What is development economics?

That was a question sent in by a student recently, and today’s essay is an attempt to answer the question.

Have you heard of the tsetse fly? Unless you are a student of biology, or from Africa, it is unlikely that you have. And there’s no reason for you to have heard of it, of course. On the other hand, if you were to be from Africa, and from a long time ago, you likely would not only have heard of the tsetse fly, but you would have dreaded it.

Why would you have dreaded it? Because the tsetse fly feeds on the blood of vertebrate animals, and in doing so, also manages to transmit diseases between species. And this fly was so very efficient at transmitting diseases that it actually prevented the emergence of animal husbandry in those parts of Africa where it was both present and dominant.

Worse: research has established that the existence of the tsetse fly in certain parts of Africa has at least partially contributed to those parts of Africa remaining relatively underdeveloped today.

Ethnic groups inhabiting TseTse-suitable areas were less likely to use domesticated animals and the plow, less likely to be politically centralized, and had a lower population density. These correlations are not found in the tropics outside of Africa, where the fly does not exist. The evidence suggests current economic performance is affected by the TseTse through the channel of precolonial political centralization.

https://www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257/aer.20130604

That’s what development economists do: they try and figure out which parts of the world are not doing well. Then they try and figure out why (imagine being able to identify a fly as a potential cause of underdevelopment!). And finally, they try to recommend policies that might make the situation better.

Three Big Questions

When I teach courses in development economics, I often introduce the subject by speaking about three “big picture” questions:

  1. What does the world look like?
  2. Why does it look the way it does?
  3. What can we do to make it better?

And honestly, that is really all you need to think about when you want to understand what development economists do. Let’s tackle each of these questions in turn.

What does the world look like?

Good development economists don’t begin with recommendations and policy measures. That’s a long way down the road. They begin by trying to paint for themselves a picture of the world.

My favorite way to paint for myself a picture of the world is by using a freely available online tool called Gapminder.

Click here to open Gapminder in your browser

What are we looking at? Hans Rosling, the Genius (I don’t use the word lightly, and the capitalized G is intentional) who came up with this tool, used to call this chart the “Health and Wealth” chart.

Inflation adjusted, purchasing power parity adjusted per capita income for each country is plotted against the life expectancy for the citizens of that country. The color coding shows you which part of the world that country is from, and the size of the bubble indicates the population in that country.

Well, ok – but what does it tell us?

Well, here’s what it tells me – see if you agree with my understanding. It tells me that the reason economists harp on so about increasing income (GDP) for all nations is not because getting rich is an end in and of itself. It is the means to an end – that end in this case being better health.

Two caveats: higher life expectancy doesn’t necessarily mean better health. But in this case, I think it is an acceptable proxy. Second, correlation is not necessarily causation! Higher wealth may not necessarily be causing better health. Maybe better health is causing higher wealth? Maybe some other variable is causing both of these things? Maybe it is all of these and more?

But all those caveats aside, at first glance, a basic fact emerges:

There is no country that is at the top left of this chart, and there is no country at the bottom right of this chart.

Poor countries tend to not do well in terms of life expectancy, and rich countries tend to do well in terms of life expectancy. If I want the members of my family to live longer, I would want my country to be towards the top right of this chart.

But back to the central question: what does the world look like? This is a generalization, of course, but most of the African nations tend to lie towards the bottom left. Most of the European nations tend to lie towards the top right. And Asian nations (and some South American nations) tend to lie somewhere in the middle.

That’s one answer to the question we were trying to answer in this section: what does the world look like?

But there are other answer possible! Here are just two to get you started:

  1. Read the excellent introductory chapter in Partha Dasgupta’s “A Very Short Introduction to Economics”
  2. Play around with the World Bank Atlas, a most excellent data repository.

Why does the world look the way it does?

The Magic That Happens When You Hit Play in Gapminder

I have been using Gapminder for over 12 years now, but I am yet to get tired of watching that video. In fact, as I often tell my students, you could do a lot worse than spending time with Gapminder open in one tab, and Wikipedia in the other.

(On a tangential note, take a look at what happened to the world between 1918 and 1921. That’s the Spanish flu at work.)

Why did I include this video in this blogpost?

Because it helps us begin to think about the answer to the second question: why does the world look the way it does?

The world looks the way it does today because some countries were able to steal a march on others about two hundred years ago. The United Kingdom, the United States of America, Japan, Germany and some other nations started moving towards the right top of the chart before other countries could. You could, in fact, make an argument these countries were able to move to the right top by making sure that the other countries stayed at the bottom left!

And when you make that argument, you begin to try and answer the second question – this argument is the anti-imperialist stance. The Asian and African colonies of the European powers of the 19th century lag behind as much as they do today because they were colonies: that’s one candidate for explaining why the world looks the way it does.

The tse-tse fly (remember?) is another candidate for a more localized answer to the second question. Politics, race, religion, geography, caste, gender, openness to innovation – there are so, so many candidate answers! People can (and do!) spend entire careers making their way through just one of these candidates.

By the way, if you would like to read books about this topic – why does the world look like the way it does – here are two absolute must-reads:

  1. Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond
  2. Why Nations Fail, by Acemoglu and Robinson

What can we do to make it better?

Can chickens cure poverty in Africa?

I’m not joking! That was a genuine proposal, made by this guy who you may have heard of. Started a software firm, dabbled in philanthropy, and is now engaged in trying to literally save the world. Yes: Bill Gates. His master plan to save Africa involved giving everybody a chicken.

Our foundation is betting on chickens. Alongside partners throughout sub-Saharan Africa, we are working to create sustainable market systems for poultry. It’s especially important for these systems to make sure farmers can buy birds that have been properly vaccinated and are well suited to the local growing conditions. Our goal: to eventually help 30 percent of the rural families in sub-Saharan Africa raise improved breeds of vaccinated chickens, up from just 5 percent now.
When I was growing up, chickens weren’t something you studied, they were something you made silly jokes about. It has been eye-opening for me to learn what a difference they can make in the fight against poverty. It sounds funny, but I mean it when I say that I am excited about chickens.

https://www.gatesnotes.com/development/why-i-would-raise-chickens

Well, I exaggerate, of course. Not literally giving everybody in Africa a chicken – but something along those lines.

Development economists were less than impressed:

But first, let’s talk about poultry. I think we can agree that we can only give away so many chickens. You’ve said that a family that receives five hens could eventually earn $1,000 annually, assuming a per-bird price of $5. But would that still be true when a third of your neighbors are in the same business? As supply goes up, I’d expect the price and profits to come down. And moving to an economy in which 30 percent of rural Africans sell chickens is a humongous increase in supply.

https://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/3/14/14914996/bill-gates-chickens-cash-africa-poor-development

And to make matters worse, other development economists were less than impressed with the development economists who were less than impressed with Bill Gates’ chickens:

I have friends/alumni/colleagues working around the world in many facets of the challenge of development. I have friends working for the Prime Minister of India. I have friends working for the President of Indonesia. I have friends working on the conflict in Yemen. I have friends working as civil society activists in Egypt. I have had policy discussions with policy makers all over the world. I worked for 15 years in the World Bank. I have taught development at Harvard for 15 years. In all of those conversations with friends, colleagues, policy makers, and students all kinds of difficult and pressing development questions have arisen that research could address. Never, ever, ever has “chickens versus cash” arisen as an issue at all, much less as the remotely possible “best investment” in research.

https://www.cgdev.org/blog/getting-kinky-chickens

By the way, that blog post that I quoted above? It has possibly my all time favorite title ever: Getting Kinky with Chickens.

Why am I telling you all this? Because allow me to let you in on a dirty little secret: there is zero consensus on what is the correct answer to the third question.

Well, OK, zero consensus is an exaggeration. But it ain’t a settled issue, no sir.

That is, nobody has come up with a definitive, one-size-fits-all answer to the question, “What can we do to make the world better?”

Let’s parse through the question. That might help us understand why it is such a controversial one.

What can we do to make the world better?

  1. Who, exactly, is “we”? That is, who is in charge of decision making when it comes to making things better? Do democracies work better? Or do autocracies? Or something in between?
    Remember, we are not asking which political system is the best from a moral, or political, perspective. We are asking which system is likely to give us the most rapid growth. Was Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew a true, participatory democracy, or was it a democracy with Asian characteristics? What about South Korea under General Park? And while we’re on the subject, an autocracy is not by itself a guarantee of rapid growth! Pakistan, Cambodia are two examples from our own neighborhood.
    Also remember: just because a system may give us more rapid economic growth doesn’t mean it is the best system to use. China is the obvious country to think about in this regard!
  2. Do we really need to “do” stuff, or is it more about just getting out of the way, and letting the economy work it’s magic?

3. Are we agreed on what “better” means? Lesser pollution comes at the cost of lesser industrialization, for example. Are we so sure that all seven billion of us can identify the exact point on the spectrum that works best? And if not, then we’re back to the first point: who is “we”?

And hey, even if you could imagine a world in which we somehow, magically get everybody to agree on “What can we do to make the world a better place?”, we’d begin a new round of battles, centered around a new question.

“How?” – and on this point, last year’s Nobel Prize winners have won accolades and received brickbats in equal measure.

Still, there is some good news. The unsettled nature of the debate means that this is extremely fertile ground to work upon, and you can count on development economics as a field remaining a fundamentally interesting one to work in for years, if not decades, to come.

And that, my friend(s), is what development economics is all about!

Notes on “Re-aligning global value chains” Part II

Yesterday, we took a look at how China makes it difficult for supply chains to move away from that country. That happens through a combination of mind-boggling scale and efficiency, coupled with astute moves up the ladder in terms of no longer dealing with just cheap manufacturing. Think robotics, app development, advanced and skilled manufacturing units. After that, the gravity model takes over, and well, good luck moving out of China.

Today, we ask the following question: let’s assume that all that is somehow put to the side, and a country is looking to move out of China. What are the chances this firm will come to India?

Again, we’ll use Gulzar Natarajan’s excellent article as the basis of our discussion, and foray into other parts of the internet. Let’s begin:

First, a quote from within Gulzar Natarajan’s post:

“Nomura Group Study found that in 2019, out of the fifty-six companies which shifted their production out of China, only three of these invested in India; while 26 went to Vietnam, 11 to Taiwan, and 08 to Thailand. In April 2020, Nikkei noted that out of the 1,000 firms which were planning to leave China and invest in Asian countries, only 300 of them were seriously thinking of investing in India.”

300 out of 1000 isn’t great, you might think, but it’s not bad, surely. Well, read again: it’s “seriously thinking”, not actually relocated. If you want to take a look at action, not thoughts, it is 3 out of 56. About 5%.

Why?

Let’s begin with this tweet:

And here’s (to my mind) the most interesting quote from within the editorial:

“The situation is far worse when it comes to comparisons with China in the EoDB. It takes double the time to start a business in India as compared to China, around six times as much to register property and double the time—and also in terms of the value of the contract—to enforce a contract. And, this is without even looking at the policy flip-flops that this newspaper catalogues diligently.”

The real measure of success when it comes to the Ease of Doing Business ranking is not how far we’ve come, but far we have to go. And it’s going to be a long haul.

This article, which I got from reading Gulzar Natarajan’s post, is instructive in this regard.

Sample this:

““Navigating labour laws is a total mine-field because interpretation is left to the courts and the officers and can be done in more than one way and removing an incompetent worker is not easy,” Gopal said. “I can get a divorce faster than removing a factory worker for non-performance.” In Karnataka, an employer would have to give three warning letters, a show-cause notice, have two inquiries — one external and one internal, and then terminate an employee only if the charges are proved to be serious. “Theft is considered serious but if an employee is lazy and doesn’t perform, that may not be taken as serious,” Gopal says. “In one’s own company, one cannot hire and fire.””

This article is just about furniture, but there are similar problems in every single sector in India.

To which, usually, there are two responses:

  1. Yes, but we have to start somewhere, don’t we?
  2. Yes, but we’re so much better than we were before!

Yes, sure, in response to both of these statements. But keep in mind that firms who are looking to move here are not going to ask if we’re better than we were before. They’re going to ask if we’re better than our competition today. Are we better than Vietnam, for example? What about Bangladesh? And if the answer is no, why should firms come here?

For our domestic market isn’t (yet) a good enough answer, unfortunately.

Our domestic consumption wasn’t large enough or lucrative enough for firms to locate themselves here before the pandemic – it’s obviously reduced since then.

And bureaucracy (not to mention bureaucracy-speak!) has gone up:

“On Sunday, for instance, the home ministry issued a clarification intended perhaps to limit the numbers of those who would be allowed to travel to their villages to a category called ‘genuine’ stranded migrants. The letter from the Centre to chief secretaries in the state administrations reads: “The facilitation envisaged in the aforesaid orders is meant for such distressed persons, but does not extend to those categories of persons, who are otherwise residing normally at places, other than the native places for purposes of work, etc. and who wish to visit their native places in normal course.”

I think I am reasonably good at English, but I still don’t know what this means. Even if I were to understand it, I do not know how I would go about implementing it! And that’s me, a guy who teaches using the English language for a living, and writes a blog in the English language. What chance does a manufacturer have? What chance does a non-Indian manufacturer have?

Government, in plain simple terms, has to get out of the way. Unfortunately, we seem to be heading in the opposite direction.

R Jagannathan writes in the Livemint:

“Companies compete, while governments can only enable. Governments cannot create global champions, though mercantilist countries like Japan, South Korea and China did do so at one point. What governments can do is create an enabling policy and regulatory environment that fosters economic growth and lets companies scale up. Airtel and Reliance Jio did not emerge as India’s two big telecom survivors because the government anointed them as winners. Nor did TCS, Infosys and Wipro become global outsourcing giants because of the government. They became global biggies because the policy environment for their growth was positive both in India and abroad.”

I might wish to disagree with parts of that excerpt (Studwell alert!), but I am in complete agreement with the broad message:

“The government holds the lock but not the keys to Atmanirbhar Bharat. As long as the lock is well oiled, companies will find the keys on their own.”

As of now, though, the lock is far too rusty, far too old and far too much like a pre-1991 model.

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.”
    ..
    ..
    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.
    ..
    ..
    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!
    ..
    ..
  • 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.
    ..
    ..
    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.
    ..
    ..
  • ““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.”
    ..
    ..
    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”.
    ..
    ..
    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”.
    ..
    ..
  • “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.”
    ..
    ..
    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?
    ..
    ..
    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).
    ..
    ..
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.
    ..
    ..
    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.
    ..
    ..
  • 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”?
    ..
    ..
  • And now onto higher education.
    ..
    ..
    “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.”
    ..
    ..
    That’s from this link, which I got by reading the blogpost we’re taking notes for. Worth keeping in mind for what follows.
    ..
    ..
  • “What this means is that the data show college-bound kids keep going to college even in recessions.”
    ..
    ..
    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!

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.

 

 

A query on a column by Ajit Ranade

Shashank Patil, enthusiastic asker (it is my blog, and I say that it is a word) of questions, sends in this article, and asks the following questions:

  1. What are the possible difficulties with this?
  2. How does this weigh in with any other choice?

This promises to be a fairly long post, and for the sake of knowing where we are at any point of time, I am going to divide it into three major sections:

  1. The need for the stimulus
  2. Show me the money!
  3. What is the best choice out of all the options available?

The need for the stimulus

There’s four things that go into adding up our GDP: consumption, investment, government expenditure, and net exports (net simply means we deduct the rupee value of all of our imports from the rupee value of all of our exports, over one accounting year). But be careful, calculating GDP is surprisingly complicated!

During these times, good luck getting C, I and NX to be anything remotely related to good news, and so we’re almost certain to not have great GDP growth, or even growth at all. Unless el sarkar steps in. So when we ask for a fiscal stimulus, we’re basically saying the other components of GDP are near comatose, so government spending will have to take up the slack.

Maybe the government can build out way better health infrastructure than we have at present, like Andy Mukherjee says. Maybe we can provide clean drinking water, along with a whole list of excellent suggestions made by Shankkar Aiyyar. Direct money transfers to the poor is another idea. But for all of this to happen, we need to start at the basics: where is the money?

The government didn’t have enough money before the pandemic hit (that’s what a fiscal deficit means), and the problem is way worse now: much more money needs to be spent, and not enough money is coming in by way of tax revenue.

Ergo, all of the columns about how to raise the money that will need to be spent.

Show me the money!

There’s three ideas that I have liked so far:

  • Deepak Shenoy talks about a realignment of the liabilities side of the balance sheet of the RBI unlocking about INR 400,000 crores (thinking about numbers as big as this is an invitation to a migraine, but this is 4 trillion, unless I am mistaken. Please let me know if I am!). Let’s call this the DS method.
  • Andy Mukherjee talks about the government selling stakes in PSE’s (that’s Public Sector Enterprises). The details matter in this case: the sale will be to an SPV (Special Purpose Vehicle), which will finance the purchase by issuing bonds. When markets recover, sell the stake, and redeem the bonds. Method AM.
  • And finally, Ajit Ranade offers a pani puri instead of a puchka. That is to say, the same idea as Andy Mukherjee, but with a twist. Instead of the government stakes in PSU’s (undertaking, instead of enterprises) being sold to an SPV, he suggests selling it to the RBI as a repo transaction. That is, sarkar sells to RBI and gets money, but also gets to buy back the shares at the same amount plus an annualized interest rate of around 3%. That’s where the name repo comes from: short for repurchase. And yes, method AR.

What is the best choice?

So maybe this is just me getting old, and therefore more conservative, but I’d rank Deepak Shenoy’s suggestion third. There are two main reasons, although there are others. First, the RBI already gave out some cash last year (and Deepak Shenoy himself has a most excellent article about it. Link 3 in this post, and the others are worth reading too, especially number 5.  Bookmark CapitalMind.in if you haven’t already!). Second, maybe it makes sense to keep some of our powder dry, for who knows what other horrors wait for us in the future? If, god forbid, two years down the line we need more help, it would be better to use the DS method then – because good luck trying to convince folks of the value of PSU stakes after more two years of this.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that this will continue for two years. I’m saying we should be prepared.

Now, in a straight fight between AM and AR, well, which self-respecting Maharashtrian will pick puchkas over pani-puri? I’d plump for Ajit Ranade’s method, and for the following reasons:

  1. A repo transaction is likely to withstand market volatility better than being dependent on an SPV, especially one that may be exposed to currency risk.
  2. This sounds way more operationally feasible than the AM method. Launching an SPV might be possible right now, and you may even get a decent response because god knows markets will be looking to park funds right now – but like I said, I’m getting old, and would prefer a more conservative route.

And so Shashank, the answer to your question is that Ajit Ranade seems to be onto a pretty good idea, in my opinion. Which is not to say that the others aren’t, of course – but hey, if I didn’t force myself to choose, and write about my choice, how else to fill out a lockdown afternoon?

But on a more serious note, the “how” doesn’t  really matter as much as the when. And the correct answer to that question is “yesterday”.

 

 

 

Notes from an excellent blogpost by V Ananta Nageswaran

I mean, the simplest thing to do would be to go read the post in its entirety. The notes that follow are my way of reinforcing the key messages for myself, but perhaps they will help you as well.

This piece has five messages. One is that the best way to attract businesses is not to repel them explicitly. Second, it makes the case for a bold but transparent fiscal support. Third, it offers suggestions on how that money could be spent and four, it reminds experts that doomsday scenarios for India are not pre-ordained. Finally, it is important that the government channels the Covid crisis to usher in a decade of better growth than the previous one.

With regard to the first point, about not repelling businesses:

  • The blog post emphasizes the need to facilitate clear instructions for businesses. The key message is that clear communication is always important, but it is literally a life-saver in these times. If you need to issue a clarification, you failed. It is that simple.
  • A related point in this regard comes from an excellent newsletter that is equally worth reading in its own right. Facilitating business also means not throwing out the baby with the bathwater:
    ..
    ..
    “Now let’s look at why this is a policyWTF. India’s economy is facing a severe demand + supply shock. Of particular concern is the unavailability of domestic capital for long-term projects such as infrastructure (one of the reasons for this is covered in the India Policy Watch section below). Without long-term investment, India cannot achieve sustained economic growth. And without sustained economic growth, India’s geopolitical options get majorly constrained. An economically strong India becomes an ideal counterweight to China for the US and also an ideal market for excess Chinese capital. In contrast, a weak economy will eventually be forced to throw its economy open to the highest bidder at any point of time (ask Pakistan). Given this key national interest, making it difficult for Chinese investments to find their way into India is extremely counterproductive.”
    ..
    ..
    To be clear, this is not the point Ananta Nageswaran was making, but the point that Pranay and A.N. make stems from the root principle that in these times, we need to facilitate business, not hamper it. It can be hampered by a variety of things: unclear communication, blanket bans, or something else.

Now, on to the second point:

However, for a country with a young demographic and a potential for economic growth to exceed the cost of capital in the medium to long-term, the cost of excessive caution and prudence would be higher than the cost of excess action now. This would be so in the medium to long-term even if the short–term costs of excessive fiscal activism appear higher. One such fear is the fear of credit-rating downgrade. That reputational risk must be accepted and ignored, if it materializes. Rakesh Mohan, the former Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, had the right attitude towards them. In an interview for CNBC TV-18, he is reported to have observed that the credit rating agencies should have been the first ones to be put on the lockdown globally. He is right.

There is a time to worry about rating agencies, rising rates of borrowing, crowding out and profligacy. This, however, is not that time. We can err on the side of doing too little, or too much. There will be errors, we just need to choose which. I agree with A.N. – more is infinitely more preferable.

Suggestions on how money can be spent, which is the third point:

  • Asset sales, by Andy Mukherjee (link gotten from within A.N.’s post)
  • Building out health infrastructure, by the same author (and the same source for the link as above too)
  • Shankkar Aiyyar has an article on BQ that finds mention in A.N’s post, and also has this excellent, excellent analogy:
    ..
    ..
    “Epidemiology tells us vulnerability to Covid-19 rises with pre-existing conditions. This is true for economies too. India’s economy, frail from co-morbidity, tripped from slowdown to lockdown.”
  • And Vikram Chandra on Twitter has some suggestions:
    ..
    ..


    ..
    ..
    Note that the list isn’t (and can’t be) exhaustive. But these are all extremely good suggestions!

Fourth, we need to keep reminding ourselves that it’s not all doom and gloom, health-wise and economy-wise, or as A.N. puts its, “experts are poor at predicting”. (Ahem)

And fifth, the bottomline from his blog-post, which I quote in its entirety:

“Finally, that persuades me to throw the ball to the government to play. In times of crises, society looks for guidance and leadership from the rulers. This is time-tested. Therefore, the onus is on the government to demonstrate clarity in thought and purpose in action. India began the last decade badly and ended it with more questions than answers. An encore will be a tragedy. India should do whatever it takes to avoid it.”

 

 

Some thoughts on forecasting

Shashank Patil, a BSc student writes in with this query:

“Could you suggest books(those criminally thick ones work well too!) or any other reference to understand the nuances of forecasting better? (particularly how to be skeptical about specific models, their shortcomings or what thought process should follow whenever I see a forecast model and its predictions, etc.)
I guess a lot of this should come with experience rather than through purposeful effort. But any guidance on this should be of great help.”

First things first: I wish I had had the wisdom to ask this question at that age. I and a friend of mine were just discovering the joys of playing around with Microsoft Excel and MATLAB, and were more focused on learning how to code and model than on asking “Well, hang on. Does this even make sense?” Kudos, Shashank, for being sceptical. It’ll serve you well while learning econometrics!

Now, that being said, I’ll get to books and resources a little further below, but first some thoughts about forecasting that might help.

There are, to my mind, three ways to forecast something.

The first is to build a model in which the outcome is a function of measurable inputs, excluding time. What that means in non-academic gobbledygook is this:

 

That’s a model, with measurable inputs. If x, then y, and if y, then z. And you can keep this going for as long as you want. You can guess, with some allowances for error, what’ll happen at the end. Raise interest rates, and people will borrow less. If people will borrow less, people will spend less. If people will spend less, demand will go down. And on and on and on.

Economic models are more complicated, because they deal with us, human beings. And much as we economists would like human beings to be rational, we don’t always live up to our expectations. But that apart, this is one way to forecast. Build a model, which is basically a scaled down version of reality, and hope that the model can “predict” what’ll happen next.

Or, and this is where we enter the badlands of econometrics, we can do time series modeling. Time series modeling is special in the sense that we try and predict what happens next on the basis of what has gone before.

 

 

Times series chart example from Russia
Click here for original chart and article

What will the value be in April 2000? A time series model will try and “guess” the value, based on past trends and values. The reason I tend to be a little (well, ok, more than a little) sceptical of this kind of analysis is because a) we ignore everything else that is going on in the world and b) absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

That is to say, just because it has not happened in the past is no reason to believe that it will not happen in the future. But time series models, by definition, project out into the future by looking at the past!

And finally, betting markets! Crowdsource what the future will look like, by asking people to bet on their view of what the future will be like.

 

Here’s the introduction from a Wikipedia article (but do read the whole thing)

“Prediction markets (also known as betting markets, political betting markets, predictive markets, information markets, decision markets, idea futures, event derivatives, or virtual markets) are exchange-traded markets created for the purpose of trading the outcome of events. The market prices can indicate what the crowd thinks the probability of the event is. A prediction market contract trades between 0 and 100%. It is a binary option that will expire at the price of 0 or 100%. Prediction markets can be thought of as belonging to the more general concept of crowdsourcing which is specially designed to aggregate information on particular topics of interest. The main purposes of prediction markets are eliciting aggregating beliefs over an unknown future outcome. Traders with different beliefs trade on contracts whose payoffs are related to the unknown future outcome and the market prices of the contracts are considered as the aggregated belief.”

Also read Bryan Caplan on betting. And Robin Hanson. And Vitalik Buterin.

Now all that being said, here are the books I would recommend you read:

  1. Walter Enders: Applied Econometric Time Series. A little advanced, perhaps, but it remains, for me, the bible of time series forecasting.
  2. A Little Book of R for Time Series Forecasting. Short lovely read, with lots of examples you can try for yourself in R.
  3. Superforecasting (somewhat tangential, but a great read)
  4. Mastering Econometrics, an online video series, by Joshua Angrist (who also has a lovely book called Mostly Harmless Econometrics).

Thank you for the question, Shashank!