Pre Budget Round Up with Sonu Iyer
If the Union Budget looks ahead at the year and makes forecasts on how the government will gather revenue and spend it, the Economic Survey looks back to take stock of what happened and then lays out the big-picture goals, challenges and scenarios for the Indian economy. It is more of a vision statement than a to-do list. Just as the Budget document has the signature flavour of the finance minister, the Survey carries the DNA print of the chief economic advisor. The key message of Arvind Subramanian’s Economic Survey for 2017-18 can be summed up in one phrase: revival and risk, and he shows this in one chart on the behaviour of bond prices and stock prices. (See table)
The rise and rise of the stock market points to the revival in the economy and the rise in bond yields points to worries on deficit, inflation and oil prices going up. Why are the stock markets rising? The Survey finds that the revival part of the story is “robust and broad based”. With the shock of demonetization and the Goods and Services Tax behind us, gross domestic product (GDP) growth for the current year is estimated to be 6.75% and for the next year between 7 and 7.5 %, making India the fastest growing major economy in the world. The reason for the robustness is the implementation of several deep reform initiatives. GST reform has added another 3.4 million indirect tax payers and GST collections are on an upward trajectory. In fact, the overall trend for widening the tax net is positive. The Survey finds that post-demonetisation, there has been a 0.8% monthly increase in new direct tax filers—an annual growth of 10% or about 1.8 million new taxpayers.
The auditorium was packed. Girls were sitting on the floor in the aisles. I was visiting Banasthali University, 75 km south of Jaipur, to speak to the postgraduate management and journalism students. About 250 curious pairs of eyes were bright with anticipation and I was hoping that I don’t let them down.
For those who don’t know, a quick update on this unique university. The journey of how this university came to be is quite a story. In 1927, the Jaipur state secretary in the home and foreign department, Pandit Hiralal Shastri, left his powerful job to relocate to a remote village (then) called Banthali to work on rural reconstruction. His friends said he’d gone half mad to do this. Who gives up power, prestige and money like this? But he moved himself and his family to the village. One day he found his 11-year-old daughter, Shanta, teaching the village kids under a tree. Sometime later she asked him for a room so that she could teach them without fear of storms or wild animals. He told her—you build the bricks and I will build the room. He forgot about the story thinking that the child will move on to other things. Three months later she showed him 300 handmade bricks she and the village kids had made. I saw one of the bricks that the institution has preserved. To touch the brick made by a determined young lady almost a 100 years ago was surreal. Shastri built that room and decided to give his daughter the best education he could manage. Music and martial art classes were organized. There is a painting of young Shanta in a sari, wielding a lathi and practising in one of the preserved rooms. When you remember that this was in rural Rajasthan in the 1920s when girls were married off as soon as they could be, the image of the lathi-wielding girls just adds to the amazement.
Are Indian stocks in bubble territory? An interview given by Uday Kotak to The Indian Express (you can read it here) asks this question. Kotak is making valid points when he says that there is a wall of money coming at the market which does not have enough stocks to absorb the cash. A strong institutional flow is bringing Indian household money to the stock market through mutual funds, unit-linked insurance plans (Ulips), National Pension System (NPS) and the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO). This money is going into a few hundred stocks because the Indian market lacks depth. The market cap of the top stock is Rs6 trillion and that of the 100th stock is just Rs32,000 crore. The market looks overvalued on metrics of the current price-to-earnings (PE) ratio, which is much higher than the 10-year average. Valuations can go back down in two ways—markets can crash, bringing prices down or the earnings can grow; both bring the PE down. The wait for earnings has kept the market buoyant in the past few years and the wait is still on. Which will come first, the market crash or the earnings bump? As retail investors, we have no option but to give our money an equity exposure; see Table 1. But we will never have the relevant insight to time the market. We also know that markets go up and down, get overvalued, crash and then recover. See Table 2. So, is there a way in which we can ride out the bubble, if indeed there is one?
Regulations in the financial sector need to keep evolving as the market grows in depth, breadth and complexity. Think of this as the need for road rules and a traffic management system in a large metro—what worked 30 years ago cannot work today. It was possible to travel 5 km in Delhi without running into traffic lights or traffic cops 30 years ago as road traffic was thin. A malfunctioning traffic light today causes hours of traffic jams. As the traffic volume rises, cities resort to one-way traffic rules, higher parking fees and other measures to curb traffic in the city centre. Financial markets are similar; regulations need to keep moving to keep pace with the changing face of the market. Has the market changed? Yes, the size of the assets under management by the three large parts of the retail financial market—mutual funds (only retail), life insurance and the National Pension System (NPS)—crossed Rs34 trillion in FY 2017, up from Rs22 trillion just 3 years ago. Both the volume of money and the number of people on-boarding these products has risen sharply over the past few years. The share of household savings in financial products has been rising and now more than one-third of household savings find their way into financial products. In addition to the urban users of these products, a new category of investors are getting added through the Jan Dhan accounts. These are people who will be first-time users of many financial products as they move from cash, gold and real estate.
Eat the Rich: a Treatise on Economics
By P.J. O’Rourke, Publisher: Picador, 1998
If you’ve ever wondered why some countries are rich and other poor, you are in good company. American political satirist and journalist Patrick Jake O’Rourke asked the same question and undertook a geographic investigation into this subject. He begins by asking a simple question: “Why do some places prosper and thrive and other just suck? It’s not a matter of brains. No part of the earth….is dumber than Beverly Hills, and the residents are wading in gravy. In Russia, meanwhile, where chess is a spectator sport, they’re boiling stones for soup.”
If you like your economics lesson to come through a snarky irreverent narrative, this book is just your thing. The author travels to Wall Street, Albania, Sweden, Cuba, Russia, Tanzania and Hong Kong and tries to decode the story behind the rich-poor outcome. He asks how Tanzania, a peaceful, uncrowded country well endowed by nature, can turn everything to nothing. He asks how a conflict-ridden, overpopulated, resource poor Hong Kong can be so vibrant and rich. Each country visited completes the matrix of questions on: what works and what does not.
Rourke ends the book with a check list of attributes for wealthy countries: hard work, education, responsibility, property rights, rule of law and democratic government. Remember this book was written in 1998. The China story was still happening and some of the conclusions of the book are now being debated. China makes the relationship between a democratic government and economic growth not that linear. A bit outdated, but still a hugely entertaining and educating read.
Monika Halan is consulting editor at Mint.
The year 2017 was marked by four distinct money events. One, it was the year in which systematic investment plans (SIPs) in mutual funds became a household name, leading to a fat pipeline of over Rs5,000 crore a month (that’s Rs60,000 crore a year) flowing from households to equity funds. Two, 2017 was the year in which investors finally gave up waiting for real estate to recover. Despite the bravado of the builder, broker and banker on the future of real estate, the math just did not add up to support prices that are still very high. Why would you invest in something that yields less than a bank deposit after taxes? Renting clearly was the winner over buying. Three, gold and bank deposits lost their sheen as prices dipped and rates fell. Four, risk-averse investors, who feared mutual funds because of their risk, went all out on crypto-money—not just bitcoin, other cryptocurrencies were also on the investment radar, as were non-regulated initial coin offerings (ICOs). What lies ahead in 2018 for your money? The answer in one line is: a continuation of the 2017 trends.