Voluntary Suspension of Disbelief

The dictionary defines suspension of disbelief as a willingness to suspend one's critical faculties and believe the unbelievable.  Suspension of disbelief is essential for the enjoyment of works of fiction like movies, books, magic shows etc.  However, we humans seem to excel in the art of disbelief suspension in many other areas of our lives as well.  Investing is at the top of that list.

In the words of Warren Buffett, price is what you pay and value is what you get.  But investing based on value is very difficult to practice.  Investing based on value requires one to take a position that the market is wrong.  Our belief in prices set by the market or to put another way, our willingness to suspend disbelief about the prices set by the market makes it hard for us to disagree with the value ascribed by those prices.  Once the link between the price of a security and the value of its underlying asset is broken due to the voluntary suspension of disbelief by market participants, interesting things start to happen.

Benjamin Graham noted that the market then becomes a voting machine instead of a weighing machine and success begets success and failure begets failure.  Graham had said that the markets behave like a voting machine in the short term and a weighing machine in the long term.  Unfortunately he did not define the duration of the long term.  John Maynard Keynes on the hand did articulate it and said that in the long term we are all dead.  

Recent experience in the markets would make one believe that the long term in the market is nothing but a series of short terms and since the market behaves like a voting machine in the short term, it should theoretically also behave the same way in the long term.  This hypothesis is being proved by the rise and rise of passive index based investing.   The most recent semiannual report on fund manager returns produced by S&P Global (SPIVA report) showed that 90% of actively managed US mutual funds underperformed their benchmark indices.  As an active money manager and one who makes a living picking stocks, I have managed to find myself in the 10% of managers who do beat their benchmarks.  However, I can tell you from experience that it has been incredibly hard to beat the index and it is getting increasingly harder to do so.

As more money goes into passive index based funds, demand for securities that make up the indices increases and their trading volumes and liquidity increases.  The increase in demand leads to higher prices for the indices and securities thereby creating more demand of index based funds.  As money skews towards indices and their components, it moves away from non index securities thereby depressing their prices, trading volumes and liquidity.  This amplifies the perception that securities in the index are safer than those not in the index and that larger companies, which by definition are in the index, are safer investments than smaller companies.  This phenomenon is exaggerated in emerging markets which are less liquid to begin with and are dependent on foreign capital flows.

It is important then to step away from this madness and ask whether the value of the underlying matters?  Does the market ever behave like a weighing machine?  Can the fictional and voluntary suspension of disbelief result in the emergence of an alternate reality?   If we truly are in an alternate reality then again in the words of Warren Buffett, I am out of touch with present conditions, and if not then I believe that this has to all end very badly.

Raghuram Rajan’s Exit and the Indian Economy

Raghuram Rajan at the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has done a phenomenal job for India in the last three years. It’s no wonder that the entire country is upset at the government’s decision not to renew his term at the RBI which ends in September 2016. For the record, I think that Raghuram Rajan is one of the smartest people on the planet and his intellectual honesty is unquestionable. His unwavering belief in the free market and free market institutions resonates with me at a deep and fundamental level. I was a little taken aback by the Modi administration’s decision not to renew his contract. After the initial emotional reaction, I tried to objectively analyze what Rajan has accomplished during his time at the RBI and what he has struggled with or not succeeded at accomplishing. I then tried to think of objective reasons why the government might not have renewed his term.

Although Rajan has been credited with stabilizing the rupee, beyond the FCNR (B) deposit scheme that curbed volatility in the rupee at the start of his term, Rajan has not done anything exceptional for the rupee. The rupee has moved in line with other non-commodity currencies which have been relatively stable during Rajan’s tenure.

Where Rajan has made the biggest impact has been with encouraging competition in and reforming India’s banking system.  

  • The encouragement and support for the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) and its Unified Payments Interface (UPI) combined with the speed and the diversity in issuing Payments Bank Licenses will go down in history as Rajan’s biggest contribution to India and perhaps the world. India is likely to become a world leader in the digital payments space and maybe one of the first and largest countries in the world to go cashless.
  • The work done by Rajan on monetary transmission and the implementation of the Marginal Cost of Funds based Lending Rate (MCLR) regime will go a long way in bringing transparency and fairness into the business practices of the banking system.
  • The work done by the RBI in cooperation with the Finance Ministry in reforming the government owned banking system and the setting up of the Bank Board Bureau will also pay rich dividends over time.
Rajan has however had mixed success with his efforts in fixing the bad loans problem in the Indian banking system. If one were to believe rumors, the Asset Quality Review (AQR) done by the RBI and the resultant damage to powerful corporate vested interests are credited with the undoing of Rajan. However, I believe that the AQR and the manner in which it was conducted has been a failure on an objective basis. The AQR has debilitated the Indian banking system and frozen it into inaction. The cost of this to the economy is incalculable. Year on year credit growth has declined to sub- 10% levels and in April 2016 credit growth was at a 20 year low of 8.6%. Given India’s complex legal system, he has not been able to do much about distressed loan sales and asset reconstruction. Nor has he been able to do much to ensure that such debacles do not occur again in the future.

Where Rajan has completely failed has been in the handling of the macro-economy. By shifting the headline inflation number from the Wholesale Price Index (WPI) to the Consumer Price Index (CPI), Rajan has painted himself into a corner. The CPI in India is disproportionately weighted towards food. Food forms 50% of the weight of the All India CPI whereas it forms only 27% of the WPI. Food prices in India are constrained and completely determined by supply and demand dynamics and local inefficiencies. The sensitivity of food prices to interest rate changes is zero. By keeping liquidity tight, Rajan has impaired consumption, capacity utilization and as a consequence capital investment. This has become the ideological bone of contention between the government and the RBI.

Rajan’s contention has been that the short term pain and medicine of tight liquidity will structurally break the back of inflation and will put India on a fifteen year path of low inflation and high growth. Reality unfortunately has not been agreeing with Rajan’s theory and he has completely failed to understand the compulsions of democratically elected governments. The political cost of no growth and no employment creation for periods longer than a few years is simply unpalatable and unsustainable.

While conspiracy theorists will attribute Rajan’s dismissal to political compulsions and power mongering, my view is that it is driven by a fundamental disagreement on policy between the government and the RBI. While believers in central bank independence will shed many tears, the reality is that elected governments have to address the demands of the electorate.   

If my belief is true, then the exit of Raghuram Rajan will be followed by unprecedented monetary and fiscal stimulus, the kind India has never seen before. One can only hope and pray that this stimulus is directed at capacity creation and not at consumption and populist transfers. Supporters of Rajan’s policies will contend that stimulus will not create any real growth and whatever is achieved in the immediate term will be sacrificed to inflation and a weaker rupee in the medium term. Given that we are well into the fifth year of a gut wrenching economic slowdown, that there is unprecedented domestic slack in the system and that there is extreme overcapacity globally, I believe that there is a fair chance that Rajan is wrong and that the government’s plan to stimulate the economy might work without pushing up inflation too much. If the government manages to reignite animal spirits and stimulate growth, it just might result in an appreciating trend in the Indian Rupee.

Therefore, while I am sad to see Rajan go, it is important to recognize that he did not get everything right and that his successor (hopefully) might not get everything wrong.

A Train Wreck in Slow Motion

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) recently concluded an Asset Quality Review (AQR) of large Indian (primarily) government owned banks.  The outcome of the review was appalling.  Two years into a Non Performing Loan (NPL) recognition cycle, banks had large ticket NPLs that had still not been provided for.  

The Chairman of State Bank of India Arundhati Bhattacharya has been vociferous in her opposition of the AQR and the manner in which the RBI has gone about it.  In the defense of her bank she has said that although the identified loans are not being serviced, they are backed by healthy collateral and that the borrowers have positive EBITDA. Unfortunately, her argument does not hold water. In a liquidity or debt crisis, the value of collateral is not its appraised value but rather its market clearing or transaction value.  When collateral needs to be enforced, arguments like thin markets, weak economic conditions, tight liquidity and buyers' strike don't count. The reality is that these accounts have become NPLs because it is unlikely the assets are saleable even at substantial haircuts from their appraised values.

The reason the US financial system has always rebounded is because of the ruthlessness with which problem assets have been culled by it during crises.  The Resolution Trust Corporation of the early nineties conducted fire sales of otherwise good assets and quickly restored health to the US financial system.  The $700 billion TARP program of the US government during the 2008 crisis did not lose a penny for the US taxpayer. However, the story was anything but happy for shareholders of AIG, Citigroup, Wachovia, WaMu, Merill Lynch etc.

I believe that among emerging markets India has one of the strongest and most well regulated financial and banking systems.  I believe that the Indian economy has been through a gut wrenching slowdown and consolidation over the previous five years and that it looks very healthy prospectively. While I am not a big fan of banking as a business in the current environment, I believe that most of the rot in the Indian banking system is out in the open.  Given the fact that India is a net importer of energy and commodities, the global commodity collapse is helping India's fiscal situation and India's macro indicators are on a sound footing. However, the scenario in India's emerging market brethren could not be more different. The picture there looks like that of a train wreck in slow motion.

The Emerging Market script today looks very different from that of the nineties when sequentially Mexico, the Asian tigers and Russia went bust.  Those crises were all driven by too much foreign debt, fiscal and monetary imprudence and insufficient foreign exchange reserves.  After 15 years of unprecedented fiscal and monetary expansion in emerging markets driven by China's insatiable demand for commodities, the situation looks different. Foreign exchange reserves are large, lead by the big daddy of them all, China with $3 trillion.  Sovereign debt in foreign currency does not seem to be as large and as much of a problem as earlier. And finally, stimulus seems to have become the name of the game with governments everywhere willing to step in all the time to support panics.  The bond vigilantes seem to have gone into hibernation.  

But that is where the differences end. Nothing has changed in the underlying economies of emerging markets. Government spending remains high, tax collections remain poor, corruption remains high, welfare has expanded at an unprecedented rate with the size of economies and education, skill and healthcare remain as bad as ever.  The one engine that had kept all these issues under the carpet for a long time, unprecedentedly high prices and insatiable demand of commodities by China, has come to an abrupt halt.

The sanguine camp loves to point to the absence of crisis triggers and the cushion of large foreign exchange reserves. This is why I refer to the crisis in emerging markets as a train wreck in slow motion.  A small breach can sink a very large ship, therefore the important thing to focus on is the underlying fundamentals of emerging markets and not the cushions and triggers. 

In a recent discussion on the Russian economy, I heard a very silly argument.  The commentator stated that the reason the Russian economy is not facing a crisis is because although the price of oil has fallen from $100 to $40, the rouble has depreciated an equivalent amount from 30 to 75, therefore in rouble terms the price of oil has not fallen and has not disrupted the domestic economy. The commentator further highlighted the absence of material foreign currency sovereign debt and $350 billion of foreign exchange reserves.  The above discussion completely misses the reality of the underlying fundamentals.  Russia produces 10 million barrels of oil per day.  A reduction in revenues from $90 per barrel to $45 per barrel has a direct impact of $162 billion per year.  There has been no change in the spending pattern of the Russian economy during the decline in oil prices.  In addition, due to the disproportionate impact of this reduction in revenues on some sections of the economy more than the others, there has been a rapid deterioration of credit worthiness in those sections.  

In a leveraged global financial system, confidence is everything.  A run on the system, whether a bank or an economy can quickly become self fulfilling. At that time, $350 billion of reserves in Russia and $3 trillion of reserves in China may not prove sufficient.  The only way a run can be stopped is by a lender of last resort. The Federal Reserve and the US treasury stopped the run on the US financial system in 2008.  Emerging markets cannot print dollars.  Multilateral agencies like the IMF have also almost all become irrelevant.  Sovereign wealth funds of countries like Abu Dhabhi and the People's Bank of China have tried to play the role of lender of last resort in controlled instances.  Whether these agencies will have the ability or the mandate to act as lenders of last resort in a full blown crisis is not clear.

That the train has derailed and a wreck is under way is plain for all to see.  Only a voluntary suspension of disbelief can make one think that the worst is behind and somehow everything will go back to being the way it was.  China and therefore the rest of the world does not need what emerging markets are producing and that is unlikely to change at least for the next five years (until China works through its excesses of the previous twenty five years). Emerging markets need more and more of what the rest of the world produces because they have not been prudent with their bounty from the previous fifteen years and have not invested in productive capacities of manufactured goods and services. That there will be a run on their currencies and foreign currency debt (mostly private and bank related this time) is therefore inevitable.  The deeper the cushion of foreign exchange reserves, the slower, longer and therefore more painful the train wreck will be.

As self serving as this statement sounds, I believe that India will emerge as a major economic engine over the next decade or two.  It will experience nowhere close to the meteoric rise that China did in the previous two decades but will hopefully also be spared a spectacular eventual collapse.  However, the seas are likely to be stormy as the crisis in other emerging markets plays out and both the Indian markets and the Indian currency are likely to be tested.  We have not seen the last of the headlines on emerging markets - stay tuned.