Tweets for the 4th of July, 2020

Tweets I found interesting this week, in no particular order:

Five Articles/Posts for the 3rd of July, 2020

  1. “Accordingly, antifragile systems and organisms tend towards a common theme: bottoms-up decision-making, rather than top-down decision making. Antifragility requires real options, and real options are low-cost. Antifragility is only successful if you can actually detect, react, and grow in response to deviations from your present state in real time; the only way you can feasibly do this is for disorder detection and response to take place at a small enough resolution, and tight enough turnaround time. Top-down systems have a hard time with antifragility, because for them, all options are costly.”
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    I’m late in posting this, having read this a while ago, but a useful essay by Alex Danco on how to think about anti-fragility, the term coined and popularized by Taleb. There are a lot of very useful ways to think about anti-fragility, but this essay explores immunity and how to think about our bodies immunity from the prism of anti-fragility. I found it especially useful to think about our bodies (which are at risk from the virus) and our governments (which are supposed to help us protect ourselves against the virus) and ask which is more anti-fragile, and why.
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  2. Kevin Kelly (a man worth learning more about) recently posted “68 bits of unsolicited advice“. Each advice is worth reading – here’s one that is easy to understand, difficult to implement on a sustained basis. Ask me. I should know.
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    “Being enthusiastic is worth 25 IQ points.”
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  3. “Grades destroy curiosity. Too many kids learn for the sole purpose of raising their GPA because that’s what the system incentivizes. From an early age, I observed that my success in school depended more on my grades and less on how much I learned. In college, even though I wrote essays on my own and worked as an intern in New York City for companies like Skift, I was almost kicked out of my fraternity because my GPA was below 3.0. Likewise, my college counselors evaluated me on two metrics: grades and SAT scores. Neil deGrasse Tyson once said: “When students cheat on exams, it’s because our school system values grades more than students value learning.””
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    Read this essay by David Perell. Please. Read it.
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  4. This link came to me via Recommendo, which is a newsletter I have subscribed to about a month or so ago. Worth a ponder, it is about the art of critical thinking.
  5. Great visualizations, as always, from the NYT. This one is about the spread of the coronavirus in the USA.

Notes on “Snap-Back and Gone-Forever Goods”

The actual title is a bit longer than that: “Snap-Back and Gone-Forever Goods: Understanding the COVID Recession’s Economic Winners and Losers“.

Tyler Cowen had shared this link on MR a couple of days ago, and I really liked this blog post for two reasons: one, a great framework that I can use in the coming semester for teaching Principles of Economics (more about the framework in a bit), and two, it speaks about higher education towards the end of the post.

Let’s get started:

  • “Due to the impending COVID pandemic, businesses, except for essential ones, simply had to shut down. People were essentially forced to stop buying things they actually wanted to buy.”
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    It almost sounds trite put this way, but us economists are so used to thinking in terms of whether it is a “demand-side” problem or a “supply-side” problem that it makes sense to remember this: this one is neither! Folks are (more than) willing to supply, and folks are (more than) willing to buy – in most cases. We’ve imposed on ourselves, as a society, restrictions that prohibit such exchanges from taking place.
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    There will be knock-on effects, some of which are already visible. And that will then take us into familiar territory (supply shock, demand shock etc). But a crisis due to a pandemic is fundamentally different!
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  • First is the distinction between purchases of what I’ll call “Snap-Back” goods and services and those that are “Gone Forever.” In the Snap-Back category are things that we couldn’t buy during the heaviest COVID lock-down period, but these purchases were simply delayed.
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    Simple frameworks are such lovely, beautiful things. I think all of us in India experienced “Snap-Back” goods – and to a lesser extent, services – with the winding down of the nationwide lockdown. The number of Amazon deliveries in my own household is proof enough for me. Of course, services such as the ones offered by The Urban Company, for example, is another story altogether – but still, the point remains. “Snap-Back” goods ought to be a thing, especially in 2020.
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  • ““Gone Forever” goods and services, in contrast, are just like the term suggests: gone forever. Like me, you may have foregone several haircuts during shelter-in-place because you didn’t want to get (or give) coronavirus to your barber.”
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    Anybody who knows me will know that haircuts isn’t the most appropriate example! But enough of splitting hairs, the point is well taken. There are certain goods and services (am I wrong in thinking that it will be mostly services) that will be “gone forever”.
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    That being said, the nomenclature chosen here is slightly unfortunate. One might get the impression that the good or service in question will not be provided at all, except that is of course not true. It is just the case that business for the barber in question was bad during the lockdown. Fingers crossed, business will return to normal once things get back to normalcy – whenever that may be. And of course, if things open up without a vaccine/cure, business will be lower than would otherwise have been the case. But it still will not be “Gone Forever”.
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  • “Economic booms and busts cause average incomes to rise and fall. As a result, businesses that sell a good or service that people purchase during good times and bad, like haircuts and toothpaste, are more insulated from recessions. Businesses that sell the Fountain Powerboat 32 Thunder Cat speedboat (see below, retail price $400,000), and other goods whose sales depend on people having a lot of money on their hands, fare poorly in a recession.”
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    Tyler Cowen himself had made the point some months ago that certain business will probably not outlast this recession, and mentioned how that may not, on balance, be all that bad a thing. I’m paraphrasing, see the exact quote here. Would the world be worse off if we produced less Fountain Powerboat 32 Thunder Cat speedboats in the years to come?
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    To be clear, I do not at all mean to suggest that Bruce Wydick will lament the potential passing of these speedboats. I am simply suggesting that some luxury goods not being produced may not be the worst thing ever (and yes, I am well aware of the macroeconomic implications).
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Sourced from: http://www.acrosstwoworlds.net/?p=1176
  • This, above, is the simple framework I was referring to at the start of today’s blog post. 2×2 matrices are far too prevalent in management schools, and not prevalent enough in economic textbooks, and this was therefore very welcome indeed. But not just because of that! It really does help clarify my thinking.
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    I need to note that Bruce Wydick has explained what income elasticity of demand is before showing this figure. I haven’t, but a simple Google search will help you learn what the income elasticity of demand is. Alternatively, click here to read about it, or watch this video.
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  • First things first: it is interesting that all of the upper left quadrant is services, and not goods. In fact, I’m hard pressed to think of a single good that would fall in this bracket. Maybe seasonal fruits that you won’t get again until the same season comes back next year (mangoes being a classic example in India, of course). Can you think of any other goods that are “gone forever”?
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  • And now onto higher education.
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    “Enrollments in higher education are typically thought of as a normal good, and estimates of income elasticity are typically slightly inelastic (slightly greater than 1.0), meaning that for each 1 percent increase (decrease) in income, enrollments increase (decrease) by about 1 percent.”
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    That’s from this link, which I got by reading the blogpost we’re taking notes for. Worth keeping in mind for what follows.
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  • “What this means is that the data show college-bound kids keep going to college even in recessions.”
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    That quote is in the context of the income elasticity of education. I have two points to raise in this context, though:
    • First, as Bruce Wydick himself explains earlier on in the blogpost, this year is an example of supply and demand being willing, but markets still not clearing. That is, this time is different. Under normal circumstances, sure – but enrollment may drop because of other factors than change in income.
    • Second, bundling! When you buy an education from a college, you’re buying the signal that you have learnt, you’re buying the learning itself and you’re buying the peer networks you develop because you attend college.
      The current pandemic means that you need depend on college for only the first of these three goods: learning itself, if it is to be online, can happen through multiple online providers, and peer networks in the physical sense is unlikely to happen at least through 2020.
    • Combine the inevitable drop in nationwide income with the fact that only one out of the three “goods” from a college being up for sale, and you reach the conclusion that enrollment will likely suffer this year.
  • The reduction will of course be different for different countries, and different once again for colleges within the same country. But at the margin, my model of the world tells me to expect either a lower number of applications, or a lower number of enrollments – or both.
  • But this article is worth a read and a bookmark for the framework alone!

Notes on the IMF World Economic Outlook, June Update

On the 8th of January this year, this is how I opened the post for that day:

“Five links today to articles that were written recently about how things might pan out in 2020. Sticking one’s neck out and making predictions is difficult enough for relatively small issues – trying to guess where the global economy might end up is something I would never want to do. Kudos to those who try!”

Note to self: forecasting the global economy is an impossible task. Never forget!

All that being said, the International Monetary Fund came up with a June update to their April forecast. And (surprise, surprise) it doesn’t make for pleasant reading. What follows are passages I highlighted while reading the PDF, and in some cases, my comments below.

  • “Global growth is projected at –4.9 percent in 2020, 1.9 percentage points below the April 2020 World Economic Outlook (WEO) forecast. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a more negative impact on activity in the first half of 2020 than anticipated, and the recovery is projected to be more gradual than previously forecast.”
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    My guess (not a forecast) is that this will be revised downward further still. I hope I am wrong. My reasons for being so pessimistic? One, I think we still underestimate how difficult it will be to reopen, and even if the economy reopens, parts of the world will need to enter lockdowns of varying intensity for a long time to come. Planning with such uncertainty in mind will prove to be difficult. Also, rebuilding supply chains while not prioritizing for efficiency is desirable, yes. But it’s not easy!
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  • Also, uh, China will not take any attempted rebuilding of these supply chains lying down. Ask us Indians about it!
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  • “The adverse impact on low-income households is particularly acute, imperiling the significant progress made in reducing extreme poverty in the world since the 1990s.”
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    The distributional consequences are going to be bad, and quantifying them will keep economists occupied for a very long time. But dealing with this is not going to be easy.
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  • “As with the April 2020 WEO projections, there is a higher-than-usual degree of uncertainty around this forecast.”
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    Duh.
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  • “For economies struggling to control infection rates, a lengthier lockdown will inflict an additional toll on activity.”
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    This applies to us here in India, and again, dealing with this is not going to be easy.
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  • “The pattern reflects a unique combination of factors: voluntary social distancing, lockdowns needed to slow transmission and allow health care systems to handle rapidly rising caseloads, steep income losses, and weaker consumer confidence”
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    Truly a crisis like no other, this one. As I mention in tomorrow’s post, this is neither a supply not a demand crisis. Macroeconomics will have to, yet again, update itself.
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  • “Nonetheless, according to the International Labour Organization, the global decline in work hours in 2020:Q1 compared to 2019:Q4 was equivalent to the loss of 130 million full-time jobs.”
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  • “The synchronized nature of the downturn has amplified domestic disruptions around the globe. Trade contracted by close to –3.5 percent (year over year) in the first quarter, reflecting weak demand, the collapse in cross-border tourism, and supply dislocations related to shutdowns (exacerbated in some cases by trade restrictions).”
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    One of my biggest worries is that politics, both domestic and international, will likely make this much, much worse in the days to come.
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  • “An important assumption is that countries where infections have declined will not reinstate stringent lockdowns of the kind seen in the first half of the year, instead relying on alternative methods if needed to contain transmission (for instance, ramped up testing, contact tracing, and isolation).”
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    Neither citizens nor governments – at least in India – have the appetite for a lockdown that was as strict or as long as the one that lasted through until the end of May. In a sense, we have used up that particular strategy. Limited lockdowns, and intensive ones in those areas where there are outbreaks, will be the way forward. This, unfortunately, will not be as effective, and we will therefore live in a stop-start world for a while.
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  • “For the first time, all regions are projected to experience negative growth in 2020. There are, however, substantial differences across individual economies, reflecting the evolution of the pandemic and the effectiveness of containment strategies; variation in economic structure (for example, dependence on severely affected sectors, such as tourism and oil); reliance on external financial flows, including remittances; and pre-crisis growth trends.”
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    Same cause for the disease, in other words, but the treatment must necessarily be different. Not just across countries, but also within them. What works for Maldives will not work for India, for example, and what works for Goa won’t for Maharashtra. An argument, if you will, for policy to operate at more local levels.
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  • “Moreover, with widespread school closures in about 150 countries as of the end of May, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization estimates that close to 1.2 billion schoolchildren (about 70 percent of the global total) have been affected worldwide. This will result in significant loss of learning, with disproportionately negative effects on earnings prospects for children in low-income countries.”
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    Left unstated is the social impact of being cooped up at home, and on the entire family, not just children. The economic consequences – now and in the future – will be important.
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  • “Development of a safe, effective vaccine would lift sentiment and could improve growth outcomes in 2021, even if vaccine production is not scaled up fast enough to deliver herd immunity by the end of 2021.”
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    Last mile delivery of vaccines will take longer than most people think, and an improvement in “sentiment” might lead to unanticipated consequences.
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  • “Beyond the pandemic, policymakers must cooperate to address the economic issues underlying trade and technology tensions as well as gaps in the rules-based multilateral trading system. The eventual recovery from the COVID-19 crisis would be endangered without a durable solution to these frictions.”
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    Agreed! But color me sceptical on this panning out well.

Notes on “Why Tech Didn’t Save Us From Covid-19”

The MIT Technology Review recently published an interesting, thought-provoking article with the title in quotes above. It was also a little bit one-sided, but we’ll get to that later.

  • The title itself brought to mind Peter Thiel’s quote about being promised flying cars, and being given 140 characters instead. You may want to make a snarky joke about whether 280 characters counts as progress or not, but the point is well taken. And indeed, reinforced by this quote from David Rotman’s article:
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    “In an age of artificial intelligence, genomic medicine, and self-driving cars, our most effective response to the outbreak has been mass quarantines, a public health technique borrowed from the Middle Ages.”
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  • The article then goes on to highlight at least three separate aspects of why tech has failed us: lesser government support for technology and innovation (particularly in the USA), a sclerotic bureaucracy, and policy-making that is not a) proactive enough b) good at managing risks effectively c) far too focused on short-term issues d) aware of the pitfalls of focusing solely on efficiency.
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    Let’s begin with the last of these points:
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  • ““The pandemic has shone a bright light on just how much US manufacturing capabilities have moved offshore,” says Erica Fuchs, a manufacturing expert at Carnegie Mellon University.”
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    I teach courses in international economics at the Gokhale Institute, and one of the fundamental insights that I think students need to walk away with is the concept of a non-zero sum game. Trade makes both parties better off, and therefore more trade is good, is literally the basic starting block of a course on trade. For an excellent summary of this idea, read this article by Paul Krugman, or watch this TED talk by Matt Ridley.
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    But two basic concepts from economics have come to haunt this rather neat idea. One is scale, and the other is the need to diversify. Both are very closely related.
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  • If, conventional theoretical thinking goes, a firm is able to scale up effectively, it will be able to produce more for cheaper. Yes, it is more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of the benefits of scale. Now, think of all countries as firms, and China is the obvious example of a country that scaled more rapidly than other countries, and was able to produce stuff cheaper than almost anywhere else. And that’s how China became the “manufacturing centre of the world”. The more you import from China, the more they scale (and effectively!). The more they scale, they cheaper they can make stuff. The cheaper stuff gets, the more you have an incentive to import from China. And once the loop is up and running, it becomes difficult to stop.
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  • And that’s a simple explanation for how the world ended up putting all of its eggs in one basket. We failed to diversify, because we focused on efficiency, without worrying about risk. What happens if an increasingly efficient global trading order suddenly breaks down? The price of efficiency is two fold: a) a lack of diversification b) not enough risk mitigation measures that allow one to fall back on domestic production. Which is where most of the world finds itself today. Readjusting global supply chains away from China is necessary, but it will not be easy. Especially because most countries will not want to pursue twin objectives: a) diversification away from China into other potential export powerhouses b) some production to be kept at home, especially in crucial sectors such as healthcare.
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    Scale, and a lack of diversification. There’s a lesson in there for us at the individual level as well, of course. A single minded pursuit of some goal (say money, or career growth) at the cost of other things isn’t necessarily a good idea.
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  • “Why couldn’t the US’s dominant tech industry and large biomedical sector provide these things? It’s tempting to simply blame the Trump administration’s inaction.”
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    The truth is always more complicated than you think, and beware simple explanations, but that being said, you might want to read The Fifth Risk. Here’s a slightly tangential review from The Guardian if you are feeling lazy, and a quote from that article follows:
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    “But we’re actually much more likely to die driving to the shops. The fifth risk is something impossible to conceive of in advance, or to prepare for directly. What matters is having a well-organised government in place to respond to these contingencies when they hit – exactly what the Trump administration has failed to do.”
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    No government, or Big Ol’ Central Planner is perfect, of course (and there’s a very readable book about that topic, or here’s a fascinating review of the same book), but Michael Lewis makes the claim that the Trump administration is rather less than perfect even by our less than exacting standards.
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  • “Any country’s capacity to invent and then deploy the technologies it needs is shaped by public funding and government policies. In the US, public investment in manufacturing, new materials, and vaccines and diagnostics has not been a priority, and there is almost no system of government direction, financial backing, or technical support for many critically important new technologies. Without it, the country was caught flat-footed.”
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    The book to read about this topic, if you ask me, is The Entrepreneurial State, by Mariana Mazzucato. Here’s the Wikipedia link about the book. Governments need to play, she says (and I suspect the author of this article would agree), a more active role in fostering the tech ecosystem in a country. Shades of Studwell, perhaps, but I have a counterargument here:
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  • “Incompetence and a sclerotic bureaucracy” is a phrase David Rotman uses early in the article when speaking about the Center for Disease Control in the USA. I find myself in complete agreement with the adjectives used. Why presume, then, that other government departments are likely any better? The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle. You can certainly make the case a la Michael Lewis, that the Trump administration took us to one end of the spectrum – but you should beware equally the other end of it!
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  • “Economists like to measure the impact of innovation in terms of productivity growth, particularly “total factor productivity”—the ability to get more output from the same inputs (such as labor and capital). Productivity growth is what makes advanced nations richer and more prosperous over the long run. For the US as well as most other rich countries, this measure of innovation has been dismal for nearly two decades.”
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    Well, yes, sure. And there is more than a grain of truth to the charge laid above, and not just for America. But keep in mind that measuring TFP is really and truly hard, and I am nowhere close to being convinced that we do a good job of it, even for a country like the USA, forget India. I am writing this post while sitting in my bed, using a laptop that allows me to keep multiple tabs (well over 50 right now) open in a modern browser, while being seamlessly connected to an overwhelming variety of news sources. All this while I listen to a Spotify playlist, and sip on excellent coffee that is made using home delivered Arabic beans. I’ll stop channeling my inner Keynes now, but most of this was not possible, especially at these prices, two decades ago.
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    Progress may not be fast enough for our tastes, sure – but it has been taking place. If you would like to read a book with a take contrarian to mine, try this on for size: The Rise and Fall of American Growth, by Robert Gordon.
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  • “The problem with letting private investment alone drive innovation is that the money is skewed toward the most lucrative markets.”
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    Churchill’s quote about democracy comes to mind!
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  • “In a widely circulated blog post, internet pioneer and Silicon Valley icon Marc Andreessen decried the US’s inability to “build” and produce needed supplies like masks, claiming that “we chose not to have the mechanisms, the factories, the systems to make these things.” The accusation resonated with many: the US, where manufacturing has deteriorated, seemed unable to churn out things like masks and ventilators, while countries with strong and innovative manufacturing sectors, such as China, Japan, Taiwan, and Germany, have fared far better.”
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    Here’s is Andreessen’s post, and also, this is your periodic reminder to read How Asia Works. China, Japan, Taiwan and Germany being up there isn’t a coincidence.
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  • ““The great lesson from the pandemic,” says Suzanne Berger, a political scientist at MIT and an expert on advanced manufacturing, is “how we traded resilience for low-cost and just-in-time production.””
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    Options are easy to teach, but difficult to grasp, and even more difficult to implement. See put, long.
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  • “…they are calling for an immediate ramp-up of public investment in technology, but also for a bigger government role in guiding the direction of technologists’ work. The key will be to spend at least some of the cash in the gigantic US fiscal stimulus bills not just on juicing the economy but on reviving innovation in neglected sectors like advanced manufacturing and boosting the development of promising areas like AI. “We’re going to be spending a great deal of money, so can we use this in a productive way? Without diminishing the enormous suffering that has happened, can we use this as a wake-up call?” asks Harvard’s Henderson.”
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    More participation from the government than is currently happening, but throw also into the mix a more venture-capital-ish approach, and don’t forget prizes! In fact, I found myself wishing midway through the article that the author had explored other options, rather than the government-or-markets binary.
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  • I hope I haven’t comes across as overly critical of the article, and my apologies if I have. That has certainly not been my objective. We rely far too much on the private sector now, that is true – and government can and should play a bigger role than is the case currently. But an extreme position, in either direction, always worries me a little!

Notes on “India’s Footwear Industry: A Reality Check”

Gulzar Natarajan has an excellent, excellent blogpost up on this blog, Urbanomics, titled “India’s Footwear Industry: A Reality Check“. In what follows, I make notes for myself about the post in terms of what it reminds me of, what I did not understand, and additional links or resources I learnt about while reading the post.

  • “The footwear industry makes 2 billion pairs, of which 286 million pairs were exported last year. It employs 2-4 million people, the vast majority as informal and contract labour and/or hired through manpower agencies and at very low salaries in the range of Rs 6000-10000.”
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    Reading more about this helped me land up on a website called worldfootwear.com, and I learnt of the existence of the 2019 World Footwear Yearbook. In 2018, the world manufactured 24.2 billion pairs of footwear, and the industry grows at about 3% a year in normal circumstances – give or take a few points.
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    90% of all shoes manufactured in the world come from Asia. That makes sense, as Asia is responsible for 54% of the world’s demand for footwear on an annual basis.
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    China alone was responsible in the year 2018 for about 70% of the world’s exports.
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    All of these snippets come from this page.
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  • “As a summary, the current state of the Indian footwear industry is characterised by small scale, very low productivity, low automation, stagnant growth, and pervasive informality.”
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    One of the reasons I liked reading this blogpost so much is because while I get to learn a lot about the footwear industry in India, I also get to reflect on how so much of what is true for the footwear industry is also true of other industries in India. The inability to break out of the small scale (about which much more below), the low levels of automation and the pervasive informality are to be seen in almost all industries in India. There is, perhaps, a sociological point to be made about whether the causality runs from the inability to scale to informality or the other way around (or indeed, both!), but we’ll save that for another day.
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  • “The highest value market segment is the mainstream global branded manufacturing in non-leather footwear. But this is a segment that has proved elusive even to the Chinese manufacturers, especially in the global market. It may well be outside the reach of Indian manufacturers, unless some particular brand breaks out due to a combination of exceptional entrepreneurship and even more exceptional good fortune.”
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    As you will learn later on in this blogpost, Gulzar Natarajn seems to be as big a fan of “How Asia Works” as I am, and perhaps a bigger one. One of my favorite questions to ask in class as a consequence of reading that book is this one “Name one globally recognized brand from ASEAN nations”. This applies to India, and to a lesser extent to China as well – that’s basically the point that is being made here. Being a manufacturing and export powerhouse is not the same as building globally recognized brands.
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    This brings to mind both the “manufacturing smile” as well as Peter Thiel’s distinction between technology and globalization. It also raises important questions about what paths India should choose between for the next two decades when it comes to manufacturing policy, but again, more on that later.
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  • “The next best alternatives may be to increase their share of the Indian branded manufacturing segment and become large scale contract manufacturers for global brands. This is the playbook of the Chinese footwear industry.”
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    Have you read Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight? Don’t know who Phil Knight is? Well, have you heard of Nike? Read especially the bits about his travels in Japan, in search of contract manufacturers.
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  • Gulzar Natarajan’s first recommendation when it comes to the footwear industry in India is to be a contract manufacturing hub. Easier said than done! (To be clear, that is not a criticism of the point he makes – it is a reinforcing of his message, and also a reminder to readers that India is not quite ready to this just yet, for a variety of reasons).
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    One of these reasons is actually mentioned in a more recent post by the same author, regarding Vietnam’s recent agreement with Europe about tariffs on Vietnam’s exports.
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    What about India and the EU, you ask?
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    “Negotiations for a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the EU and India were launched in 2007 and suspended in 2013 due to a gap in the level of ambition between the EU and India.”
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  • The last bullet point was about India making for the world. Gulzar Natarajan goes on to point that we must also think about India making footwear for India.
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    “Any strategy to increase local branded manufacturing to capture this market has to focus on Make for India (and not Make in India for the world). This does not mean skimping on quality, but competing with the imported manufacturers by gradually improving productivity. This can be done only by efficiency gains to cut costs – improving labour productivity, local component manufacturing, greater automation (not full automation, but enough to enhance labour productivity), and economies of scale.”
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    He speaks about each of these four points: improving labor productivity, local component manufacturing, greater automation and economies of scale in his blogpost, click here to read those specific parts of the post.
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  • Gulzar Natarajan speaks about manufacturers having no incentive to train workers:
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    “In order to train the workers, the manufacturers have to incur the cost of trainings as well as bear their salaries. They have no incentive to bear this cost, even if a couple of months trainings can suffice.”
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    Well, maybe so. But this does remind me of an excellent excerpt from one of my favorite books to recommend to students about macroeconomics – Tim Harford’s “The Undercover Economist Strikes Back
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    The section on Ford and superior wages is especially worth reading. Perhaps I am missing an obvious point (which is all too possible), but I can’t help but wonder why Ford’s strategy cannot work in India – whether on footwear or elsewhere.
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  • “While capital investment subsidies are in general not a very desirable thing, some form of fiscal incentives may be necessary to encourage the smaller and medium sized manufacturers to increase their level of automation. Though targeting and tailoring these subsidies will be challenging, the government could consider a subsidy that is linked to some performance, either exports or on higher productivity growth.”
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    For those of you who have read the book, the reference is unmistakable. And for those of you who haven’t, I’ll say it again: How Asia Works is mandatory reading.
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  • “The Government of India already has specialised institutions on footwear design and leather research. There is a need to have them play a much more proactive role in supporting with supply of trained and quality designers. There may also be a need for an arrangement to access good quality designers at a reasonable cost. An incentive compatible subsidy mechanism may be required here too. This should be complemented with colour and fashion forecasting support.”
    ..
    ..
    I actually find myself in disagreement here with Gulzar Natarajan. Reading this post made me aware of the Best Footwear Design and Development Institute (yes, it really exists), but isn’t this an example of government overreach? Facilitating a college like this is one thing, actually having government run it is quite another, no?
    ..
    ..
    But the solution is in the quote above: incentive compatible subsidy mechanism. Another recommendation in this regard: please read In The Service of the Republic, by Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah. My notes on this book can be found here. Providing subsidies that are designed to keep incentives (preferably for both parties) in mind is a surprisingly powerful idea!
    ..
    ..
  • “For sure, the industry will not collapse, but will meander along business as usual. There may even be the occasional mutant success. But there cannot be a sectoral exit out of the current low productivity and stagnation trap.”
    ..
    ..
    It is oddly depressing to have Gulzar Natarajan be pessimistic about the growth prospects for this sector, particularly because it is so hard to disagree with him on this account.
    ..
    ..
  • He is against tax breaks, particularly because of the inevitable equilibrium in terms of the lobbying that will take place.
    ..
    ..
  • “The conventional wisdom in this regard blames poor quality of infrastructure, restrictive labour laws, difficulty in assembling large land parcels, high cost of capital, and pervasive red-tape. These are all, in general, factors of concern.”
    ..
    ..
    My favorite book to recommend to students in this regard is Bhagwati and Panagariya’s book “Tryst with Destiny“. And of course, in terms of policy prescriptions, Gulzar Natarjan’s own book “Can India Grow?
    ..
    ..
  • Gulzar Natarajan has an extended section on the “innate charactersitics of entrepreneurs“. It is too long to excerpt, but it did remind me of an excellent paper on why productivity in India is so very low. Worth reading, especially if you are a student of micro, IO or India.
    ..
    ..
  • “The impact of reforms like GST, while certainly beneficial in the long-run, may have ended up squeezing the vast majority of the small manufacturers. For a start, for these small manufacturers, the compliance costs in terms of hiring accountants and IT requirements are a non-trivial share of their profits. Then there is the structure of the GST tariffs – 18% for the components and 5% for the final product. This means that the manufacturers capital gets locked up as receivables for a long time. For small manufacturers, these costs are prohibitive.”
    ..
    ..
    This point is a little weird. Let me explain what I mean when I say “weird”. I think almost every economist is aware of this issue, and has spoken about it repeatedly. But the level of awareness otherwise is very, very low. Again, the GST is a great idea with poor implementation. The unique nature of India’s economy (a blend of formal and informal along the supply chain for many, many things) makes the implementation worse.
    ..
    ..
  • And perhaps the coda to this excellent blog post, and for me the most important part:
    “It is important for the Government to play an important role if the footwear industry can move significantly forward. The market by itself is unlikely to have the incentives or the capacity to manage that.”
    ..
    ..
    This is a classically Studwellian recommendation. The problem is that the “no but markets will work if you let them” brigade will never accept this line of reasoning. Additionally, there are far too many people in India (especially within government) who will interpret this to mean that government needs to actively participate in the actual ecosystem by getting into manufacturing and allied activities.
    ..
    ..
    And hardly anybody will get what I think is the actual Studwellian message. Government needs to carefully design incentive compatible subsidy mechanisms and make it clear to producers that it (the government) carries a very, very big stick – and that it is not afraid to use it. And well, if push comes to shove, actually use it. Please, read How Asia Works!

In Memoriam: Oliver Williamson

Why does Gokhale Institute exist? Why did all of the students at Gokhale Institute not choose to try and fashion their own degree, by independently getting in touch with faculty members of various universities the world over, and negotiating rates for teaching each subject?

Similarly, why did I join Gokhale Institute as a faculty member? Why do I not try and advertise myself as a guy who can teach different subjects in econ, finance and stats to students the world over, every semester?

Why, as I said at the start of this post, does the firm I work in exist at all?

For that matter, why do firms exist in general? The “miracle” that is Walrasian economics guarantees that in a perfectly competitive economy with no frictions and perfect foresight, everything will be in a state of eternal bliss.

Except, economies are not perfectly competitive. Who teaches you which subject is important to you as students – which is another way of saying that labor is not homogeneous. There are frictions, such as teachers falling ill, or monsoons disrupting schedules, or uh, pandemics occurring every 100 years or so. And there isn’t perfect foresight (see pandemics, previous sentence).

And because we live in an imperfect world, we outsource, as students, the difficult job of finding appropriate professors, managing the physical infrastructure, and awarding degrees to an entity we call “the firm”. The firm exists in order to make it worth our while to get an education without having to spend time figuring everything else out.

Professors outsource the grunt work too the college too. It would be too painful for me to try and figure out which students across the world will want to learn Principles of Economics next year. I outsource the job of filtering the students out so that I get sixty students to teach to the Gokhale Institute. Plus, Gokhale Institute fixes the fees, arranges for the whiteboard, the benches. I just have to strut over into the classroom and teach.

We – you and I – minimize transaction costs by using the Institute as an intermediary. That’s Ronald Coase’s answer to why the firm exists. Read both of his papers (The Nature of the Firm, and The Theory of Social Cost). Here are past mentions of Prof. Coase on EFE.

Now, Prof. Coase had a student. His name was Oliver Williamson.

He extended Coase’s ideas about the firm, and that is why he really and truly matters when it comes to economics. There are many things to learn by reading Williamson, but three concepts stand out, in my opinion:

  1. Contract incompleteness: Imagine that the director of Gokhale Institute tells me that my performance as the course coordinator for the BSc programme hasn’t been good enough, and that he’ll be letting me go by the end of the year (I’m hoping this is only an example.) Will I muster up the same enthusiasm for coming up with new stuff this year, now that I know I am going to be out of a job? Or, on the other hand, imagine that the director says that my performance has been so good that I’m guaranteed this job for the next decade. Will there be a drop in my performance, now that I’m guaranteed the post no matter what? So how to write a contract that overcomes these hurdles? That’s one of the problems he tackled.
  2. Asset specificity: There are many definitions on the internet, but I liked the one supplied by Alex Tabarrok on Marginal Revolution the best. I’ll get to it in a while, but here’s the textbook-ish statement first: “Asset specificity is a term related to the inter-party relationships of a transaction. It is usually defined as the extent to which the investments made to support a particular transaction have a higher value to that transaction than they would have if they were redeployed for any other purpose.”
    And here’s Alex Tabarrok’s explanation:
    “Marriage, for example, takes away some possibilities but it adds others. With marriage, for example, comes a greater willingness to invest in children (n.b. asset specificity, the child is of extra value but only to the specific parties involved in the marriage)”. Asset specificity can help lock in a relationship – whether it be marriage or an employment contract.
  3. Appropriable quasi-rents: Let’s say I create software to enter marks and grades while at Gokhale Institute. I wouldn’t have created this software without being employed at Gokhale Institute, and it is valuable enough to sell to other firms (let’s assume). These AQR’s exist precisely because of the fact that I (with my skill-sets) was hired by Gokhale Institute. Discernible value has been created precisely because the employee was hired by the employer – this specific employee, by this specific employer (non-homogeneity of labor)

There is a whole can of worms that opens up as a consequence of thinking through the implications of what is written above. That can of worms is called industrial organization. Long story short, if you want to study the field of IO – and as a student of economics, you do! – you really need to start with Profs. Coase, and Williamson.

Alberto Alesina: In Memoriam

Alberto Alesina passed away a couple of days ago, while on a hike with his wife. This is his Wikipedia page, while here is his Harvard faculty page.

He is famous for a variety of reasons, but macroeconomics students of a particular vintage might remember him for advocating austerity in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis (remember when that was the biggest problem our world had seen?). Here is one paper he co-authored during that time.

There are many reasons to be a fan of Alesina’s work, as Larry Summers points out in this fine essay written in his honour. I think it a bit of a stretch to say that he invented the academic field of political economy, or even revived it, but he certainly did more to bring in front and centre than most other economists. In fact, for the last two years, he was my pick for getting the Nobel Prize, and it would certainly have been a well deserved honour.

I haven’t read all books written by him, but did read (and enjoyed) The Size of Nations, particularly because it helped me think through related aspects of the problem (Geoffrey West and Bob Mundell and their works come to mind – but that is another topic altogether). Here is a short review of that book by David Friedman, if you are interested in learning more.

A Fine Theorem (a blog you should subscribe to anyway) has a post written in his honor (along with O.E. Williamson’s, who also passed away recently) that is worth reading.

I’ll be walking through some of his work with the BSc students at the Institute, in order to familiarize them with it, and will be repeating the exercise in honour of O.E. Williamson on Thursday. This post is to help me get my thoughts in order before the talk – but I figured some of you might also enjoy learning more about Alesina’s work.

My favorite paper written by him is “Distributive Politics and Economic Growth” written with Dani Rodrik. That’ll be the focal point of my talk today – but I will address what little I know of his body of work as well.

An update to fixed income markets, courtesy Vipul Singh Chouhan

Vipul Singh Chouhan, who I had the privilege of teaching about six years ago or so, has forgotten more about fixed income securities than I’ll ever know. Immediately after posting the previous post, I messaged asking if he would like to add to the list.

What follows are his recommendations, lightly edited for the sake of clarity. Thanks a ton, Vipul!

  1. Factsheets of all the Mutual Funds released on a monthly basis. I’ve linked to the Morningstar website, but I believe this is available through multiple sources. Here’s an actual factsheet, pulled out completely at random.
  2. Vipul recommends that you keep a close eye on the commentary of the Debt CIO on the current situation of the fixed income markets. See this, for one example.
    Specifically, Vipul recommends you try and get answers to the following questions:

    1. What are they holding?
    2. In what proportion?
    3. In what maturity bucket?
    4. What is the credit rating?
  3.  It doesn’t end there! After getting to know about the credit rating of a structure, read it.  For example, let’s say a particular CMBS (Commercial Mortgage Backed Security) is rated AA+ by India Ratings, go to the website and read the entire two page rationale. Then go and read rationales for similar CMBS structures – peer review, if you will. Poke around! Compare and contrast! Find faults!
    This next paragraph is quoted verbatim:

    “Pester someone like Ashish sir and tell him “Sir in my view this should be AA and not AA+, pls correct me if I’m wrong”. Take feedback from him and improve your analysis on a continuous basis. “

    Well, please don’t take up Vipul on this suggestion quite literally, but don’t ignore the larger point, which is that you must find for yourself a mentor in the subject area you are trying to learn more about, and bug that mentor about learning more. I assure you, this is a vastly under-rated, and under-exploited skill. By me as well, to be clear.

  4. Learn to look for patterns, and learn to connect the dots. This is easier said than done, and you need to bury your nose in these reports for weeks on end, but eventually, you’ll “get a feel” for what you’re looking for. Here’s an example from Vipul:

    In the fact sheet, find patterns, let’s say investment grade AUM has increased in the last few months, while the credit risk AUM has nose dived. Explore the internet for reasons.

    Maybe that didn’t make sense to you. Well, look up the terms and phrases, try to make sense of them, and then ask your mentor the question. The question should never be, “What is XYZ?”. It should be, “I didn’t understand this term, so I looked it up, and here is what I specifically don’t understand about XYZ.” Asking the right question is a great skill!

  5. Again, a straight quote, unedited:

    Among the various structures, which MFs buy what: LAS, CMBS, Corporate guarantee, Letter of Comfort, DSRA guarantee. Understand each in detail. Which structure is preferred by which issuer and for what reasons. Pros and cons of each structure.

  6. With regard to that last point, if you want to really be a part of the industry,  learn each of those terms, once again with a weighted average of research online and follow-up questions with your mentor. The internet will tell you what the terms mean, and your mentor will tell you why it matters. Both are important, and in that sequence.
  7. Vipul recommends that you browse RBI site regularly. Specifically, whether you understand the reports or not, look out for data on the following:
    1. Outstanding G-Secs
    2. Primary auctions of CMBs (s is small, not to be confused with the CMBS mentioned above)
    3. SDLs,
    4. T-Bills. 
  8. Government Securities Market for Beginners: A Primer, which I myself hadn’t read until now (Thanks Vipul!)
  9. And finally, FIMMDA for corporate bond spreads and base yield curve.

Akash (and anybody else interested in this topic), this should keep you busy for days on end. My thanks to Vipul for taking the time to respond so quickly, and for sharing a most excellent set of links 🙂

What should you read to learn more about fixed income markets?

Akash (I hope I got the spelling right, my apologies if I didn’t!) writes in to ask what he should read to learn more about fixed income markets. As he puts it, everything from basic to intermediate!

That might make for a long (and by definition) and somewhat less than comprehensive list, but the good news about a blog post is that it can always be edited! If anybody has additional links, send them along, and we’ll keep updating this post.

In terms of a very simple introduction to the topic, begin here. Very basic, very introductory, and therefore a good place to start. Wikipedia is a modern miracle, and an invaluable gift.


So, what very basic text should you begin with if you want to start learning about fixed income securities? More advanced folks might turn up their noses, but I think there is still something to be said for Investment Analysis and Portfolio Management, by Prasanna Chandra. Never trust my memory, but I think the fourth section deals with fixed income securities in India. If you are an absolute novice, begin there.

Ajay Shah and Susan Thomas have a book that is a very good introduction to financial markets in India in particular, and the book has two separate chapters on fixed income securities in India, one being devoted to the government securities market, and the other to the corporate bond market. Perhaps a little out of date now, but still worth a read.

I’ve not enrolled in, or finished either of the two courses on Coursera I am about to recommend right now. Nor is there any particular reason to recommend courses from Coursera alone. There are plenty of other online courses available. But I tried to put myself in the shoes of somebody who is just beginning their journey in this field, and selected courses from the Coursera website keeping this in mind. That led to the two courses below:

  1. Bonds and Stocks, by Gautam Kaul at the University of Michigan
  2. Introduction to Financial Markets, by Vaidya Nathan, at ISB.

As I mentioned, there is no reason to limit yourself to just Coursera, or just these courses. But these seem to be decent introductions. Here are two links to the syllabi of courses taught at the NYU Stern School of Business that deal with our topic:

  1. Debt Instruments and Markets, by Bruce Tuckman
  2. Debt Instruments and Markets, by Ian Giddy.

A useful thing to do is to go through the course outline, get yourself a copy of the textbooks they recommend, and try and read through the recommended course structure on your own. If you will allow me to be a bit heretical, might I suggest not worrying too much about not following everything all at once? Just read through it haphazardly, all higgedly-piggedly, and keep coming back every now and then to topics that seemed particularly abstruse. By the way, speaking of every now and then, have you considered spaced learning?


 

As a thumb rule, if you are interested in finance, always read everything written by Aswath Damodaran. Visit his homepage, click open whatever links grab your fancy, and read. I am not joking. Here are some blogposts to get you started:

  1. Dividend Yield and the T-Bond Rate.
  2. His favorite novels on financial markets.

All that besides, watch his videos, read his books, read his papers – be a greedy, greedy pig when it comes to devouring stuff written by him. My personal favorites are his attempts to value Uber and Tesla, but it is a long, long, long list.

 


 

Another useful resource is Ajay Shah’s blog. Again, some links to get you started:

  1. Difficult questions about the bond market.
  2. A presentation about developing the corporate bond market in India.
  3. A presentation about the bond-currency-derivative nexus.

I hope this helps, Akash – thank you for asking the question.