No need to be negative – GST: India’s new goods and services tax

India’s imminent Goods and Services Tax (GST) will at last release the brakes of the Indian economy as everywhere else slumps into negativity

This does have to do with India’s GST, so please bear with me for a couple or three paragraphs.

Retail and commercial banks make money on the spread – the difference between the rate at which they charge interest on credit extended (money out – assets) and the rate at which they pay interest on deposits (money in – liabilities). Therein lies the problem with zero or negative interest-rate policies (NIRP, ZIRP) currently decreed by central banks. A bank cannot offer any interest to depositors if – because of ZIRP – its loans are paying anaemic income. Even if a bank receives, say, 2% on credit extended, it will not cover its costs – let alone make enough profits to survive in a competitive market – unless it offers -1% or less on deposits. Many banks, even Deutsche Bank, are already on the point of expiration and this regime will only make financial euthanasia across the industry the norm.

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So much more than musical chairs

Studying the changing profile of power in Modi’s government will reward those who wish to understand and do business with India

A week ago Prime Minister Narendra Modi initiated a major reshuffle of his cabinet and ministers. Halfway through the NDA’s term of government is a good time to take stock in a significant way, and to position the government for the coming election in 2019 whose approach is still just below the horizon.

What seems clear is that with this reshuffle Modi is further putting his stamp on the character of the administration, and that he has one eye on the future electoral profile of the BJP: good performance is rewarded and poor performance, including ministers getting too big for their boots, is punished. The demotion everybody is talking about is Smriti Irani being moved from Employment to Textiles due to her proclivity for never knowingly avoiding a fight and admiring herself way too much. Some claim it is not a demotion but a sideways deployment that positions her to fight in the upcoming Uttar Pradesh elections. (Note that the Gandhi family ‘pocket boroughs’, Amethi and Rae Bareli – which hold the honours of the most severe child malnutrition in India, and some of the worst highways – are in Uttar Pradesh.) Others say that is nonsense and that caste issues by far outweigh any influence that Irani could bring to bear in that state. We shall see.

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Pain and progress in Bangladesh

The moral infants who perpetrated the ‘ISIS’ Dhaka atrocity should be seen for who they really are

Bangladesh is slowly beginning to emerge from its rear-facing progress and is preparing itself to welcome a measure of development and prosperity. Despite having to live next door to Mamata Banerjee’s West Bengal, the government of Sheik Hasina – who might not be perfect but is better than anybody else her benighted country has to offer – is proving herself amenable to change and development. The railway between India and Bangladesh is now freely open; cross-border trade and diplomacy, with the investment and economic expansion that will flow from it as part of Modi’s evolving South Asia free-trade area, will eventually transform the fortunes of former East Pakistan (West Pakistan take note). That is why Hasina is playing ball with India. But not everyone in Bangladesh is happy about it.

The problem with development and change is that it disrupts an existing system. Cybernetics and family therapy made the point decades ago that if just one element of a system, such as a member of a family, decides to alter their role or act differently it radically changes the positions and outlooks of everybody else (for example, an insecure teenage girl turns anorexic and instantly becomes the star of the family). Systems are organisms where each part is interrelated to the others and has an interest in maintaining not only its current state, but that of every other one. So change provokes resistance.

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Raghuram Rajan “resigns”

India may well regret seeing off a sober money-man if it now lets slip the dogs of boom

This weekend saw the announcement by Indian central bank chief (and former IMF director) Raghuram Rajan that he would not take up a second period where, appointed by the previous Congress administration, he has been in post since 2013. Instead, Rajan will return to the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. There he is Distinguished Service Professor of Finance, and has been on an extended sabbatical that has seen him steady and even turn around India’s economic situation.

At least that is what some say. Others, such as deadly loose cannon Subramanian Swamy, who campaigned for his removal, accuse Rajan of hobbling India and indulging in egotistical grandstanding, to the government’s and the nation’s detriment.

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One million jobs a month

India’s massive and growing workforce represents either nightmare or dream scenario, depending on your outlook

Twelve million young people arrive on India’s job market every year; relentlessly, one million extra souls each month are looking to find work. There are two extreme ways of viewing this situation: either it’s an intractable disaster caused by massive overpopulation that is going to lead to starvation and economic meltdown, or it is the most blessed economic benefit that any country has ever experienced.

Because of its social structure – with large families and an agricultural basis, even now – a good proportion of India’s ceaselessly emergent workforce is simply absorbed into the fabric of the existing economy. The school-leaver will go to the field or behind the counter of the family business. That is not to say such a situation is economically efficient or ideal, or that it is best for a majority of the new workers, whose potential may be wasted in such unambitious occupations, adding only marginally to or even dividing the fortunes of family and country.

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Things are finally moving …

Modi entered Delhi facing an entrenched and obstructive government bureaucracy that was bespoke-designed over many decades to serve the bigwigs of Congress

Despite being Modi’s biographer and genuinely liking the man, I am not here to defend him. It is a fact that as we pass the two-year mark of the BJP administration in power, there are justified criticisms to be made. Overall the biggest complaint has to be the apparently slow and timid pace of change and reform – for, incidentally, nothing dramatically disastrous or unforgivable has occurred, despite such being endlessly predicted by Modi’s political and media enemies loyal to the Gandhi dynasty.

When I am asked, as I always am asked, the reason why Modi has not changed everything quickly and delivered India to its wonderful prosperous destiny already, I reply with an offering of a reality sandwich. First of all, Modi entered Delhi facing an entrenched and obstructive government bureaucracy that was bespoke-designed over many decades to serve the bigwigs of the Congress Party and the Gandhi dynasty. Very many careers were owed to and depended upon the established structure; forcing it to change was always going to be a Herculean task. The babus of government service constitute a complete society, unbelieveably  loyal to that Gandhi dynasty, and changing their orientation would be a work of years and would require a master administrator.

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On Vijay Mallya and committing gross acts of journalism

Business hero Vijay Mallya broke his dignified silence to speak to the FT.

As I write, Kingfisher airlines and beer boss, or rather ex boss, Vijay Mallya, is holed up in his ugly oversized Barratt home just around the corner from me here in North London; indeed so close that I can almost smell his distinctive scent of privilege, greed and egomania – traits characterised by a better writer than me as ‘sociopathic’.

India, which is owed 9000 crore rupees (nearly a billion pounds sterling, or £935,394,495 to be precise) by that genius of business – who is certainly not a corrupt gangster and thief despite what it might say in the arrest warrants – has tried to persuade the UK to deport Mallya back to his home country from whence he scarpered or made himself scarce on March 2, one whole day before his creditors were able to have his passport impounded.

But the UK demurred: ‘Sorry old chaps, but this Vijay fellow hasn’t actually committed any crimes on British soil so we’re afraid our hands are tied. Love to help if we could and all that. You might try extraditing him. We probably wouldn’t actually raise an objection if you went that route. Probably …’

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Andaman and Nicobar Islands #2

Above the law, below the law: the trials of the tribals

This is the second post in an occasional series about the future of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which sit at the eastern edge of the Bay of Bengal facing Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia. The open sea to the south gives these strategically important islands access to the Indian Ocean (next stop Australia) and onto the vastness of China’s wished-for sphere of influence in South Asia. It’s a perfect spot for an armed check-point and border control for all traffic travelling westward out of the Malacca Straits and a platform for defence that can vastly magnify India’s military footprint in the region.

India has scandalously neglected these utterly beautiful islands, already home to a tri-services base (the old ‘Project Yatrik’) and an under populated, underdeveloped local economy. In truth the Andamans are key to India’s future as an influential regional political power, not to mention an economic one (see Indian Ocean and India’s Security, Raj Narain Misra, 1986). If Goa is India’s California then the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are its Hawaii – it has the navy, not just the beaches, and the beaches are superior to those in Thailand, across the water.

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That ‘7/10 businesses go broke’ statistic …

Everybody quotes it, but can it be true?

Regarding the cynicism expressed about India by Peter Ziehan (see previous post), I was pondering the real-life probabilities of India actually making economic progress beyond the mean of its previous performance. The so-called ‘Hindu rate of growth’ of barely above 1% – often the historical norm under the socialist state planning of the classic Congress/Gandhi-dynasty years –hopefully has disappeared forever. A better rate was jump-started back in the 1990s by the PV Narasimha Rao administration, and then continued by the BJP until they were ousted in 2004. By 2013 Congress had managed to put the brakes back on, but India is now pootling along at +7% growth per annum according to GDP. Granted, GDP’s a terrible measurement as it only counts economic activity, not profitability or productivity. But India’s is the best rate in a bad neighbourhood – the neighbourhood being this planet right now.

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India underestimated (again)

For savvy investors, that can actually be a good opportunity

I recommend everybody to watch Peter Zeihan here as he delivers a barnstorming illustrated speech on the future of the world. He is a geopolitical analyst who for years worked at Stratfor, known as the ‘private sector CIA’ and has since struck out on his own. He is a great speaker, very funny, knowledgeable, engaging and stimulating.

I should warn that it is very much a Texan’s-eye view, and I am mentioning Zeihan mostly because he mentions India, at 47 minutes in, thusly:

‘The short version on India is that if you’re happy with it today, it’s not going to change a whole lot, the reason being that the Ganges basin is the most productive agricultural zone on the planet in terms of calories per acre per year. That gives you endless population growth. However, there is not a single navigable river in the country. So high populations, no capital. That’s abstract [sic: abject?], total, unending poverty. But India’s looked like this since the fifth century. So if this is an India you can operate in, an India you know and like – great! They are not a major player in Bretton Woods, never have been. They’re not going to change, but if you think India’s about to turn the corner, the whole ‘Shining India’ concept, I’m sorry. It’s looked like this for 1500 years; it’s not about to change.’

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