Missing the Forest for the Trees

We are in an ambivalent investment environment globally. Risk assets find themselves in a strange conundrum. While low interest rates have ensured that there are no cheap bargains out there, the feeling increasingly among capital allocators is that everything is fully priced. Animal spirits seem to be confined in a few individuals like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and it seems like not much else is happening elsewhere. The excitement around emerging markets has disappeared and the feeling among investors is that plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose (the more things change the more they stay the same).

I don’t think I am qualified enough to make a statement about every single asset class and every single geography in the world, however, I do believe that I have a good handle on things on the ground in India.  The narrative among investors allocating to India is that it is fully priced and that the risk-reward has become inverted. Markets have done well while the real economy remains sluggish.  In my investing career of 18 years, I have remained obsessively focused on asymmetry and protection of permanent losses of capital. I can tell you that investors are completely missing the forest for the trees.

Something transformational is under way in India. It is hard for me to explain what is happening on the ground without sounding hyperbolic. Let us discuss two very significant changes underway and their transformational impact on India.

Movement to a rules based system: This is unprecedented in India’s history. The law in India has always been optional and has been enforced differently for different people. Discretion is slowly being weeded out of the system and the leadership at the top has embraced decentralization and non-interference. While skeptics will quickly point to continuing grass roots anomalies and corruption, the change at the top is undeniable. If one were to assume that the current leadership will govern for seven more years, the fabric of India’s civil society will be transformed forever. While this derails the gravy train for the beneficiaries of the current system, it creates exponential growth and value creation opportunities for those playing by the rules.

De-bottlenecking India: India has been divided by its rulers and leaders for centuries. This policy of division continued after Independence. Division is very lucrative for those in power as it increases the value and hence the tolls for access and decision-making. Giving up power and discretion is very difficult even for the most benevolent. Unification increases transparency, reduces friction and reduces the ability of those in power to collect tolls. India has been undergoing massive re-unification and integration at a fundamental level for the last three years.  It started with the dismantling of the planning commission and the devolution of revenues to the states that strengthens the federal architecture envisaged in India’s constitution and continues with the implementation of the Goods & Services Tax (GST). Low cost information technology and ubiquitous mobile telephony has enabled the government to undertake rapid large scale deployments of e-initiatives. The mobility of the people in the United States has always amazed me. Mobility of people and workers has been severely restricted in India and people have remained unwillingly chained to opportunities in their immediate ecosystem. Initiatives like mobile employee provident fund accounts (EPFO), low cost Jan Dhan bank accounts and biometrics based Aadhar numbers have empowered migrant workers and reduced their bondage to employers. Initiatives like jurisdiction free income tax assessments and digital national agri marketplace (e-NAM) are likely to further unchain individuals from their immediate geographic ecosystem.  

The number of initiatives under implementation for the decentralizing and integration of India’s social and economic systems are too many to list here. Let us instead focus on what this means for India’s economy and for investing in India.  This integration completely disrupts existing business models of companies that have profited from the inefficiencies of a divided India. One can already hear the cacophony of complaints from business people who are seeing their margins compress and their businesses disappear. The old order has changed forever and the sooner companies accept it and take corrective action, the more likely they are to survive and thrive.  While the old order based on inefficiencies is getting disrupted, new opportunities for scale from servicing a national market are emerging. Companies have to invest in people, management and technology and have to improve access to organized capital to survive and thrive in this environment. For companies that manage to embrace this change the opportunities are unprecedented. This entire change is resulting in (good) deflation and is empowering the Indian consumer. Over the next decade, India is likely to see gigantic leaps in productivity growth and increases in purchasing power and standards of living. 

The equity markets in India offer a range of investing opportunities second only to those offered by the US markets. There are a large number of companies in India run by competent management teams with good standards of corporate governance and sensible capital allocation policies.  Many of these companies and their management teams are cognizant of the new emerging order and the opportunities it presents. They are hard at work transforming their companies to capture the emerging opportunities and to catapult themselves higher. For companies like these, trailing valuations are irrelevant.  The challenge for investors of course is the fact that not every company has what it takes to change leagues.  However, given the magnitude of the change underway in India the universe of investible companies is fairly large.  

Opportunities to invest in economies, markets and companies like these emerge once in a generation. It is inevitable that there will be setbacks and missteps along the way and it is true that there are no roads paved with gold in India. However, as a tour guide at Ellis Island in New York once told me, the exciting part is that the roads are getting paved rapidly and that investors (immigrants in the case of Ellis Island) have the opportunity to participate in the paving of the roads. It is therefore important for investors not to lose sight of the forest while evaluating the trees.

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.

Making Mistakes

Imagine running a company where every time an employee makes a mistake that loses money for the company, the employee gets fired.  Or worse yet, the employee is prosecuted and goes to jail.  Such a company would not be very successful.  Employees would not have an incentive to do anything.  There are very few actions that one can take in life that have a zero probability of a negative outcome.  If one’s mandate is to avoid negative outcomes, one will give up taking action altogether and forsake all potential positive outcomes as well.

Successful companies need honest, hardworking and intelligent people who are willing to take calculated risks in the interest of the company based on information available at the time.  Situations change, the environment changes and business realities change. Sometimes things work out and sometimes they don't.  But all companies that desire to be successful need their employees to continuously make decisions and to take reasonable risks.  Successful companies train and inculcate this attribute in their employees.

However, if the culture of the organization changes such that employees’ interests become misaligned with the interests of the company and if employees deliberately make poor decisions that are likely to cause loses for the company while enriching themselves personally, the organization is doomed.  Such actions of employees become grounds for them getting fired, prosecuted and potentially jailed.

The difference between the honest mistake and the deliberate poor decision is identified by the intent of the action taken, the misalignment of interests and the unjust enrichment by the action.  In the absence of looking at these three things, both actions are likely to look identical from a distance.

What is true for successful businesses and their employees is true for successful governments and their employees as well.  Governments that desire to succeed and fulfill the aspirations of people, need government employees who are intelligent, honest, hardworking and who make lot of decisions and take reasonable risks.

In 1988 India enacted a law called the Prevention of Corruption Act that did not distinguish between erroneous decisions of government employees and those that caused them unjust enrichment (via bribes or corruption). The intent of the act should be to prevent a misalignment of interests between government employees and public interest and should not foster a culture of indecision which has become the norm in government.  In 2013 the UPA government proposed amendments to the PCA but the act could not be passed. The NDA government has proposed further changes and the amendment is currently in Parliament. If the dysfunction in Parliament ends, it is likely that the amendment will get passed.  I believe that in time, this will prove a landmark amendment that will reduce the culture of indecision in government and will encourage (at least a few to begin with) honest, intelligent, hard working and motivated officers to take potentially disruptive and game changing decisions in the public interest.  Some of those decisions will fail, but a few will succeed and that will in turn potentially change the trajectory of the country.