Understanding Risk and Return

You actually don’t need to learn risk and return if you are an Indian, because it is built into our culture.

One reason why IAS type jobs are so very revered by all Indian parents is because they’re so very risk averse. And when I say “they” I mean both Indian parents and IAS type jobs. The biggest draw of being an IAS office is that “naukri pakki hai“. Sure, being an IAS officer will mean that you can’t become the next Zuckerberg, but again, “naukri pakki hai“.

That’s our cultural fascination with the whole engineer/doctor trope too – these used to be educational options that would guarantee you jobs. It didn’t matter if you wanted to do these jobs or not – that wasn’t the point. What mattered is that you stood a fairly decent chance of getting jobs if you had an engineering/medical degree. I should know – I am an engineering dropout.

Given what our economy went through in the 70’s, 80’s and at least the early 90’s, it is an entirely understandable societal response. Screw everything else, land up a job first.

The point I am trying to make is that we, as a nation, were risk-averse. The returns from doing something that you wanted to, whether psychic or financial, weren’t the point. It was about minimizing risk. For all I know, most of us still are risk-averse. The MBA degree isn’t about being an entrepreneur, it is in fact the exact opposite – it is about landing a job.

This risk-aversion spills over into other areas of life as well. Fixed deposits over mutual funds, mutual funds over stocks, and gold and land above all else are also about risk-aversion. Mind you, there is nothing wrong about being risk-averse. Or right, for that matter. At the end of the day, your risk appetite is a function of a whole variety of things, not all of which can (or should) be viewed from the lens of economic theory.

But the one thing that economic theory (well, finance, really) can tell you is the following. If you want risk aversion, you can’t get high returns at the same time. High returns come with high risk, and that’s just the way it is.

Source: Investopedia

This takes us back to our discussion on hedging:

A hedger is somebody who ain’t worried about missing out on a high-paying job later. A hedger prizes certainty. A hedger mitigates risk. The price you pay for mitigating risk – the opportunity cost of risk mitigation – is that you lose the potential upside.

https://econforeverybody.com/2021/02/01/so-what-are-forward-markets-what-is-speculation/

Read the whole post if you haven’t already, but the basic point is that the opportunity cost of safety is low returns. And it cuts both ways: the opportunity cost of aiming for high returns is high risk. A batsman aiming to hit a six is an example of high risk, high returns, and a batsman aiming to defend well is an example of low risk, low returns.

Now, you’ll often hear finance folks talk about barbell portfolios:

Taleb presents the barbell strategy as a bimodal attitude of exposing oneself to extreme outcomes: one extremely risk averse and another very risk loving, while ignoring the middle. The objective of the strategy is to limit downside and to get exposure to extreme upside outcomes. The possible outcomes are more certain, and the risk of exposure to “black swan” events is much smaller.

https://www.gurufocus.com/news/804852/nassim-talebs-portfolio-approach-the-barbell-strategy#

But rather than think about it in terms of financial theory, think about it in terms of MS Dhoni’s innings. He’d perfected the portfolio of shots he’d play in his limited overs innings, and it was a pretty good barbell portfolio. Extremely risk averse at the beginning, and god didn’t we all love the fireworks at the end?

The point is, don’t expect to get high returns when you’re minimizing risk, and vice-versa. But also, don’t try to have the same attitude (completely risk-averse, or completely risk-loving) for every single asset in your portfolio. Minimize risks with most, and go all out on the ones that remain. Nassim Nicholas Taleb and MS Dhoni are telling you the same thing.

And of course, as a student, you should always be asking yourself, where else is this applicable?

Understand the beast that is finance

We’ve been building a series on finance here, and we’re not even at basecamp level just yet in terms of our ascent on Mount Finance. But I just realized that while I’ve started the series, I have not laid out two ideas that I think are central to thinking about finance. One idea for today, and the other for tomorrow.

Today’s idea is about zero sum games.

I’m big on non-zero sum games. Students at GIPE are probably sick and tired of hearing me uttering the phrase now, but it’s never going to stop. The world is where it is today precisely because of the fact that it is a non-zero sum game, and most of our problems in life and society would go away if only we understood and applied the principle in all walks of life. But that’s a separate post, and I’ll get to it one day.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept, a trade in which both parties are left better off than they were before is called a non-zero sum game. Also called a double thank you moment, by the way.

Here’s the thing about finance.

It is not a non-zero sum game.

For me to win, you have to lose. There’s debate about whether this is true for all of finance or only a part of it, but options theory in particular is (at least in my view) definitely a zero sum game.

Options and futures trading is the closest practical example to a zero-sum game scenario because the contracts are agreements between two parties, and, if one person loses, then the other party gains. While this is a very simplified explanation of options and futures, generally, if the price of that commodity or underlying asset rises (usually against market expectations) within a set time frame, an investor can close the futures contract at a profit. Thus, if an investor makes money from that bet, there will be a corresponding loss, and the net result is a transfer of wealth from one investor to another.

https://www.investopedia.com/terms/z/zero-sumgame.asp

Speaking of the “for me to win, you have to lose” line of argument, consider this snippet of an excellent conversation between Tyler Cowen and Clifford Asness:

AUDIENCE MEMBER: How confident can you be that there will continue to be the steady supply of stupider investors on the other side of the trade so that you continue to make money?
ASNESS: That’s a great set of questions.
Backing up, you’re not going to believe me, you’re going to think I’m just copying you. But myself and a colleague, Antti Ilmanen — he’s Finnish, he didn’t just have odd parents — have been planning, we haven’t written it yet, to write a paper with the literal title, “Who is On the Other Side?” Just a little shorter version of what you said, because we do think that is a very disciplining question.

https://conversationswithtyler.com/episodes/cliff-asness/

In fact, if you ask me, this is the core differentiator between economics and finance. The study of economics is (ought to be?) about non-zero sum games. The study of finance is about zero sum games. It’s confrontational, it’s risky, it’s like sports. For there to be a winner, there has to be a loser.

Why I like watching and playing sports even when sports is very much a zero-sum game is also another post by the way. One day.

Still, back to my main point: finance is a zero sum game.

If you want to get into this jungle, do so with eyes wide open. I’m just sayin’.

Notes on being Aatmanirbhar in Agriculture

The full title of the article is “Aatmanirbhar in agriculture will require incentives for export of high-value agri-produce” and it has been written by Ashok Gulati.

One may ask: What does Aatma Nirbhar Bharat mean? Is it self-reliance or self-sufficiency in all essential items?

https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/atma-nirbhar-bharat-scheme-agriculture-narendra-modi-govt-covid-19-6491672/

If you are confused about the difference between self-reliance and self-sufficiency, here is Swaminathan Aiyar in ET:

Self-reliance means making your own economy strong and strong does not mean giving it crutches like protectionism. That is the wrong way. Self-reliance means we say, look I am uncompetitive because I have relatively high cost of land or labour, high interest rates, high electricity rates and high freight rates. If I get all these down, I become more competitive. So if you are going in that direction, India will become strong and competitive. It will be able to trade in the world and we will not have a trade deficit problem. So the correct self-sufficiency means you strengthen your economy by making it more productive and more low cost. It does not mean you make it high cost by putting up tariffs. Therefore, protecting your least productive industry is the wrong direction.

https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/markets/expert-view/govt-needs-to-understand-the-difference-between-self-sufficiency-and-self-reliance-swaminathan-aiyar/articleshow/76710928.cms?from=mdr

The consensus among economists seems to be that we should be targeting self-reliance rather than self-sufficiency, but I would say that it is one thing to debate which to aim for without being explicit and crystal clear about what each of these terms mean.

You might want to read this Wikipedia article about the issue. Also, a request: if any of you have articles about the distinction, and any clear articulation about India’s policy stance in this regard, I would love to read it.

It is presumed that for a large country like India, with a population of 1.37 billion, much of the food has to be produced at home. We don’t want to be in a “ship to mouth” situation, as we were in the mid-1960s.

https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/atma-nirbhar-bharat-scheme-agriculture-narendra-modi-govt-covid-19-6491672/

You might want to read about the following if you are unfamiliar with our “ship to mouth” situation: the sorry saga of the PL480 scheme and India (two separate links)

In the mid-1960s, if India had spent all its foreign currency reserves — the country had about $400 million — just on wheat imports, it could have imported about seven million tonnes (mt) of wheat. Today, India has foreign exchange reserves of more than $500 billion.

ibid

A question that is rarely asked – or at least, not asked as often as I would like it to be asked – is how did we get to a stage where we have more than $500 billion in reserves? We must have earned it, we obviously can’t print dollars. Which begs the question, how did we earn it? Two things: we depreciated our exchange rate, and we exported a helluva lot more post 1991. Self-sufficiency, in other words, tends to not work well!

Chart from the IE article

Agri-exports have been subdued for the last six years or so, and we have yet to recover the peak of the ear 2013-2014. As Ashok Gulati mentions in his article, that year’s performance has not been bettered since.

What do our exports look like currently?

Marine products with $6.7 billion exports top the list, followed by rice at $6.4 billion (basmati at $4.6 billion and common rice at $2.0 billion), spices at $3.6 billion, buffalo meat at $3.2 billion, sugar at $2.0 billion, tea and coffee at $1.5 billion, fresh fruits and vegetables at $1.4 billion, and cotton at $1 billion.

ibid

Of which, Prof. Gulati picks rice and sugar for analysis – $8.4 billion worth of exports in total. Now, here is where all of what you may have learnt in microeconomics starts to make sense.

Think of a farm producing rice. The production function will tell you that you produce rice by combining inputs to produce output. What inputs? Labor, land – but also water and fertilisers. And the problem with fertilisers and water is that it is heavily, heavily subsidised in India.

Again, microecon 101: whatever isn’t priced tends to be overused, and that too indiscriminately. So what happens when you export more rice and more sugar every year? Well, to export more you have to produce more, and to produce more you have to use more inputs, and when you use inputs inefficiently, you end up exporting that input in larger quantities than is optimal.

Or, the simple version: we are exporting a lot of our water when we export sugar and rice. We’re also polluting our rivers and our soil, but that’s a story for another day.

But more importantly, it is leading to the virtual export of water as one kg of rice requires 3,500-5,000 litres of water for irrigation, and one kg of sugar consumes about 2,000 litres of water. So, in a sense, the two crops are leading to a faster depletion of groundwater in states such as Punjab, Haryana (due to rice) and Maharashtra (due to sugar). Thus, quite a bit of the “revealed comparative advantage” in rice and sugar is hidden in input subsidies. This leads to increased pressure on scarce water and a highly inefficient use of fertilisers.

ibid

What about the other side of the story – which is the big ticket item when it comes to imports of agricultural goods?

On the agri-imports front, the biggest item is edible oils — worth about $10 billion (more than 15 mt). This is where there is a need to create “aatma nirbharta”, not by levying high import duties, but by creating a competitive advantage through augmenting productivity and increasing the recovery ratio of oil from oilseeds and in case of palm oil, from fresh fruit bunches.

ibid

And within oils, Prof. Gulati recommends increasing our productivity in oil palm:

This is the only plant that can give about four tonnes of oil on a per hectare basis. India has about 2 million hectares that are suitable for oil palm cultivation — this can yield 8 mt of palm oil. But it needs a long term vision and strategy. If the Modi government wants “aatma nirbharta” in agriculture, oil palm is a crop to work on.

ibid

And on a related note, you may want to read this article from Scroll, an excerpt from which is below:

It is now clear that, in the face of rising demand, domestic production will remain way under 10% in the years to come. That essentially means that India will continue to import palm oil in various forms. However, the dynamics of imports is not just dictated by demand but also geopolitics. For instance, diplomatic tensions with Malaysia led the Indian government to discourage imports of refined palm oil from the Southeast Asian nation, resulting in a precipitous fall in recent months.
Domestic palm oil processors, such as millers and refiners, also routinely demand restrictions on imports so they can protect their margins. The Solvent Extractors’ Association of India recently presented the government with a list of demands that would favour local processors. This puts further price pressures in Malaysia and Indonesia, making it more difficult to green the palm oil supply chain.

https://scroll.in/article/967186/as-worlds-largest-importer-of-palm-oil-india-has-a-duty-to-push-for-ethical-production-practices

Thinking Aloud About Uttar Pradesh

Until very recently, I used to teach a course called Contemporary India. The program in which I used to teach this course is suspended temporarily, for it was designed for American students who would spend a semester studying in India.

One of my favorite classes in that course was about India’s demographics. It was one of my favorite classes because I got to show three slides in it. These slides were nothing but screen-grabs from an excellent feature that the Economist magazine had published a while back. Note that the content requires Flash, and it therefore probably will not work in our modern browsers. But the slides I speak of are presented below.

The first of these shows each state in India mapped to the country that is closest to it in terms of economic output:

The second shows each state as mapped to the country that is closest to it in terms of economic output per capita:

And finally, we have the third chart: each state in India being represented as a country that is closest to it in terms of population:

Each chart is worth more than a few minutes of your time. Note how Maharashtra is like Singapore, Sri Lanka and Mexico respectively, for example, when you make comparisons in terms of economic output, economic output per capita and population respectively.

My favorite thing to point out, especially to my American students, used to be how all of Canada’s population could fit inside Kerala. India is truly a mind boggling country!

But, Uttar Pradesh. That is what we’re going to talk about today. This is a mind boggling country (not a typo. It really is a country. If it were a country, it would be the fifth most populous country in the world. Yes, really).

It has, as this article points out, about 10 percent of India’s districts. One out of every seven Lok Sabha MP’s comes from this state. One out of every six Indian is from the state of Uttar Pradesh. Yogi Adityanath is the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, but he is responsible for the same number of people as Imran Khan or Jair Bolsonaro. It, to put it mildly, is a truly large state.

And the article that I linked to in the paragraph above makes a point that is worth thinking about: is it too big?

Shekhar Gupta recommends carving up the state into five separate states, and before you scoff at the idea, consider the facts once again: should one chief minister be responsible for the governance of the fifth most populous country in the world?

And the problem isn’t just about population, it is also about national level politics. Or rather, about a problem that nobody wants to think about with any level of urgency.

Here’s the problem: how many people should a Member of Parliament in the Lok Sabha represent? Ideally, it ought to be India’s population divided by the number of elected representatives in the Lok Sabha. But obviously, in a country of India’s size and complexity, that isn’t always possible.

Here’s Ajit Ranade from two years ago, writing in the Livemint:

We may desire “equality” of constituencies, but economic development and demographic patterns do not develop uniformly across the country. Some states have achieved zero population growth while others still have very high fertility rates. This pattern too has a north-south dimension. It is as if the economic centre of gravity is shifting south and the political centre of gravity is shifting north.

Here is what he means by that: in the year 1976, we passed a law that effectively froze the number of seats in India’s Lok Sabha, per state. That number was frozen on the basis of the 1971 census. And from 1976 until the year 2000, we decided to not do anything about it.

And then, in the year 2000, we made the problem worse. Here’s Ajit Ranade again:

In 2000, another amendment postponed the day of reckoning to 2026. Thus, only after 2026 will we consider changing the number of seats in Parliament. Till then, everything is frozen as per the 1971 census. Remember, in 1971, India’s population was 548 million, and by 2031, the first census after 2026, it may well be close to 1.4 billion. The great apprehension is that redrawing boundaries and distributing the existing 550 MPs might mean that the south will lose a lot of seats to the north. Even if more members are added to the Lok Sabha, that incremental gain will mostly go to the northern states.

https://www.livemint.com/Opinion/7unVzUcfBJxbHHaiRpenmK/India-should-begin-discussing-the-delimitation-question.html

It is not just the fact that Uttar Pradesh is too big from an administrative viewpoint, and that it contains too many people for it to be administered as one state in a country. It is not just the fact that it is far too important a state in the political calculus of India.

It is the fact that it is about to get a lot bigger, a lot more complex, and a whole lot more important in about five years from now. Why do I say that, you ask? Well, for all of the reasons above, but also for the chart below:

Here’s Shekhar Gupta, from the article I referred to earlier:

Twenty crore people, divided over 75 districts spread over 2,43,000 sq km, is too much to govern for one government, especially when run entirely by one individual, which is the norm in our states now. Similarly, 80 seats in the Lok Sabha is too much power for one state in a federal republic. It is more than Gujarat, Rajasthan and Karnataka put together. It is politically distortionary. Especially when UP’s politics is so internally divisive based on caste and religion that the incentive for improving social indicators is poor.

https://theprint.in/national-interest/uttar-pradesh-is-indias-broken-heartland-break-it-into-4-or-5-states/458552/

When you think about that excerpt, and think about the point Ajit Ranade makes in his article two years ago, you realize that we need to start talking – soon, and a lot – about what is to be done about Uttar Pradesh.

I would love to read more about this. If any of you reading this have reading material to share, I would be very grateful indeed. Thank you.

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.

 

 

The Value of a Mentor

I’m in the process of arranging mentorships for the BSc students at the Gokhale Institute, in part because our internship plans went out of the window, and in part because I know I would have liked a mentor at that age (wouldn’t we all?). There were some doubts and misunderstandings about how a mentorship works when contrasted with internships, and what follows is therefore addressed to the students – but hey, maybe others will also find value. So here goes:

Imagine that you, as a 19 year old, were asked to mentor a student currently in the 10th grade. You’ve been through the grind, you know the pain of writing the 10th board, the 12th board, and the pressure of not just doing well in those damn exams, but also choosing the appropriate field of study. You’re bursting with advice and counsel, positively bristling with tips and tricks… except that student from the 10th grade doesn’t know what this mentorship is about, what mentorships in general are about, and what is expected of him/her. It’s kinda like that, except you are in the place of that 10th grade student. And your mentor waits for you to get started, and you wait for the mentor to get started… and whoops. We’re stuck.

A mentor falls somewhere in the middle of the prof-buddy spectrum. Less authoritarian than a professor, and more knowledgeable and experienced than a buddy. You can’t exactly be Jai-Veeru, but it’s not like your mentor is Thakur either (if you didn’t get those references, go watch Sholay. Right now. Kids these days, I tell you.)

Your job, as a mentee, is very simple. Ask questions. Learn as much as you can about your mentor – who they are, what they have done, what their area of expertise is, where they have worked in the past and where they work now – and then ask them questions about all of this.

The idea is to get a compressed version of their lives, so that you can do two things in your own life. One, they’ll tell you about things they learnt on the job – you learn now, rather than later. Second, you get to avoid the mistakes they made.

No question is too outlandish, no query too “stupid”. Your mentors have been in your place, and they’ve experienced the nervousness you are feeling now. So don’t worry about appearing not quite tuned in, because that’s ok.

But given that they’ve chosen to take time out of their busy schedules to speak to you and guide you, it does make sense to follow through on their advice when it comes to reading, viewing or listening to their recommendations – that’s a given.

And a word of caution – sometimes these things don’t work out, and that’s ok. Maybe you are not suited to their personality, or vice versa. Maybe you just don’t gel, maybe there are misunderstandings. And that’s totally fine, because why expect mentorships to not be like the rest of your life? Sometimes things don’t work out, and that’s cool.

But when they do – and you may have to take a little bit more effort than usual to make sure they do – then you may have that most precious of gifts: a person who is older to you, more accomplished than you, and a person who has decided to look out for you, for life. Job references, recommendation letters, career advice, putting in a quiet word for you – all of these are things you can count on for life, because your mentor has also become your friend.

That, more than anything, is the greatest thing to come out of a successful mentorship, and I speak from experience on both sides of the table. Get yourself a mentor, and cultivate that relationship.

It is, without a shadow of a doubt, the best investment you will ever make.

Daaru in times of the lockdown

Simran, a student at the Gokhale Institute asks a series of question about the topic du jour:

I had a query in regard to the news that have been doing rounds  – “Why did government order opening of wine shops?”

She asks other, related questions further on in her email, and I’ll get to them, but let’s go with this first.

Now, I am not privy to the decision-making process of either the state or the central governments, but there are two immediate responses that come to mind about the why: one, there is certainly demand for it!

And two, revenues *should* go up with the sale of alcohol. The reason I say should is because there have been arguments made about how the tax that the state government collects is when the distributor sells to the retailer, rather than when the consumer buys from the retailer. I am unable to find a report online of this nature, but I have certainly heard that argument being made. And that as a consequence, opening up liquor shops won’t have that much of an impact on government coffers, because tax has already been collected.

Very briefly, this argument doesn’t hold for at least two reasons. First, because although it is true that part of the tax that is paid is in the nature of an excise duty (that is, taxable when it leaves the manufacturer’s location), there are a whole host of other duties, taxes and cesses that are charged in addition. For instance, did you know that if you raise a glass in Uttar Pradesh, you are doing your bit to take care of abandoned cattle? Other states also impose other taxes – demand, as we are seeing right now, is fairly inelastic, so of course you should expect governments to tax as much as possible.

Second, and to my mind more importantly, never confuse stocks with flows! Forgive the pun, but once alcohol sales start flowing, the chain of taxation will kick into gear at all points. As per this report, all states and union territories put together expected to earn INR 1,75,000 crores (or thereabouts) from the sale of alcohol last year. The flow (and forgive the pun again) is important!

So, simply put, it is about the money.

Simran further goes on to ask:

The Delhi government announced a 70% ‘special coronavirus tax’ on alcohol.

Charging such a huge tax from a daily wage earner does sound cruel. Government claims that the tax will dissuade the poor from drinking but past reports claim that habitual drinker will never quit and this will just shrink the quantity of food he and his family consumes.

I was wanting to delve deeper into this topic –
Alcohol and its effect on poverty or is it
Poverty and its effect on consumption of Alcohol.

A series of tricky questions indeed! Let’s get to them one by one:

  1. I can think of at least two reasons behind the Delhi government’s decision. First, the high price might deter at least some folks from queuing up, and second, revenues will go up. Unfortunately, these reasons are contradictory! If crowds go down because of the high prices, surely revenue cannot go up at the same time? The answer, as any econ student will tell you, lies in computing the elasticity of demand for alcohol. See this video, for instance, on the topic.
    ..
    ..
    Will the habitual drinker quit with such high prices under these circumstances?
    ..
    ..
    Honest answer: who knows? You can spend the rest of your lives drawing diagrams and scribbling questions, but at the individual level, we simply don’t know. There are too many variables for us to get a reasonable answer (changes in income, length of the lockdown, the level of desperation for alcohol, the urge to stockpile in face of an uncertain future, for starters). The habitual drinker will certainly think twice, but beyond that nothing useful can, or should, be said. That is my opinion. It is not quite the same topic, but read this article, written by Banerjee and Duflo (and read both of their books!)
  2. I have only glanced through the two links I am sharing here, but hope to read them in more detail later. The first is an exercise in calculating the price elasticity of demand for households in India, and the second is a collation of a lot of studies done on the topic, but it deserves its own separate point…
  3. … not least because writing this blog post helped me learn about the existence of the Institute for Alcohol Studies! (Dear folks at the IAS, let me know if you are in need of test subjects). They have a page on the impact of price on alcohol, and worries about conflict of interest aside, the report that alcohol is relatively price inelastic.
  4. Both studies report much the same thing, although of course a whole host of other factors also come into play (level of education, extent of addiction being just two obvious ones). But long story short, for a one percent increase in price, you should expect demand to go down by less than one percent.
  5. But that still doesn’t answer Simran’s question: does poverty cause one to consume alcohol, or does the consumption of alcohol cause poverty? My honest answer is that we simply can never know for sure, and it is probably both, but hey, nothing should get between a tricky, potentially unanswerable question and econometrics! Knock yourself out!

 

Thank you for the questions, Simran! I enjoyed answering them 🙂