Aug 21 • 24M

#182 Aisa Mauka Phir Kahan Milega?

China's loss, India's gain? Excise policy and its discontents. Xi's thoughts. Dissing import substitution again.

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Frameworks, mental models, and fresh perspectives on Indian public policy and politics. This feed is an audio narration by Ad Auris based on the 'Anticipating the Unintended' newsletter, a free weekly publication with 7000+ subscribers.
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Global Policy Watch #1: The Many Transitions In China

Global issues and their implications for India

— RSJ

In a few editions in the past, we have alluded to structural challenges in the Chinese economy and the window of opportunity that it presents India. I thought it would be useful to take a more comprehensive view of this. 

China reported a GDP growth of 0.4 per cent in the quarter that ended in June 2022. China's National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) isn’t known for its allegiance to truth. It is safe to assume the real GDP would have shrunk in the quarter. The daft ‘zero Covid’ policy led to total lockdowns in major cities during the quarter. The government crackdown on the real estate sector has meant that investment in the sector fell sharply. These contributed to the slowdown. Two other data points are interesting to note. The unemployment rate among the youth aged between 16-24 was at an all-time high of about 20 per cent. Also, retail sales continued to be weak at about 2.7 per cent, much below the 5 per cent forecast. Domestic consumption, the great desire of Chinese policymakers, remained sluggish. The spokesperson for the NBS put up a brave face while spinning these numbers as short-term bumps on the road. He raised the possibility of global stagflation and its negative impact on China to possibly justify weak numbers in the future. 

But is this slowdown just a blip in the impressive rise of China in the past three decades? I’m not sure. There are three transitions underway in China right now. It is difficult for nations to pull off any one of these in normal times. To attempt three simultaneously is ambitious. It is most likely to fail. Anyway, back to these transitions.

  1. The first transition started a few years back. This was forced on it because economics doesn’t bow to the party's diktats. China is finding it difficult to transition from a manufacturing-heavy, investment-led economic model to a consumption-driven one. This couldn’t be avoided. There would always be a limit to the world’s capacity to absorb China’s imports. Also, as China grew richer, it knew its low-cost edge in manufacturing would wither away. So after a few years of structural overinvestment in building capacity - the bridges to nowhere, the ghost cities, empty airports and other excesses - it had to pivot to a consumption-driven economy. It did try to delay the inevitable transition by aiming to export this overcapacity through its belt and road initiative. But after the initial hoopla, most countries have come to see it as what it is. A debt trap. So, this transition was necessary to move away from growth predicated on size and scale of investment to a more sustainable model of higher quality. But this is proving to be difficult. The history of unproductive investments has led to a debt build-up in the system (the debt to GDP ratio in China is over 300 per cent) and a drag on productivity that will continue for a long time. The state-owned enterprises (SOEs) that led this investment-driven growth are in a debt trap, and many continue to stay afloat by evergreening their loans. New productive investments have suffered because of this. People aren’t sure of their future, so instead of consumption, there’s an increase in domestic savings. Also, the pandemic and the recent lockdowns haven’t helped consumption growth. This is going to be a long, painful road.

  2. The second transition has been brought upon it because of its confidence in creating a ‘patterned’ society based on a premeditated design of the society. The prime example of ignoring spontaneous order was its plan to control the population through a one-child policy. China is now past the peak of its demographic dividend. The Labour force in China peaked in 2015 at around 800 million. It has now shrunk to 783 million, almost what it was in 2010. In the next 15 years, this is projected to go down to about 650 million. The stupid notion of the population as a liability has meant a rapidly shrinking and ageing workforce. The government has now reversed the one-child policy with a two-child policy without learning that such top-down interventions worsen things. Other similar ideas like patterned migration from villages to specific cities, controlling information flow for its citizens and taking some lofty top-down emission targets that have contributed to a serious energy crisis right now will also turn out the same way. The fault isn’t in their stars but in their ideology.  

  3. The final transition is the more perplexing one. This was articulated in a speech by Xi Jinping on August 17, 2021, where he introduced the notion of ‘common prosperity.’ This marked the most cogent articulation of Xi’s shift towards greater ideological rigidity. The days of economic growth based on ideological compromises were coming to an end. As Xi mentioned, ‘common prosperity is the essential requirement of socialism and an important feature of Chinese-style modernization’ and China ‘must resolutely prevent polarization, promote common wealth, and achieve social harmony and stability.’ The crackdown on the consumer tech sector (virtually destroying Jac Ma’s empire) and the ‘three red lines’ drawn for the real estate sector, that has disproportionate weight on its economy, should be viewed in this backdrop. It is unclear whether this is a real commitment to ideology or a way to consolidate his position as dictator-for-life by appealing to the masses. But Xi has doubled down on this, as seen by his remarks at the World Economic Forum:

    "We will first make the pie bigger and then divide it properly through reasonable institutional arrangements. As a rising tide lifts all boats, everyone will get a fair share from development, and development gains will benefit all our people in a more substantial and equitable way,"

In my (very broad) view, Xi has concluded that China might have peaked in economic growth. You start talking about redistribution and ‘dividing it properly’ when you know the pie won’t grow at the same rate as it was earlier. Importantly, I also suspect this is the reason why Xi is acting like a bully in the neighbourhood. If you know you have hit the peak of your geopolitical and geoeconomic leverage, you will be foolish to let the moment pass without maximising your gains.

Some might argue furnishing other economic data that this ‘peaking’ theory isn’t true. China is still a global manufacturing engine. Its trade surplus has ballooned in the past year suggesting the world is hungrier for its goods. And so on. There’s this insightful column by Michael Pettis in FT that I will quote, which puts in perspective the record trade surpluses that China has been notching up in recent months while making these three transitions together.

Pettis writes:

Contrary to what many assume, the country’s burgeoning trade surplus is not a symptom of manufacturing prowess, nor is it evidence of a culture of thrift. It is instead a consequence of the great difficulty China has had in rebalancing its domestic economy and reining in its soaring debt. This is because the very conditions that explain stagnant domestic consumption also explain the rapid growth in Chinese exports relative to imports.

Beijing has known the solution to this problem for years. In order to control soaring debt and the non-productive investment it funds, it had to rebalance the distribution of income by enough that growth would be driven mainly by rising consumption, as is the case in most other economies. But this requires a politically-difficult restructuring of the economy in which a larger share of total income — as much as 10-15 percentage points of GDP — is transferred from local governments to Chinese households.

This is why the trade surplus matters. In recent years, Beijing has tried to slow the growth in debt by reducing non-productive investment in property and infrastructure. This year, as we saw with Evergrande, Beijing came down hard on the property sector.

If a rising share of China’s total income had been going to ordinary households, the resulting reduction in investment by property developers could have been balanced by a rise in consumption. But that’s not what’s happened. In the past two years, partly as a consequence of the Covid pandemic, growth in wages has actually lagged behind growth in GDP. The share Chinese workers have received of what they produce has declined rather than increased, and with it so has the share they are able to consume.

Rising exports are usually a good thing, but for countries like China, rising trade surpluses are not. In this case they are symptoms of deep and persistent imbalances in the domestic distribution of income. Until the country is able to reverse these imbalances, something which has proven politically very difficult, these large surpluses are just the obverse of attempts by Beijing to control debt, and so they will persist.

For India, all of this is a golden opportunity. China will remain busy with these transitions that it has wrought upon itself. The jury is still out on whether it will have a soft landing on them. Global businesses that started seeking more resilient and cost-effective alternatives to China during COVID-19, are now convinced that they must employ a ‘China + 1’ model to safeguard their long-term interests. There are only that many economies that have the labour pool, capital and a business environment that can take advantage of this shift away from China, however gradual. To me, it might be faster than what we all anticipate. And it will pass India by if it doesn’t stay alert to its possibilities.

There is a high likelihood of a golden decade ahead for MSMEs in India if it plays its cards right. A long overdue factor market reforms (possible at the state level), kickstarting a government capex cycle that will instil confidence in the private sector to follow suit, not overdoing aatmanirbhar Bharat beyond the rhetoric and remaining an open and liberal democracy that convinces others that it will have sufficient checks and balances to not lose its way. These are the basic block and tackle moves to capitalise on the opportunity.

Because the only lesson to learn from a possible China misstep is that overdetermined leadership and top-down economic thinking eventually fail.

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India Policy Watch #1: A Potent Cocktail

Insights on burning policy issues in India

— Pranay Kotasthane

The ongoing political saga in Delhi over a new (now suspended) excise policy is a heady cocktail for policy analysts. The cocktail’s components include a tussle over alcohol licenses, Maximum Retail Price (MRP), privatisation, regulation, allegations of corruption, rent-seeking, and political contestation.

The political motivations behind the current actions are quite clear. But it might be useful to look at the under-discussed policy aspects of the debate. Useful, because it’s not the last time we have seen a stand-off on alcohol policy.

The underlying motivation for the Delhi Excise Policy 2021-22 is to increase government revenue. Although we know that the best way to do that is lower the tax rate and broaden the base, India’s poor economic performance over the last decade has made it politically risky to bring additional people under the tax net. Hence, states are opting for the easier—and counterproductive—option instead: raise tax rates.

With the GST taking away the power to raise tax rates on most items unilaterally, state governments are exploring other options. One lucrative option is liquor excise. The Indian State heavily regulates the production, sale, and consumption of alcohol. Streamlining the licensing policies for the production and sale of alcohol can generate non-tax revenue, while higher overboard consumption can result in an increase in tax revenue (excise duty). One reform, two revenue handles. This is why the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) governments in Delhi and Punjab have set their eyes on this sector. Moreover, raising the fees on government-provided private goods doesn’t fit its existing political persona.

To be fair, the Delhi Excise Policy 2021-22 is fairly progressive. It states that the policy's objectives are to augment the state excise duty revenue, simplify liquor pricing, prevent duty evasion, and transform the liquor trade commensurate with Delhi’s position as a city of global importance.

To achieve these objectives, the policy aims to award new licenses for alcohol sale, dividing the city into 32 zones, with a fixed number of shops allowed per zone. It aims to end government-run booze shops, distributing those licenses to private players instead. To foster competition, it allows shops to offer discounts below the Maximum Retail Price (MRP), permits shops to stay open till 3 am, and authorises bars to serve alcohol in licensed open spaces.

A report in the Business Standard captured the view of a craft beer brand as follows:

“The new excise policy is facing teething issues like any other but we find the policy very good since there is now a lot more opportunity to showcase our brand. Earlier, stores were dingy with no proper brand display, but now the stores have a mandated minimum floor area and are women-friendly. This helps with visibility of our brand.”

There were quite a few initial hiccups. Some dealers started giving deep discounts to capture the market. That led the government to change the no-MRP policy to a “discount only up to 25% of MRP” policy. After that, retailers started offering “buy one bottle, get another free”. And hence, big dealers could attract more customers, while the smaller ones were finding it difficult to compete. Some licenses didn’t attract any buyers at all. These seem to be transient-state shocks. The steady-state promised to be much better.

Alas.

Reforming a tightly regulated policy area in which powerful rent-seekers have flourished for decades is not easy. The old status quo has powerful defenders. Like many other reforms, the benefits are widely dispersed while the costs are concentrated. And so, many existing licensees have ganged up on the government. We can be sure that some of these licensees also have political connections, which they have used to oppose the policy. There is also the additional issue specific to alcohol — any policy that is seen to liberalise its sale becomes an easy target for conservative moralisers. Further, the Delhi government made a mistake by pausing the policy implementation amidst the criticism.

Then came the political pushback. Despite the government’s revenue increasing by 27 per cent after the policy was put in place, some notional revenue loss of the “2G spectrum allocation” vintage has surfaced. There are also charges of favouritism and corruption in the allocation of new licenses, an issue so sensational that it requires the combined might of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate. (Sarcasm is intended.)

Many state governments must be eying this Delhi experiment with excise policy reform. Moreover, this case illustrates the difficulty in reforming sub-optimal licensing arrangements. As for the Delhi government, are they reaping what they sowed in the name of anti-corruption?

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Global Policy Watch #2: Xi Jinping’s Thoughts

Global issues and their implications for India

— RSJ

Talking of China (and I’m intruding into Pranay’s area of expertise), I came across this wonderful blog, globalinequality by Branko Milanovic. In his latest post, he writes about what he learnt from reading a translated version of the book, ' Anecdotes and Sayings of Xi Jinping’.

Milanovic writes:

The undisputable emphasis in the “Chinese” part of the book is on the matters of governance. By giving numerous examples from Chinese history of rulers and their aides who cared about people’s welfare, lived modestly (“One should be the first when taking care of state affairs, the last when taking care of personal affairs”), strove to improve themselves morally and educationally, Xi proposes a theory of governance that is based on virtue of rulers and results achieved, not procedure. While Western theories emphasize the procedural aspect (how is one selected to be the ruler, is it by a well-established democratic process or not), Xi’s concern is with the results. The tacit premise is not to discuss how one is selected to rule….The success is defined in terms of improvement in the well-being and happiness of people whom they govern.

…In all cases of a good rule, there is the emphasis on individual characteristics of rulers. What is required, they (the editors) write, is “morality inside and virtue outside”; what is sought is the rule of virtue, and by virtue.  

But how to bring about such a rule? Obviously, by having moral rulers. Hence--the reader begins to realize--Xi’s ideological campaign: if Confucian-cum-Communist  ideology is disregarded and everything is simply esteemed in terms of money and economic success, there cannot be a moral and virtuous rule.

The key question, unanswered in the book, then becomes: is it possible to achieve an educational and moral “rejuvenation” under the current “normal” conditions of capitalism where money-making is held by the majority of the population to be the highest objective revealing also one’s individual worth?

Xi is fighting against the spirit of the times, and while his struggle may be driven by a genuine desire to create a morally superior China, the odds of succeeding in this endeavor are, I am afraid, not particularly high. 

This is, to put it mildly, a brilliant summary of the ideological battle Xi has picked up and his odds of winning it. I tend to agree with its conclusion.   


India Policy Watch #2: Value Addition, Not Import Substitution

Insights on burning policy issues in India

— Pranay Kotasthane

“Import Substitution” is still in vogue. One would have thought that the unsuccessful pursuit of this goal since independence would’ve discredited it. That doesn’t seem to be the case.

Every few weeks, we come across policies targeting import substitution, implicitly if not explicitly. Just a few days back came the rumour that the government plans to ban Chinese phones priced under Rs 12,000 in order to give a leg up to domestic champions. Thankfully, unnamed sources in the government have denied this story for now.

Even so, import tariff hikes and industrial policies continue to chase the illusory target of import substitution. Some policies for display fabs and drones explicitly mention import substitution as the target. Of late, this idea has morphed into targets for maximising value addition per unit of exports.

Now, readers of this newsletter know what we think of this idea. In edition #161, we had warned that Atmanirbhar Bharat is approaching a wrong turn. We have also cautioned against the proliferation of Production Linked Incentives (PLIs) beyond a few critical sectors.

I will make the case against import substitution in this edition using another example. Look at the chart below, which shows the import profile of a country for the year 2020. This country’s largest import by value is Integrated Circuits (chips) at 18.8%. The total import bill is $259 billion. Can you guess the country?

Source: oec.world

If you need a hint, here’s one: as exports rise, imports also rise. The world’s top two exporters are China and the US. And the world’s top two importers are also the US and China.

The answer is neither the US nor China. India can be ruled out because we know that our biggest import is crude oil. Here’s another hint. Look at this country’s export profile for the same year. Its biggest export is again integrated circuits, at 36.9% out of a total exported value of $374 billion.

Source: oec.world

Do you have an answer now? The right answer might surprise you. This is the typical year-wise trade profile of a country that is acclaimed as the world’s semiconductor superpower: Taiwan!

We forget that despite its unmatched prowess in contracted chip manufacturing, Taiwan is not even close to being self-sufficient. Some Taiwanese companies import chips, do value addition through packaging and testing, and then export the final commodity. A portion of the imported chips goes into the machines that are used to manufacture chips by the famed Taiwanese chip foundries. The fundamental message is that imports are critical to exports, even in sophisticated economies.

PLI scheme began with the aim of promoting India’s exports. But my sense is that import substitution has displaced exports as the primary goal. How else does one explain the simultaneous increase in import tariffs and a phased manufacturing programme (PMP) that aims to increase tariffs on imported components?

Atmanirbhar Bharat needs to return to its goal of creating competitive manufacturing capabilities in India by allowing companies to start, grow, and close with considerably less bureaucratic friction. Shielding domestic component makers from international competition on the one hand, and subsidising end-equipment manufacturers on the other will end up helping neither. Equipment manufacturers will merely make expensive, poor-quality products. Some others will use the production subsidies to import components at higher prices, with no net benefit to them or the consumers.

As RSJ writes in the first section, this decade is India’s to lose. Imports aren’t evil. Target value maximisation, not import substitution. Counterproductive policies targeting import substitution won’t help.

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HomeWork

Reading and listening recommendations on public policy matters
  1. [Article] Why the MRP should be abolished. A 2015 article by Anupam Manur remains relevant.

  2. [Paper] PIIE has a good paper with a framework to analyse the world’s dependence on China for strategic minerals.

  3. [Book] Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir is a useful read.