Saturday, August 18, 2007

A Brief history of Current Crisis

The last couple of weeks the world markets are choppy. Stocks are crashing, finance companies and hedge funds are on their knees, emerging currencies are heading lower and there is a virtual panic in the capital markets. Even commodities and real-estate were not spared. Even having a not too aggressive portfolio, I lost more than 1300 dollars in just 7 days. But, things are far from being over. The Monday opening could be a very crucial factor that could affect the world economy for a long time to come. If things stabilize, then its business as usual (we have successfully postponed the crisis), but if the waves get higher and panic goes in a vicious circle then whole world could go into a recession, dwarfing the Asian crisis of 1997. This article would briefly explore the history of current crisis.

The historians would always disagree when the core events for the current crisis started, but I would say 1989 as the year from which world economy started getting very different and is a crucial year for the current crisis. It was the year when USSR pulled out of Afghanistan accelerating the collapse of the Union of Silly and Stupid Republics two years later. It was the year when Berlin wall collapsed, crashing serially all the imaginary walls built by the socialistic societies of the 20th century and forming a formidable economy of Europe - Germany. It was the year when Chinese government massacred a large group of innocent students in the watershed event at Tienanmen Square of Beijing, leading to unprecedented international pressure that caused China to abandon communism and join world economy. It was the year, when a loose and directionless coalition of political parties took power in India, making it finally bankrupt in 1991 and forced to abandon socialism join World economy. Free elections were held and Brazil became a democracy leading it to overcome an economic crisis and become a big world player. And in Eastern Europe nations got decoupled from Soviet Russia and its Warsaw Pact, with nations like Hungary declaring independence. And in South Africa, apartheid was coming to an end leading to the end of years of economic isolation.

Too much for a single year? In economics and politics, things linger for a long time and when they start coming down they come down like a pack of cards. Whatever it be, it was a watershed year for international capitalism. In one stroke - the biggest countries of the world joined the world economy that earlier just had just Uncle Sam and kids (Japan, UK and Western Europe) that were far more homogeneous. They had similar per-capita incomes, similar political systems and far more open markets and financial systems. But, these new countries - Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS) had vastly different economies and political systems. They are some of the biggest countries in the world, with vast histories and totally different per-capita income levels. Even today, India's per-capita income is one-thirtieth of those in Western Europe. The new entrants of world economy were greatly welcomed and in 2000's they all had sputtering growth - India became a service superpower and China built the greatest industrial establishment of history. Russia and Brazil became major commodity superpowers much later. There was an humongous gain in productivity in China and East Asia.

Fast forward to 1997. The vast increase in investment opportunities in these emerging markets were a great blessing for international capital markets who took them with too much of enthusiasm. While, China and India were pretty closed, rest of Asia welcomed these capital with four hands. Thailand and Malaysia were particularly too kind to these. But, things started getting bad. Investors and economists started to realize that productivity gains were not too much and most of the growth was just an illusion caused by speculation and capital flows. These emerging markets are not an elixir for all the woes for international investors, and as the realization started to sink in, a crisis was looming and before anybody could realize the summer of 1997 was a bloodbath in East Asia. Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand were devastated and even after 10 years, their real economic level has not come to their pre-1997 levels. And the echo started falling all over Asia and due to few other factors (like Hedge fund manipulation) Russia became bankrupt in 1998. The sum total of all these factors led to a massive inflow of capital back into United States, leading to a collapse of all these currencies, as panic-ridden investors always look for safe havens in times of crisis.

Forward to 2000. Capital never stays calm. It is a fluid and it has to find a lot of new resting place. Where did they go? They went to a new found fad in California, called the dot-com boom. Any tom, dick and harry who knew to put like ... Bunch of trash ... started a company, went on an IPO and sucked millions of dollars. The process could not be slowed by statements of caution of wise men (Alan Greenspan said a prophetic 'Irrational Exuberance') and this farce continued till some one had to say "the emperor had no clothes". And everything came down with a thud in March 2000 and continuing all the way upto 2001.

Now, the US fed got into thinking. It had to pull out of recession caused by the crash and find alternative means of growth. In a series of breathtaking sessions, it brought the interest rates down to ridiculously low figures and by 2003, it was just around 1%. In the meantime, lending standards were relaxed and any jane and mary with just an existence to show, could borrow millions to buy dozen of housing properties. This had three big effects. One is that all that money found into places like Real estate and commodities that were long ignored. The oil prices went up by 5 times in a space of as many years and there was boom in all those metals - steel, copper, gold, etc and house prices doubled and trebled in many places. Second, the bad experience in US markets and the low interest rates pushed money out of US and they directly entered emerging markets. Parallely, India and China established themselves as great players in their game and opened their economies much further. This combo effect had billions of capital inflows in the form of FII and FDI. Brazil and Russia also were back on their feet with commodities soaring. These currencies suddenly started appreciating further and hurt their domestic industries a bit. Third, the cheap capital caused the Hedge funds and Private Equity to take control of world economy. Corporations like Chrysler and Hilton found their way into the kitties of companies that had nothing to do with automobiles or hotels.

The current crisis is thus a series of flip-flops where investors swing like monkeys from one investing to tree to another. Commodities were not so kool in 1990s and they were the hottest plays of 2000s. Emerging markets were too risky in late 90s and they were the toast of the day in mid 2000's. Housing markets were not so interesting in 90s and in 2004 they all believed "house prices will always go up and no one can lose in real estate". Dollar is a loser in early 90s, safe haven in late 90's, loser again in middle 2000's and now again a safe haven. Most of investing is now just momentum and bringing new fad of the day, than an appreciation for grey cells. The most important of all is that world still has not come to terms with globalisation.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

60 Great years of freedom

What a great time for India to have its 60th birthday. Normally in India, 60th birthday would mark the passing of the retirement era where the old gives way to new. The day is celebrated pretty grand as a mark of recognition for the 60 great years of living. But, surprise for India it is more like a celebration of the first birthday. The nation is so young and so much of energy left in it, that the following years are going to be the most crucial and significant ones. Our basic problems like - rural decay, over dependency on Agriculture, adult illiteracy, poverty, gender inequality, inadequate buffer to face routine forces of nature like flood, cyclone and earthquake... have not changed much in the 60 years. We are still as divided as we started out with and the religious tensions have not smoldered. Thus, it will be the future that will be more significant for India than the immediate past. Most of the instrumentation to solve these colossal issues are getting available only right now.

In some aspects, we have not done bad and in fact done much more than expected. Who in the 1940's would have expected India to lead the world in Technology, software, satellite communication, etc? We are among the top 10 nations in economic size, stock market volumes, satellite capabillity, software production, super computing, nuclear generation... We would soon replace US as the country with the second most telephone connections after China and we are just couple of years behind the cutting edge technology in communication. This is a far cry from the days (just 7 to 10 years ago), when India had a place among world nations with the poorest teledensity and telephonic infrastructure. Our Television and Radio reach is complete and we have among the highest world viewers of Cable Television. We have produced some of the world's most respected educational institutions in Technology, Medicine and Management and Indian graduates go for a premium in international job markets. Tell that to someone who was sleeping for the last 20 years and he wont believe. Our film industry has matured enormously and is second only to the Hollywood in size and viewership.

There are cries of inequality and "rich-getting-richer". But, look around. How many rich people did you see in 1947 and how many do you see now? There are now atleast a 100 to 150 million credible middle class population dozens of times more than a couple of decades ago, and this class is rapidly bulging. While Indian companies were small dots in global picture, as late as 2003, now they are audacious enough to take on the world giants. Tata has gobbled our former colonial master's biggest steel maker and vying for Landrover and Jaguar, a car that transports English aristocracy. Reliance is hunting for GE's plastics division, the Pharma players are looking for big ticket acquisitions and companies like Bharat Forge and Moser Baer have reached the top in their fields. We had a handful of big corporations a decade ago. Now, you have Bharti, Infosys, Reliance, Ranbaxy, Tata Steel, Tata Motors, Wipro in every spectrum of production. Well done, India. We produce much more entrepreneurs than most other countries and our boys are there in the boardroom of every major company now. A few Giants like Vodafone and Pepsi have Indians at their very top. And this is not including Mittal who has built a world steel and energy empire almost single-handedly.

In 1940's our only rich people were the Maharajas and Zamindars who had squandered other's wealth and coasted on theis ancestors wealth generation. Now, the richest billionaire Indians - Lakshmi Mittal (Arcelor-Mittal), Ambani brothers (Reliance), Sunil Mittal (Bharti), Kushal Pal Singh (Real esate giant DLF), Azim Premji (Wipro) were almost nobodys 2 decades back, and almost built fortune with their own efforts (for Ambani brothers, a big start was provided their illustrious father). And there are thousands in the wings - just take a rough glance of the world's top B-schools and most of them have huge Indian contingent. Each huge company have a positive rippling effect on hundreds of thousands of people, and with so many huge companies thundering Indian economy never looked rosier.

Looking at the negatives, we have huge volumes of them. Take any social problem in the world, and India would rank top 10. Poverty, illiteracy, sectarian troubles, gender divides, class/caste issues, Communalism, Tuberculosis-Malaria-HIV-Polio, Corruption... our health care and primary education facilities are in great decay and rural India is almost sinking. In fact, we have come to the point where none of the major problems look very surprising. We are so used to glancing our morning newspapers where the headlines would have a major rail accident killing hundred people, terrorist gunning dozens in Assam or Kashmir, a major politician indicted in a big ticket scam and smilingly coming out of prison, floods drowning hundreds of villages or religious violence burning an entire city - these are just news points in a fast mesh of problems we face. We are now so insulated from our problems.

Thus, looking at our future, I would like to see these core problems solved before we rest on our laurels and enter the world's elite clubs. There is no use in just praising ourselves that we have IIT, IIM or AIIMS, when half of Indian kids dont go to school. There is no use in becoming a medical superpower when majority of citizens dont have access to proper health care. But, the solution to these are not more of commie stupidity or Arundati Royism, but lies in carefully planned policies that involves all the constituents - the government guiding and overseeing, corporations implementing, and the local communities working to even out the benefit spread. We would like to see the Mittals and Ambanis of Schooling, Agriculture and Medical Care and this is where India's future lie.