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, Kolkata

Posted in Academic research, AD Shroff, Asia and the West, Big Business and Big Labour, BR Shenoy, Britain, Britain in India, British history, Economic Policy, Economic quackery, Economic Theory, Economics of exchange controls, Economics of Public Finance, Economics of real estate valuation, Financial Management, Financial markets, Foreign exchange controls, Government Budget Constraint, Government of India, India's Big Business, India's Banking, India's bureaucracy, India's Capital Markets, India's corporate finance, India's corporate governance, India's corruption, India's currency history, India's Economic History, India's Economy, India's Government Budget Constraint, India's Government Expenditure, India's Industry, India's inflation, India's Macroeconomics, India's Monetary & Fiscal Policy, India's nomenclatura, India's peasants, India's political lobbyists, India's Politics, India's pork-barrel politics, India's poverty, India's Public Finance, Inflation, Land and political economy, Macroeconomics, Mamata Banerjee, Manmohan Singh, Margaret Thatcher, Margaret Thatcher's Revolution, Martin Ricketts, Mendacity in politics, Microeconomics, Monetary Theory, Money and banking, Mumbai financial world, New Delhi, Patrick Minford, Political cynicism, Political Economy, Political mendacity, Political Science, Politics, Pork-barrel politics, Power-elites and nomenclatura, Practical wisdom, Principal-agent problem, Privatisation, Public Choice/Public Finance, Public property waste fraud, Rajiv Gandhi, Rational decisions, Singur and Nandigram, Sonia Gandhi, Statesmanship, The Statesman, The Times (London), University of Buckingham. Leave a Comment »

Hutton and Desai: United in Error

Hutton and Desai: United in Error
Subroto Roy

In an engaging debate in Prospect Magazine about a year ago, republished at China Digital Times, Will Hutton and Meghnad Desai have made the same cardinal error: they have assumed (like almost everyone else who has considered China’s or India’s recent macroeconomics) that savings rates are some astronomical figure.

Typical official fallacies in both countries include thinking that clever bureaucratic use of such high savings rates can and does 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.

Here is Hutton on this issue: “China’s economic growth is based on the state channelling vast under-priced savings into huge investment … How much longer can China’s state-owned banks carry on directing billions of dollars of savings into investments that produce tiny or even negative returns…” (italics added)

Here is Desai: “China has achieved rapid growth with a policy of under-consumption and over-saving… China… now has 10.4 per cent growth on a 44 per cent savings rate….” (italics added)

What has been mismeasured as high savings in China and India is actually the expansion of bank-deposits in a fractional reserve banking system induced by runaway government deficit-spending.

On the basis of Indian evidence, I said this in public for the first time at Patrick Minford’s seminar on monetary economics at Cardiff and a week later at the IEA London in the spring of 2005 in a lecture titled “Can India become a superpower or will there be a monetary meltdown?” My recent general articles in The Statesman “The Dream Team: A Critique”, “Fallacious Finance”, “Against Quackery” etc speak a little more of this in the Indian case. What little I have seen of Chinese evidence indicates a similar phenomenon at work.

I said in 2005:”New technological progress in a myriad of ways, as well as the discovery of new resources… are all important factors contributing to real economic growth in India today. While the real side of the economy does well, the “nominal” economy, within the Government’s control, displays disconcerting trends. Continual deficit financing for half a century has led to exponential growth of public debt and broad money. The vast growth of time-deposits in banks may have been misinterpreted as indicating a real phenomenon such as unusual savings behaviour when it is more likely to be a nominal phenomenon resulting from increasing amounts of government debt being held by the largely nationalised banking sector. (The same may be true of China).”

As for growth-rates, before anyone at all waffles on about China’s and India’s allegedly high growth-rates, it is best to bring to mind a little hard evidence from other countries eg Germany and Japan where growth was starting from devastated post-War initial conditions:

West Germany: 6.6% in 1950-1960, falling to 3.5% by 1960-1970, and 2.4% by 1970-1978. Japan: 6.8% in 1952-1960; 9.4% in 1960-1970, 3.8% in 1970-1978.

China and India sustaining 8%, 9%, 10% annual growth of per capita real GDP for years on end? Naaaaah. Or rather, if you believe that, you will believe anything.


see also

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

Can India Become an Economic Superpower or Will There Be a Monetary Meltdown? (2005)

In 2005, I returned to Britain thanks to an invitation from Professor Patrick Minford of the Cardiff Business School, Cardiff University, to deliver a lecture on India’s Money at his Economics Seminar.
“Wednesday 13 April 2005 Dr Subroto Roy /India’s Money/ 4.30pm, Room S01 (Economics Seminar Series)

The same lecture was delivered at the Institute of Economic Affairs, London, a fortnight later under the title “Can India Become an Economic Superpower or Will There Be a Monetary Meltdown?”. The IEA’s summary of the lecture was as follows
27 April 2005

“Leading Indian economist, Dr. Subroto Roy discusses the prospects of the Indian economy and warns of dangers ahead.

Can India become an economic superpower or will there be a monetary meltdown?

Dr. Roy discussed the prospects for the Indian economy at a lecture at the IEA on 27th April. Below is a synopsis of his lecture, outlining his hopes and concerns.

New technological progress in a myriad of ways, as well as the discovery of new resources, plus a possible peace-dividend arising from reduced regional tensions and conflict, are all important factors contributing to real economic growth in India today.

While the real side of the economy does well, the “nominal” economy, within the Government’s control, displays disconcerting trends. Continual deficit financing for half a century has led to exponential growth of public debt and broad money. The vast growth of time-deposits in banks may have been misinterpreted as indicating a real phenomenon such as unusual savings behaviour when it is more likely to be a nominal phenomenon resulting from increasing amounts of government debt being held by the largely nationalised banking sector. (The same may be true of China).

Twenty-one years ago, the author’s IEA Occasional Paper No. 69, Pricing, planning and politics: a study of economic distortions in India, proposed microeconomic reforms provoking the Times‘ lead editorial of May 29 1984. Some of these came to be implemented following the author’s role as a senior adviser to Rajiv Gandhi in 1990-1991. Now, monetary and fiscal reforms of a classical liberal nature are vitally necessary if a macroeconomic meltdown is to be prevented. Important among these are complete budgetary transparency, fiscal discipline improving the social productivity of all public expenditure, and monetary and financial policies to restore the integrity of the currency at home and abroad. Dr. Roy was Wincott Professor at the Department of Economics at the University of Buckingham last year. He is editor of Margaret Thatcher’s Revolution available from the recommended books page of the IEA’s website.”

When I returned to India, I was invited to give the same lecture on May 5 2005 to the Reserve Bank of India’s Monetary Economics Seminar, chaired by Chief Economist Dr Narendra Jadav; the invitation came thanks to the intervention of Dr S. S. Tarapore. I subsequently informed a few of India’s key monetary policy decision-makers of these lectures, and I was happy to see policy talk emanating from Delhi and Bombay becoming a little less drunken and disorderly than it had been before.

Subroto Roy, April 14 2007