Anticipating the Unintended
Anticipating the Unintended
#208 Go Shape the Molten Metal Now*

#208 Go Shape the Molten Metal Now*

The State and Industrialisation, Trade Trouble in Electronics Manufacturing, Fed's Learnings from the SVB Failure, and Social Justice vs Caste Mobilisation.

India Policy Watch #1: How Not to Let the Opportunity Slip Away

Insights on issues relevant to India

A strange thing happens when you are away on a break. One week you are sitting and wondering how many different things you can write about because of the flurry of events around you. US banks getting into trouble, Rahul Gandhi being denied bail, more curbs on US companies doing business in China, frenetic moves in semiconductor politics - you get the picture. And then you take a break. And everything slows down. First Republic Bank doesn’t implode in a matter of hours like SVB. Instead, it drags its feet in a slow-motion death spiral. RBI pauses on its rate increases. Janet Yellen pulls back on US hostility towards China while cooing about how the two economies need one another. Things go to a standstill when you stop looking at the world with a weekly columnist’s gaze. It is like the vibe of a still summer day in India takes over everything. Nothing moves. Once back, what does one write about? Well, thematically, there isn’t any one thing that will do right now. So, I guess I will cover a few areas that could be of interest.

The big story out of India last week was that we might have overtaken China in the population sweepstakes. This was kind of inevitable, and a million people here or there doesn’t make a difference in the larger scheme of things. Yet, it is as good a moment as any to reflect on that elusive thing called the India opportunity. Now, we have devoted multiple editions to why having more people is a good thing. Somewhat to my relief, a lot of commentary in the last week has echoed this sentiment. There’s the usual comparison of the relatively younger demographics in India with that of China and the advantage of being more aligned geopolitically with the West. And, of course, the governments in India don’t do terribly arbitrary things like China did in the past couple of years to the tech sector. On this last point, I have my views, but we are using a really broad brush here, so I will let it pass. The general tone of these articles is that this is India’s opportunity to lose—a far cry from my school days when the population was seen as a problem. I have three points to make in this context which are a bit different from the usual view of what India should do not to let this opportunity slip.

First, there’s the usual prescription that India should industrialise faster to take advantage of this dividend and avoid the middle-income trap. My usual take on this is how well do we know why India couldn’t industrialise faster in the last 20 years when China took off. It is not like this is a fresh insight that wasn’t known to policymakers then. So, what gets in the way of India to industrialise? My short answer will always be the state. Despite all the hype around Make in India and the rising ease of doing business rankings, it is still quite difficult to start and run a business in India. The state is deeply entrenched in controlling capital in India, and it enjoys the arbitrary power that it has over them that it is impossible to change this with just better optics of ‘single window’, tax holidays or investment roadshows. In the last two decades, the state has retreated a bit in some areas, but paradoxically, with greater digitisation, it has more information and, therefore, greater power over industry.

My general contention is that the state can continue with its welfarism (or whatever else you may call it) on the social and political front, but for India to industrialise, the state has to retreat on the economic control it wields. This looks very difficult today because the state’s first goal is to perpetuate itself. It will require the PM to go back to some of his campaign promises of pre-2014 with real conviction. All Indian politicians of a certain vintage are instinctively socialist. And as the farm reforms saga showed, even a small vocal minority can derail a progressive reform. The other challenge has been the availability of capital for MSMEs to build their business and compete for global orders. For the most part, since 2009, we have had a twin balance sheet problem, and that has meant banks have been very choosy about whom to lend. Add to that the shallowness of the corporate bond market, and we end up having a manufacturing sector low on its ambitions. On this, we might be on a better footing now. Bank and corporate balance sheets are at their robust best, and the public digital infrastructure and GST network make it possible for better underwriting decisions using informational collateral. This is evident in the robust credit offtake reported in the MSME segment across the banking sector in the past year.

My view is we will industrialise a bit faster than in the past, but we are going to fall short of the expectations of the kind of industrialisation that’s expected for us to increase our per capita income from $2000 to $10,000 in the next 15 years. China traversed that exact journey between 2006-20, so it is possible. And it is possible to do it without making the same mistakes as China, where it went back on its decentralised model of growth that made regions and companies compete with one another to an overly centralised model now that will only hurt it further. We need a very specific retreat of the state from the economy with a regulatory framework that acts as an enabler rather than lording over it in a policing role. These seem to be difficult even for a PM and a party that’s hugely popular and has no immediate threat of losing power. We will therefore continue to do a respectable 7 per cent growth over the long run than a tearing 10+ per cent. It is what it is. 

This growth is good but not good enough to take care of the employment aspirations of the people. So, we will have to contend with high unemployment or underemployment for the foreseeable future. What will compound this is automation and the speed of AI adoption in the industry. One of the things to watch out for is the increasing sophistication of AI tools that could automate the services sector. The short-term evidence of generative AI tools like ChatGPT or Dall-e shows how quickly lower-skilled white-collar jobs could be automated. Also, these tools are now getting ‘consumerised’; that is the AI use cases are no longer restricted to a business-to-business context. This will increase the ability of the end users to use them for their needs directly. And that will reduce opportunities in the services sector, which has been the growth engine of the Indian economy in the post-liberalisation decades.

Separately, we have talked about the increasing market concentration among 4-5 corporate groups in India. This trend is only getting stronger, and I have explained in the previous edition how this is different from the ‘national champions’ model of the Asian tigers. Simply put, unlike them, these national champions aren’t using their monopoly to win in global markets. Concentration is a classic market failure that will eventually lead to higher prices and poor allocation of capital. There’s a good argument on this that’s been made, of late, on this by Viral Acharya. But it has gotten drowned in the usual nationalistic noise that any criticism of this government brings these days. The usual caution that would have come up at this stage would be about the social risks of a young and aspirational population being unemployed. As I travel across India, I find this risk to be somewhat overblown. The availability of cheap smartphones, cheaper data and a general increase in prosperity mean the youth is forever busy staring at their screens engaged in low-quality entertainment. We will continue to generate low-end services jobs to take care of the top tier of Indian society like the ‘home delivery of everything’ model has already shown us. This ‘yajman’ system of one rich Indian supporting ten others will be a feature of our economy.

Lastly, we must realise that the surplus labour and surplus savings (we are already getting there) that we will have will need to find their use outside of India. We will be one of the few countries in the world to have these together and almost no one will have our scale of surplus labour and savings. Free trade and open borders will therefore play to our advantage. It will be counterproductive to champion protectionism or any kind of swadeshi brand of politics. It will just be bad economics and blunt our edge in the global economy. 

There is no shortage of things to solve if we want to make use of the demographic dividend. I have read the usual lament on how we must improve the quality of our labour pool, upgrade our education system, improve infrastructure and bring women into the workforce - the list is long. I think these are downstream factors that will mostly get taken care of if the state makes it easier for the enterprises to do business. That retreat when the state has enjoyed having capital under its thumb for decades is mighty difficult. India will do well because there is an overlap of trends that favour it uniquely. The giant leap it so desires will need more than just this happy coincidence to come its way.  

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PolicWTF: Tariff ki Taareef Mein

This section looks at egregious public policies. Policies that make you go: WTF, Did that really happen?
— Pranay Kotasthane

We’ve cried ourselves hoarse that India’s position on international trade in electronics is self-defeating. The consensus in India is that high tariffs, heavy customs duties, and other such barriers are a crucial pre-condition for creating world-beating Indian electronics companies. Another edition of this series titled “Tariff ki Tareef Mein” played out last week.

On April 17, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) dispute settlement panel ruled that India’s imposition of tariffs on mobile phones and electronic components violates its commitment under the Information Technology Act (ITA). The ITA is a plurilateral agreement of the WTO in which the signatories committed to reducing all tariffs and taxes on Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) products. Europe, Japan, and Taiwan raised these disputes separately against India.

No surprise, the Indian government plans to challenge the ruling. In fact, government officials are signalling that the ruling won’t have any impact because the appellate body of the WTO doesn’t have enough judges to hear India’s position.

India’s formal defence is based on two arguments: one is technical, and the other is ideological.

The technical argument is that India signed the ITA in 1997 when mobile phones, chargers, and many of the now ubiquitous digital wonders hadn’t emerged. So, the recent tariffs on new products that came to life after 1997 do not violate India’s ITA commitments.

However, a deeper ideological argument underlies the technical argument. The Indian government strongly believes that signing the ITA led to the decline of its domestic electronics industry. And as a result, import tariffs are critical for maintaining the current uptick in domestic electronics production. The commerce ministry website pulls no punches when it says:

“India’s experience with the ITA has been most discouraging, which almost wiped out the IT industry from India. The real gainer from that agreement has been China which raised its global market share from 2% to 14% between 2000-2011.

In light of recent measures taken by the Government to build a sound manufacturing environment in the field of Electronics and Information Technology, this is the time for us to incubate our industry rather than expose it to undue pressures of competition. Accordingly and also keeping in view opinion of domestic IT industry, it has been decided not to participate in the ITA expansion negotiations for the time being.”

As this official position indicates, the government seems to have internalised that the ITA was the reason that India’s past attempts failed. (That line about incubating the industry rather than exposing it to “undue” pressures of competition transported me to the 1950s.)

There are at least three problems with this line of thinking.

One, it mistakes correlation for causation. It is true that Chinese companies decimated the domestic Indian manufacturers of cheap mobile phones by 2017. Indian domestic players couldn’t match the “features per unit price” that Chinese companies were able to offer. The import of cheaper phones back then benefited millions of Indian consumers. The reason that domestic players couldn’t compete wasn’t the ITA but that they had no competitive advantage. Their business model relied on rebranding older phones sourced from China. Zero tariffs under ITA, in fact, made it possible for these companies to import components cheaply and climb up the assembly value chain. But without any significant investment in R&D or industrial innovation, these “domestic” players were easily wiped off the market. This story isn’t unique to electronic products. Even in segments to which the ITA doesn’t apply, such as machine tools, textiles, or toys, Indian companies couldn’t stand international competition. Surely, the problem then lies in India’s large-scale manufacturing troubles and not in signing the ITA. The much-lampooned ease-of-doing business factors, such as poor infrastructure, byzantine labour and land regulations, and a complicated tax system, can explain why production in India remained a challenge across sectors.

Two, protecting domestic players will not produce world-beating champions. This is particularly true for electronics production, which relies heavily on cross-border flows of materials, machines, and humans. To export one type of electronic product, you need to import another type; atmanirbharta is impossible. By disregarding the ITA, products manufactured in India will not be able to compete in the international market. An analysis by the industry body of phone manufacturers shows that higher import tariffs have meant that a large portion of the money companies receives under PLI gets re-routed to pay these tariffs, ultimately making production cost-prohibitive. This is the reason why companies such as Apple have been trying to seek duty exemptions for some electronic components. It is also a major sticking point in the India-Taiwan Free Trade Agreement. A unilateral reduction in tariffs by following ITA is thus in India’s interest.

Three, India’s vehement dismissal of the ITA places it at a disadvantage in future negotiations. India has opted out of the ITA-2 negotiations that sought to expand the list of ICT products on which tariffs were to be reduced. As a big manufacturer, China was able to get favourable exemptions in these negotiations. Instead of reducing tariffs to zero immediately, it was able to extract waivers that give it a gentle gliding path towards zero tariffs. India has a similar opportunity today, given that it is far more integrated into the global supply chain for electronics due to the manufacturing presence of players such as Samsung and Apple. The geopolitical situation, too, is far more favourable. But India’s obstinate stance on the ITA makes the question of negotiating waivers a moot one.

China signed the ITA in 2003. By then, it already had a strong electronics assembly and manufacturing setup. The ITA supercharged its powers and helped it become a global provider of ICT goods. Twenty years later, India, too, has been able to kickstart electronics assembly. It’s now time to approach ITA more confidently instead of falling back to the tested-and-failed tropes of import substitution and infant industry protection.

A basic rule of strategy is not to spread too thin on many fronts simultaneously. India's trade strategy seems to ignore this maxim. If our chief adversary is China, it's better to settle trade disputes with the EU, UK, Japan, Taiwan, and the US with minimal friction. Instead, we continue to treat every tariff reduction as a bargaining chip. Missing the woods for the trees shouldn’t become India’s guiding principle in international trade.

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Global Policy Watch: What Fed Learnt From SVB Failure

Reflection on global policy issues

On the face of it, quite a lot. A 118-page report.

As the Economic Times reports:

“The Federal Reserve issued a detailed and scathing assessment on Friday of its failure to identify problems and push for fixes at Silicon Valley Bank before the U.S. lender's collapse, and promised tougher supervision and stricter rules for banks.

In what Fed Vice Chair for Supervision Michael Barr called an "unflinching" review of the U.S. central bank's supervision of SVB, the Fed said its oversight of the Santa Clara, California-based bank was inadequate and that regulatory standards were too low.”

It is useful to understand what policy lessons are learnt by a regulator from a setback. SVB was a small bank (16th largest) but a fairly important player in the valley. And it went down in a heap within hours because of a run engineered by the enlightened VCs who asked their investee companies to pull out their deposits. I have covered the saga in a previous edition. 

In its report, the Fed has identified the reasons for the bank failure, which in hindsight, is clear to everyone now. It points to three broader issues:

“First, the combination of social media, a highly networked and concentrated depositor base, and technology may have fundamentally changed the speed of bank runs. Social media enabled depositors to instantly spread concerns about a bank run, and technology enabled immediate withdrawals of funding.

Second, as I have previously stated, a firm’s distress may have systemic consequences through contagion—where concerns about one firm spread to other firms—even if the firm is not extremely large, highly connected to other financial counterparties, or involved in critical financial services.

Third, this experience has emphasised why strong bank capital matters. While the proximate cause of SVB’s failure was a liquidity run, the underlying issue was concern about its solvency.”

All good, so far. And therefore, the question: So, what have they learnt from it? Well, the key “takeaways” summed up are here:

“1. Silicon Valley Bank’s board of directors and management failed to manage their risks.

2. Supervisors did not fully appreciate the extent of the vulnerabilities as Silicon Valley Bank grew in size and complexity.

3. When supervisors did identify vulnerabilities, they did not take sufficient steps to ensure that Silicon Valley Bank fixed those problems quickly enough.

4. The Board’s tailoring approach in response to the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act (EGRRCPA) and a shift in the stance of supervisory policy impeded effective supervision by reducing standards, increasing complexity, and promoting a less assertive supervisory approach.”

The Board and the management take a large portion of the blame. And then it appears like the Fed is holding itself accountable by calling out the weakness in supervisory standards. Till you read the fine print. It is largely throwing a small team of SVB-specific supervisors under the bus, thus making it sound like a specific instance of dereliction of duty. SVB failed because the Fed raised interest rates too quickly without asking what could be the possible risks of such a move. It didn’t do its homework for its actions on the banking system. And when it realised the likely vulnerabilities that it hadn’t anticipated, it went easy on the rate hikes than the hawkish stand it had taken only a week earlier. Had it been only an SVB-specific issue, what explains the slow unravelling of the First Republic Bank? 

It is one thing not to anticipate the unintended. It is another not to acknowledge it and search for lessons which won’t help you the next time around. Or maybe it knows what went wrong, and it is too proud to admit it went wrong. Either way, it comes out of this poorly. 

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India Policy Watch #2: Devil and the Deep Sea

Insights on issues relevant to India
— Pranay Kotasthane

Over the last couple of weeks, the Congress’ new election slogan, “Jitni aabaadi, utna haq”, has caused quite a flutter. Bluntly speaking, it is a pre-election promise to expand reservations for Other Backward Classes (OBC).

We’ve seen this movie before. As was the case with the last election, it means that the grand narrative that’s been put forward to counter Hindutva majoritarianism is “backward” caste mobilisation. But this time around, the mobilisation comes with some clear demands: a caste census, an expansion of OBC reservation, and a dedicated ministry for the empowerment of OBCs.

In his characteristically edifying column, political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta explains why these three demands for caste mobilisation will not translate to social justice. Social justice needs good public institutions of education and inclusive economic growth, combined with strong affirmative action for the Dalits and some deeply marginalised sections of OBCs. Instead, political parties have reduced the logic of “social justice” to one and only one item: expansion of OBC reservation. In his words:

“The most important things that are required for social justice do not require caste data. Making quality education available to all, the creation of public goods in which all can participate, the design of welfare or other cash support schemes, the best mix of subsidies and income enhancing measures, and most importantly, an expanding economy that creates mobility do not require the framework of caste. The mistake of the social justice agenda was that it forgot Ambedkar’s lesson that to effectively attack caste you have to (for the most part) strongly but indirectly attack the range of material deprivations that make its logic so insidious. Second, we have to express the blunt truth on so much of what went under the name of social justice politics in North India.”

“In my years of dealing with higher education, it was rare to come across a social justice party that shed a single tear for the decimation of public education or the destruction of universities. But all their social justice outrage was focused on the one single point of reservations. So in Bihar you got the RJD that, for all its tapping into the politics of dignity, decimated the governance structures that could have empowered marginalised groups. In UP, under the garb of social justice agenda, we tolerated parties that had little interest in governing. What was called the deepening of democracy in North India did not lead to deepening of governance or inclusive growth.”

[The Indian Express, April 21]

As you would imagine, that article ruffled many a feather. Writing in the same newspaper, Manoj Kumar Jha (a Rajya Sabha member of RJD) and Ghazala Jamil mounted a defence with these words:

“The RJD and other opposition parties that he accuses of reducing social justice to distributing “government largesse based on officially reified caste identities” and “decimating public education and destructing universities” have, in fact, invested heavily in school education systems so that the marginalised sections can simply reach public universities. The quantum of ambition in Bihar’s youth for competitive exams for public jobs and their presence in all sectors of the private economy across India and abroad today is a testament to the massification of education, despite suffering from the effects of uneven development and the failure of cooperative federalism.” [The Indian Express, April 27]

To claim that RJD and opposition parties’ biggest success is increasing the “number of youth writing competitive exams for public jobs” proves Mehta’s point. With quotas as the primary instrument of action, government education institutions merely become vehicles to distribute positions along caste lines.

Of course, Mehta’s article is a lament that the opposition is using one form of majoritarianism to counter another form of majoritarianism. But those in favour are desperate to show that their project is morally superior. Both these views are somewhat orthogonal to how this issue will resonate with the electorate in 2024. As of now, we are stuck with the politics of religion versus the politics of caste.

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Reading and listening recommendations on public policy matters
  1. [Article] Ajay Chibber’s take on fiscal decentralisation has useful comparisons:

    “India’s share of sub-national (state plus local) spending at 60 per cent of total spend is quite high at its level of development. Other large federal states spend less. Brazil spends around 50 per cent at the sub-national level, Germany 46 per cent, the United States around 40 per cent, and Indonesia around 35 per cent. Only Canada and China spend more than 70 per cent at the sub-national level.

    Going forward, where India must focus is the share of local government, which remains very small. India’s local government spend is less than 4 per cent of total government spending. This share is much smaller than in most advanced economies, but also much lower than in centralised authoritarian governments like China, where local government spending exceeds 50 per cent of total spending by government. China is an outlier in this, but in most advanced economies, the share is much higher than in India. The 28 countries in the EU spend 23.2 per cent at the local level, Canada 21 per cent, the US 29 per cent. In Latin America, local government spending is around 12.7 per cent and most analysts feel it should be much higher.” [Business Standard, April 20]

    In this context, we earlier discussed a framework for decentralisation in edition #186.

  2. [Podcast] A Puliyabaazi on the population question. Is India really overpopulated?

  3. [Paper] The Information Technology Agreement, Manufacturing and Innovation – China’s and India’s Contrasting Experiences by Dieter Ernst is THE starting point to understand the debate on India’s protectionism in electronics.

*From the poem Opportunity by Raymond Garfield Dandridge

Anticipating the Unintended
Anticipating the Unintended
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 8000+ subscribers.