they had planned to, which they would have done if only there had been an effective demand for it, which there would have been if firms had not cut back on production because they found themselves unable to sell what they had planned to sell. A kind of vicious circle, due to pessimistic and self-fulfilling expectations all around.

ATHENIAN An unhappy solution to a non-cooperative game you might say.

STRANGER Quite so. Keynes does not deny there may be a monetary route out of the impasse. A wage deflation would eventually lead to price deflation, raising the real value of money holdings, so via liquidity preference lead to an increased demand for bonds, raising their price and lowering money interest rates, which through the investment function would lead eventually to increased effective demand. But the fiscal route may be more direct and quicker in its effect on expectations. Trying to deflate across the board in the face of what seem to be excess supplies of goods and labour might be counterproductive, causing unexpected transfers from debtors to creditors and precipitating bankruptcies. Instead: “Government investment will break the vicious circle. If you can do that for a couple of years, it will have the effect, if my diagnosis is right, of restoring business profits more nearly to normal, and if that can be achieved then private enterprise will be revived. I believe you have first of all to do something to restore profits and then rely on private enterprise to carry the thing along….”

ATHENIAN A shot in the arm for enterprise in the hope of breaking the pessimism. But Keynes was hardly alone in such thinking.

STRANGER Quite true.

ATHENIAN And he certainly seemed to treat the opinions of others without due respect, which is to say he may have exaggerated the significance of his own. Hinting that he was the Einstein of economics set an especially bad example. Only the other day one eminence was comparing himself to Newton, and another was calling his friend Shakespeare. It will be Joyce and Pasternak next!

STRANGER Flattery and nepotism are common weaknesses, my friend. Like the rush to belief and worship.

ATHENIAN Besides you would have to assume the government to be outside the game, and only so being able to see the problem which private agents could not from inside the game. That may be too large an assumption, don’t you think?

STRANGER Yes it may. Yet it seems to me pump-priming was a possible solution being offered to a temporary problem. Many of the controversies may have come about because it became institutionalized, because discretionary fiscal policy became a permanent part of the government agenda.

ATHENIAN And a more direct route out was available too, was it not? With wealth placed in the consumption function directly, a deflation would increase the real value and affect effective demand directly. We would not have to wait for the roundabout effects through so-called liquidity preference.

STRANGER Which in a way brings us back to a central pillar of traditional theory: with given real data and given velocity of circulation, desired holding of real money balances will roughly be constant. In particular the demand for real money balances should not be seen as a function of the interest rate.

ATHENIAN The real rate or the monetary rate?

STRANGER For neoclassicals certainly the real; Keynes does not seem clear.

ATHENIAN There may lie a problem.

STRANGER The title of the book says “Employment, Interest, and Money”. No question employment is real and money is money — interest is the bridge. If you ask me to bet I would say Keynes’s agents make real responses to signals expressed as they must be in a large economy in monetary terms.

ATHENIAN Perhaps we ought to move on. Tell me, if you think Keynes’s book rightly or wrongly ranks as the most influential document of the last fifty years, would you agree it is Friedman’s address on the role of monetary policy which must rank second to it if not on a par with it?

STRANGER Certainly there can be few competitors.

ATHENIAN Well then, it appears to me the net effect of Friedman’s critique has been a restoration of the wicksellian theory and a banishment of the keynesian theory.

STRANGER Friedman of course makes his approach via a critique of the Phillips’ Curve.

ATHENIAN Yes, but it is Wicksell whom he acknowledges in advancing the notion of a natural rate of unemployment, one which has been “ground out by the walrasian system of general equilibrium equations” — in other words, one which happens to be consistent with the structure of the real data of the economy at a particular time.

STRANGER Though again we may as well speak of walrasian instead of natural.

ATHENIAN A monetary policy which tried to peg unemployment at lower than such a rate (if such a rate could be determined, which it cannot) is likely to be counterproductive. The initial effect of an expansionary policy on a walrasian equilibrium may be to increase real output. Workers assume the increase to reflect an increase in the unobservable real demand for their services, and hence they expect a higher real wage. Businesses see the same and assume it to reflect an increase in the unobservable real demand for their goods. But given there was no real excess demand in the first place for either labour or goods, the effect outside anything but the short run will be a return to the initial structure of real wages, and the temporary decline in unemployment is reversed to the walrasian rate at higher prices. If the government tries to maintain unemployment at less than the walrasian rate, it will have to concede — indeed it will have caused — accelerating inflation without any real fall in unemployment.

STRANGER And vice versa perhaps, so there would be a kind of knife-edge.

ATHENIAN Now your remark about Friedman making his approach via the Phillips Curve seems to me interesting. We may have been too hasty to make a comparison with the debate in the thirties. For the world suffers a very real and severe shock between Keynes’s book and the keynesian consensus, which is the Second World War itself.

STRANGER I am not sure I follow.

ATHENIAN Well think of the consensus afterwards on the need for macroeconomic policy — it is actually Tinbergen’s notion of a “policy-maker” which is married to what seems to be Phillips’s finding of a trade-off between inflation and unemployment. It becomes the role of the macroeconomist to advise the politician on how to minimize social disutility from inflation and unemployment subject to the Phillips Curve. Macroeconomics becomes a so-called “policy science”. Give your expert economist your social utility function, and he will tell you where to slide to on your Phillips Curve.

STRANGER The available instruments being money supply and tax rates. That is what I meant in saying Keynes’s idea became institutionalized.

ATHENIAN It seems to me this consensus is born out of the War.

STRANGER How so?

ATHENIAN Well just think of the structural problems of the time: demobilization of large armies, reconstruction, all the displaced peoples, and so on. What are democratic governments to do? Say to their voters, right, thank you very much, now could you please go home quietly? What could have been expected except an Employment Act? Governments were going to help their returning citizens find work, or at least it would have seemed irresponsible if they had not said they were going to.

STRANGER You are saying then that Friedman may have been arguing against a new orthodoxy, grown out of what might have been a sensible idea.

ATHENIAN Exactly. The world is a very different place now than in 1945, in ‘45 than in ‘33, in ‘33 than in 1914. Real shocks every time. It may be a grave mistake for us to look for a unique and universal theory which is supposed to explain all particular circumstances, all of history.

STRANGER Reminds me of the historical school.

ATHENIAN Why not? Again I hold no prejudice against them! Anyhow, consider that Lucas and others have followed Friedman to argue it is a mistake to formulate the problem as Tinbergen had done, with unemployment as a target in a social utility function along with inflation. If it ought to be assumed that people will not continually make the same mistakes in predicting policy, then a systematic employment policy is going to be discovered quickly enough and rendered either ineffective or counterproductive. This idea too has its origins in Wicksell. Examining an opinion that inflation might stimulate enterprise and free debtors, Wicksell says: “It need only be said that if this fall in the value of money is the result of our own deliberate policy, or indeed can be anticipated and foreseen, then these supposed beneficial effects will never occur, since the approaching rise in prices will be taken into account in all transactions by reasonably intelligent people.”

STRANGER Wicksell said that?

ATHENIAN Precisely that.

STRANGER It does sound very modern.

ATHENIAN Now Lucas speaks of how the advice that economists give should be limited only to “the well understood and empirically substantiated propositions of monetary economics, discouragingly modest as these may be.” What can we take him to mean? It seems to me he is sharing Friedman’s scepticism of the possibilities which had been claimed for macroeconomics by the keynesian consensus. And that surely has been a healthy scepticism, befitting good economists.

STRANGER As I said, there is so often a rush to belief.

ATHENIAN Which is really disastrous when combined with the craving for power.

STRANGER But the question remains, does it not, as to which propositions of monetary economics are to be considered “well understood and empirically substantiated”. I cannot help think the propositions taken to be well understood and empirically substantiated in Chicago may be very different from those taken to be well understood and empirically substantiated in Cambridge, or for that matter, those in the U. S. from those in Europe.

ATHENIAN I don’t see any difficulty in this. For first, it would have been granted there are propositions in economics which can be well understood and empirically substantiated. And that must be counted as progress! For something cannot be well understood if it cannot be understood at all, and where there is the possibility of understanding there must be the possibility of objective knowledge as well. And second, why should we not say the most appropriate task of economic theory or analytical economics is simply one of clarification and elucidation of the conceptual basis of economic thinking and expression? All theory ultimately is, or ought to be, “Critique of Language”. When we are faced with a particular and concrete problematic situation, the theorist is to whom we turn for conceptual guidance and criticism. If instead you take the role of the theorist to be one of searching the universe for grand and general and absolute and abstract truths, which need to be discovered before we can say anything about some concrete set of particulars, then it seems to me you will be either struck dumb by a total and debilitating scepticism or become very shrill in your dogmatism or alternate wildly between the two. To me it seems unimportant ultimately to whose flag one shows allegiance, or indeed that allegiance to any flag must be shown.

STRANGER It seems again I will not disagree. But you have sketched the critique of Friedman and Lucas and indeed the ghost of Wicksell addressed to the dogmas of the keynesian orthodoxy. And I have agreed with you this has been a healthy criticism of the sort we should expect economists to provide. But there has been serious question too of the framework used by Friedman and Lucas, hasn’t there? I am thinking especially of Tobin and Hahn.

ATHENIAN Tobin has done much to add clear and reasonable thinking about Keynes — his suggestion that a certain amount of inflation may be the only way to bring down real wages towards their walrasian rates in complex monetary economics is especially interesting; it shows how wide the common ground can be upon which the debate may occur. But you will have to tell me what Hahn’s criticisms have been. I have always found them too abstract and too caustic.

STRANGER That they tend to be, but don’t let that deter you. As I see it, Hahn argues somewhat as follows. We should grant Friedman and Lucas two important points: first, the government is itself a large economic agent whose actions and announced plans enter the calculations of private agents; secondly, erratic changes in monetary policy away from a steady k% rule may have perverse effects “by confusing signals of relative scarcity with those that arose from the monetary policy”. Also, we may accept that the assumptions sufficient for a full walrasian equilibrium with rational expectations suffice for the absence of any persistent involuntary unemployment by Keynes’s definition. But Hahn would say this may not be the relevant empirical description.

ATHENIAN In what way?

STRANGER Well for one thing the pricing axiom or the recontracting assumption of stability theory remains unexplained. It is possible traders will face quantity constraints, and this often seems so in markets for labour and credit. We may simply find prices not moving in the direction of excess demand even when a quantity constraint happens to be binding. The structure of wages may be “neither fixed, nor arbritrary, nor inflexible; it is what it is because given conjectures, no agent finds it advantageous to change it.” Moreover, it may not be plausible to suppose there will be convergence after arbitrary displacements back towards a stable equilibrium, because the conditions for stability are very stringent and uniqueness of equilibrium may also need to be postulated. Furthermore, it may be quite unsatisfactory to treat money in models which are isomorphic to the Arrow-Debreu model, because in such a world there is no logical use for money, so there must be some essential features of reality which have failed to be features of the model.

ATHENIAN You don’t think Patinkin’s integration was adequate?

STRANGER For many practical purposes perhaps, but certainly not to full logical satisfaction. If you put real money balances into the utility function and treat money just about like any other good, you have to be prepared to accept a possible equilibrium in which the price of money is zero. Lastly, if there are internal debts denominated in money as there are in fact, you may not assume equiproportional changes in all prices will not have real effects, unless you are prepared to assume away redistributions between creditors and debtors, which you can do only under another assumption that all households have parallel and linear Engel curves through the origin. Hahn’s line of argument is admittedly abstract, but you will have to admit it raises some fundamental questions.

ATHENIAN Another example we might say of the healthy scepticism of the theorist. It seems my turn to agree with you. But we can imagine replies too can we not?

STRANGER What do you have in mind?

ATHENIAN Well to argue there can be unemployment which is involuntary is not to have argued that an employment policy can be expected to remove it. This seems a premise and conclusion too frequently confounded by both keynesians and their critics, with disastrous consequences. Then, Buchanan would argue that a more thorough characterization needs to be given of the making of government policy, especially when it is proposed to supplant the market outcome. Policies are after all proposed, enacted, and put into effect by actual people — all of whom may need to be assumed to be pursuing private rewards as well in the course of their public duties. The relevant description for the economist needs to be one including this further fact that actual proposals of public policy can embody the private interests of the proposers too.

STRANGER Making it that much more difficult to determine what is in the public interest in a given case.

ATHENIAN Exactly. And so reinforcing the case for predictability and an orderliness in the framework of government.

STRANGER But we have been talking now for quite long enough my friend. I seem to feel a fear too that we have not gained anything at all in our discussions.

ATHENIAN Don’t be so pessimistic! Surely the point of reconstructing such conversations as we have done is not to hold absolutely to the matters raised in them. You and I after all have been making summary and highly simplified and unauthorized interpretations. I take the point of it to have been clarifying our thoughts, and perhaps to show ourselves how discussion can proceed between economists of different schools of thought. Arguments might come to a halt for any of a number of reasons, but they needn’t be supposed to have any logical or necessary end. Too often we let people retreat into different dogmatic positions, fostering the belief that each is starting from some set of absolute axioms ultimately irreconcilable with those of the other. We may need to keep insisting instead that the pursuit of knowledge and understanding is an open-ended activity with potentially indefinite limits. It yields conclusive results but has no absolute end. You or I might call a halt and retire from it, but that will not mean it cannot or will not continue without us.

STRANGER Perhaps so. But you are younger than I, and I have become tired by all these thrusts and parries. Besides, there has been the enjoyment of conversation itself.”

II

October 1929? Not!  by Subroto Roy / First published in Business Standard September 18, 2008

“Lehman Brothers filing for bankruptcy protection, Merrill Lynch taken over by Bank of America, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and now AIG being nationalised by the US Government, Bear Stearns getting a government bailout, many thousands of low-quality loans going bad … Does it all add up to an American financial crisis in the autumn of 2008 comparable to that in the autumn of 1929? Even Alan Greenspan himself has gone on record on TV saying it might.

But there are overriding differences. Most important, the American economy and the world economy are both incomparably larger today in the value of their capital stock, and there has also been enormous technological progress over eight decades. Accordingly, it would take a much vaster event than the present turbulence — say, something like an exchange of multiple nuclear warheads with Russia causing Manhattan and the City of London to be destroyed — before there was a return to something comparable to the 1929 Crash and the Great Depression that followed.

Besides, the roots of the crises are different. What happened back then? In 1922, the Genoa Currency Conference wanted to correct the main defect of the pre-1914 gold standard, which was freezing the price of gold while failing to stabilise the purchasing power of money. From 1922 until about 1927, Benjamin Strong of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York adopted price-stabilisation as the new American policy-objective. Britain was off the gold standard and the USA remained on it. The USA, as a major creditor nation, saw massive gold inflows which, by traditional gold standard principles, would have caused a massive inflation. Governor Strong invented the process of “sterilisation” of those gold inflows instead and thwarted the rise in domestic dollar prices of goods and services.

Strong’s death in 1928 threw the Federal Reserve System into conflict and intellectual confusion. Dollar stabilisation ended as a policy. Surplus bank money was created on the release of gold that had been previously sterilised.

The traditional balance between bulls and bears in the stock-market was upset. Normally, every seller of stock is a bear and every buyer a bull. Now, amateur investors appeared as bulls attracted by the sudden stock price rises, while bears, who sold securities, failed to place their money into deposit and were instead lured into lending it as call money to brokerages who then fuelled these speculative bulls. As of October 22, 1929 about $4 billion was the extent of such speculative lending when Chase National Bank’s customers called in their money.

Chase National had to follow their instructions, as did other New York banks. New York’s Stock Exchange could hardly respond to a demand for $4 billion at a short notice and collapsed. Within a year, production had fallen by 26 per cent, prices by 14 per cent, personal income by 14 per cent, and the Greatest Depression of recorded history was in progress — involuntary unemployment levels in America reaching 25 per cent.

That is not, by any reading, what we have today. Yes, there has been plenty of bad lending, plenty of duping shareholders and workers and plenty of excessive managerial payoffs. It will all take a large toll, and affect markets across the world.

But it will be a toll relative to our plush comfortable modern standards, not those of 1929-1933. In fact, modern decisionmakers have the obvious advantage that they can look back at history and know what is not to be done. The US and the world economy are resilient enough to ride over even the extra uncertainty arising from the ongoing presidential campaign, and then some.”


III

America’s divided economists by Subroto Roy First published in Business Standard October 26, 2008

“Future doctoral theses about the Great Tremor of 2008 will ask how it was that the Fed chief, who was an academic economist, came to back so wholeheartedly the proposals of the investment banker heading the US Treasury. If Herbert Hoover and FDR in the 1930s started something called fiscal policy for the first time, George W Bush’s lameduck year has marked the total subjugation of monetary policy.

In his 1945 classic, History of Banking Theory, the University of Chicago’s Lloyd Mints said: “No reorganisation of the Federal Reserve System, while preserving its independence from the Treasury, can offer a satisfactory agency for the implementation of monetary policy. The Reserve banks and their branches should be made agencies of the Treasury and all monetary powers delegated by Congress should be given to the Secretary of the Treasury…. It is not at all certain that Treasury control of the stock of money would always be reasonable… but Treasury influence cannot be excluded by the creation of a speciously independent monetary agency that cannot have adequate powers for the performance of its task…” Years later, Milton Friedman himself took a similar position suggesting legislation “to end the independence of the Fed by converting it into a bureau of the Treasury Department…”(see, for example, Essence of Friedman, p 416).

Ben Bernanke’s Fed has now ended any pretence of the monetary policy’s independence from the whims and exigencies of executive power. Yet Dr Bernanke’s fellow academic economists have been unanimous in advising caution, patience and more information and reflection upon the facts. The famous letter of 122 economists to the US Congress was a rare statement of sense and practical wisdom. It agreed the situation was difficult and needed bold action. But it said the Paulson-Bernanke plan was an unfair “subsidy to investors at taxpayers’ expense. Investors who took risks to earn profits must also bear the losses. Not every business failure carries systemic risk. The government can ensure a well-functioning financial industry, able to make new loans to creditworthy borrowers, without bailing out particular investors and institutions whose choices proved unwise.”

Besides, the plan was unclear and too far-reaching. “Neither the mission of the new agency nor its oversight are clear. If taxpayers are to buy illiquid and opaque assets from troubled sellers, the terms, occasions, and methods of such purchases must be crystal clear ahead of time and carefully monitored afterwards…. If the plan is enacted, its effects will be with us for a generation. For all their recent troubles, America’s dynamic and innovative private capital markets have brought the nation unparalleled prosperity. Fundamentally weakening those markets in order to calm short-run disruptions is desperately short-sighted.”

The House’s initial bipartisan “backbench revolt” against “The Emergency Economic Stabilisation Act of 2008” (ESSA) followed this academic argument and rejected the Bernanke Fed’s advice. Is there an “emergency”, and if so what is its precise nature? Is this “economic stabilisation”, and if so, how is it going to work? The onus has been on Dr Bernanke and his staff to argue both, not merely to assert them. Even if the House “held its nose” and passed the measure for now, the American electorate is angry and it is anybody’s guess how a new President and Congress will alter all this in a few months.

Several academic economists have argued for specific price-stabilisation of the housing market being the keystone of any large, expensive and risky government intervention. (John McCain has also placed this in the political discussion now.) Roughly speaking, the housing supply-curve has shifted so far to the right that collapsed housing prices need to be dragged back upward by force. Columbia Business School economists Glenn Hubbard and Chris Mayer, both former Bush Administration officials, have proposed allowing “all residential mortgages on primary residences to be refinanced into 30-year fixed-rate mortgages at 5.25 per cent…. close to where mortgage rates would be today with normally functioning mortgage markets….Lower interest rates will mean higher overall house prices…” Yale’s Jonathan Koppell and William Goetzmann have argued very similarly the Treasury “could offer to refinance all mortgages issued in the past five years with a fixed-rate, 30-year mortgage at 6 per cent. No credit scores, no questions asked; just pay off the principal of the existing mortgage with a government check. If monthly payments are still too high, homeowners could reduce their indebtedness in exchange for a share of the future price appreciation of the house. That is, the government would take an ownership interest in the house just as it would take an ownership interest in the financial institutions that would be bailed out under the Treasury’s plan.”

Beyond the short run, the US may play the demographic card by inviting in a few million new immigrants (if nativist feelings hostile to the outsider or newcomer can be controlled, especially in employment). Bad mortgages and foreclosures would vanish as people from around the world who long to live in America buy up all those empty houses and apartments, even in the most desolate or dismal locations. If the US’s housing supply curve has moved so far to the right that the equilibrium price has gone to near zero, the surest way to raise the equilibrium price would be by causing a new wave of immigration leading to a new demand curve arising at a higher level.

Such proposals seek to address the problem at its source. They might have been expected from the Fed’s economists. Instead, ESSA speaks of massive government purchase and control of bad assets “downriver”, without any attempt to face the problem at its source. This makes it merely wishful to think such assets can be sold for a profit at a later date so taxpayers will eventually gain. It is as likely as not the bad assets remain bad assets.

Indeed the University of Chicago’s Casey Mulligan has argued there is a financial crisis involving the banking sector but not an economic one: “We’re not entering a second Great Depression.” The marginal product of capital remains high and increasing “far above the historical average. The third-quarter earnings reports from some companies already suggest that America’s non-financial companies are still making plenty of money…. So, if you are not employed by the financial industry (94 per cent of you are not), don’t worry. The current unemployment rate of 6.1 per cent is not alarming, and we should reconsider whether it is worth it to spend $700 billion to bring it down to 5.9 per cent.”

Dr Bernanke has been a close student of A Monetary History of the United States in which Milton Friedman and Anna J Schwartz argued that the Fed inadvertently worsened the Great Contraction of 1929-1933 by not responding to Congress. Let not future historians find that the Fed, at the behest of the Treasury Secretary, worsened the Great Tremor of 2008 by bamboozling Congress into hasty action.”

IV

Would not a few million new immigrants solve America’s mortgage crisis?
October 10, 2008 — drsubrotoroy | Edit

America was at its best when it was open to mass immigration, and America is at its worst when it treats immigrants with racism and worse (for seeming “uppity”).

All those bad mortgages and foreclosures could vanish within a year or two by playing the demographic card and inviting in a few million new immigrants into the United States.  They would pour in from China, Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Mexico, South America,  South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Israel, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan,  India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and yes, Pakistan too, and more.  They would happily buy up all those empty houses and apartments, even in all those desolate  dismal locations.  If the USA’s housing supply curve has moved so far to the right that the equilibrium price has gone to near zero, the surest way to raise the equilibrium price would be by causing a  new wave of  immigration leading to a new demand curve arising at a higher level.   But yes, nativist feelings of racism towards the outsider or the newcomer would have to be controlled  especially in employment — racists after all are often rather “sub-prime” themselves and hence unable to accept characters who may be “prime” or at least less “sub-prime” from foreign immigrant communities.   Restoring a worldwide idea of an American dream fuelled by mass immigration may be the surest way for the American economy to restore itself.

V

122 Sensible American economists

September 26, 2008 — drsubrotoroy | Edit

“$700 billion comes to more than, uhhhm, $6,000 per income taxpayer in the USA.

I was glad to see the sensible letter of 122 American economists to US legislators regarding the Paulson-Bernanke plan to address America’s financial crisis.

Somehow, I have an inkling that foreign central banks have been left holding more bad US debt than might be remembered — which would explain the embarrassment of Messrs Paulson and Bernanke vis-a-vis their foreign counterparts… Dollar depreciation and an American inflation seem to be inevitable over the next several years.”

Could the Satyam/PwC fraud be the visible part of an iceberg? Where are India’s “Generally Accepted Accounting Principles”? Isn’t governance rather poor all over corporate India? Bad public finance may be a root cause

In a March 5 2007 article in The Statesman, I said:

“Our farmers are peaceful hardworking people who should be paying taxes and user-fees normally but should not be otherwise disturbed or needlessly provoked by outsiders. It is the businessmen wishing to attack our farm populations who need to look hard in the mirror – to improve their accounting, audit, corporate governance, to enforce anti-embezzlement and shareholder protection laws etc.”

In a September 23-24 2007 article in The Sunday Statesman I said:

“… Government, instead of hobnobbing with business chambers, needed to get Indian corporations to improve their accounting, audit and governance, and reduce managerial pilfering and embezzlement, which is possible only if Government first set an example.”

In a February 4 2007 article in The Statesman, I said:

“Financial control of India’s fiscal condition, and hence monetary expansion, vitally requires control of the growth of these kinds of dynamic processes and comprehension of their analytical underpinnings. Yet such understanding and control seem quite absent from all organs of our Government, including establishment economists and the docile financial press…. the actual difference between Government Expenditure and Income in India has been made to appear much smaller than it really is. Although neglected by the Cabinet, Finance Ministry, RBI and even (almost) the C&AG, the significance of this discrepancy in measurement will not be lost on anyone seriously concerned to address India’s fiscal and monetary problems.”

All three articles are available elsewhere here and are republished below together.  I have published elsewhere today my brief 2006 lecture on corporate governance.  (See also my “The Indian Revolution”, “Monetary Integrity & the Rupee”, “Indian Inflation”,  “The Dream Team: A Critique”, “India’s Macroeconomics”, “Growth & Government Delusion”, etc).

The fraud at Satyam amounts to it having been long bankrupt but not seemingly so.  The fact it was long bankrupt was apparently overlooked or condoned by its auditors Pricewaterhouse Coopers! This may be big news today but the response of corporate India and the Indian business media seems utterly insincere (and there has been a lot of fake pontificating on TV by some notorious frauds).  Remember the head of Satyam received awards with all the other honchos at those fake ceremonies that businessmen and the business media keep holding at this or that hotel.  (See my several articles here under the categories “Satyam corporate fraud”, “Corporate governance” etc.)

Government agencies, as enforcers of the law, must be seen in such circumstances to have greater credibility than the violators, but who can say that Government accounting and audit and corporate governance in India is not as bad as that of the private sector?    It may be in fact far, far worse.   Poor accounting, endless deficit finance, unlimited paper money creation, false convertibility of the rupee etc is what emerges from our supposedly wise economic policy-makers.

When was the last time some major businessman or top politician spoke publicly about the importance of “Generally Accepted Accounting Principles”?   The answer is never.   Government (of this party or that) has become well-oiled by political lobbyists and is hand-in-glove with organized business, especially in a few cities.  Until Government gets its own accounts straight, stops its endless deficit finance, reins in unlimited paper money-creation, creates an honest currency domestically and externally, there is no proper example or standard set for the private sector, and such scandals will erupt along with insincere responses from the cartels of corporate India.

What emerges from New Delhi’s economists seems often to have as much to do with economics as Bollywood has to do with cinema.

Subroto Roy

Fallacious Finance: Congress, BJP, CPI-M et al may be leading India to hyperinflation

by

Subroto Roy

First published in The Statesman, March 5 2007 Editorial Page Special Article http://www.thestatesman.net

It seems the Dream Team of the PM, Finance Minister, Mr. Montek Ahluwalia and their acolytes may take India on a magical mystery tour of economic hallucinations, fantasies and perhaps nightmares. I hasten to add the BJP and CPI-M have nothing better to say, and criticism of the Government or of Mr Chidambaram’s Budget does not at all imply any sympathy for their political adversaries. It may be best to outline a few of the main fallacies permeating the entire Governing Class in Delhi, and their media and businessman friends:

1. “India’s Savings Rate is near 32%”. This is factual nonsense. Savings is indeed normally measured by adding financial and non-financial savings. Financial savings include bank-deposits. But India is not a normal country in this. Nor is China. Both have seen massive exponential growth of bank-deposits in the last few decades. Does this mean Indians and Chinese are saving phenomenally high fractions of their incomes by assiduously putting money away into their shaky nationalized banks? Sadly, it does not. What has happened is government deficit-financing has grown explosively in both countries over decades. In a “fractional reserve” banking system (i.e. a system where your bank does not keep the money you deposited there but lends out almost all of it immediately), government expenditure causes bank-lending, and bank-lending causes bank-deposits to expand. Yes there has been massive expansion of bank-deposits in India but it is a nominal paper phenomenon and does not signify superhuman savings behaviour. Indians keep their assets mostly in metals, land, property, cattle, etc., and as cash, not as bank deposits.

2. “High economic growth in India is being caused by high savings and intelligently planned government investment”. This too is nonsense. Economic growth in India as elsewhere arises not because of what politicians and bureaucrats do in capital cities, but because of spontaneous technological progress, improved productivity and learning-by-doing on part of the general population. Technological progress is a very general notion, and applies to any and every production activity or commercial transaction that now can be accomplished more easily or using fewer inputs than before. New Delhi still believes in antiquated Soviet-era savings-investment models without technological progress, and some non-sycophant must tell our top Soviet-era bureaucrat that such growth models have been long superceded and need to be scrapped from India’s policy-making too. Can politicians and bureaucrats assist India’s progress? Indeed they can: the telecom revolution in recent years was something in which they participated. But the general presumption is against them. Progress, productivity gains and hence economic growth arise from enterprise and effort of ordinary people — mostly despite not because of an exploitative, parasitic State.

3. “Agriculture is a backward sector that has been retarding India’s recent economic growth”. This is not merely nonsense it is dangerous nonsense, because it has led to land-grabbing by India’s rulers at behest of their businessman friends in so-called “SEZ” schemes. The great farm economist Theodore W. Schultz once quoted Andre and Jean Mayer: “Few scientists think of agriculture as the chief, or the model science. Many, indeed, do not consider it a science at all. Yet it was the first science – Mother of all science; it remains the science which makes human life possible”. Centuries before Europe’s Industrial Revolution, there was an Agricultural Revolution led by monks and abbots who were the scientists of the day. Thanks partly to American help, India has witnessed a Green Revolution since the 1960s, and our agriculture has been generally a calm, mature, stable and productive industry. Our farmers are peaceful hardworking people who should be paying taxes and user-fees normally but should not be otherwise disturbed or needlessly provoked by outsiders. It is the businessmen wishing to attack our farm populations who need to look hard in the mirror – to improve their accounting, audit, corporate governance, to enforce anti-embezzlement and shareholder protection laws etc.

4. “India’s foreign exchange reserves may be used for ‘infrastructure’ financing”. Mr Ahluwalia promoted this idea and now the Budget Speech mentioned how Mr Deepak Parekh and American banks may be planning to get Indian businesses to “borrow” India’s forex reserves from the RBI so they can purchase foreign assets. It is a fallacy arising among those either innocent of all economics or who have quite forgotten the little they might have been mistaught in their youth. Forex reserves are a residual in a country’s balance of payments and are not akin to tax revenues, and thus are not available to be borrowed or spent by politicians, bureaucrats or their businessman friends — no matter how tricky and shady a way comes to be devised for doing so. If anything, the Government and RBI’s priority should have been to free the Rupee so any Indian could hold gold or forex at his/her local bank. India’s vast sterling balances after the Second World War vanished quickly within a few years, and the country plunged into decades of balance of payments crisis – that may now get repeated. The idea of “infrastructure” is in any case vague and inferior to the “public goods” Adam Smith knew to be vital. Serious economists recommend transparent cost-benefit analyses before spending any public resources on any project. E.g., analysis of airport/airline industry expansion would have found the vast bulk of domestic airline costs to be forex-denominated but revenues rupee-denominated – implying an obvious massive currency-risk to the industry and all its “infrastructure”. All the PM’s men tell us nothing of any of this.

5. “HIV-AIDS is a major Indian health problem”. Government doctors privately know the scare of an AIDS epidemic is based on false assumptions and analysis. Few if any of us have met, seen or heard of an actual incontrovertible AIDS victim in India (as opposed to someone infected by hepatitis-contaminated blood supplies). Syringe-exchange by intravenous drug users is not something widely prevalent in Indian society, while the practise that caused HIV to spread in California’s Bay Area in the 1980s is not something depicted even at Khajuraho. Numerous real diseases do afflict Indians – e.g. 11 children died from encephalitis in one UP hospital on a single day in July 2006, while thousands of children suffer from “cleft lip” deformity that can be solved surgically for 20,000 rupees, allowing the child a normal life. Without any objective survey being done of India’s real health needs, Mr Chidamabaram has promised more than Rs 9.6 Billion (Rs 960 crore) to the AIDS cottage industry.

6. “Fiscal consolidation & stabilization has been underway since 1991”. There is extremely little reason to believe this. If you or I borrow Rs. 100,000 for a year, and one year later repay the sum only to borrow the same again along with another Rs 40,000, we would be said to have today a debt of Rs. 140,000 at least. Our Government has been routinely “rolling over” its domestic debt in this manner (in the asset-portfolios of the nationalised banking system) but displaying and highlighting only its new additional borrowing in a year as the “ Fiscal Deficit” (see graph, also “Fiscal Instability”, The Sunday Statesman, 4 February 2007). More than two dozen State Governments have been doing the same though, unlike the Government of India, they have no money-creating powers and their liabilities ultimately accrue to the Union as well. The stock of public debt in India may be Rs 30 trillion (Rs 30 lakh crore) at least, and portends a hyperinflation in the future. Mr Chidambaram’s announcement of a “Debt Management Office” yet to be created is hardly going to suffice to avert macroeconomic turmoil and a possible monetary collapse. The Congress, BJP, CPI-M and all their friends shall be responsible.

Against Quackery

First published in two parts in The Sunday Statesman, September 23 2007, The Statesman September 24 2007, http://www.thestatesman.net

By Subroto Roy

Manmohan and Sonia have violated Rajiv Gandhi’s intended reforms; the Communists have been appeased or bought; the BJP is incompetent

WASTE, fraud and abuse are inevitable in the use and allocation of public property and resources in India as elsewhere, but Government is supposed to fight and resist such tendencies. The Sonia-Manmohan Government have done the opposite, aiding and abetting a wasteful anti-economics ~ i.e., an economic quackery. Vajpayee-Advani and other Governments, including Narasimha-Manmohan in 1991-1996, were just as complicit in the perverse policy-making. So have been State Governments of all regional parties like the CPI-M in West Bengal, DMK/ AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, Congress/NCP/ BJP/Sena in Maharashtra, TDP /Congress in Andhra Pradesh, SP/BJP/BSP in Uttar Pradesh etc. Our dismal politics merely has the pot calling the kettle black while national self-delusion and superstition reign in the absence of reason.

The general pattern is one of well-informed, moneyed, mostly city-based special interest groups (especially including organised capital and organised labour) dominating government agendas at the cost of ill-informed, diffused anonymous individual citizens ~ peasants, small businessmen, non-unionized workers, old people, housewives, medical students etc. The extremely expensive “nuclear deal” with the USA is merely one example of such interest group politics.

Nuclear power is and shall always remain of tiny significance as a source of India’s electricity (compared to e.g. coal and hydro); hence the deal has practically nothing to do with the purported (and mendacious) aim of improving the country’s “energy security” in the long run. It has mostly to do with big business lobbies and senior bureaucrats and politicians making a grab, as they always have done, for India’s public purse, especially access to foreign currency assets. Some $300 million of India’s public money had to be paid to GE and Bechtel Corporation before any nuclear talks could begin in 2004-2005 ~ the reason was the Dabhol fiasco of the 1990s, a sheer waste for India’s ordinary people. Who was responsible for that loss? Pawar-Mahajan-Munde-Thackeray certainly but also India’s Finance Minister at the time, Manmohan Singh, and his top Finance Ministry bureaucrat, Montek Ahluwalia ~ who should never have let the fiasco get off the ground but instead actively promoted and approved it.

Cost-benefit analysis prior to any public project is textbook operating procedure for economists, and any half-competent economist would have accounted for the scenario of possible currency-depreciation which made Dabhol instantly unviable. Dr Singh and Mr Ahluwalia failed that test badly and it cost India dearly. The purchase of foreign nuclear reactors on a turnkey basis upon their recommendation now reflects similar financial dangers for the country on a vastly larger scale over decades.

Our Government seems to function most expeditiously in purchasing foreign arms, aircraft etc ~ not in improving the courts, prisons, police, public utilities, public debt. When the purchase of 43 Airbus aircraft surfaced, accusations of impropriety were made by Boeing ~ until the local Airbus representative said on TV that Boeing need not complain because they were going to be rewarded too and soon 68 aircraft were ordered from Boeing!

India imports all passenger and most military aircraft, besides spare parts and high-octane jet fuel. Domestic aviation generates near zero forex revenues and incurs large forex costs ~ a debit in India’s balance of payments. Domestic airline passengers act as importers subsidised by our meagre exporters of textiles, leather, handicrafts, tea, etc. What a managerially-minded PM and Aviation Minister needed to do before yielding to temptations of buying new aircraft was to get tough with the pampered managements and unions of the nationalized airlines and stand up on behalf of ordinary citizens and taxpayers, who, after all, are mostly rail or road-travellers not jet-setters.

The same pattern of negligent policy-behaviour led Finance Minister P. Chidambaram in an unprecedented step to mention in his 2007 Union Budget Speech the private American companies Blackstone and GE ~ endorsing the Ahluwalia/Deepak Parekh idea that India’s forex reserves may be made available to be lent out to favoured private businesses for purported “infrastructure” development. We may now see chunks of India’s foreign exchange reserves being “borrowed” and never returned ~ a monumental scam in front of the CBI’s noses.

The Reserve Bank’s highest echelons may have become complicit in all this, permitting and encouraging a large capital flight to take place among the few million Indians who read the English newspapers and have family-members abroad. Resident Indians have been officially permitted to open bank accounts of US $100,000 abroad, as well as transfer gifts of $50,000 per annum to their adult children already exported abroad ~ converting their largely untaxed paper rupees at an artificially favourable exchange-rate.

In particular, Mr Ratan Tata (under a misapprehension he may do whatever Lakshmi Mittal does) has been allowed to convert Indian rupees into some US$13,000,000,000 to make a cash purchase of a European steel company. The same has been allowed of the Birlas, Wipro, Dr Reddy’s and numerous other Indian corporations in the organised sector ~ three hundred million dollars here, five hundred million dollars there, etc. Western businessmen now know all they have to do is flatter the egos of Indian boxwallahs enough and they might have found a buyer for their otherwise bankrupt or sick local enterprise. Many newcomers to New York City have been sold the Brooklyn Bridge before. “There’s a sucker born every minute” is the classic saying of American capitalism.

The Sonia-Manmohan Government, instead of hobnobbing with business chambers, needed to get Indian corporations to improve their accounting, audit and governance, and reduce managerial pilfering and embezzlement, which is possible only if Government first set an example.

Why have Indian foreign currency reserves zoomed up in recent years? Not mainly because we are exporting more textiles, tea, software engineers, call centre services or new products to the world, but because Indian corporations have been allowed to borrow abroad, converting their hoards of paper rupees into foreign debt. Forex reserves are a residual in a country’s international balance of payments and are not like tax-resources available to be spent by Government; India’s reserves largely constitute foreign liabilities of Indian residents. This may bear endless repetition as the PM and his key acolytes seem impervious to normal postgraduate-level economics textbooks.

Other official fallacies include thinking India’s savings rate is near 32 per cent and that clever bureaucratic use of it can cause high growth. In fact, real growth arises not because of what politicians and bureaucrats do but because of spontaneous technological progress, improved productivity and learning-by-doing of the general population ~ mostly despite not because of an exploitative parasitic State. What has been mismeasured as high savings is actually expansion of bank-deposits in a fractional reserve banking system caused by runaway government deficit-spending.

Another fallacy has been that agriculture retards growth, leading to nationwide politically-backed attempts at land-grabbing by wily city industrialists and real estate developers. In a hyperinflation-prone economy with wild deficit-spending and runaway money-printing, cheating poor unorganised peasants of their land, when that land is an asset that is due to appreciate in value, has seemed like child’s play.

What of the Opposition? The BJP/RSS have no economists who are not quacks though opportunists were happy to say what pleased them to hear when they were in power; they also have much implicit support among organised business lobbies and the anti-Muslim senior bureaucracy. The official Communists have been appeased or bought, sometimes so cheaply as with a few airline tickets here and there. The nonsensical “Rural Employment Guarantee” is descending into the wasteland of corruption it was always going to be. The “Domestic Violence Act” as expected has started to destroy India’s families the way Western families have been destroyed. The Arjun-DMK OBC quota corrodes higher education further from its already dismal state. All these were schemes that Congress and Communist cabals created or wholeheartedly backed, and which the BJP were too scared or ignorant to resist.

And then came Singur and Nandigram ~ where the sheer greed driving the alliance between the Sonia-Manmohan-Pranab Congress and the CPI-M mask that is Buddhadeb, came to be exposed by a handful of brave women like Mamata and Medha.

2. A Fiscal U-Turn is Needed For India to Go in The Right Economic Direction

Rajiv Gandhi had a sense of noblesse oblige out of remembrance of his father and maternal grandfather. After his assassination, the comprador business press credited Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh with having originated the 1991 economic reform. In May 2002, however, the Congress Party itself passed a resolution proposed by Digvijay Singh explicitly stating Rajiv and not either of them was to be so credited. The resolution was intended to flatter Sonia Gandhi but there was truth in it too. Rajiv, a pilot who knew no political economy, was a quick learner with intelligence to know a good idea when he saw one and enough grace to acknowledge it.

Rule of Law

The first time Dr Manmohan Singh’s name arose in contemporary post-Indira politics was on 22 March 1991 when M K Rasgotra challenged the present author to answer how Dr Singh would respond to proposals being drafted for a planned economic liberalisation that had been authorised by Rajiv, as Congress President and Opposition Leader, since September 1990. It was replied that Dr Singh’s response was unknown and he had been heading the “South-South Commission” for Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, while what needed to be done urgently was make a clear forceful statement to restore India’s credit-worthiness and the confidence of international markets, showing that the Congress at least knew its economics and was planning to take bold new steps in the direction of progress.

There is no evidence Dr Singh or his acolytes were committed to any economic liberalism prior to 1991 as that term is understood worldwide, and scant evidence they have originated liberal economic ideas for India afterwards. Precisely because they represented the decrepit old intellectual order of statist ”Ma-Bap Sarkari” policy-making, they were not asked in the mid-1980s to be part of a “perestroika-for-India” project done at a foreign university ~ the results of which were received, thanks to Siddhartha Shankar Ray, by Rajiv Gandhi in hand at 10 Janpath on 18 September 1990 and specifically sparked the change in the direction of his economic thinking.

India is a large, populous country with hundreds of millions of materially poor citizens, a weak tax-base, a vast internal and external public debt (i.e. debt owed by the Government to domestic and foreign creditors), massive annual fiscal deficits, an inconvertible currency, and runaway printing of paper-money. It is unsurprising Pakistan’s economy is similar, since it is born of the same land and people. Certainly there have been real political problems between India and Pakistan since the chaotic demobilisation and disintegration of the old British Indian Army caused the subcontinent to plunge into war-like or “cold peace” conditions for six decades beginning with a bloody Partition and civil war in J&K. High military expenditures have been necessitated due to mutual and foreign tensions, but this cannot be a permanent state if India and Pakistan wish for genuine mass economic well-being.

Even with the continuing mutual antagonism, there is vast scope for a critical review of Indian military expenditures towards greatly improving the “teeth-to-tail” ratio of its fighting forces. The abuse of public property and privilege by senior echelons of the armed forces (some of whom have been keen most of all to export their children preferably to America) is also no great secret.

On the domestic front, Rajiv was entirely convinced when the suggestion was made to him in September 1990 that an enormous infusion of public resources was needed into the judicial system for promotion and improvement of the Rule of Law in the country, a pre-requisite almost for a new market orientation. Capitalism without the Rule of Law can quickly degenerate into an illiberal hell of cronyism and anarchy which is what has tended to happen since 1991.

The Madhava Menon Committee on criminal justice policy in July proposed a Hong Kong model of “a single high-tech integrated Criminal Justice complex in every district headquarters which may be a multi-storied structure, devoting the ground floor for the police station including a video-installed interrogation room; the first floor for the police-lockups/sub-jail and the Magistrate’s Court; the second floor for the prosecutor’s office, witness rooms, crime laboratories and legal aid services; the third floor for the Sessions Court and the fourth for the administrative offices etc…. (Government of India) should take steps to evolve such an efficient model… and not only recommend it to the States but subsidize its construction…” The question arises: Why is this being proposed for the first time in 2007 after sixty years of Independence? Why was it not something designed and implemented starting in the 1950s?

The resources put since Independence to the proper working of our judiciary from the Supreme Court and High Courts downwards have been abysmal, while the state of prisons, borstals, mental asylums and other institutions of involuntary detention is nothing short of pathetic. Only police forces, like the military, paramilitary and bureaucracies, have bloated in size.

Neither Sonia-Manmohan nor the BJP or Communists have thought promotion of the Rule of Law in India to be worth much serious thought ~ certainly less important than attending bogus international conclaves and summits to sign expensive deals for arms, aircraft, reactors etc. Yet Rajiv Gandhi, at a 10 Janpath meeting on 23 March 1991 when he received the liberalisation proposals he had authorized, explicitly avowed the importance of greater resources towards the Judiciary. Dr Singh and his acolytes were not in that loop, indeed they precisely represented the bureaucratic ancien regime intended to be changed, and hence have seemed quite uncomprehending of the roots of the intended reforms ever since 1991.

Similarly, Rajiv comprehended when it was said to him that the primary fiscal problem faced by India is the vast and uncontrolled public debt, interest payments on which suck dry all public budgets leaving no room for provision of public goods.

Government accounts
Government has been routinely “rolling over” its domestic debt in the asset-portfolios of the nationalised banks while displaying and highlighting only its new additional borrowing in a year as the “Fiscal Deficit”. More than two dozen States have been doing the same and their liabilities ultimately accrue to the Union too. The stock of public debt in India is Rs 30 trillion (Rs 30 lakh crore) at least, and portends a hyperinflation in the future.

There has been no serious recognition of this since it is political and bureaucratic actions that have been causing the problem. Proper recognition would entail systematically cleaning up the budgets and accounts of every single governmental entity in the country: the Union, every State, every district and municipality, every publicly funded entity or organisation, and at the same time improving public decision-making capacity so that once budgets and accounts recover from grave sickness over decades, functioning institutions exist for their proper future management. All this would also stop corruption in its tracks, and release resources for valuable public goods and services like the Judiciary, School Education and Basic Health. Institutions for improved political and administrative decision-making are needed throughout the country if public preferences with respect to raising and allocating common resources are to be elicited and then translated into actual delivery of public goods and services. Our dysfunctional legislatures will have to do at least a little of what they are supposed to. When public budgets and accounts are healthy and we have functioning public goods and services, macroeconomic conditions would have been created for the paper-rupee to once more become a money as good as gold ~ a convertible world currency for all of India’s people, not merely the metropolitan special interest groups that have been controlling our governments and their agendas.

Fiscal Instabilty

Interest payments quickly suck dry every year’s Budget. And rolling over old public debt means that Government Borrowing in fact much exceeds the Fiscal Deficit

by Subroto Roy

First published in The Sunday Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article, February 4 2007, http://www.thestatesman.net

While releasing Mr Chidambaram’s book some days ago, our PM said that as Narasimha Rao’s Finance Minister in 1991 he had caused “fiscal stabilization” of the country. Unfortunately, Dr Manmohan Singh may have been believing the flattery of his sycophants, since the facts point differently.

The Fiscal Deficit is new borrowing by Government added for a given year. In 1994-1995 for example, the Union Government’s expenditure net of operational and other income was some Rs 1,295 billion (1 billion = 100 crore). Rs. 674 billion was generated for the Union Government by taxation that year (Rs 184 billion from direct taxes, Rs 653 billion from indirect and miscellaneous taxes, less Rs 163 billion as the States’ share). The difference between Rs 1,295 billion and Rs. 674 billion, that is Rs. 621 billion had to be borrowed by the Government of India in the name of future unborn generations of Indian citizens. That was the “Fiscal Deficit” that year. If the stock of Public Debt already accumulated has been B,this Fiscal Deficit, C, adds to the interest burden that will be faced next year since interest will have to be then paid on B + C.

Interest payments on Government debt have dominated all public finance in recent decades, quickly sucking dry the budgets every year both of the Union and each of our more than two dozen States. Some Rs. 440 billion was paid by the Union Government as interest in 1994-1995, and this had risen to some Rs. 1,281 billion by 2003-2004. As a percentage of tax revenue, interest expenditure by the Government of India on its own debt rose from 40% in 1991 to 68% in 2004 ~ through the Finance Ministerships of Manmohan Singh, P Chidambaram, Yashwant Sinha and Jaswant Singh.

Financial control of India’s fiscal condition, and hence monetary expansion, vitally requires control of the growth of these kinds of dynamic processes and comprehension of their analytical underpinnings. Yet such understanding and control seem quite absent from all organs of our Government, including establishment economists and the docile financial press.

For example, contrary to the impression created by the Finance Ministry, RBI and Union Cabinet (whether of the UPA or NDA, while the Communists would only be worse), the Fiscal Deficit has been in fact very far from being all that the Government of India borrows from financial markets in a given year. The stock of Public Debt at any given moment consists of numerous debt-instruments of various sorts at different terms. Some fraction of these come to maturity every year and hence their principal amounts (not merely their interest) must be repaid by Government. What our Government has been doing routinely over decades is to roll over these debts, i.e. issue fresh public debt of the same amount as that being extinguished and more. For example, some Rs. 720 billion, Rs. 1,180 billion, Rs.1,330 billion and Rs. 1,390 billion were amounts spent in extinguishing maturing public debt in 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1996 respectively. No special taxes were raised in those years specifically for that purpose. Instead the Government merely issued additional new debt or “rolled over” or “converted” the old debt in the same amounts and more in the portfolios of the captive nationalized banking system (see graph).

Plainly, the Government of India’s actual “Borrowing Requirement”, as the difference between its Income and Expenditure, when accounted for properly, will be the sum of this rolled over old debt and the Fiscal Deficit (which is merely the additional borrowing required by a single year’s Budget). In other words, the Government’s Borrowing Requirement is the Fiscal Deficit plus the much larger amount required to annually roll over maturing debt. Because the latter expenditure does not appear at all in calculation of the Fiscal Deficit by the subterfuge of having been routinely rolled over every year, the actual difference between Government Expenditure and Income in India has been made to appear much smaller than it really is. Although neglected by the Cabinet, Finance Ministry, RBI and even (almost) the C&AG, the significance of this discrepancy in measurement will not be lost on anyone seriously concerned to address India’s fiscal and monetary problems.

On the expenditure side, Current Expenditure (anachronistically named “Revenue Expenditure” in India as it is supposed to be met by current revenue) meets recurrent liabilities from one budget-date to the next, like salaries of school-staff or coupon payments on Government debt.

Investment Expenditure “of a capital nature” is supposed to increase “concrete assets of a material and permanent character” like spending on a new public library, or reducing “recurring liabilities” by setting aside a sinking fund to reduce Government debt. Some public resources need to be spent to yield benefits or reduce costs not immediately but in the future. Besides roads, bridges and libraries, these may include less tangible investments too like ensuring proper working of law-courts or training police-officers and school-teachers.

Also, there has been large outright direct lending by the Government of India bypassing normal capital markets on the pattern of old Soviet “central planning”, whereby “credit” is disbursed to chosen recipients.

“Current”, “Investment” and “Loan” expenditure decisions of this kind are made on the same activities. For example, in 1994-1995, the Government of India spent Rs. 2.7 billion as “Loans for Power Projects” in addition to Rs. 9.8 billion under Current Expenditure on “Power” and Rs. 15.5 billion as Investment Expenditure on “Power Projects”. By 2003-2004, these had grown to Rs. 50.94 billion, Rs. 31.02 billion, Rs. 28.5 billion respectively. Yet the opaqueness of Government accounts, finances and economic decision-making today is such that nowhere will such data be found in one table giving a full picture of public expenditure on the Power sector as a whole. On the revenue side, Government’s “Current Income” includes direct and indirect taxes, operational income from public utilities (like railways or the post office), and dividends and profits from public assets. There has been a small “Investment Income” too received from sale of public assets like Maruti. Also, since loans are made directly, there has to be a category for their recovery.

“One must not take from the real needs of the people for the imaginary needs of the state”, said Montesquieu; while De Marco in the same vein said “the greatest satisfaction of collective needs” has to be sought by “the least possible waste of private wealth”. Even Mao Zedong reportedly said: “Thrift should be the guiding principle of our government expenditure”. The C&AG requires Government determine “how little money it need take out of the pockets of the taxpayers in order to maintain its necessary activities at the proper standard of efficiency”.

Yet India’s top politicians and bureaucrats spend wildly ~ driven by the organised special interest groups on whom they depend, while ostentatiously consuming public time, space and resources themselves “quite uselessly in the pleasurable business of inflating the ego” (Veblen).

For Government to do what it need not or should not do contributes to its failure to do what it must. Thus we have armies of indolent soldiers, policemen and bureaucrats and piles of rotting supplies in government warehouses while there are queues outside hospitals, schools, courts etc.

Parliament and State Legislatures need to first ask of an annual budget whether it is efficient: “Is expenditure being allocated to enhance the public interest to the greatest extent possible, and if not, how may it be made to do so?” National welfare overall should increase the same whichever public good or service the final million of public rupees has been spent on.

Fundamentally, government finance requires scientific honesty, especially by way of clear rigorous accounting and audit of uses and origins of public resources. That scientific honesty is what we have not had at Union or State level for more than half a century.

America’s divided economists


America’s divided economists

by

Subroto Roy

First published in

Business Standard 26 October 2008

Future doctoral theses about the Great Tremor of 2008 will ask how it was that the Fed chief, who was an academic economist, came to back so wholeheartedly the proposals of the investment banker heading the US Treasury. If Herbert Hoover and FDR in the 1930s started something called fiscal policy for the first time, George W Bush’s lameduck year has marked the total subjugation of monetary policy.

In his 1945 classic, History of Banking Theory, the University of Chicago’s Lloyd Mints said: “No reorganisation of the Federal Reserve System, while preserving its independence from the Treasury, can offer a satisfactory agency for the implementation of monetary policy. The Reserve banks and their branches should be made agencies of the Treasury and all monetary powers delegated by Congress should be given to the Secretary of the Treasury…. It is not at all certain that Treasury control of the stock of money would always be reasonable… but Treasury influence cannot be excluded by the creation of a speciously independent monetary agency that cannot have adequate powers for the performance of its task…” Years later, Milton Friedman himself took a similar position suggesting legislation “to end the independence of the Fed by converting it into a bureau of the Treasury Department…”(see, for example, Essence of Friedman, p 416).

Ben Bernanke’s Fed has now ended any pretence of monetary policy’s independence from the whims and exigencies of executive power. Yet Dr Bernanke’s fellow academic economists have been unanimous in advising caution, patience and more information and reflection upon the facts. The famous letter of 122 economists to the US Congress was a rare statement of sense and practical wisdom. It agreed the situation was difficult and needed bold action. But it said the Paulson-Bernanke plan was an unfair “subsidy to investors at taxpayers’ expense. Investors who took risks to earn profits must also bear the losses. Not every business failure carries systemic risk. The government can ensure a well-functioning financial industry, able to make new loans to creditworthy borrowers, without bailing out particular investors and institutions whose choices proved unwise.”

Besides, the plan was unclear and too far-reaching. “Neither the mission of the new agency nor its oversight are clear. If taxpayers are to buy illiquid and opaque assets from troubled sellers, the terms, occasions, and methods of such purchases must be crystal clear ahead of time and carefully monitored afterwards…. If the plan is enacted, its effects will be with us for a generation. For all their recent troubles, America’s dynamic and innovative private capital markets have brought the nation unparalleled prosperity. Fundamentally weakening those markets in order to calm short-run disruptions is desperately short-sighted.”

The House’s initial bipartisan “backbench revolt” against “The Emergency Economic Stabilisation Act of 2008” (ESSA) followed this academic argument and rejected the Bernanke Fed’s advice. Is there an “emergency”, and if so what is its precise nature? Is this “economic stabilisation”, and if so, how is it going to work? The onus has been on Dr Bernanke and his staff to argue both, not merely to assert them. Even if the House “held its nose” and passed the measure for now, the American electorate is angry and it is anybody’s guess how a new President and Congress will alter all this in a few months.

Several academic economists have argued for specific price-stabilisation of the housing market being the keystone of any large, expensive and risky government intervention. (John McCain has also placed this in the political discussion now.) Roughly speaking, the housing supply-curve has shifted so far to the right that collapsed housing prices need to be dragged back upward by force. Columbia Business School economists Glenn Hubbard and Chris Mayer, both former Bush Administration officials, have proposed allowing “all residential mortgages on primary residences to be refinanced into 30-year fixed-rate mortgages at 5.25 per cent…. close to where mortgage rates would be today with normally functioning mortgage markets….Lower interest rates will mean higher overall house prices…” Yale’s Jonathan Koppell and William Goetzmann have argued very similarly the Treasury “could offer to refinance all mortgages issued in the past five years with a fixed-rate, 30-year mortgage at 6 per cent. No credit scores, no questions asked; just pay off the principal of the existing mortgage with a government check. If monthly payments are still too high, homeowners could reduce their indebtedness in exchange for a share of the future price appreciation of the house. That is, the government would take an ownership interest in the house just as it would take an ownership interest in the financial institutions that would be bailed out under the Treasury’s plan.”

Beyond the short run, the US may play the demographic card by inviting in a few million new immigrants (if nativist feelings hostile to the outsider or newcomer can be controlled, especially in employment). Bad mortgages and foreclosures would vanish as people from around the world who long to live in America buy up all those empty houses and apartments, even in the most desolate or dismal locations. If the US’s housing supply curve has moved so far to the right that the equilibrium price has gone to near zero, the surest way to raise the equilibrium price would be by causing a new wave of immigration leading to a new demand curve arising at a higher level.

Such proposals seek to address the problem at its source. They might have been expected from the Fed’s economists. Instead, ESSA speaks of massive government purchase and control of bad assets “downriver”, without any attempt to face the problem at its source. This makes it merely wishful to think such assets can be sold for a profit at a later date so taxpayers will eventually gain. It is as likely as not the bad assets remain bad assets.

Indeed the University of Chicago’s Casey Mulligan has argued there is a financial crisis involving the banking sector but not an economic one: “We’re not entering a second Great Depression.” The marginal product of capital remains high and increasing “far above the historical average. The third-quarter earnings reports from some companies already suggest that America’s non-financial companies are still making plenty of money…. So, if you are not employed by the financial industry (94 per cent of you are not), don’t worry. The current unemployment rate of 6.1 per cent is not alarming, and we should reconsider whether it is worth it to spend $700 billion to bring it down to 5.9 per cent.”

Dr Bernanke has been a close student of A Monetary History of the United States in which Milton Friedman and Anna J Schwartz argued that the Fed inadvertently worsened the Great Contraction of 1929-1933 by not responding to Congress. Let not future historians find that the Fed, at the behest of the Treasury Secretary, worsened the Great Tremor of 2008 by bamboozling Congress into hasty action.

Monetary Integrity and the Rupee

 

Monetary Integrity and the Rupee: Three British Raj relics have dominated our macroeconomic policy-making

First published in Business Standard 28 September 2008

 

Taxation via inflation “does not require detailed legislation, and can be administered very simply. All that it requires is to spend newly created notes. The resulting inflation automatically imposes a tax on cash balances by depreciating the value of money”. Philip Cagan said this in a pioneering 1956 study of hyperinflations worldwide. Britain’s Hugh Dalton observed how government deficits could be met by “use of the printing press to manufacture legal tender paper money” to pay government creditors either directly “with new paper money specially printed for the purpose” or indirectly “out of loans to itself from the Central Bank”. Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz pointed to America’s wartime resort to inflation.

 

Government debt held by a central bank quickly filters through to appear as an asset in balance-sheets of commercial banks, causing expansion of bank-lending and hence of bank-deposits and broad money. After the attack on Pearl Harbour, the US Treasury could get from the Federal Reserve or commercial banks “any funds that it needed beyond those secured by taxation and by borrowing from non-bank sources”. America’s wartime banking system became “a mechanism for providing funds to finance government expenditure” — deposits grew because “bank buying of government securities increases bank deposits”.

 

In RF Harrod’s words: “There is a well-known aphorism that ‘bank loans create deposits’…. if the central bank has an increase of assets, whether through a gold inflow or its own increase of ‘lending’ (including the purchase of bills or bonds), some commercial bank will have an increase of assets of equal amount, in the form of claims on the central bank (deposits at it or notes issued by it) and an increase of deposit liabilities of equal amount to its customers”.

 

India has followed in peacetime over six decades what the USA and Britain followed during war. Our vast growth of bank-deposits in recent decades has been mostly a paper (or nominal) phenomenon caused by unlimited deficit-finance in a fractional reserve banking system. Policy-makers have widely misinterpreted it as indicating a real phenomenon of incredibly high savings behaviour. In an inflationary environment, people save their wealth less as paper deposits than as real assets like land, cattle, buildings, machinery, food-stocks, jewellery etc.

 

Almost 50% of annual public revenues in real terms may have been arising from inflationary finance in recent decades. To take a specific example, during Dr Manmohan Singh’s tenure as Finance Minister, Union Government expenditure net of operational income was some Rs. 1.3 trillion (Rs 1.3 lakh crore) in 1994-1995. Some Rs. 675 billion (1 bn= 100 crore) was raised from all taxation that year, Rs 183 billion from direct taxes. The remaining Rs. 620.8 billion was borrowed on behalf of future generations of citizens using the Government of India’s credit. What is termed “Gross Fiscal Deficit” is this additional or marginal annual borrowing — it adds itself to the ongoing stock of public debt every year and has been continually monetised insofar as our mostly nationalized banking system annually comes to hold government securities to that additional amount.

 

India’s inflation-history shows a first phase from the 1870s until the Second World War when money prices fluctuated in response to real shocks, positive and negative, domestic and international. E.g., the US Civil War and First World War caused demand surges for Indian manufactures like cotton textiles and steel railway-tracks, while the Great Depression saw Indian prices crashing with world prices.

 

During the Second World War, money prices in India rose at their fastest rate ever, caused by deliberate British policy to pay for war expenditure by printing money. The British resort to inflationary wartime finance saw the highest money supply growth rates in India ever to occur to date. This pattern came to be adopted and institutionalised by independent India’s socialist authorities, so there has been a third phase of steady inflationary finance from the 1950s until today, along with negative shocks like military and civil conflicts, droughts and oil price-rises, as well as happier developments like technological progress leading to growth of real income (see graph).

 

Two more relics from the wartime British Raj continue to dominate Indian macroeconomic policy to this day. One is unlimited spending on vast standing armies — our supposed adversary itself being a political remnant of the Raj with similar macroeconomic problems to ourselves. India’s army has some 19 divisions facing Pakistan, Pakistan’s army has 19 divisions facing India!

 

The other relic has been the Indian rupee becoming inconvertible as a world money ever since import quotas were imposed across the Sterling Area in 1940-1942.  Lack of convertibility has made all government finance in India unlike that in modern Western economies. US government bonds are held freely in foreign portfolios so a Swiss household or Japanese bank may trade these as they please. Bond prices vary inversely with interest-rates, and yield curves would be attempted to be defined reflecting the maturity-structure and state of expectations. Competitive arbitrage in international capital markets may succeed in ensuring government debt is priced accurately.

 

A central bank with a convertible currency sells debt to raise monetary interest rates and attract capital flows, buys up its debt to lower rates and cause capital outflows. Money growth unwarranted by real growth depreciates the currency under floating exchange rates; a partial export of inflation occurs under fixed-rates. Debt instruments are liquid near-moneys, and it is because US Government debt has been liquid that debt instruments of its sub-sovereign divisions like States or municipalities are almost as liquid. If sovereign debt is not liquid, nor will be sub-sovereign debt.

 

In India, bank assets may be liquid domestically but are illiquid internationally. Government debt is not held by domestic households as voluntary savings nor has it been a liquid asset held worldwide in foreign portfolios. The same holds *a fortiori* for debt issued by more than two dozen State Governments. “Mutual funds” created in recent years do contain government debt on modern principles of portfolio-selection but amounts involved are small. The Rupee achieving monetary integrity after more than six decades of governmental misuse would be indicated only when any ordinary Indian resident can freely hold or trade India’s money for foreign moneys or precious metals as he/she pleases. India’s economy and money can begin to move towards coherence and integrity only when we put to rest the three relics from the wartime British Raj which we unthinkingly have allowed to dominate our macroeconomic policy-making ever since.

 

The Excel graphs built on my data were made into a nice picture by Business Standard but seem to have been removed from their website, and hence are reproduced here now for the first time today, Oct 2, 2011:

 

See also, more recently,

India’s Money, 2012,

Critical assessments of India’s economic policy, plus my 3 Dec 2012 Delhi talk on India’s money, Interview on Lok Sabha TV 2012, GDI Impuls Zürich Interview, Sunday Guardian Interview & Asian Age/Deccan Herald coverage

https://independentindian.com/2013/11/23/coverage-of-my-delhi-talk-on-3-dec-2012/

 

October 1929? Not!

October 1929? Not!

by Subroto Roy

First published in

Business Standard, Editorial Page,

18 September 2008

Lehman Brothers filing for bankruptcy protection, Merrill Lynch taken over by Bank of America, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and now AIG being nationalised by the US Government, Bear Stearns getting a government bailout, many thousands of low-quality loans going bad … Does it all add up to an American financial crisis in the autumn of 2008 comparable to that in the autumn of 1929? Even Alan Greenspan himself has gone on record on TV saying it might.

 

But there are overriding differences. Most important, the American economy and the world economy are both incomparably larger today in the value of their capital stock, and there has also been enormous technological progress over eight decades. Accordingly, it would take a much vaster event than the present turbulence — say, something like an exchange of multiple nuclear warheads with Russia causing Manhattan and the City of London to be destroyed — before there was a return to something comparable to the 1929 Crash and the Great Depression that followed.

 

Besides, the roots of the crises are different. What happened back then? In 1922, the Genoa Currency Conference wanted to correct the main defect of the pre-1914 gold standard, which was freezing the price of gold while failing to stabilise the purchasing power of money. From 1922 until about 1927, Benjamin Strong of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York adopted price-stabilisation as the new American policy-objective. Britain was off the gold standard and the USA remained on it. The USA, as a major creditor nation, saw massive gold inflows which, by traditional gold standard principles, would have caused a massive inflation. Governor Strong invented the process of “sterilisation” of those gold inflows instead and thwarted the rise in domestic dollar prices of goods and services.

 

Strong’s death in 1928 threw the Federal Reserve System into conflict and intellectual confusion. Dollar stabilisation ended as a policy. Surplus bank money was created on the release of gold that had been previously sterilised.

 

The traditional balance between bulls and bears in the stock-market was upset. Normally, every seller of stock is a bear and every buyer a bull. Now, amateur investors appeared as bulls attracted by the sudden stock price rises, while bears, who sold securities, failed to place their money into deposit and were instead lured into lending it as call money to brokerages who then fuelled these speculative bulls. As of October 22, 1929 about $4 billion was the extent of such speculative lending when Chase National Bank’s customers called in their money.

 

Chase National had to follow their instructions, as did other New York banks. New York’s Stock Exchange could hardly respond to a demand for $4 billion at a short notice and collapsed. Within a year, production had fallen by 26 per cent, prices by 14 per cent, personal income by 14 per cent, and the Greatest Depression of recorded history was in progress — involuntary unemployment levels in America reaching 25 per cent.

 

That is not, by any reading, what we have today. Yes, there has been plenty of bad lending, plenty of duping shareholders and workers and plenty of excessive managerial payoffs. It will all take a large toll, and affect markets across the world.

 

But it will be a toll relative to our plush comfortable modern standards, not those of 1929-1933. In fact, modern decision-makers have the obvious advantage that they can look back at history and know what is not to be done. The US and the world economy are resilient enough to ride over even the extra uncertainty arising from the ongoing presidential campaign, and then some.

Indian Inflation: Upside Down Economics from New Delhi’s Establishment

Indian Inflation:

Upside Down Economics From The New Delhi Establishment

by

Subroto Roy

First published in two parts in

The Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article,

April 15-16, 2008

Suppose there are only three real goods and services in the economy, and their prices per unit expressed in terms of money were Rs 3, Rs 2, Rs 6 respectively. If those money prices per unit doubled to Rs 6, Rs 4, Rs 12 respectively, we would say inflation of 100% occurred during the relevant time-period. If the prices had gone instead to Rs 4.50, Rs 3, Rs 9, we would say inflation was 50%, and so on. Notice the ratios between the three prices have remained the same in these examples; i.e., while the money prices of the items have changed, relative prices between them remained constant. In reality, there are many hundreds of millions of differentiated real goods and services in any economy though the logic stays the same.

Decline of money
It is well within living memory that the monthly salary of a Government of India Joint Secretary was Rs 3,000. Middle class parents would wed their daughters respectably to a groom earning such a figure. A Joint Secretary today makes 20 times as much and Rs 3,000 is made by his driver or children’s nanny whose equivalent back then made perhaps Rs 150 per month. The relative distance between the Joint Secretary and his driver has not decreased but the absolute amount of rupees made by each has been multiplied by a factor of 20. That indicates the fall in the value of rupees or rise in prices of goods and services relative to rupees during that period.

One reason this has happened is that the monopoly issuer of rupees, namely the Government of India, has vastly enlarged the stock of rupees present in the economy, both paper-notes and bank-deposits.  Inflation, strictly speaking, is uniform decline in the value of money or, what is the same thing, uniform increase in all rupee prices, including wages, with relative prices constant. The time-period could be a year or even a month; “hyperinflation” may start to be defined if the value of money falls at more than 10% per month.

The main problem with inflation is that rupee prices never expand uniformly and hence some classes of people gain unexpectedly while others suffer catastrophe. E.g., all those with debts expressed in rupee terms pay back less in real terms while their creditors go bankrupt. Those with fixed or slow-changing incomes (like old people, unorganised non-unionised workers etc) and those with paper assets (like currency rather than land or jewelry) are all made worse off by inflation. Unionized workers, like Government employees, do very well from inflation relative to others in society as their compensation is inflation-indexed. And the Government of India itself, as the largest debtor in the economy, gains massively from inflation; indeed, printing more paper is a standard way for all governments around the world to reduce their real debts by subterfuge.

The farmers at Singur or the SEZs who hand over their land for paper rupees from the Government will find the value of that paper declining and the value of that land rising over future years ~ which may help explain the recent keenness of city-people to take over rural India.

Rupee prices are one key variable that tend to expand via inflation with expansion of money stock. The other main change occurs in real income through growth. The Joint Secretary and his driver both use colour TVs for entertainment and gas-stoves for cooking these days; their earlier counterparts would have used transistor radios and coal-fired ovens.

To that extent, we have superior standards of living than we did in the past. There has been enormous technological progress, mostly through spontaneous learning and productivity increase, and that leads to vastly greater commerce and transactions between people, hence greater income and wealth through specialization. The vastly increased volume and value of commerce requires more money to expedite its turnover.

India’s money stock in recent decades has been growing at no less than 15% per annum, most recently reaching an all-time high of 22% per annum last year. Even if current Government estimates of growth of real income at some 9% are taken at face-value, that may mean growth in all rupee prices, i.e. inflation, near 22-9=13% per annum. TV economists parrot Government WPI inflation at 5% per annum, and now newspaper headlines are screaming WPI inflation is at 7.4% ~ more realistically, the decline in the value of India’s paper money has likely been in double-digits for years.

Paper money is a peculiar thing as it has no intrinsic value ~ even a hair pin or shirt-button has more usefulness as such. Paper money derives whatever value it has only because each of us in the economy believes everyone else will accept it in transactions in payment of wages or to purchase food and other items with.

Gold standard

The currency note in your pocket may carry the signature of the RBI Governor and his “promise to pay the bearer” the face-value ~ as if he is going to pay you its equivalent in gold held by the Government. But this is open humbug, a childish fiction. In 1931 the British pound, and the Indian rupee which linked to it at the time, went off the “gold standard” and there has been no backing of the Indian currency with gold ever since then.

In a pure gold standard, gold is money ~ interchangeable in the sense the central bank guarantees it will exchange gold for the paper it issues at an announced price. If that price changes up or down, there is devaluation or revaluation of the currency with respect to gold (depending on how you count it).

A gold exchange standard is similar except gold is not used as money and central banks of nations guarantee the announced prices of their paper moneys with respect to gold in transactions with one another. In the dollar exchange standard (or Bretton Woods system from 1944 to 1971), the US Government alone and uniquely undertook to guarantee the price of the dollar at $35 a troy oz of gold in transactions with all other central banks. That was the underpinning of the international financial system until Richard Nixon “closed the gold window” on 15 August 1971 because the US had largely financed the Vietnam War through money-creation, and other countries’ central banks (like France) had accumulated large dollar-balances.

The “gold standard”, “gold exchange standard”, and “dollar exchange standard” are all examples of “fixed” exchange rate systems which came to end in 1971-1972. The price of gold at $35 an oz was obviously unrealistically low, and it shot up at once, and has even reached $1000 an oz recently. Since 1972, the Western world has been on “floating exchange rates” where currencies find their own values and gold is merely one asset among many. Fixed exchange rate systems can lead to speculation, runs against currencies and the irresponsible international export of inflation which floating exchange rate systems tend to avoid because there will tend to be market-determined movement in the exchange-rate instead.

Elite capital flight

India today has neither a proper fixed nor a proper floating exchange-rate system but instead continues a system of highly discriminatory exchange controls. Twenty or thirty million people in our major cities know how to use the present system well enough to exchange their Indian rupees for as much as US $200,000 per annum to send their children and relatives settled abroad as foreign nationals. Plus Indian corporations have been allowed to convert rupees to buy sinking foreign companies. Foreign-currency reserves have vastly climbed too as domestic Indian companies have been allowed to incur foreign-currency denominated debt. Hence the thirty million special people are rather cleverly able to borrow foreign currency with one hand and then transmit it abroad with the other.

The net result is a clear policy of government-induced elite capital flight, unprecedented in its irresponsibility anywhere in world economic history ~ signed, sealed and delivered by the Montek-Manmohan-Chidambaram trio now just as Yashwant-Jaswant-KC Pant and friends had done a little earlier. The Communists would only be worse, as their JNU economists renounce all standard textbook microeconomics and macroeconomics in favour of street-shouting instead.

Outside the thirty million Indians with NRI connections, the average Indian today is disallowed from holding foreign exchange accounts at his/ her local bank or holding or trading in gold or other precious metals freely as he/she may please ~ the physical arrest of Mohun Bagan’s hapless Brazilian footballer by our inimitable Customs officers the other day reveals the ugliness of the situation most poignantly.

Every TV economist in Delhi, Bombay and Kolkata now seems to have a solution about India’s inflation and all sorts of fallacious reasoning is in the air. Some recommend the rupee appreciating or depreciating ~ as if anyone in the country has the faintest idea how elastic imports, exports and capital flows may be in fact to changes in the (controlled) exchange-rate. The Finance Minister and PM keep saying inflation is being “imported” because international commodity prices are high ~ someone should explain to them inflation is “imported” when fixed exchange rates allow transmission through the price-specie flow mechanism, and that is far from being India’s main problem. The extra-constitutional “Planning Commission” has, we may be thankful, remained silent about inflation, and seems to have abandoned earlier misconceptions about using forex reserves for “infrastructure”. The UPA Chair, we may be thankful, also has been silent and admits innocence of all economics, implicitly trusting her PM’s wisdom in all such matters instead.

What no one wants to talk about is the hippopotamus that is present in the room, namely, the chronically diseased state of accounts and public finances of the issuer of India’s paper-rupees, the Union Government, as well as the diseased accounts and finances of more than two dozen State Governments that are subservient to it. The macroeconomic and fiscal policy process that the Congress, BJP, Communists and everyone else in the political class in New Delhi and the State capitals have been presiding over for decades is one that turns normal economics upside down.

What happens in the West is that an estimate of technological progress and population growth is made by policy-makers, then an “acceptable” or “unavoidable” or “natural” rate of inflation is added (the figure of monetary change needed for efficiency in the real economy so relative prices adjust to equilibrium in response to demand and supply changes), then a monetary growth target is set, to which the fiscal authority ~ i.e. the legislature handling the Government’s budget ~ must adjust taxation and spending plans accordingly.

What has been happening in India every year for decades is that each of some two dozen state legislatures runs up a large deficit, which are all added up and passed on to the “Centre”; the “Centre” and its “Yojana Bhavan”, at the behest of every conceivable organised interest-group with access in Delhi especially government unions and the military, runs up its own vastly larger fiscal deficit, and then this grand total of fiscal-deficits is offered to the Reserve Bank at the end of a loaded pistol ~ to pay for one way or another via new public debt creation and money printing.  Subtract the WPI rate from the Money Supply Growth rate and government spokesmen and their businessmen friends then exclaim that the economy must try to reach the difference as its “warranted” growth rate! It is all economics upside down from people who have either learnt nothing significant in the subject or forgotten whatever little they once did.

Fragile financial state

The net result has been a banking system (mostly nationalized) in which the asset side of banks’ balance-sheets is made up almost entirely of rather dubious government debt, interest payments on which are received every year from fresh money-printing. The liability side of those balance-sheets consists of course of customer-deposits. In this fragile monetary and financial state, a government-induced capital flight has been allowed to continue under pretence of liberalization ~ with Indian companies being allowed to borrow from foreign markets many times their domestic rupee-denominated net worth by which to acquire ailing foreign companies and brands. Furthermore, there has been a massive fiscal effect as vast new Government spending programs ~ like buying foreign aircraft carriers, fighter-jets or passenger aircraft or writing off farm loans ~ come to be announced and absorbed into expectations of future inflation. A monetary meltdown is what the present author cautioned against in 1990-1995 and again, publicly, in 2000-2005. Economics, candidly treated, tells us not only that there is no such thing as a free lunch but also that chickens come home to roost.

Articles of related interest include “Against Quackery”, “India’s Macroeconomics”, “Fiscal Instability”, “Indian Money and Credit”, “Indian Money and Banking”, “The Dream Team: A Critique” etc. See https://independentindian.com/2013/11/23/coverage-of-my-delhi-talk-on-3-dec-2012/


Maharashtra’s Money

Maharashtra Govt Finance 2004 Table

 

Maharashtra’s Money: Those Who Are Part Of The Problem Are Unlikely To Be A Part Of Its Solution

first published in The Statesman April 24 2007, Editorial Page

by Subroto Roy

Mr Percy Mistry, according to the World Bank’s official chronology, worked there with Moeen Qureshi, and S Javed Burki. Mr Qureshi was doyen of Pakistani bureaucrats in Washington and something of a king-maker back home, briefly becoming Pakistan’s PM himself; Mr Burki briefly became Pakistan’s Finance Minister and is an author in the book Foundations of Pakistan’s Political Economy created by WE James and myself in the 1980s in the USA. Although Mr Mistry claims no special expertise about India’s monetary economy or public finances, he was appointed by Finance Minister P. Chidambaram to head an official committee that has given an opinion on a crucial monetary issue facing the country today, namely, the rupee’s convertibility. Mr Mistry apparently authored the report but resigned before its release, making it unclear who is responsible for its contents.

 

Mr Mistry has glossed over India’s present fiscal circumstances, said nothing of the limitless waste, fraud and abuse of the public purse the Sonia-Manmohan Government have been indulging in (like their Vajpayee-Advani predecessor) yet declared the rupee should be freed in 2008 ~ telling Business Standard a convertible rupee will allow people like “Ratan” and “Kumar” to raise capital in India for their foreign purchases, and not have to go to London as they must do now, poor things. All this in a report purporting to be a plan to make Mumbai an “international financial centre”, which is a different subject altogether.

Mr Mistry thus becomes a certifiable member of the “Dream Team” of Dr Singh, Mr Chidambaram, Mr Montek Ahluwalia, Mr Deepak Parekh and their big business/big labour/big media friends across political parties. Dreaming involves constructs in which normal logic and facts have no place. In the waking world, India is a labour-rich, capital-scarce country where wages are lower and interest-rates are higher respectively than in labour-scarce, capital-rich Western countries; hence India will be importing not exporting capital. In the real world too, Mumbai is not an off-shore island-resort outside India (like the so-called SEZs are going to be from a legal standpoint) but happens to be located in Maharashtra, whose public finances urgently require hard investigation and sober thought.

 

Now there used to be a “Bombay State” coinciding with the old Bombay Presidency plus “princely states” plus Marathi-majority districts of MP and Hyderabad and excluding Kannada-majority districts to Mysore. On May 1 1960, after much agitation, this became the new States of Gujarat and Maharashtra. There was talk of making Bombay city a Union Territory but the Marathis would have none of it. In fact, within a few weeks, Maharashtra reverted to calling itself “Bombay State” and it was not until the end of the year the Government of India officially declared it must be called Maharashtra.

 

The same quest for, or confusion about, cultural and political identity continues in recent times and may be at the root of the Shiv Sena’s erratic political behaviour which rocks Maharashtra politics so frequently. “Bombay” may be “Mumba Bai” or “Mumba Devi” but it had not been a Marathi town any more than Calcutta had been a Bengali town. Bombay’s traders and businessmen descended there while it developed after the decline of Surat, where the British initially came to trade in the 17th Century. Modern Bombay retains some of its “all-India” character and even today you cannot make money in its markets unless you speak Gujarati. Marathi-speakers have tended to wish Maharashtra was “Maratha-rashtra” reminiscent of the great Shivaji Bhonsla (1627-1680) but others have read the name only as “Great State”.

 

This continuing identity crisis had its most devastating costly impact through the Dabhol-Enron fiasco. As recently as March 4 2007, Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh said frankly “We could not generate a single megawatt of electricity in the last 10 years due to the Enron issue”, adding demand for electric power had been growing in the State at 10% per annum.

 

Indeed, before the 2005-2006 nuclear or any other deal could be contemplated with the Americans, the US-India Business Council, the American business lobbyist (and recent guest and soon-to-be host of the CPI-M’s Buddhadeb Bhattacharya), insisted India pay up fully for the Dabhol-Enron fiasco. Maharashtra and its sovereign guarantor the Government of India, duly paid out at least $140-$160 million ($14-$16 crore) to each General Electric and Bechtel Corporation in “an amicable settlement”. It was only then that Dr Manmohan Singh could be hosted in the White House and in turn play host to President George W. Bush.

 

Without entering the intricacies of the fiasco, it may be still asked who was responsible. And in retrospect the finger must point both at the Mahajan-Munde BJP/ Thakeray-Joshi Shiv Sena, and at the Sharad Pawar Government and Manmohan-Montek Union Finance Ministry at the time. The BJP-Shiv Sena declared an intent to “throw Enron into the Arabian Sea” and thus vitiated the atmosphere with the Americans. Americans are shrewd and practical people in commercial matters and accounted for such contingencies in their deal-making, tidily earning their money anyway, winning the arbitration awards in due course. Maharashtra’s identity confusion was exemplified by Rebecca Mark having to visit Bal Thakeray before a policy flip-flop could be permitted.

 

If the basic technical cause Enron’s electricity became too expensive was that it was denominated in dollar prices and the rupee depreciated rapidly during and after the deal-making, then the financial responsibility for the fiasco must be ultimately traced to India’s Finance Minister in the early 1990s, namely Dr Singh, and his chief acolyte and Finance Secretary Mr Ahluwalia. Maharasthtra is not a sovereign country, and it was the Union Finance Ministry’s responsibility to oversee the necessary cost-benefit and project appraisal analyses, and these if properly done would have accounted for exchange-rate depreciation scenarios. It is no wonder the World Bank later refused to finance the project because they had done their studies better. The same kind of cavalier unprofessional attitude in spending scarce foreign moneys earned by India’s public has been displayed now more than a decade later by the Manmohan-Montek duo, though on a vastly larger scale, in regard to the planned purchase of nuclear reactors from Russia, the USA etc on a turnkey basis.

 

Maharashtra may be a Great State but its public finances are in as great a shambles as any other. The table for 2003-2004 (before the Enron payments were made) reveals the very high continuing public indebtedness, and the same pattern as the budgets of West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh described in these columns earlier. A closer look would reveal, e.g., that Rs 814.36 crore (Rs. 8.14 billion) were spent in collecting Rs1,205.97 crore. (Rs. 12.05 billion) of “Vehicle Tax”! There is much that Mumbai’s and Maharashtra’s and India’s citizens have to ponder over and act upon before serious thought can be put to restoring the integrity of India’s money. In that process, those who have been part of the problem are unlikely to be part of its solution.

 

Govt. of Maharashtra Finances 2003-04
EXPENDITURE ACTIVITIES: RsBn (Hundred Crore)
governance & local governance 18.19 2.58%
judiciary 2.96 0.42%
police (including vigilance etc) 19.81 2.81%
prisons 0.86 0.12%
bureaucracy 27.97 3.97%
collecting land revenue & taxes 42.25 6.00%
government employee pensions 26.36 3.74%
schools, colleges, universities, institutes 93.74 13.31%
health, nutrition & family welfare 23.42 3.33%
water supply & sanitation 10.22 1.45%
roads, bridges, transport etc. 12.96 1.84%
electricity 16.96 2.41%
irrigation, flood control, environ, ecology 70.79 10.05%
agricultural subsidies, rural development 41.30 5.86%
industrial subsidies 2.60 0.37%
capital city development 6.25 0.89%
social security, SC, ST, OBC, lab.welfare 25.40 3.61%
tourism 0.89 0.13%
arts, archaeology, libraries, museums 0.75 0.11%
miscellaneous -0.47 -0.07%
debt amortization & debt servicing 261.03 37.07%
total expenditure 704.22

INCOME SOURCES:
tax revenue 285.52
operational income 35.49
grants from Union 22.70
loans recovered 4.82
total income 348.53

GOVT. BORROWING REQUIREMENT (total expenditure minus total income) 355.70

financed by:
new public debt issued 317.02
use of Trust Funds etc 38.68
355.70
from author’s research and using C&AG data

Swindling India

SWINDLING INDIA

by

Subroto Roy

First published in slightly abbreviated form as “A scam in the making” in The Sunday Statesman April 1 2007, Front page comment

A gigantic financial scheme is in the making. Will it come to be seen in future years as having been in fact a scam – indeed India’s scam of the 21st Century for which India’s unknowing masses will be made to pay for many generations? The scheme is mind-boggling in size as well as its sheer audacity. Bofors, Quattrochi etc amount to peanuts in comparison.

No less a personage than the Finance Minister of India, P Chidambaram, has openly praised the potential of this financial scheme. And he has done so in no less an open and transparent place than his latest Budget Speech to Parliament last February.

It is a scheme openly advocated and currently being developed by our Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s closest acolytes, Planning Commission head Mr Montek Singh Ahluwalia and HDFC head Mr Deepak Parekh, in collaboration with Reserve Bank Governor Dr YV Reddy and the Finance Ministry’s top bureaucrats. The PM himself has come close to endorsing it explicitly. And this PM is not an elected member of the Lok Sabha but holds office and acts as the executive agent of the UPA Chairperson and Lok Sabha Member from Rae Bareilly, Sonia Gandhi.

I hasten to add nobody in the BJP has objected to this financial scheme — in fact had the BJP been in power today instead of Congress, they would have been likely even more agreeable to the scheme given their close proximity to business lobbies and organized capital. As for the Communists, none of their JNU economics professors is technically competent enough to comprehend or recognize what is going on.

The scheme involves private companies “borrowing” India’s foreign exchange reserves from the Reserve Bank of India, allegedly for purpose of “infrastructure” creation — in collaboration with the American bank Citigroup, the American financial business, Blackstone Group, and possibly the American giant, GE Capital too. Mr Chidambaram took the unprecedented step of naming Mr Deepak Parekh as well as Citigroup and Blackstone in the text of his Budget Speech.

To begin to comprehend the nature of this scheme, we need to recall an earlier case.

Foreign exchange reserves of countries typically include foreign currency holdings as well as gold stocks. One of the biggest Wall Street scams of the 1980s-1990s involved private companies borrowing not countries’ foreign currency reserves but their gold reserves.

In that scam, it was not the Reserve Bank of India that was cheated but the Central Banks of Poland, Malaysia, Portugal and Yugoslavia. The New York financial company involved was a subsidiary of the Drexel Burnham Lambert Group. The Drexel parent went bankrupt on February 13 1990 and its subsidiary followed on May 9 1990.

A report on June 4 1990 by Leah J. Nathans (now Leah Nathans Spiro) in New York’s highly respected Business Week magazine said: “Central banks, those pillars of monetary virtue, lost $219 million ($21.9 crore) to an obscure commodities subsidiary called Drexel Burnham Lambert Trading Corporation”. The sum was small by American standards but it was “a big, big number” for the countries involved at the time.

What had these national central banks done? They had been lured into becoming greedy. They had been sitting on stocks of gold as part of their national reserves which they felt “just collect dust”. So they yielded to the temptation offered by the Drexel subsidiary of leasing the gold to private parties.

In Ms. Nathans’ words, “By leasing gold, a central bank earns a modest interest rate, ranging from less than 0.5% to 2.5%. Typically, the central bank consigns the gold to a dealer – say, for 90 days. The dealer can then lend the gold to a customer, at a higher interest rate. It may be a speculator, who hopes to repay the borrowed gold when the price falls, or a gold mine that wants to repay the broker with gold produced later.”

But the Drexel parent and subsidiary went bankrupt through bad financial decisions. Drexel’s Michael Milken went to jail. The Central Banks of Poland, Malaysia, Portugal and Yugoslavia were left empty-handed – and had to sue as creditors in New York’s courts trying desperately to get back the gold they had been lured into parting with. It would be unwise to take bets on how much of their gold they ever got back.

All the present PM’s men — Messrs Chidambaram, Ahluwalia, Parekh, Reddy et al in collaboration with one or two American financial companies – now have a scheme that will use not the RBI’s gold but its foreign currency reserves.

Mr Ahluwalia and Mr Parekh have made the outlandish claim that “India needs US$320 billion” (US 32,000 crore) by way of “investment for physical infrastructure” during the so-called “Eleventh Five-Year Plan”. (How many so-called “Five Year Plans” is India going to have incidentally? We had our “First Plan” when Manmohan Singh was a student at Punjab University. Stalin, who invented the “Five Year Plan”, died during that time, and even his old USSR has ceased to exist, let alone its “Five Year Plans”.)

That vast amount of “investment for physical infrastructure” is what Mr Ahluwalia says he knows India needs for his purported “9% growth rate” to be achieved. Where are the macroeconomic models and time-series data sets from him or his friends to back such assertions? There are none. None of the PM’s men, no one in the Finance Ministry or RBI or Planning Commission, nor any of their JNU economics professor friends or anyone else in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata etc have any such models or data with which to back such assertions. Nor do the World Bank etc. It is all sheer humbug – all a lie. It is part of the mendacity and self-delusion that our capital city has been floating upon.

In any event, the RBI reportedly has “opposed the idea of deploying forex reserves for infrastructure development on the grounds that it will create monetary expansion”. But Mr Chidambaram’s Finance Ministry owns the RBI, and the Ministry has said “the RBI’s concerns had been taken care of, as the investments would be deployed only through a structured mechanism”. (Business Standard 23 March 2007, p. 3)

What is a “structured mechanism”? Mr Chidambaram, mentioning Citigroup and Blackstone Group specifically, said in his Budget Speech that Mr Deepak Parekh has “suggested the establishment of two wholly-owned overseas subsidiaries of India Infrastructure Finance Company Ltd with the following objectives: (i) to borrow funds from the RBI and lend to Indian companies implementing infrastructure projects in India, or to co-finance their External Commercial Borrowings for such projects, solely for capital expenditure outside India; and (ii) to borrow funds from the RBI, invest such funds in highly rated collateral securities, and provide ‘credit wrap’ insurance to infrastructure projects in India for raising resources in international markets. The loans by RBI to these two subsidiary companies will be guaranteed by the Government of India and the RBI will be assured of a return higher than the average rate of return on its incremental investment.”

You do not understand? Well, no one is supposed to. The most exquisite thievery occurs after all not in darkness but in broad daylight with everyone watching but no one able to see or comprehend anything. So let us return to elementary first principles.

What are foreign exchange reserves and why do countries hold them? It is quite simply answered. Consider the USA and Canada, each with its own dollar. Canadians want to purchase American goods and services, give gifts and make loans to American residents, and make investments in the USA. Americans want to do the same in Canada. Each has to use the domestic money of the other when it does so. If an American wishes to lend money to a Canadian or to purchase something from him, he receives Canadian dollar notes from the Canadian Government to make his Canadian transactions, handing over his American dollar notes instead. The American dollar notes he hands over become part of Canada’s foreign exchange reserves, held by its Central Bank. Roughly speaking, a country’s foreign exchange reserves are the residual foreign currency assets its central bank holds after all these transactions are carried out on both sides of the border.

In the US-Canada case, neither Government prevents its citizens from exchanging domestic money for foreign money. In India, our rupee has been inconvertible since about 1940. The average Indian cannot freely exchange his/her rupee-denominated assets for foreign exchange denominated ones even if he/she wished to. There has been some import-liberalisation in recent years but only someone with the political access of Mr Tata or Mr Birla can purchase foreign assets and foreign companies using their Indian money – because the rupee is inconvertible, any bad financial decisions they make in using their foreign assets will be implicitly paid for by the Indian public.

Now a country’s central bank, such as our Reserve Bank, is the custodian of its foreign exchange reserves. India’s reserves are supposed to have reached $195.96 Billion ($19,596 Crore) as of March 16 2007. Keep in mind we do not know why they have risen: they can rise merely because foreigners (including NRIs) have lent us more of their money, not because foreigners have bought more of our goods and services. In fact Business Standard yesterday 31 March 2007 said on its front page “external commercial borrowing” was “a major source of accretion” of India’s reserves.

Also keep in mind that the Reserve Bank has the duty to manage these foreign-denominated assets against which it has already issued Indian rupees. It might receive a small conservative income from the cash-management aspect of this but it may not risk them or place them in any jeopardy!

Yet the whole idea behind the Chidambaram-Ahluwalia-Parekh-Reddy scheme under discussion by the Sonia-Manmohan Government is that the RBI will “lend” some of the billions of Americans dollars in its custody to overseas subsidiaries of Indian companies – say, for example, to the Tatas who have now bought foreign “capital assets” of some US$ 12 Billion ($1200 Crore) from Corus without having anything near that kind of foreign income.

Such favoured Indian companies might then use these “borrowed” funds as collateral for other borrowings. In exchange, they will go about undertaking purported “infrastructure” projects in India. So much for the “structured mechanisms” being touted by Messrs Chidambaram, Ahluwalia, Parekh et al.

Before India’s public understands it, the schemers will shout (as they have done with the SEZ Act) that Parliament has passed it. The BJP will applaud with envy. The Communists might uncomprehendingly complain a little, and then be bought off with a sop or two that they do understand, like a little pro-China rhetoric or being let off lightly on Nandigram.

Now international institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the Bank of International Settlements officially exist to advise central banks to stay along the straight and narrow and to avoid all such mischief. Here is what the IMF explicitly warned about such schemes in its Guidelines for Foreign Exchange Reserve Management dated September 20 2001:

Liquidity risk. The pledging of reserves as collateral with foreign financial institutions as support for loans to either domestic entities, or foreign subsidiaries of the reserve management entity, has rendered reserves illiquid until the loans have been repaid. Liquidity risks have also arisen from the direct lending of reserves to such institutions when shocks to the domestic economy led to the borrowers’ inability to repay their liabilities, and impairment of the liquidity of the reserve assets.
Credit risk. Losses have arisen from the investment of reserves in high-yielding assets that were made without due regard to the credit risk associated with the issuer of the asset. Lending of reserves to domestic banks, and overseas subsidiaries of reserve management entities, has also exposed reserve management entities to credit risk.”

Dostoevsky believed man could have evil intent. Socrates was more generous and said man does not do wrong knowingly. It is not impossible our Indian schemers have innocent intent and do not even realize how close they are to becoming scamsters, or are already in the grip of scamsters. But at least we are now forewarned: India faces a clear risk of being swindled of its foreign exchange reserves. Prevention is better than cure.

Fallacious Finance: Congress, BJP, CPI-M et al may be leading India to hyperinflation (2007)

Fallacious Finance: Congress, BJP, CPI-M et al may be leading India to hyperinflation

by

Subroto Roy

first published in The Statesman, March 5 2007

Editorial Page Special Article

It seems the Dream Team of the PM, Finance Minister, Mr. Montek Ahluwalia and their acolytes may take India on a magical mystery tour of economic hallucinations, fantasies and perhaps nightmares. I hasten to add the BJP and CPI-M have nothing better to say, and criticism of the Government or of Mr Chidambaram’s Budget does not at all imply any sympathy for their political adversaries. It may be best to outline a few of the main fallacies permeating the entire Governing Class in Delhi, and their media and businessman friends:

1. “India’s Savings Rate is near 32%”. This is factual nonsense. Savings is indeed normally measured by adding financial and non-financial savings. Financial savings include bank-deposits. But India is not a normal country in this. Nor is China. Both have seen massive exponential growth of bank-deposits in the last few decades. Does this mean Indians and Chinese are saving phenomenally high fractions of their incomes by assiduously putting money away into their shaky nationalized banks? Sadly, it does not. What has happened is government deficit-financing has grown explosively in both countries over decades. In a “fractional reserve” banking system (i.e. a system where your bank does not keep the money you deposited there but lends out almost all of it immediately), government expenditure causes bank-lending, and bank-lending causes bank-deposits to expand. Yes there has been massive expansion of bank-deposits in India but it is a nominal paper phenomenon and does not signify superhuman savings behaviour. Indians keep their assets mostly in metals, land, property, cattle, etc., and as cash, not as bank deposits.

2. “High economic growth in India is being caused by high savings and intelligently planned government investment”. This too is nonsense. Economic growth in India as elsewhere arises not because of what politicians and bureaucrats do in capital cities, but because of spontaneous technological progress, improved productivity and learning-by-doing on part of the general population. Technological progress is a very general notion, and applies to any and every production activity or commercial transaction that now can be accomplished more easily or using fewer inputs than before. New Delhi still believes in antiquated Soviet-era savings-investment models without technological progress, and some non-sycophant must tell our top Soviet-era bureaucrat that such growth models have been long superceded and need to be scrapped from India’s policy-making too. Can politicians and bureaucrats assist India’s progress? Indeed they can: the telecom revolution in recent years was something in which they participated. But the general presumption is against them. Progress, productivity gains and hence economic growth arise from enterprise and effort of ordinary people — mostly despite not because of an exploitative, parasitic State.

3. “Agriculture is a backward sector that has been retarding India’s recent economic growth”. This is not merely nonsense it is dangerous nonsense, because it has led to land-grabbing by India’s rulers at behest of their businessman friends in so-called “SEZ” schemes. The great farm economist Theodore W. Schultz once quoted Andre and Jean Mayer: “Few scientists think of agriculture as the chief, or the model science. Many, indeed, do not consider it a science at all. Yet it was the first science – Mother of all science; it remains the science which makes human life possible”. Centuries before Europe’s Industrial Revolution, there was an Agricultural Revolution led by monks and abbots who were the scientists of the day. Thanks partly to American help, India has witnessed a Green Revolution since the 1960s, and our agriculture has been generally a calm, mature, stable and productive industry. Our farmers are peaceful hardworking people who should be paying taxes and user-fees normally but should not be otherwise disturbed or needlessly provoked by outsiders. It is the businessmen wishing to attack our farm populations who need to look hard in the mirror – to improve their accounting, audit, corporate governance, to enforce anti-embezzlement and shareholder protection laws etc.

4. “India’s foreign exchange reserves may be used for ‘infrastructure’ financing”. Mr Ahluwalia promoted this idea and now the Budget Speech mentioned how Mr Deepak Parekh and American banks may be planning to get Indian businesses to “borrow” India’s forex reserves from the RBI so they can purchase foreign assets. It is a fallacy arising among those either innocent of all economics or who have quite forgotten the little they might have been mistaught in their youth. Forex reserves are a residual in a country’s balance of payments and are not akin to tax revenues, and thus are not available to be borrowed or spent by politicians, bureaucrats or their businessman friends — no matter how tricky and shady a way comes to be devised for doing so. If anything, the Government and RBI’s priority should have been to free the Rupee so any Indian could hold gold or forex at his/her local bank. India’s vast sterling balances after the Second World War vanished quickly within a few years, and the country plunged into decades of balance of payments crisis – that may now get repeated. The idea of “infrastructure” is in any case vague and inferior to the “public goods” Adam Smith knew to be vital. Serious economists recommend transparent cost-benefit analyses before spending any public resources on any project. E.g., analysis of airport/airline industry expansion would have found the vast bulk of domestic airline costs to be forex-denominated but revenues rupee-denominated – implying an obvious massive currency-risk to the industry and all its “infrastructure”. All the PM’s men tell us nothing of any of this.

5. “HIV-AIDS is a major Indian health problem”. Government doctors privately know the scare of an AIDS epidemic is based on false assumptions and analysis. Few if any of us have met, seen or heard of an actual incontrovertible AIDS victim in India (as opposed to someone infected by hepatitis-contaminated blood supplies). Syringe-exchange by intravenous drug users is not something widely prevalent in Indian society, while the practise that caused HIV to spread in California’s Bay Area in the 1980s is not something depicted even at Khajuraho. Numerous real diseases do afflict Indians – e.g. 11 children died from encephalitis in one UP hospital on a single day in July 2006, while thousands of children suffer from “cleft lip” deformity that can be solved surgically for 20,000 rupees, allowing the child a normal life. Without any objective survey being done of India’s real health needs, Mr Chidamabaram has promised more than Rs 9.6 Billion (Rs 960 crore) to the AIDS cottage industry.

6. “Fiscal consolidation & stabilization has been underway since 1991”. There is extremely little reason to believe this. If you or I borrow Rs. 100,000 for a year, and one year later repay the sum only to borrow the same again along with another Rs 40,000, we would be said to have today a debt of Rs. 140,000 at least. Our Government has been routinely “rolling over” its domestic debt in this manner (in the asset-portfolios of the nationalised banking system) but displaying and highlighting only its new additional borrowing in a year as the “ Fiscal Deficit” (see graph, also “Fiscal Instability”, The Sunday Statesman, 4 February 2007). More than two dozen State Governments have been doing the same though, unlike the Government of India, they have no money-creating powers and their liabilities ultimately accrue to the Union as well. The stock of public debt in India may be Rs 30 trillion (Rs 30 lakh crore) at least, and portends a hyperinflation in the future. Mr Chidambaram’s announcement of a “Debt Management Office” yet to be created is hardly going to suffice to avert macroeconomic turmoil and a possible monetary collapse. The Congress, BJP, CPI-M and all their friends shall be responsible.

Of related interest: Mistaken Macroeconomics,
“The Indian Revolution”, “Against Quackery”, “The Dream Team: A Critique”, “India’s Macroeconomics”, “Indian Inflation”

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India in World Trade & Payments

Our Trade & Payments

by

SUBROTO ROY

First published in The Sunday Statesman, Feb 11 2007, The Statesman, Feb 12 2007

Editorial Page Special Article

 

 

TWO and a half millennia ago, the Greeks described how brightly coloured textiles imported from India were popular among the Persians. Five centuries later, the Roman historian Pliny complained that India every year “took from Italy a hundred million sesterces in return for spices, perfumes and ornaments”. Montesquieu observed in 1748: “All peoples who have traded with India have always taken metals there and brought back commodities. Indians need only our metals, which are the signs of value. In all times those who deal with India will take silver there and bring back none”.

During the British period, India remained a great trading nation. JM Keynes found Britain, the world’s largest exporter in 1913, exporting more to India than anywhere else, and Germany, the world’s fastest growing economy in 1913, receiving 5 percent of its imports from India and sending it 1.5 percent of exports, making India the sixth largest exporter to Germany (after the USA, Russia, Britain, Austria-Hungary, France) and eighth largest importer from it (after Britain, Austria-Hungary, Russia, France, the USA, Belgium, Italy). India’s share of world exports during 1870-1914 may have been about 3-4 per cent. As of 1917-1918, India’s balance of payments and fiscal budget appear idyllic: an export surplus of £61.42 million, official reserves of £66.53 million, total claims on the rest of the world of £127.5 million (or 32.85 million troy ozs of gold), and a 1916-1917 budget surplus of £6,594,885.

Even at mid-20th Century, India was still a trading power with 2 percent of world exports and a rank of 16 in the world economy after the USA, Britain, West Germany, France, Canada, Belgium, Holland, Japan, Italy, Australia, Sweden, Venezuela, Brazil, Malaya and Switzerland.

Yet during the second half of the 20th Century, the Indian subcontinent collapsed to near insignificance in world trade and payments. The traditional export surplus implied a high “treasure” demand for precious metals on capital account; this was reversed and the new India became a chronic trade-deficit country dependant on foreign borrowings and grants. Of world merchandise exports, the subcontinent’s share today is 0.8 of 1 per cent, and of Asia’s 6 percent (India accounting for two thirds); by contrast, Malaysia alone accounts for 0.9 of 1 percent of world exports and 6.5 percent of Asia’s. Most poignantly, among 11 major developing countries (Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Israel, Yugoslavia), India’s share of manufactured exports to the world fell from 65 per cent in 1953 to 51 percent in 1960 to 31 per cent in 1966 to 10 per cent by 1973. Our legendary textiles lost ground steadily. As of 1962-1971, India held an average annual market-share of almost 20 percent of manufactured textile imports into the USA; this fell to 10 percent by 1972-1981 and less than 5 percent by 1982-1991. India’s share of Britain’s imports of textile manufactures fell from 16 per cent in the early 1960s to less than 4 per cent in the 1990s. India and Sri Lanka once dominated world tea exports but lost rapidly to Kenya, Indonesia and Malawi. Of total British tea imports, Sri Lanka’s market-share fell from 11 percent in 1980 to 7 per cent by 1991 while India’s fell from 33 percent in 1980 to 17 per cent by 1991. Today India may not be in the top thirty largest merchandise exporting countries of the world.

Several causes may be identified for our historical collapse in world trade and payments. These include Western protectionism e.g. of domestic textiles between 1965-2005, and emergence of new technologies like synthetic fibres, plastics, tea-bags etc as well as new competitors in the world marketplace willing to use these. Successful commerce depends on intangible quantities like trust, reliable information and contacts between individual contracting parties. Decline in our shares of world exports led to wastage of such informational capital and commercial trust. Foreign importers established new relations with India’s competitors, and for Indian entrepreneurs (now facing lessened foreign protectionism or newly liberalized domestic policies) to win new customers or win back old ones becomes doubly difficult.

But the most important cause of the decline was undoubtedly the political discord and trauma leading to economic disintegration of Old India into modern India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Partly as a result of their conflict, independent India and Pakistan deepened government requisitioning and rationing of foreign exchange purportedly as part of pseudo-socialist “planning”.

Trade policy followed the British pattern of import quotas imposed to conserve hard currency and save shipping space during war. Discretionary controls were in place by 1942 on grounds of “essentiality” and non-availability from indigenous sources. War needs over-rode others, and consumer goods banned ~ favouring their production by domestic business houses. In 1945 consumer goods were placed on open general license, as “the pattern of post-war trade should not be dictated by perpetuation of controls set up for purely war-time purposes”, and in 1946 there was further liberalization in view of India’s enormous sterling balances. But by March 1947 this ended, and import of gold and 200 “luxury” goods were banned. Only a few “essential” goods remained on the open list.

After the British left, political/bureaucratic control of imports and foreign exchange were extended, not removed. Intricate restrictions, subsidies, barriers and import-licensing (based on obsolete war-time “essentiality” and “actual user” criteria) continued, now in name of “import-substitution” and “planning”. Major industries were nationalized, and these became leading consumers of imports obtained by administrative rationing of the foreign exchange earned by export sectors. As consumer goods’ imports were most restricted, Indian businesses predictably diverted to produce these in the large highly protected domestic markets that resulted, causing monopolistic profits and financing of a vast parallel or “black” economy with its thriving hawala sector. Restriction of consumer goods’ and gold imports also caused smuggling and open corruption in Customs. The international price of the rupee was viewed not as reflecting demand for foreign relative to domestic moneys but as just another administered price to be used by politicians and bureaucrats. Foreign exchange earnings of exporters were confiscated in exchange for rupees at the administered rate. Foreign currency thus requisitioned was (and still mostly is) disbursed by rationing in the following order of precedence: first to meet Government debt repayments to international organizations, and Government expenditures abroad like maintenance of embassies and purchase of military imports, plus politicians’ and bureaucrats’ foreign travel etc; secondly, for import of food, fertilizers, petroleum; thirdly, for imported inputs required by Government firms; fourthly, for import demands of those private firms successful in obtaining import licenses; lastly, to satisfy demands of the public at large for purposes like travel or study abroad.

After devaluing with sterling in 1949, the rupee was maintained at the same value for 17 years despite weakening reserve positions and numerous shocks to the economy like the 1962 war with China, 1965 war with Pakistan, and droughts and food crises. Devaluation on June 6 1966 to Rs. 7.50 per US dollar met political opposition and contributed to Congress Party losses in the 1967 elections. The rupee did not respond to sterling’s devaluation in November 1967 and was not adjusted downwards though the economy continued to suffer shocks like the rise in petroleum prices, refugees from the Pakistan civil war, and domestic strikes and political instability. In August 1971, India pegged to the dollar and devalued with the dollar’s depreciation but in December again linked to sterling at Rs 18.97. When sterling depreciated after floating in June 1972, the rupee effectively devalued with it, and until July 1975 there were three small devaluations against sterling. In September 1975, India pegged (within margins) to an undisclosed basket of hard currencies including the dollar, yen and deutschmark, and between 1981-1985, the rupee was slowly managed downwards, without political resistance. From September 1985-July 1991, it followed a more rapid downward course depreciating 40 per cent, while the dollar depreciated as well against major currencies, suggesting the dollar weighed heavily in the basket to which the rupee was pegged.

1991 reforms

Narasimha Rao, P Chidambaram and others received from Rajiv Gandhi in his last months the results of a “perestroika-for-India” project, and started a process of economic liberalisation. Chidambaram said at the time the reforms “were not miraculous” but based on rewriting the Congress manifesto: “We were ready when we came back to power in 1991”.

On July 1 1991, the rupee devalued 9 percent and on July 3 a further 11 percent. The new Government’s March 1 1992 Budget placed the rupee experimentally on a dual rate, implicitly taxing exporters who had to surrender 40 percent of their forex at an officially determined rate and could sell 60 percent in an open market. On March 1 1993, the rupee began to be made convertible for current account transactions, i.e. for import and export of goods and services. Trade reforms included removing many import quotas and some export subsidies. But grave fiscal and monetary problems were not (and have never been) addressed with any seriousness.

Balance of payments

The “balance of payments” sums a country’s current and capital accounts. In Western countries, the capital account consists of net trading in long and short-term securities like private stock and government debt ~ domestic securities being bought and sold freely by foreign residents and foreign securities by domestic residents. Prices determined by competitive trading are very sensitive to interest-rate differences. In India (and Pakistan etc) genuine capital account transactions have not existed since the 1930s, and do so only in highly distorted form even today. The traditional export surplus and positive current account, balanced by net inflow of precious metals, had been wiped out and current account deficits were coupled with overvalued currencies and closed capital markets – along with repressive financial policies causing capital flight of an elite nomenklatura. The inherent risk of unproductive use of funds by borrowers and consumers of forex (mostly Government) were shifted to export and other hard-currency earning sectors.

In particular, a severe trade-deficit had followed petroleum-price rises in the late 1970s, which continues today. There has been some exploration, discovery and extraction of domestic supplies of oil and gas, but no significant move to conserve or find economical alternatives to use of imported energy. (Indeed a coal-exporting petroleum-importing nation with the most heavily used railways in the world made an unprovoked decision to abolish steam-locomotives in favour of diesel and electric. And now, very expensive foreign nuclear plants are planned to be imported on a turnkey basis under a false assumption these will help India’s energy sector.)

India gained from exporting temporary workers to the Gulf since the 1970s but that could hardly finance the increased oil bill. Instead there has been large growth of foreign debt since the 1970s, mostly owed by the Government (and recently by large private businesses) to Western financial markets via brokerage of Western governments and organizations they control. India’s foreign debt amounts to more than $100 being owed by each of our one billion citizens, each of us having to earn five or six dollars every year on average just to meet interest payments due to foreign creditors.

This has been accompanied in the last few years by foreign exchange reserves (the residual in the balance of payments) seeming to grow rapidly, and rising reserves have been perceived as a sign of optimism. Just as bad luck came by way of large oil-price increases, we have seen windfall gains from spread of American “information technology” ~ causing an even larger surplus on services as Indian computer-workers are exported, or new foreign investment is lured by low costs of “business process outsourcing” using our “reserve army” of labour and seemingly cheap real estate.

Rising forex reserves may or may not indicate a better financial position just as rising debt may or may not indicate a weaker financial position. A cash-rich person or company or country may have enough liquid resources to meet an immediate payments’ crisis ~ but may have become cash-rich merely by having borrowed more. A country’s forex reserves may be rising because foreigners have lent it more or have been exploiting arbitrage opportunities presented by multiple exchange-rates or interest-rates or other capital market inefficiencies, or even because reserve-assets have appreciated in world markets due to currency movements.

Similarly, it is not the absolute size of a debt that matters but productivity of the use to which it has been put. At a conference on a “perestroika-for-India” in May 1989 at the University of Hawaii, the late Milton Friedman remarked that one man can be heavily indebted yet have used his debt for investment in capital and hence real growth, while another man can be less heavily indebted but have used borrowed money for debauchery or other wasteful consumption.

For countries too, it is the use to which debt has been put ~ the nature of assets that have been created with the debt ~ that is fundamental. If our foreign debt has been used by Government to create roads and bridges or improve agricultural productivity, fertile capital assets have been invested in, which lead to economic growth and well-being.

If borrowed foreign money has been mostly spent on fancy tanks and bombers (or even passenger aircraft, which mostly earn domestic and not foreign currency) or on foreign trips for politicians and bureaucrats, it has likely gone on sterile consumption goods for the elite. Since Pakistan and India are armed with foreign weapons intended to be used mainly against one another, the arms’ merchants on both sides have been laughing all the way to their Swiss banks for decades. Pakistan and India’s weapons’ imports have been effectively paid by their Governments having borrowed what now constitutes the bulk of their enormous sovereign debts. Requisitioning forex has permitted military generals, politicians, bureaucrats and other lobbies to spend as they wish foreign monies earned by relatively meagre export sectors under conditions of severe international competition.

False convertibility

The RBI is presently engaged in a false convertibility whereby the organised private sector can purchase foreign assets, and the elite can transfer $50,000 annually to their adult children already exported abroad. Truly freeing the rupee today would involve allowing, overnight, any Indian to hold gold, foreign currency and foreign exchange bank accounts freely at his/her local bank (just like those glamorous NRIs). But some 50% or more of public expenditure is being financed by debt compulsorily held by nationalized banks, and this would leave Government with the problem of finding real resources to pay interest and amortisation on the sovereign debt. Moving towards convertibility may induce severe inflation and instability caused by exposure of the weakness of the banks, as their assets (especially Government debt) come to be valued at international prices. Yet without a convertible rupee, proper valuation at world prices is not possible of any paper assets in India (including shares), nor is there any incentive for a responsible fiscal and monetary policy to emerge, even while the nomenklatura continue in capital flight, and India’s masses unknowingly inherit large accumulating rupee and dollar-denominated public debts.

Land, Liberty & Value

LAND, LIBERTY & VALUE

Government must act in good faith treating all citizens equally ~ not favouring organised business lobbies and organised labour over an unorganised peasantry

By SUBROTO ROY
First published in The Sunday Statesman Editorial Page Special Article, December 31 2006,

EVERY farmer knows that two adjacent plots of land which look identical to the outsider may be very different in character, as different as two siblings of the same family. Adjacent plots may differ in access to groundwater and sunlight, in minerals and salts, in soil, fertilisers, parasites, weeds or a dozen other agronomic factors. Most of all, they will differ in the quality and ingenuity of thought and labour that has gone into their care and cultivation over the years, perhaps over generations.

John Locke said: “Whatsoever that (a man) removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property… For this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no one but he can have a right to what that once joined to, at least where there is enough and as good left in common for others” (Second Treatise of Government). Plots of land are as specific as the families that have “mixed” their labour with them. Locke wrote of labour being something “unquestionably” the labourer’s own property; in the same libertarian vein, Robert Nozick opened Anarchy, State and Utopia saying “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights)”.

But as we recognise the universal sanctity of the individual person and his/her private property, we have to start qualifying it. If you purchase a field, forest or estate through which runs a pathway traditionally used by the public to get from one side to the other then even as the new owner you may not have a right to forbid the public’s use of the pathway. By extension, it is clear the State, the community of which you are a citizen, may approach you and demand there should be and will be a public road or thoroughfare through your property in the common interest. Such is the sovereign’s right of “eminent domain” recognised throughout the world, not only in times of war or natural disaster but also in normal times where private property may be taken for public use. The individual’s right to free use of his/her property is circumscribed as a result.

What may be certainly expected though in all matters is that the State will act in good faith, i.e., that it has conducted proper technical surveys and cost-benefit analyses as well as transparent public hearings, and has honestly decided that the road must be constructed using this route and no other. The doctrine of eminent domain implies that while the right to private property may be basic, it is not absolute, as indeed no right is, not even the right to one’s own life. In India, one key difference between the landmark Golaknath (AIR 1967 SC 1643) and Kesavananda Bharati (AIR 1973 SC 1461) rulings had to do precisely with the former recognising the right to property being fundamental as in our original 1950 Constitution, while the latter consented to the Indira Parliament’s denial of this.

When private property is taken, fair compensation must be paid. For example, the American Constitution says “no private property may be taken for public use without just compensation”. What is just compensation? Typically it would be the “fair market value” — but that must be properly adjudged accounting for the best future use of the land, not merely the historical or traditional past use of the land.

Consider, in a mature urban real-estate market, a plot made vacant because a warehouse located on it has accidentally burned down. What is the value of the plot now? Another warehouse could be built, but other bids could come in too for construction of offices or residential flats or a multi-storey garage. The plot’s value would differ depending on which use it is ultimately put to. And this value would be ascertained by calculating the expected cash flows into the future from each of these possibilities, discounted appropriately to account for the fact the future is less valuable than the present, with the highest value alternative being chosen. That is how a mature private real-estate market works in theory, though in practice there would be zoning and environmental restrictions to account for the traditional nature of the neighbourhood as well as possible pollution by effluent waste etc.

In India, Government departments and ministries have inherited prime urban real estate from British times. Amidst the highest value real estate in Kolkata, Bangalore, Delhi etc. will be found a military camp or flats built for military personnel, having nothing whatsoever to do with furtherance of the nation’s defences today. The appalling state of government accounting and audit of our public property and institutions includes the fact that neither the Union nor State Governments and municipalities have the faintest idea of assets, including real estate, that they own. These public assets are frequently open to abuse by managerially uncontrolled government employees.

Fallacies even more curious seem to be currently at work in Indian policy-making, whether by this or that political party. The “eminent domain” doctrine requires a public purpose to exist for acquisition of private property by the State: e.g. construction of a road, bridge, dam, airport or some other traditional public good which is going to be used by the public. In India as elsewhere, “land reform” did involve taking an absentee landlord A’s land and distributing it to B, C, D and E who worked as peasants on it. But nowhere else outside formerly communist China has land been forcibly taken from peasants B, C, D and E and handed over to this or that private capitalist in name of economic development (in a reverse class war)!

Eminent domain doctrine requires good faith on part of the State with respect to its citizens and that implies treating all citizens’ interests equally – not e.g. favouring an organised business lobby or organised industrial labour over the unorganised peasantry uneducated in the wiles of city people.

Also, there is no reason why Government should be interested in a particular product-mix emerging out of a given private factory (such as the so-called inflation-unadjusted “Rs one lakh car” instead of telecom equipment or garments or textiles). Dr Manmohan Singh’s statement last week that he wishes to see “employment-intensive” industries merely added to Government confusion: from Henry Ford to Japanese “lean business” today, everyone knows the direction of change of technology in the automobile industry has been towards robotics, making modern manufacturing less and less manpower-intensive! The Tatas themselves underwent a major downsizing and restructuring in the last decade, hiving off industries not considered part of their “core competence”.

Traditional agriculture of Singur’s sort represents the most labour-intensive employment-generating kind of rural economy. While such rural life may appear unsatisfying to the urban outsider, there is, as Tolstoy, Rabindranath, Gandhi and others knew, subtle happiness, contentment and tranquility there absent in alienated industrial sprawls. “Surplus” labour occurs in agriculture because of technological improvements in quality and delivery of agricultural inputs as well as new education and awareness (Theodore W. Schultz,Transforming Traditional Agriculture). It is mostly seasonal and all hands are used during the harvest when even urban migrants flock back to help. Industry did not leave Bengal in the 1960s and 1970s because of Mamata Banerjee but because of urban unrest, the culture of gheraos and lockouts, and bad regulations of the labour and capital markets associated largely with Ms Banerjee’s Left Front adversaries.

The basic fiction the Union and State Governments have made themselves believe is that their idea of an industrialisation plan is necessary for economic development. It is not. Real economic problems in West Bengal and elsewhere are financial to do with State budgets. “Debt overhang is there” is how the RBI Governor apologetically put it last week. Interest payments on the West Bengal State public debt consume larger and larger fractions of the revenue: these payments were at Rs 13 Bn in 1995 but grew to Rs. 92 Bn by 2004, and may jump to Rs 200 Bn in the next decade. The communists have been in power thirty years and no one but they are responsible. Making the State’s budget healthy would require tackling the gargantuan bureaucracy, slashing ministerial extravagance (foreign trips, VIP security) etc. It is much easier to hobnob with the rich and powerful while tear-gassing the peasants.

Milton Friedman: A Man of Reason, 1912-2006

A Man of Reason


Milton Friedman (1912-2006)

 

First published in The Statesman, Perspective Page Nov 22 2006

 

Milton Friedman, who died on 16 November 2006 in San Francisco, was without a doubt the greatest economist after John Maynard Keynes. Before Keynes, great 20th century economists included Alfred Marshall and Knut Wicksell, while Keynes’s contemporaries included Irving Fisher, AC Pigou and many others. Keynes was followed by his younger critic FA Hayek, but Hayek is remembered less for his technical economics as for his criticism of “socialist economics” and contributions to politics. Milton Friedman more than anyone else was Keynes’s successor in economics (and in applied macroeconomics in particular), in the same way David Ricardo had been the successor of Adam Smith. Ricardo disagreed with Smith and Friedman disagreed with Keynes, but the impact of each on the direction and course both of economics and of the world in which they lived was similar in size and scope.

 

Friedman’s impact on the contemporary world may have been largest through his design and advocacy as early as 1953 of the system of floating exchange-rates. In the early 1970s, when the Bretton Woods system of adjustable fixed exchange-rates collapsed and Friedman’s friend and colleague George P. Shultz was US Treasury Secretary in the Nixon Administration, the international monetary system started to become of the kind Friedman had described two decades earlier. Equally large was Friedman’s worldwide impact in re-establishing concern about the frequent cause of macroeconomic inflation being money supply growth rates well above real income growth rates. All contemporary talk of “inflation targeting” among macroeconomic policy-makers since the 1980s has its roots in Friedman’s December 1967 presidential address to the American Economic Association. His main empirical disagreement with Keynes and the Keynesians lay in his belief that people held the intrinsically worthless tokens known as “money” largely in order to expedite their transactions and not as a store of value – hence the “demand for money” was a function mostly of income and not of interest rates, contrary to what Keynes had suggested in his 1930s analysis of “Depression Economics”. It is in this sense that Friedman restored the traditional “quantity theory” as being a specific theory of the demand for money.

 

Friedman’s main descriptive work lay in the monumental Monetary History of the United States he co-authored with Anna J. Schwartz, which suggested drastic contractions of the money supply had contributed to the Great Depression in America. Friedman made innumerable smaller contributions too, the most prominent and foresighted of which had to do with advocating larger parental choice in the public finance of their children’s school education via the use of “vouchers”. The modern Friedman Foundation has that as its main focus of philanthropy. The emphasis on greater individual choice in school education exemplified Friedman’s commitments both to individual freedom and the notion of investment in human capital.

 

Friedman had significant influences upon several non-Western countries too, most prominently India and China, besides a grossly misreported episode in Chile. As described in his autobiography with his wife Rose, Two Lucky People (Chicago 1998), Friedman spent six months in India in 1955 at the Government of India’s invitation during the formulation of the Second Five Year Plan. His work done for the Government of India came to be suppressed for the next 34 years. Peter Bauer had told me during my doctoral work at Cambridge in the late 1970s of the existence of a Friedman memorandum, and N. Georgescu-Roegen told me the same in America in 1980, adding that Friedman had been almost insulted publicly by VKRV Rao at the time after giving a lecture to students on his analysis of India’s problems.

 

When Friedman and I met in 1984, I asked him for the memorandum and he sent me two documents. The main one dated November 1955 I published in Hawaii on 21 May 1989 during a project on a proposed Indian “perestroika” (which contributed to the origins of the 1991 reform through Rajiv Gandhi), and was later published in Delhi in Foundations of India’s Political Economy: Towards an Agenda for the 1990s, edited by myself and WE James.

 

The other document on Mahalanobis is published in The Statesman today for the first time, though there has been an Internet copy floating around for a few years. The Friedmans’ autobiography quoted what I said in 1989 about the 1955 memorandum and may be repeated: “The aims of economic policy (in India) were to create conditions for rapid increase in levels of income and consumption for the mass of the people, and these aims were shared by everyone from PC Mahalanobis to Milton Friedman. The means recommended were different. Mahalanobis advocated a leading role for the state and an emphasis on the growth of physical capital. Friedman advocated a necessary but clearly limited role for the state, and placed on the agenda large-scale investment in the stock of human capital, encouragement of domestic competition, steady and predictable monetary growth, and a flexible exchange rate for the rupee as a convertible hard currency, which would have entailed also an open competitive position in the world economy… If such an alternative had been more thoroughly discussed at the time, the optimal role of the state in India today, as well as the optimum complementarity between human capital and physical capital, may have been more easily determined.”

 

A few months before attending my Hawaii conference on India, Friedman had been in China, and his memorandum to Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang and two-hour dialogue of 19 September 1988 with him are now classics republished in the 1998 autobiography. Also republished there are all documents relating to Friedman’s six-day academic visit to Chile in March 1975 and his correspondence with General Pinochet, which speak for themselves and make clear Friedman had nothing to do with that regime other than offer his opinion when asked about how to reduce Chile’s hyperinflation at the time.

 

My association with Milton has been the zenith of my engagement with academic economics, with e-mails exchanged as recently as September. I was a doctoral student of his bitter enemy yet for over two decades he not only treated me with unfailing courtesy and affection, he supported me in lonely righteous battles: doing for me what he said he had never done before, which was to stand as an expert witness in a United States Federal Court. I will miss him much though I know that he, as a man of reason, would not have wished me to.

Subroto Roy

Indian Money and Credit

Indian Money & Credit
by
Subroto Roy
First published in The Sunday Statesman, August 6 2006, Editorial Page Special Article

One rural household may lend another rural household 10 kg or 100 kg of grain or seed for a short time. When it does, it expects to receive back a little more than the amount lent ~ even if that little amount is in services or in plain goodwill among friends or neighbours. That extra amount is “real interest”, and the percentage of its value relative to the whole is the “real rate of interest”. So if 10 kg of grain are lent for two weeks and 11 kg are returned, an implicit real rate of interest of 10 per cent has been paid over that short period. The future is always less valuable than the present in the sense that 10 kg of grain today is worth something more than the prospect of the same 10 kg of grain tomorrow.

But loans may be made in terms of money rather than real units of grain, thus the change in the value of money over the period of the loan becomes relevant. If a loan of Rs 100,000 is made by a bank to a borrower for one year at a simple interest rate of 13 per cent per annum, and the value of money then declines at 8 per cent over the year, the debtor is paying real interest of just about 13 per cent-8 per cent = 5 per cent. The Yale economist Irving Fisher described how this monetary rate of interest equals the real rate of interest plus the rate of monetary inflation, while the great Swedish economist Knut Wicksell predicted inflation if the monetary rate fell below the real rate, and vice versa.

And there is another consideration too. A new cycle-rickshaw costs about Rs 5,000. A rickshaw driver who does not own his own machine has to pay the owner of the rickshaw a fixed rental of about Rs 15 per day. Now a government policy may want to see more cycle-rickshaw drivers owning their own machines, and allocate bank-credit accordingly. But some fraction of the drivers are alcoholics and hence are bad credit-risks, while others are industrious, have strong family lives and are good credit-risks. If a creditor is unable to distinguish between who is an alcoholic and who is not, credit terms will tend towards subsidising the alcoholic and taxing the industrious.

On the other hand, a creditor who knows each debtor individually will also know their credit-risks, and price individual loans to them accordingly. India’s credit markets, both rural and urban, have been segmented always into “formal” and “informal”, and remain so despite (or perhaps because of) much government intervention in recent decades.

Banks and the Reserve Bank of India operate in formal financial markets, but the informal credit market is where the real action is. For example, a mosaic-machine used in the construction business costs Rs 15,000 brand new and gets to be rented out at the rate of Rs 150 per day.

Someone with access to formal sector bank loans at say 13 per cent per annum, might borrow the Rs 15,000, buy a machine, rent it out, break-even within a few months and make a whopping profit afterwards. Everyone would thus hunger after subsidised formal sector bank loans, and these would be rationed quickly and then come to be allocated to people known to bank officials (like their own friends and relatives).

Rates of return on capital, i.e. real profits, are and always have been massively high in India, and that is what is to be expected because capital, both machinery and finance, is relatively scarce as a factor of production. Rates of return on labour, i.e. real wages, are on the other hand relatively low in India thanks to our vast population. For these reasons we have had for three centuries foreigners coming to India to invest their capital in enterprise and make a profit, while Indians have emigrated all over the world from Fiji to Britain to America in search of higher wages.

Now all of this is very elementary reasoning well known to serious monetary economists, yet it seems to have always escaped India’s monetary and fiscal decision-makers. For example, just the other day, the Finance Minister said in Parliament that all rural banks had been instructed to lend farmers credit at a 7 per cent (monetary) rate of interest, and failure to do so would lead to  punishment. By the rickshaw example (in fact many cycle-rickshaw drivers are also marginal farmers), the FM did not wish to, and of course cannot in practice, distinguish between good and bad credit-risks among the recipients of such loans. If the value of money is declining by, say, 8 per cent per annum, a 7 per cent monetary rate is equivalent to a minus 1 per cent real rate. i.e., the FM would have done some Humpty Dumpty economics and caused the future prospect of holding Rs 1,000 tomorrow to be more and not less valuable than the certainty of holding Rs 1,000 today. It is inevitable there will be credit-rationing when credit is so massively subsidised, so the typical borrowing farmer will get some little fraction of his credit-needs at the official government price of 7 per cent per annum and then have to get the bulk of his credit-needs fulfilled in the informal market ~ at a price perhaps of 1 per cent-5 per cent PER DAY! The FM promising in his Budget to subsidise farm credit sounds nice on TV but may be wholly futile as a way of stopping farmers’ suicides.

The same kind of Humpty Dumpty monetary economics has been religiously pursued by the Reserve Bank of India for decades upon directions from its owner and master, the Finance Ministry ~ which in turn has always meekly followed the dictates of India’s unreasonable politicians of all parties. Formal sector interest rates in India have been for decades so artificially lowered that even if we use official figures measuring inflation, this leads to real interest rates being lower in capital-scarce India than in the capital-rich West! (See graphs).  Negative or near-zero real interest rates in India’s formal financial sector coexisting with massively high profit rates in informal credit markets point to continuous processes of low risk profits being made by arbitrage between the two. That is why the organised private and public sectors seem so pleased with official credit policies ~ while every borrower in the informal credit markets always has suicide not far from his/her mind.

Other than Dr Rangarajan who once mentioned it, we have never had an RBI Governor who has wished to see the Reserve Bank of India constitutionally independent of the Government of the day, and hence dedicated to restoring the integrity of India’s money. Playing with the repo rate or other short term monetary rates is fun and makes the RBI think it is doing something as important as the US or UK central banks. Certainly the upward trend in such short term rates over the last few months is better than the nonsensical flip-flops previously. But it is small potatoes compared to the really giant variables which are all fiscal and not monetary in India. For example, Sonia Gandhi (as advised by another naturalized Indian, Jean Drèze, disciple of the Non-Resident Amartya Sen) insisted on a massive “Rural Employment Guarantee”; Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjee have insisted on massive foreign weapons’ purchases and government wage increases; Praful Patel on massive foreign aircraft purchases; Arjun Sengupta on Scandinavian welfare benefits; Montek Ahluwalia on nuclear reactor purchases (so South Delhi will be able at least to run its ACs in 20 years’ time). All this adds endlessly to the stock of government paper being held as bank-assets, while the currency remains inconvertible (See e.g. The Statesman 30 October 2005, 6-8 January, 23 April 2006).The RSS/BJP and JNU/Left have been equally bereft of serious thought.

Tell any suicidal farmer that the Government of India has been borrowing larger and larger amounts every year just to pay interest on previously incurred debts; it may make him realise there are famous and powerful people who are even more unwise than himself and amount to effective suicide-prevention therapy. But do not tell him that they unlike himself have been playing with public money ~ or you may have the opposite effect.

The Dream Team: A Critique

The Dream Team: A Critique

by Subroto Roy

First published in The Statesman and The Sunday Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article, January 6,7,8, 2006

(Author’s Note: Within a few weeks of this article appearing, the Dream Team’s leaders appointed the so-called Tarapore 2 committee to look into convertibility — which ended up recommending what I have since called the “false convertibility” the RBI is presently engaged in. This article may be most profitably read along with other work republished here: “Rajiv Gandhi and the Origins of India’s 1991 Economic Reform”, “Three Memoranda to Rajiv Gandhi”, “”Indian Money & Banking”, “Indian Money & Credit” , “India’s Macroeconomics”, “Fiscal Instability”, “Fallacious Finance”, “India’s Trade and Payments”, “Our Policy Process”, “Against Quackery”, “Indian Inflation”, etc)

1. New Delhi’s Consensus: Manmohantekidambaromics

Dr Manmohan Singh has spoken of how pleasantly surprised he was to be made Finance Minister in July 1991 by PV Narasimha Rao. Dr Singh was an academic before becoming a government economic official in the late 1960s, rising to the high office of Reserve Bank Governor in the 1980s. Mr Montek Singh Ahluwalia now refers to him as “my boss” and had been his Finance Secretary earlier. Mr Ahluwalia was a notable official in the MacNamara World Bank before being inducted a senior government official in 1984. Mr P Chidambaram was PVNR’s Commerce Minister, and later became Finance Minister in the Deve Gowda and Gujral Governments. Mr Chidamabaram is a Supreme Court advocate with an MBA from Harvard’s Business School. During 1998-2004, Dr Singh and Mr Chidambaram were in Opposition but Mr Ahluwalia was Member-Secretary of the Vajpayee Planning Commission. Since coming together again in Sonia Gandhi’s United Progressive Alliance, they have been flatteringly named the “Dream Team” by India’s pink business newspapers, a term originally referring to some top American basketball players.

Based on pronouncements, publications and positions held, other members or associates of the “Dream Team” include Reserve Bank Governor Dr YV Reddy; his predecessor Dr Bimal Jalan; former PMO official Mr NK Singh, IAS; Chief Economic Advisers Dr Shankar Acharya and Dr Ashok Lahiri; RBI Deputy Governor Dr Rakesh Mohan; and others like Dr Arvind Virmani, Dr Isher Ahluwalia, Dr Parthasarathi Shome, Dr Vijay Khelkar, Dr Ashok Desai, Dr Suman Bery, Dr Surjit Bhalla, Dr Amaresh Bagchi, Dr Govind Rao. Honorary members include Mr Jaswant Singh, Mr Yashwant Sinha, Mr KC Pant and Dr Arun Shourie, all economic ministers during the Vajpayee premiership. Institutional members include industry chambers like CII and FICCI representing “Big Business”, and unionised “Big Labour” represented by the CPI, CPI(M) and prominent academics of JNU. Mr Mani Shankar Aiyar joins the Dream Team with his opinion that a gas pipeline is “necessary for the eradication of poverty in India”. Mr Jairam Ramesh explicitly claimed authoring the 1991 reform with Mr Pranab Mukherjee and both must be members (indeed the latter as Finance Minister once had been Dr Singh’s boss). Dr Arjun Sengupta has claimed Indira Gandhi started the reforms, and he may be a member too. External members include Dr Jagdish Bhagwati, Dr. TN Srinivasan, Dr Meghnad Desai, Dr Vijay Joshi, Mr Ian Little, Dr Anne O. Krueger, Dr John Williamson, IMF Head Dr R Rato, and many foreign bank analysts who deal in Bombay’s markets. Harvard’s Dr Larry Summers joins with his statement while US Treasury Secretary in January 2000 that a 10% economic growth rate for India was feasible. His Harvard colleague Dr Amartya Sen — through disciples like Dr Jean Dreze (adviser to Sonia Gandhi on rural employment) — must be an ex officio member; as an old friend, the Prime Minister launched Dr Sen’s recent book while the latter has marked Dr Singh at 80% as PM. Media associates of the Dream Team include editors like Mr Aroon Purie, Mr Vinod Mehta, Dr Prannoy Roy, Mr TN Ninan, Mr Vir Sanghvi and Mr Shekhar Gupta, as well as the giddy young anchors of what passes for news and financial analysis on cable TV.

This illustrious set of politicians, government officials, economists, journalists and many others have come to define what may be called the “New Delhi Consensus” on contemporary India’s economic policy. While it is unnecessary everyone agree to the same extent on every aspect — indeed on economic policy the differences between the Sonia UPA and Vajpayee NDA have had to do with emphasis on different aspects, each side urging “consensus” upon the other — the main factual and evaluative claims and policy-prescriptions of the New Delhi Consensus may be summarised as follows:

A: “The Narasimha Rao Government in July 1991 found India facing a grave balance of payments crisis with foreign exchange reserves being very low.”

B: “A major cause was the 1990-1991 Gulf War, in its impact as an exogenous shock on Indian migrant workers and oil prices.”

C: “The Dream Team averted a macroeconomic crisis through “structural adjustment” carried out with help of the IMF and World Bank; hence too, India was unaffected by the 1997 ‘Asian crisis'”.

D: “The PVNR, Deve Gowda, Gujral and Vajpayee Governments removed the notorious license-quota-permit Raj.”

E: “India’s measurable real economic growth per capita has been raised from 3% or lower to 7% or more.”

F: “Foreign direct investment has been, relative to earlier times, flooding into India, attracted by lower wages and rents, especially in new industries using information technology.”

G: “Foreign financial investment has been flooding into India too, attracted by India’s increasingly liberalised capital markets, especially a liberalised current account of the balance of payments.”

H: “The apparent boom in Bombay’s stock market and relatively large foreign exchange reserves bear witness to the confidence foreign and domestic investors place in India’s prospects.”

I: “The critical constraint to India’s future prosperity is its “infrastructure” which is far below what foreign investors are used to in other countries elsewhere in Asia.”

J: “It follows that massive, indeed gargantuan, investments in highways, ports, airports, aircraft, city-flyovers, housing-estates, power-projects, energy exploration, gas pipelines, etc, out of government and private resources, domestic and foreign, is necessary to remove remaining “bottlenecks” to further prosperity for India’s masses, and these physical constructions will cause India’s economy to finally ‘take off’.”

K: “India’s savings rate (like China’s) is exceptionally high as is observable from vast expansion of bank-deposits, and these high (presumed) savings, along with foreign savings, will absorb the gargantuan investment in “infrastructure” without inflation.”

L: “Before the gargantuan macroeconomic investments bear the fruits of prosperity, equally large direct transfer payments also must be made from the Government to prevent mass hunger and/or raise nominal incomes across rural India, while existing input or other subsidies to producers, especially farmers, also must continue.”

M: “While private sector participants may increasingly compete via imports or as new entrants in industries where the public sector has been dominant, no bankruptcy or privatisation must be allowed to occur or be seen to occur which does not provide public sector workers and officials with golden parachutes.”

Overall, the New Delhi Consensus paints a picture of India’s economy on an immensely productive trajectory as led by Government partnered by Big Business and Big Labour, with the English-speaking intellectuals of the Dream Team in the vanguard as they fly between exotic conferences and international commercial deals. An endless flow of foreign businessmen and politicians streaming through Bangalore, Hyderabad, five-star hotels or photo-opportunities with the PM, followed by official visits abroad to sign big-ticket purchases like arms or aircraft, reinforce an impression that all is fine economically, and modern India is on the move. Previously rare foreign products have become commonplace in India’s markets, streets and television-channels, and a new materialist spirit, supposedly of capitalism, is captured by the smug slogan yeh dil mange more (this heart craves more) as well as the more plaintive cry pardesi jana nahin, mujhe chhorke (foreigner, please don’t leave me).

2. Money, Convertibility, Inflationary Deficit Financing

India’s Rupee became inconvertible in 1942 when the British imposed exchange controls over the Sterling-Area. After 1947 independent India and Pakistan, in name of “planned” economic development, greatly widened this war-time regime – despite the fact they were at war now only with one another over Jammu & Kashmir and, oddly enough, formed an economic union until 1951 with their currencies remaining freely convertible with each other.

On May 29 1984, the present author’s Pricing, Planning and Politics: A Study of Economic Distortions in India proposed in London that the Indian Rupee become a convertible hard currency again — the first time liberal economics had been suggested for India since BR Shenoy’s critique of the Second Five Year Plan (a fact attracting an editorial of The Times). The simple litmus test whether believers in the New Delhi Consensus have or have not the courage of their stated convictions – i.e., whether what they have been saying is, in its empirical fundamentals, more signal or noise, more reality or rhetorical propaganda – would be to carry through that proposal made 21 years ago. The Dream Team have had more than enough political power to undertake this, and it remains the one measure necessary for them to demonstrate to India’s people and the world that the exuberant confidence they have been promoting in their model of India’s economy and its prospects is not spurious.

What does convertibility entail?  For a decade now, India has had limited ease of availability of foreign exchange for traders, students and tourists. Indeed some senior Government monetary economists believe there is convertibility already except forex dealers are being allowed “one-way” and not “two-way” quotes! That is wrong. The Government since 1942 has requisitioned at the border all foreign exchange earned by exporters or received as loans or investment — allocating these first to pay interest and amortisation on the country’s foreign debt, then to make its own weapons and other purchases abroad, then to release by ration what remains to private traders, students, tourists et al. Current account liberalisation has meant the last of these categories has been relaxed, especially by removal of some import quotas. What a convertible Rupee would mean is far more profound. It would allow any citizen to hold and save an Indian money that was exchangeable freely (i.e. without Government hindrance) into moneys of other countries. Full convertibility would mean all the paper money, bank deposits and rupee-denominated nominal assets held by ordinary people in India becomes, overnight, exchangeable without hindrance into dollars, yens, pounds or euros held anywhere (although not of course at the “one-way” rates quoted today).

Now money is a most peculiar human institution. Paper money is intrinsically worthless but all of India’s 1,000 million people (from street children onwards) have need to hold it temporarily to expedite their individual transactions of buying and selling real goods and services. Money also acts as a repository of value over time and unit of account or measure of economic value. While demand to hold such intrinsically worthless paper is universal, its supply is a Government monopoly. Because Government accepts obligations owed to it in terms of the fiat money it has itself issued, the otherwise worthless paper comes to possess value in exchange. Because Government controls its supply, money also can be abused easily enough as a technique of invisible taxation via inflation.

With convertibility in India, the quantity of currency and other paper assets like public debt instruments representing fiscal decisions of India’s Union and State Governments, will have to start to compete with those produced by other governments. Just as India’s long-jumpers and tennis-players must compete with the world’s best if they are to establish and sustain their athletic reputations, so India’s fiscal and monetary decisions (i.e. about government spending and revenues, interest-rates and money supply growth) will have to start competing in the world’s financial markets with those of the EU, USA, Japan, Switzerland, ASEAN etc.

The average family in rural Madhya Pradesh who may wish, for whatever personal reason, to liquidate rupee-denominated assets and buy instead Canadian, Swiss or Japanese Government debt, or mutual fund shares in New York, Frankfurt or Singapore, would not be hindered by India’s Government from doing so. They would become as free as the swankiest NRI jet-setters have been for years (like many members of the New Delhi Consensus and their grown children abroad).  Scores of millions of ordinary Indians unconnected with Big Business or Big Labour, neither among the 18 million people in government nor the 12 million in the organised private sector, would become free to hold any portfolio of assets they chose in global markets (small as any given individual portfolio may be in value). Like all those glamorous NRIs, every Indian would be able to hold dollar or Swiss Franc deposit accounts at the local neighbourhood bank. Hawala operators worldwide would become redundant. Ordinary citizens could choose to hold foreign shares, real-estate or travellers’ cheques as assets just as they now choose jewellery before a wedding. The Indian Rupee, after more than 65 years, would once again become as good as all the proverbial gold in Fort Knox.

When added up, the new demand of India’s anonymous masses to hold foreign rather than Rupee-denominated assets will certainly make the Rupee decline in price in world markets. But — if the implicit model of India’s economy promoted by the Dream Team is based on correctly ascertained empirical facts — foreign and domestic investor confidence should suffice for countervailing tendencies to keep India’s financial and banking system stable under convertibility. Not only would India’s people be able to use and save a currency of integrity, the allocation of real resources would also improve in efficiency as distortions would be reduced in the signalling function of domestic relative prices compared to world relative prices. An honest Rupee freely priced in world markets at, say, 90 per dollar, would cause very different real microeconomic decisions of Government and private producers and consumers (e.g., with respect to weapons’ purchases or domestic transportation, given petroleum and jet fuel imports) than a semi-artificial Rupee at 45 per dollar which forcibly an inconvertible asset in global markets. A fully convertible Rupee will cause economic and political decisions in the country more consistent with word realities.

Why the Rupee is not going to be made convertible in the foreseeable future – or why, in India’s present fiscal circumstances if it was, it would be imprudent to do so – is because, contrary to the immense optimism promoted by the Dream Team about their own deeds since 1991, they have in fact been causing India’s monetary economy to skate on the thinnest of thin ice. Put another way, a house of cards has been constructed whose cornerstone constitutes that most unscientific anti-economic of assumptions, the “free lunch”: that something can be had for nothing, that real growth in average consumption levels of the masses of ordinary households of rural and urban India can meaningfully come about by nominal paper-money creation accompanied by verbal exhortation, hocus-pocus or abracadabra from policy-makers and their friends in Big Business, Big Labour and the media. (Lest half-remembered inanities about “orthodox economics” come to be mouthed, Maynard Keynes’s 1936 book was about specific circumstances in Western economies during the Depression and it is unwise to extend its presumptions to unintended situations.)

3. Rajiv Gandhi and Perestroika Project

On 25 May 2002, India’s newspapers reported “PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh lost their place in Congress history as architects of economic reforms as the Congress High Command sponsored an amendment to a resolution that had laid credit at the duo’s door. The motion was moved by…. Digvijay Singh asserting that the reforms were a brainchild of the late Rajiv Gandhi and that the Rao-Singh combine had simply nudged the process forward.”

Now Rajiv Gandhi was an airline-pilot and knew no economics. But the origins of the 1991 reform did come about because of an encounter he had, as Opposition Leader and Congress President from September 1990 onwards, with a “perestroika” project for India’s political economy occurring at an American university since 1986 (viz., The Statesman Editorial Page July 31-August 2 1991, now republished here; Freedom First October 2001). In being less than candid in acknowledging the origins of the reform, the Dream Team may have failed to describe accurately the main symptoms of illness that afflicted India before 1991, and have consequently failed to diagnose and prescribe for it correctly ever since.

The Government of India, like many others, has been sorely tempted to finance its extravagant expenditures by abusing its monopoly over paper-money creation. The British taught us how to do this, and in 1941-43 caused the highest inflation rates ever seen in India as a result. Fig. 1 shows this, and also that real growth in India follows as expected the trend-rate of technological progress (having little to do with government policy). Independent India has continually financed budget- deficits by money creation in a process similar to what the British and Americans did in wartime. This became most conspicuous after Indira Gandhi’s bank and insurance nationalisations of 1969-1970. Indeed, among current policy-makers, Pranab Mukherjee, Manmohan Singh, Arjun Sengupta, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Bimal Jalan, NK Singh, Amaresh Bagchi and Shankar Acharya, were among those governing such macroeconomic processes before 1991 — albeit in absence of the equations that illustrate their nature. Why the Rupee cannot be made an honest, internationally convertible, stable money held with confidence by all Indians today, is because the Dream Team have continued with the same macroeconomics ever since. The personal and political ambitions of the tiniest super-elite that the New Delhi Consensus represent (both personal and political) have depended precisely on gargantuan unending deficit-financing backed by unlimited printing of paper-money, and hence the continuing destruction of the integrity of India’s banking system. A convertible Rupee would allow India’s ordinary people to choose to hold other stores of value available in the world today, like gold or monies issued by foreign governments, and thus force an end to such processes.

Two recent articles in The Statesman (Perspective Page 30 October 2005, Front Page 29 November 2005) outlined India’s financial repression and negative real interest rates (which suffice to explain the present stock market boom the way athletes perform better on steroids), and also how deficits get financed by money creation accompanied by wishful projections of economic growth in an upside down imitation of how macroeconomic policy gets done in the West.

“Narrow Money” consists mostly of hand-to-hand currency. “Broad Money” consists of Narrow Money plus bank-deposits. Modern banking is built on “fractional reserves”, i.e. a system of trust where your bank does not literally hold onto deposits you place there but lends these out again – which causes further deposit expansion because no individual banker can tell whether a new deposit received by it is being caused by the depositor having himself borrowed. As a general rule, bank lending causes further deposit expansion. Why India’s (and China’s) bank deposits have been expanding is not because Indians (or Chinese) are superhuman savers of financial assets in banks but because the Government of India (and China) has for decades compelled (the mostly nationalised) banks to hold vast sums of Government debt on the asset side of their balance-sheets. Thus there has been humongous lending by the banking system to pay for Government expenditures. The Dream Team’s macroeconomics relies entirely on this kind of unending recourse to deficit finance and money creation, causing dry rot to set into banks’ balance sheets (Figs. 2,3, 4).   If the Rupee became convertible, those vast holdings of Government debt by banks would become valued at world prices. The crucial question would be how heavily New York, London and Hong Kong financial markets discounted Indian sovereign debt. If upon convertibility, the asset sides of domestic Indian banks get discounted very heavily by world financial markets, their insolvency upon being valued at international prices could trigger catastrophic repercussions throughout India’s economy. Hence the Rupee cannot be made convertible — and all our present inefficiencies and inequities will continue for ever with New Delhi’s rhetorical propaganda alongside. The capital flight of 10 out of 1000 million Indians will continue, leaving everyone else with the internal and foreign public debts to pay.

4. A Different Strategy had Rajiv Not Been Assassinated

Had Rajiv Gandhi not been assassinated and the perestroika project allowed to take its course, a different strategy would have been chosen. Honest money first demands honest Government and political leadership. It would at the outset have been recognised by Government (and through Government by all India’s people) that the asset-liability, income-expenditure and cash-flow positions of every public entity in the country without exception — of the Union Government, every State and local Government, every public undertaking and project – is abysmal.  Due to entanglement with government financial loans, labour regulations, subsidies, price controls, protection and favouritism, the same holds for the financial positions of vast numbers of firms in the organised private sector. Superimpose on this dismal scene, the bleak situation of the Rule of Law in the country today – where Courts of Justice from highest to lowest suffer terrible abuse receiving pitiable amounts of public resources despite constituting a third and independent branch of India’s Government (while police forces, despite massive expenditure, remain incompetent, high-handed and brutal). What India has needed ever since 1991 is the Rule of Law, total transparency of public information, and the fiercest enforcement of rigorous accounting and audit standards in every government entity and public institution. It is only when budgets and financial positions become sound that ambitious goals can be achieved.

The Dream Team have instead made a fetish of physical construction of “infrastructure”, in some grandiose make-believe dreamworld which says the people of India wish the country to be a superpower. The Dream Team have failed to properly redefine for India’s masses the appropriate fiscal and monetary relationship between State and citizen – i.e. to demarcate public from private domains, and so enhance citizens’ sense of individual responsibility for their own futures, as well as explain and define what government and public institutions can and cannot do to help people’s lives. Grotesque corruption and inefficiency have thus continued to corrode practically all organs, institutions and undertakings of government. Corruption is the transmutation of publicly owned things into private property, while its mirror image, pollution, is the disposal of private wastes into the public domain. Both become vastly more prevalent where property rights between private and public domains remain ill demarcated. What belongs to the individual citizen and what to sovereign India –their rights and obligations to one another – remains fuzzy. Hence corruption and pollution run amuck. The irrational obsession with “infrastructure” is based on bad economics, and has led to profoundly wrong political and financial directions. The Rupee cannot be made an honest stable money because India’s fiscal and monetary situation remains not merely out of control but beyond New Delhi’s proper comprehension and grasp. If and when the Dream Team choose to wake up to India’s macroeconomic realities, a great deal of serious work will need to be done.

 

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Waffle but No Models of Monetary Policy: The RBI and Financial Repression

Waffle but No Models of Monetary Policy:

The RBI and Financial Repression (A Stock Market on Steroids)

by

Subroto Roy
First published in The Statesman, Perspective Page, October 27 2005

If the average Indian citizen feels flummoxed at hearing all the fancy words from official spokesmen and the talking heads on TV and the expensive pink business newspapers — words like “credit offtake”, “liquidity”, “reverse repo rate” “medium term”, “inflation mandate” etc — there is help at hand. It is as likely as not that the purveyors are as flummoxed themselves even while they bandy these terms about in what has been passing for monetary policy in India in recent years. No one has any reliable economic models backed by time-series data to support all the waffle.

Here is an example.

The Government (and specifically the department of the Finance Ministry known as the RBI) will have us believe that the decline in the value of money that has been occurring in India has been at less than 5% per annum.  According to official figures, the average Indian’s purchase of consumable goods and services (food, housing, clothing, transport etc) has been costing more every year by merely 5% at the very most. “What you can buy for Rs. 1000 in one year, you have to pay just Rs 1050 to buy the next year” is what the Government will have us believe. But is anyone’s personal experience of the diminishing value of the domestic currency in India consonant with what official spokesmen say inflation happens to be?

You may well reply that you cannot quite recall what Rs. 1000 bought for you last year. Precisely so. Nor really can anyone else — and that mutual collective loss of memory on the part of the public is something that India’s Government (like many other governments across time and space) has been literally banking on!

Consider a few very simple calculations. Suppose a citizen earns an annual income of Rs. 100,000, and an honest Government told him/her to pay total taxes (from both income and expenditure) of 10%. Clearly Rs. 90,000 would be left for the citizen to spend on his/her various choices of consumption or saving afterwards. If the citizen could assume the value of money was constant (inflation was 0%) then this Rs. 90,000 in one year would buy the same amount of goods and services the next year. But instead we may be living in a political system where the Government officially taxes very lightly, and then dishonestly taxes very heavily by reducing the value of money invisibly, i.e. by inflation. The Government may make the official tax-rate 8% and the actual inflation-rate 15%. The citizen who has Rs. 100,000 will then pay Rs. 8,000 in nominal taxes, but the Rs. 92,000 that is nominally left over for his own consumption and savings, will be made to decline by a further 15% every year.

I.e., a further value of Rs.13,800 (15% of Rs. 92,000) would effectively disappear as an invisible tax from the household budget due to the decline in the value of money, without the household being any wiser. In real terms, the household would have only Rs. 78,200 left.

Where would that extra value disappear to? Clearly, the beneficiary of this invisible extraction of real resources from household budgets would be the only entity that is able to compel the decline in the value of money, namely, the Government, which holds monopoly power to print the pieces of paper (at zero cost) that we call “money” and which we are forced by circumstances to use to expedite our real transactions of goods and services. Roughly speaking, that is how the Government’s own budget deficit gets financed in India.

I.e., the Government of India has its own (massive) expenditures — not merely on things like roads and bridges and military tanks and submarines, but also on ministers and bureaucrats’ wages etc., besides enormous interest payments on past debts incurred by the Government. If the expenditures exceed the visible revenues raised from taxation, as they have done by perhaps 40-50% or more every year for several decades, then the difference gets bridged by printing more paper money over which the Government has had a monopoly.

In India, a total of perhaps 18 million people work in all branches of government and a total of perhaps 12 million people work in the entire organised private sector. That makes 30 million people — with 4 dependants each, that accounts for perhaps 150 million people in the country. That leaves another 850 million people in our population of 1,000 million. Everyone, whether in the 150 million or the 850 million, rich and named or poor and anonymous, has had to use for his/her real transactions of goods and services the paper that the Government produces as money. By causing a decline in the value of this paper every year by x%, everyone who holds this paper, as well as assets denominated in this paper, suffers an invisible taxation of x% without quite realising it. The real revenue the Government of India extracts in this way is what has allowed it to balance its own books.

Furthermore, in the Indian case, what is said to be the inflation-rate and the actual inflation-rate experienced by ordinary people, may well be two different things. The wage-bill of those 18 million people employed by government agencies are linked directly to what official spokesmen say the inflation-rate is, so if the actual rate being experienced was higher and was announced as such, so would have to be that wage-bill and public expenditure! Official spokesmen may tell us the decline in the value of money has been merely 5% or less a year, so what cost Rs. 1000 last year costs Rs. 1050 this year, but as a matter of plain fact, the average citizen’s experience (and memory) may well tell him/her something different – e.g. that what cost Rs. 1000 last year, is in fact costing Rs. 1100 or Rs 1150 or Rs 1200 this year.

So much for the value of money. Now turn to interest-rates.

Here too, the average citizen need not be a rocket-scientist to know that relative to the Western countries, India is labour abundant and is capital scarce. Roughly speaking, that means we have relatively more people and fewer high-rise concrete buildings than the West does. Where then would you expect wages (the price of labour) to be higher, in the West or in India? Clearly in the place where labour is more scarce, namely, the West. And where would you expect interest-rates (the price of capital) to be higher? Clearly, where capital is relatively more scarce, namely India. Such was clearly the case between 1864 and 1926 (Fig. 1). Calcutta bank interest-rates were uniformly higher by about 2-3% than London bank interest-rates (in an era of zero inflation). But something wholly different occurred in the pseudo-socialist India after Independence. E.g., for the years 1975-1992 official Indian interest-rates (adjusted for inflation) were uniformly lower than those in world capital markets represented by the USA (Fig. 2). That remains true today. Not only have the higher wages of the West been attractive to Indians, so seems to be the higher real rates of return on capital! Hence everyone who could fled India – exporting their adult children and their savings abroad , leaving future generations of the anonymous masses with larger public debts to pay the bills in due course. There has been a flight of skilled labour and as well as capital flight from India — are foreigners going to come when they can see the Indian “elite” has fled? Official real interest-rates in India today may well be negative if inflation is  properly measured, which would explain the Bombay stock-market boom the same way an athlete can perform better when on steroids.

Of course in the unorganised capital markets, actual real rates of return have always been higher in India than in the West and remain so. Just ask anyone in the unorganised capital markets how much he has to pay to rent machinery on a daily basis e.g. in the building or construction trade in an Indian city or small town or village. He will quote you rates of 2% or 5% or 10% — per day. Hence there is a massive distortion between what is happening in the unorganised capital markets all over the country and the official money markets the RBI believes itself to be presiding over in Bombay. Until the RBI starts to tell us frankly about this phenomenon, which is known to economists as “financial repression” and which has been caused by runaway Government spending programmes in India for decades, the average citizen may discount all the talk about a few basis points changing here and there on this or that nominal rate, in our pale imitation of what we think the US Fed or the European or British central banks do as policy. The truth is the RBI has never been allowed to model itself after those institutions. Instead, India has had nationalised commercial banking whose pampered inefficient management and staff have allowed the holding of massive amounts of government debt as assets in their balance-sheets, all denominated in an inconvertible controlled currency, and all presided over by a “one-tier” central bank patterned on the old Gosbank of the former Soviet Union, completely subservient to the dictates of the runaway spending that this or that particular set of politicians in power may demand. If there are dreams to be dreamt by honest economists in India, it would be for all that to be made to change.

Margaret Thatcher’s Revolution: How it Happened and What it Meant

Margaret Thatcher’s Revolution: How it Happened and What it Meant, edited by Subroto Roy & John Clarke, London & New York: Continuum, 2005, 2006.

A General Theory of Globalization & Modern Terrorism (2001)

A General Theory of Globalization & Modern Terrorism with Special Reference to September 11

Subroto Roy

This was a keynote address to the Council of Asian Liberals & Democrats meeting on November 16 2001, Manila, Philippines, and was published in Singapore in 2002, Alan Smith, James Gomez & Uwe Johannen (Eds.) September 11 & Political Freedom: Asian Perspectives. It was republished in the West on January 26 2004 on the University of Buckingham website, when the author was Wincott Visiting Professor of Economics there. It came to be followed a few months later by a public lecture at the University, titled “Science, Religion, Art and the Necessity of Freedom: Reason’s Response to Islamism” which has also been published here.

1. Globalization Through a Wide-Angle Lens
2. Suicide, Terrorism & Political Protest
3. Science, Religion, Art, and the Necessity of Freedom
4. Asia’s Modern Dilemmas: Named Social Life or Anonymous Markets
5. September 11: the Collapse of the Global Conversation
6. Envoi

Synopsis: The world after September 11 2001 has seemed a very bewildering place — as if all liberal notions of universal reason, freedom, tolerance and the rule of law since the Enlightenment have been proven a lie overnight, deserving only to be flushed away in the face of a resurgence of ancient savageries. One aim of this essay is to show this would be too hasty an assessment; another is to provide a general theory of “globalization”, a notion which often has seemed lost for meaning.

1. Globalization Through a Wide-Angle Lens
The perpetrators of September 11 subjectively acted in the name of Islam. It would have surprised them to know of the great respect with which the religious experience of Prophet Muhammad (572-632 AD) had been treated in the English language by Carlyle in 1842:

“The great Mystery of Existence… glared in upon (Muhammad), with its terrors, with its splendours; no hearsays could hide that unspeakable fact, ‘Here am I!’. Such sincerity… has in very truth something of divine. The word of such a man is a Voice direct from Nature’s own Heart. Men do and must listen to that as nothing else; all else is wind in comparison.” 1

Carlyle told the story of Muhammad once not abiding by his own severe faith when he wept for an early disciple saying “You see a friend weeping over his friend”; and of how, when the young beautiful Ayesha tried to make him compare her favourably to his deceased wife and first disciple the widow Khadija, Muhammad had denied her:

“She believed in me when none else would believe. In the whole world I had but one friend and she was that!”

Carlyle suggested the simple humanity and humility of Muhammad’s life and example, and even an intersection between Islamic belief and modern science (“a Voice direct from Nature’s own Heart”). He quoted Goethe: “If this be Islam, do we not all live in Islam?”, suggesting there might be something of universal import in Muhammad’s message well beyond specifically Muslim ontological beliefs.
In general, the life or words of a spiritual leader of mankind like Muhammad, Christ, or Buddha, as indeed of discoverers of the physical world like Darwin or Einstein, or explorers of secular human nature like Aristotle, Adam Smith or Karl Marx, may be laid claim to by all of us whether we are explicit adherents, disciples or admirers or not. No private property rights may be attached upon their legacies, but rather these remain open to be discussed freely and reasonably by everyone.

A second example is more proximate. It is of M. K. Gandhi the Indian sitting in South Africa reflecting on the Christian ideas of Thoreau the American and Tolstoy the Russian, synthesizing these with Hindu-Jain notions of “ahimsa” or “non-hatred” into a technique of political action to be applied eventually to end British rule in India; then transferred a decade after Gandhi’s assassination to the U. S. Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King Jr, and later, after King’s assassination, back to Nelson Mandela languishing in prison, who ends apartheid and brings in its place a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” in South Africa.2
Construing globalization to mean merely Westernization of the East has been a commonplace error, leading to a narrow cramped perspective and reflecting ignorance of both East and West. There are countless examples of the Easternization of the West including the exportation of Judaism and Christianity, and of Indian and Arab mathematics and astronomy in the Middle Ages. There have been and will be countless cross-fertilizations between East and West, let aside the subtle influences of Africa and other cultures and continents on art, music, dance, sports and beliefs around the world. In general, whenever an idea, practice, institution or artifact transmits itself from its origin elsewhere, we have a little piece of globalization taking place. The speed and volume of such transmissions may have vastly increased in recent decades thanks to the growth of modern transport and communications but that is not to say some of the most important transmissions have not already taken place or may not yet take place. Ours like every generation may be biased in favour of its own importance.

2. Suicide, Terrorism & Political Protest
Global transmissions can be as soft and salubrious as Americans learning to enjoy football which is not American football. But they can be grim and desperate too — like the transfer of “suicide bombing” techniques from Sri Lanka’s civil war to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; or the idea of schoolboys firing automatic weapons germinating from A Clockwork Orange to actuality thirty years later in an American or a German school.

In fact the Thoreau-Tolstoy-Gandhi techniques of civil disobedience or a hunger-strike inflicting pain or sacrifice on oneself to show an adversary his folly, slide naturally to a limit of suicide as political protest — as when the Buddhist Superior Thich Quang Duc, protesting religious persecution by Diem’s regime in South Vietnam, immolated himself on June 2 1963, soon to be followed by other Buddhist monks and nuns, leading to the end of the Diem regime and start of the American war in Vietnam. Six years and half a world away, Jan Palach, on January 19 1969, immolated himself in Wenceslas Square protesting the apathy of his countrymen to the Soviet invasion that had ended the Prague Spring. Suicide as political protest still abides by the Socratic injunction that it would be better to suffer wrong than to wrong others.3

Terrorism by suicide killing crosses that line — over into a world of utilitarian calculation on the part of the perpetrator that his or her suicide as political protest would be inadequate, and must be accompanied by causing death among the perceived adversary as well.

Gandhi, King and Mandela each had conservative, accommodative currents on one side, as well as radical dissident or parallel terrorist offshoots on the other, and we will return to ask why no non-violent political movement seems identifiable of which September 11 was the violent terrorist offshoot.

Where political protest is absent from the motivation, and killing the adversary becomes the aim with suicide merely the means, as with Japan’s kamikaze pilots, we have passed into a realm of international war between organized authorities in contrast with mere terrorism against some organized authority. A suicide-killer may of course subjectively believe himself/herself to be making a political protest though his/her principals may see him/her as an instrument of war.

Also, if it is correct to distinguish between kamikaze pilots and the perpetrators of September 11 by absence and presence of political protest in their motivation, terrorism typically arises as rebellion against some organized authority, and is to be contrasted precisely with war between organized authorities. “State terrorism” can then only refer to an organized authority being repressive to the point of using its power to cause terror, physical or mental, upon a people or individuals under its control. “State-sponsored” terrorism would be something else again, where an organized authority assists a terroristic rebellion against some other organized authority, amounting effectively to an undeclared international war.4

3. Science, Religion, Art, and the Necessity of Freedom
The question arises whether anything in human nature or society may be identified to help analyse, explain or predict the myriad transmissions of globalization taking place, whether salubrious or not. If such a theory claims to be “general”, it will need to be wide enough to try to explain the motivation for modern terrorism and September 11 2001 in particular.

We could start with the observable fact there is and has been only one human species, no matter how infinitely variegated its specimens across space and time. All have a capacity to reason as well as a capacity to feel a range of emotions in their experience of the world, something we share to an extent with other forms of life as well. And every human society, in trying to ascertain what is good for itself, finds need to reason together about how its members may be best able to survive, grow, reproduce and flourish. This process of common reasoning and reflection vitally requires freedom of inquiry and expression of different points of view. The lone voice in dissent needs to be heard or at least not suppressed just in case it is the right voice counselling against a course which might lead to catastrophe for all. To reason together implies a true or right answer exists to be found, and the enterprise of truth-seeking thus requires freedom as a logical necessity. It takes guts to be a lone dissenter, and all societies have typically praised and encouraged the virtues of courage and integrity, and poured shame on cowardice, treachery or sycophancy. Similarly, since society is a going concern, justice and fairplay in the working of its institutions is praised and sought after while corruption, fraud or other venality is condemned and punished.

A flourishing society may be viewed as one advancing in its scientific knowledge, its artistic achievements, and its religious or philosophical consciousness. Each of these dimensions needs to be in appropriate balance in relation to the others during the process of social and economic growth, and each has a necessity for its own aspect of freedom.

Science is our public knowledge regardless of culture or nationality gained of ourselves as members of the world and the Universe, and has been the most important common adversary of all religions. Who or what is homo sapiens relative to other living species? What is the difference between plants and animals? What constitutes a living organism? What is the structure of a benzene ring or a carbon atom or any atom or subatomic particle? What is light, sound, gravity? What can we say about black holes or white dwarfs? When did life begin on Earth and when is it likely to end? Are we alone in the Universe in being the only form of self-conscious life? Such questions have been asked and attempted to be answered in their own way by all peoples of the world, whether they are primitive tribes in hidden forests or sophisticated rocket scientists in hidden laboratories. Our best common understanding of them constitutes the state of scientific knowledge at a given time.
At the bar of reason, all religions lose to science wherever they try to compete on science’s home grounds, namely, the natural or physical world. If a religious belief happens to imply a material object can be in two places at the same time, that something can be made out of nothing, that the Sun and planets go around the Earth, that if you offer a sacrifice the rains will be on time, then it is destined to be falsified by experience. Science has done a lot of its work in the last few centuries, while the religions pre-date this expansion so their physical premises may have remained those of the science understood in their time. In all questions where religions try to take on the laws of scientific understanding head on, they do and must lose, and numerous factual claims made by all religions will disappear in the fierce and unforgiving heat of the crucible of scientific reasoning and evidence.
With the enormous growth of science, some scientists have gone to the limit of declaring no religious belief can possibly survive — that we are after all made up of dust and atoms alone, that there is no real difference between a mechanical talking doll and a gurgling baby who has just discovered her hands and feet.

Yet reasonable religious belief, action and experience does exist and may need to make its presence felt. Religion may not battle science and expect to win on science’s home ground but can and does win where science has nothing and can have nothing to say. It has been reasonable everywhere for men or women faced with death or personal tragedy to turn to religion for strength, courage or comfort. Such would be a point where religion offers something to life on which science has nothing of interest to say. These include the ultimate questions of life or death or the “Mystery of Existence” itself, in Carlyle’s term.

In fact the ultra-scientific prejudice fails ultimately to be reasonable enough, and is open to a joint and decisive counter-attack by both the religious believer and the artist. Modern science has well established that our small planet orbits an unexceptional member of an unexceptional galaxy. Copernicus by this started the era of modern science and began the end of the grip on Western culture of astrology, which was based on a geocentric Ptolomaic worldview (many Asian cultures like India and perhaps China still remain in that grip).

Yet the pre-modern geocentrism contained a subtle truth which has formed the foundation of both art and religion: to the best of scientific knowledge to this day, Earth is the centre of the Universe inasmuch as it is only here that reason and intelligence and consciousness have come to exist, that there is such a thing as the power to think and the power to love.5

We are, as far as anyone knows, quite alone in having the ability to understand ourselves and to be conscious of our own existence. The great galaxies, black holes and white dwarfs are all very impressive, but none of them is aware of its own existence or capable of the thought or love of any human baby or for that matter the commonest street dog.

What responsibility arises for human beings because of the existence of this consciousness? That is the common and reasonable question addressed by both religion and art, on which science is and must remain silent. We may come to know through science that life has existed for x million years and is likely to be extinguished in y million more years, but we do not know why it arose at all, or what responsibility devolves on those beings, namely ourselves, who have consciousness and reason to comprehend their own existence in the Universe.
D. H. Lawrence meant to raise this when he said the novel was a greater invention than Galileo’s telescope. Great painters, composers, or other artists can be imagined saying something similar. Art is the expression of life, and human cultures, like plants, may be fresh and vigourous with life or decadent and doomed to death. The society which both recognizes and comprehends its own artistic traditions through reasonable evaluation while encouraging new shoots of artistic creativity, will be one with a vibrant cultural life; the society incapable of evaluating its own art self- critically enough will be likely also to kill new creativity from within itself, and become vulnerable to a merger or takeover.

Science, religion and art each vitally requires freedom in order to thrive. In art, the function of reason arises in critical evaluation of literature, paintings, cinema, drama, music, dance, architecture and other aspects of aesthetics. Swimming against a full tide of majority opinion here often may be the right thing to do. The critic F. R. Leavis spoke of the importance of there being an educated public to maintain serious cultural standards; he meant that the freedom to be vigourously critical, often against shallow entrenched coterie opinions, may be the only safeguard preventing artistic or cultural standards from collapse. In science, the activity of reasoning whether in public with one another or privately within oneself, dispels scientific illusions (like astrology) and so enlarges the area occupied by a common empirical understanding. Freedom is logically necessary here to keep potential avenues towards the truth open; it extends also to protecting through tolerance those factual beliefs which may be manifestly false — it may be a crime to steal or commit murder but it is not a crime to hold erroneous factual beliefs about the world as such (e.g. astrology is wrong because Copernicus is right, but it would be illiberal to jail people for believing in astrology.) Such a need for freedom of belief and experience, as well as the tolerance of dissent, becomes most obvious in religion, where the stupendous task facing all human beings is of attempting to unravel the “Mystery of Existence”. The scope of these ontological questions, unanswered and unanswerable by science, is so vast it would be only wise to allow the widest search for answers to take place, across all possible sources and religious faiths, wherever the possibility of an insight into any of these subtle truths may arise. Perhaps that is why some solitary thinkers have sought to experience all the great religions in their own lifetimes, sometimes by deliberate conversion from one faith to the next.

A flourishing society, then, would be one which grows along the three planes of science, religion and art under conditions of freedom. And such a notion may be measured at different scales of social life. It starts with the family as the author of Anna Karenina knew in its famous opening sentence: “All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. It could then move to flourishing tribes, neighborhoods or local communities, to flourishing towns, provinces, or whole nations. At any of these levels, the flourishing society is one which inhales deeply the fresh air of natural science, and so sees its knowledge of the material world grow by leaps and bounds; it encourages religious and philosophical discussions and tolerance so does not fail to comprehend its own purpose of being; and it lives creatively and self-critically in trying to improve the expressiveness of its artistic achievements. Such a society would be self-confident enough to thrive in a world of global transmissions of ideas, practices, institutions and artifacts. Even if it was small in economic size or power relative to others, it would not be fearful of its own capacity to absorb what is valuable or to reject what is worthless from the rest of the world. To absorb what is valuable from outside is to supercede what may be less valuable at home; to reject what is worthless from outside is to appreciate what may be worthwhile at home. Both require faculties of critical and self-critical judgement, and the flourishing society will be one which possesses these qualities and exercises them with confidence.

4. Asia’s Modern Dilemmas: Named Social Life or Anonymous Markets
Actual societies, whether small like families or large like nations, in East or West, now or in the past, typically display these qualities in relative balance, excess, or shortage.6 Broadly speaking, throughout the vast span of Asia, there has been unstinting admiration over the last two hundred years for the contribution of the modern West to art, architecture and the growth of scientific knowledge. Where it has come to be known and applied, there has been admiration for liberal Western political thought; while ancient Asian nations which hastily imported ideologies like fascism and communism have lived to regret it. Western political morality at its finest derives from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant that rational beings recognise one another’s autonomy and treat one another as ends in themselves, not as means towards each other’s ends. 7 We see this in action today in for example the cordial relations between the USA and Canada, or between North America and Europe, or in recent attempts at European integration.

Asian nationalists in the 20th Century struggled to try to establish individual autonomous national identities, as the West had done in the 18th and 19th centuries. Asian nationalism represented an unwillingness to be treated as mere means towards the ends of Western nations, something we still see today when country B is used to counter A, then C used to counter B, then D used to counter C, etc in the old imperial manner of divide and rule This remains a serious problem of international relations but is something Asia can resolve independently by seeking to create for herself free societies which flourish in science, religion and the arts which would then be robust, self-confident and autonomous enough to decline to be used as means towards others’ ends. Furthermore, Asian societies in some respects all resemble one another and pre-modern Western societies more than they do the contemporary West. These pre-modern societies were ones in which a person was identified by rights and obligations flowing from the place he or she came to occupy through inheritance or brave achievement, and centred around the loyalty of friendship and kinship, as well as fidelity of the household. The relationships between the sexes, between generations, between friends, all these across Asia today may still perhaps resemble one another and the pre-modern West more than they do some trends in the contemporary West. History and identity continue to predominate our cultures in Asia: everyone is someone’s son or daughter, someone’s brother or sister or friend or relative, everyone is from some place and is of some age; and every deed has a history to it which everyone knows about or wants to talk about.

In contrast, the modern Western financial economics which the present author teaches his students, describes a world of anonymous “efficient markets” with no memory; where anyone can thrive as long as he or she brings something of value to trade; where all information needed to determine prices tomorrow is contained in today’s prices and events; where nothing from yesterday is necessary to determine anything in the future; where the actual direction of price-change is random and cannot be consistently foretold, so we cannot in general make any prediction which will lead to profit without risk. We are to imagine a large number of players in such a market, each with only a tiny bit of market-power itself, and none able to move the terms of trade on its own. Each of these players then, according to the textbooks, seizes every chance to improve his or her own position regardless of all else, he or she will “buy low” and “sell high” whatever and whenever possible, until price differences between identical assets vanish and no extra profit remains to be squeezed out from anything. Such briefly is the pure theory of the efficient market economy which one teaches as an economist. One tells one’s students it is a good thing, and it is to be found, if anywhere in the best international financial markets, and that what globalization refers to is the whole world becoming like one big efficient marketplace.8

Yet, privately, Asia may have watched with dismay the near-collapse of family and social life which has sometimes accompanied the modern prosperity and technological advancement. The war in Vietnam brought obvious physical destruction to parts of Asia but may also have had more subtle corrosive long-term effects on the social fabric of the West. If there has been something liberal and humane about Western politics while Asian politics have been cruel and oppressive, there may also be something stable and chaste about traditional Asian family life while modern Western societies have sometimes seemed vapid and dissolute. Specifically, if it is fair to say there has been too little autonomy experienced by women and children in many Asian societies, it may be fair as well to observe a surfeit of choices may have arisen in some Western societies, greater than many women and children there may privately wish for. How does a society find its right balance on the question of the autonomy, modesty and protection of family life and other social relationships? The divorce courts of the ultra-modern world are places of deep misery for everyone except the lawyers involved in the trade, and as some Asian leaders have observed, something the globalization of Asia could well seek to avoid. Thus the dilemma faced by many Asians today may be how to absorb the efficiency of markets and sound governance of liberal political institutions, without the kind of private social collapse that seems to have occurred in many ultramodern societies, nor the kind of loss of political sovereignty against which Asian nationalists had struggled during the age of imperialism. We may now see how far this brief but general theory of globalization may be applied in explaining the bewildering events of September 11 2001.

5. September 11 : the Collapse of the Global Conversation
Words are also deeds while deeds may also convey meaning.9 The words and deeds of the perpetrators of September 11 2001, and of the nation-states organized against them since that date, are both components of a complex and subtle global conversation taking place as to the direction of our common future.
In earlier times, Gandhi, King and Mandela each led successful non-violent political protests of “non-white” peoples against “white” organized authorities. Their protests assumed a level of tolerance arising out of mutual respect between rebel and authority. None was a totalitarian revolutionary out to destroy his adversary in toto but rather each intended to preserve and nurture many aspects of the existing order. Each had first become the master of the (Christian?) political idiom of his adversary and was willing and able to employ this idiom to demonstrate the selfcontradiction of his opponent, who was typically faced with a charge of hypocrisy, of maintaining both x and its contrary ~x and so becoming devoid of meaning. Such political conversations of words and deeds required time and patience, and the movements of Gandhi, King and Mandela each took decades to fructify during the 20th Century. They had more conservative accommodative currents on one side, and more impatient radical terroristic offshoots on the other.

All such aspects seem absent from September 11 and its aftermath, which seems at first sight sui generis. No patient non-violent political protest movement can be identified of which September 11 was a violent terroristic offshoot or parallel. Tolerance has not merely vanished but been replaced by panic, mutual fear and hatred. Violence appears as the first and not last recourse of political discussion. The high speed of the modern world almost demands a winner to be declared instantly in conflicts with subtle and unobvious roots, and the only way to seem to win at speed is by perpetrating the largest or most dramatic amount of violence or cruelty. The world after September 11 2001 has seemed a very bewildering place — as if all liberal notions of universal reason, freedom, tolerance and the rule of law since the Enlightenment have been proven a lie overnight, deserving only to be flushed away in face of a resurgence of ancient savageries.

But this would be too hasty an assessment. The global conversation clearly collapsed very badly from the time of e.g. Carlyle’s effort in 1842 to understand Islam’s legacy to the point of September 11 2001 being carried out against the United States or Western civilisation in general in Islam’s name. Even so, the universal liberal virtues of patience, tolerance and common reasoning can still find use here — in identifying possible deep, long-term historical factors which may have accumulated or congregated together to cause such a crime to take place.
One such historical factor has been technological and economic: the invention and immense use of the internal combustion engine throughout the 20th Century, coupled with discovery of petroleum beneath the sands of Arabia — all of which has made the material prosperity of the modern West depend, in the current state of technology, on this link not becoming ruptured. A second and independent factor has been the history of Christian Europe’s alternating persecution and emancipation of the Jewish people, which leads in due course to the Balfour declaration of 1919 and, following the Nazi Holocaust, to the creation of modern Israel among the Arabic- speaking peoples. The history between Christianity and Judaism is one in which the Arabic-speaking peoples were largely passive bystanders. Indeed, they may have been almost passive bystanders in creation of their own nation-states as well — for a third historical factor must be the lack of robust development of modern political and economic institutions among them, with mechanisms of political expression and accountability often having remained backward perhaps more so than in many other parts of Asia.

The end of World War I saw not only Balfour’s declaration but also Kitchener, Allenby and T. E. Lawrence literally designing or inventing new nationstates from areas on a desert-map:

“Our aim was an Arab Government, with foundations large and native enough to employ the enthusiasm and self-sacrifice of the rebellion, translated into terms of peace. We had to … carry that ninety percent of the population who had been too solid to rebel, and on whose solidity the new State must rest…. In ten words, (Allenby) gave his approval to my having impertinently imposed Arab Governments… upon the chaos of victory…”

“(The secret Arab societies) were pro-Arab only, willing to fight for nothing but Arab independence; and they could see no advantage in supporting the Allies rather than the Turks, since they did not believe our assurances that we would leave them free. Indeed, many of them preferred an Arabia united by Turkey in miserable subjection, to an Arabia divided up and slothful under the easier control of several European powers in spheres of influence.” 10

Beginning with the Allied-induced Arab revolt against the Turks, the classic imperial doctrine of “balance of powers” or “divide and rule” has seemed to continue to be applied in rather more subtle diplomatic form up until the present: with post-Mossadeq Iran against any incipient Arab nationalism, then with Iraq against post-Revolutionary Iran, then against Iraq in the Gulf War of 1991. It is only during and after the Gulf War that Osama Bin Laden, as a totalitarian revolutionary, arose as an adversary of the West.

Throughout these decades, little or no spontaneous cosmopolitan political conversation seems to have occurred from which a mature, sustained indigenous Arab or other Muslim nationalism may have arisen as the basis for nation-states, as had done e.g. with Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian or Vietnamese nationalism.11

From 1919 to 1945, the global conversation became preoccupied with other matters, and from 1945 to the end of the Cold War, with yet other matters again. While the three long-term factors unfolded themselves through these turbulent decades, the natural vibrant free conversation vitally necessary for the political life of any people continued for the Arabic-speaking peoples to remain mostly stifled, dormant, inchoate or abortive. Expectedly enough, whatever little current it had turned inward to the insular austere roots of a faith of the desert:

“The Beduin of the desert…found himself indubitably free…. In his life he had air and winds, sun and light, open spaces and a great emptiness. There was no human effort, no fecundity in Nature: just the heaven above and the unspotted earth beneath. There unconsciously he became near God…. The Beduin could not look for God within him: he was too sure that he was within God. He could not conceive anything which was or was not God, Who alone was great…. This creed of the desert seemed inexpressible in words, and indeed in thought. It was easily felt as an influence, and those who went into the desert long enough to forget its open spaces and its emptiness were inevitably thrust upon God as the only refuge and rhythm of being…. This faith of the desert was impossible in the towns…” 12

But this attempt to return inevitably became something reactionary in the late 20th Century. Finding the Beduin and the original deserts of Arabia transformed over the intervening decades, it could only try to recreate itself among the Pashtoon in the barrenness of Afghanistan, and led to the bizarre scenes of the Taliban attempting to destroy televisions and cassette-tapes in the name of Islam.

6. Envoi
The crimes of September 11 2001 were ones of perverse terroristic political protest, akin on a global scale to the adolescent youth in angry frustration who kills his schoolmates and his teachers with an automatic weapon. But they were not something inexplicable or sui generis. They represented a final collapse of the centuries-old cosmopolitan conversation with Islam, while at the same time it was an incoherent cry of a stifled people trying to return to the austere faith of the desert. Words are also deeds, and deeds may also be language. What September 11 has demonstrated is that even while the information we have about one another and ourselves has increased exponentially in recent years, our mutual comprehension of one another and ourselves may well have grossly deteriorated in quality.

Reversing such atrophy in our self-knowledge and mutual comprehension requires, in the opinion of the present author, the encouragement of all societies of all sizes to flourish in their scientific knowledge, their religious and philosophical consciousness and self-discovery, and their artistic expressiveness under conditions of freedom. Ultra-modern societies like some in North America or Europe may then perhaps become more reflective during their pursuit of material advancement and prosperity, while ancient societies like those in Asia or elsewhere may perhaps become less fearful of their capacity to engage in the transition between tradition and modernity, indeed, may even affect the direction or speed of change in a positive manner.

To use a metaphor of Otto Neurath, we are as if sailors on a ship, who, even while sailing on the water, have to change the old planks of the ship with new planks one by one. In due course of time, all the planks get changed one at a time, but at no time has there not been a ship existing in the process — at no time need we have lost our history or our identity.

© Subroto Roy, November 16 2001; January 26 2004

1 Thomas Carlyle, Heroes and Hero Worship, London 1842.
2 In fact, “Gandhi’s correspondence with Tolstoy… only started after passive resistance had begun, and he only read Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience when he was in prison for that very offence”. Judith M. Brown, Gandhi’s Rise to Power,Indian Politics 1915-1922, Cambridge University Press 1972.
3 Cf. The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Princeton, 1961, Gorgias 474b, 483a, b.Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, Thinking, pp. 181-182, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971
4 Applying this to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the precise question would be
how far the present Palestinian authority may be objectively considered the organized authority of a nation-state: if it is, then Palestinian suicide-killings are acts of war; if it is not, they are acts of terrorism. The rhetoric on each side
5 Finding water or even primitive life elsewhere will not change this.
6 For example, the relatively new nation-states created upon the ancient societies of the Indian subcontinent to which the present author belongs, apparently display a surfeit of religiosity combined with a shortage of rational scientific growth, including the sciences of governance and economics. Despite the examples of solitary thinkers from Kabir and Nanak to Gandhi, the political and economic benefits of social tolerance still seem badly understood in the subcontinent. Equally, the mechanism of holding those in power accountable for their actions or omissions in the public domain has often remained extremely backward. A mature grasp of the division between the private and public spheres may also have been absent in Asia; the distinction between private and public property is often fuzzy or opaque; the phenomena of corruption and pollution are then easily explained as mirror-images of one another: corruption is the transmutation of something valuable from the public domain into private property; pollution is the expulsion of private waste into the public domain. Each is likely to be found with the other.
7 Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, ed. H. J. Paton, Oxford
8 The contrast between “named” and “anonymous” societies occurred to the
author on the basis of the theoretical work of Professor Frank Hahn of Cambridge University, Cf. Equilibrium and Macroeconomics, MIT 1984.
9 This was emphasized by the late Cambridge philosopher Renford Bambrough, “Thought, word and deed”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supp. Vol.
LIV, 1980, pp. 105-117.
10 T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, A Triumph, 1926, Doubleday 1935, pp. 649, 659; pp. 46-47
11 The most may have been Attaturk’s Turkey, M. A. Jinnah’s creation of a Pakistan separate from India, and Algeria’s independence from France — all distant from the fulcrum of Arabia. In case of Pakistan, it was Hitler’s invasion of Poland that led the British, in something of a panic, to begin on September 3 1939 to treat Jinnah’s Muslim League on par with Gandhi ‘s Indian National Congress. The 1937 provincial election results had shown little support for Pakistan in the areas which today constitute that country. Cf. F. Robinson, “Origins” in Foundations of Pakistan’s Political Economy: Towards an Agenda for the 1990s, edited by William E. James & Subroto Roy, Hawaii MS 1989, Sage 1992, Karachi OUP 1993.
12 Seven Pillars of Wisdom, pp. 40-41