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.

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.

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 🙂

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.”

 

 

Talking Macro With Prof. Parchure

Dr. Parchure is the officiating director at the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, where I work. He was also my guide during my PhD saga (there is no other word for it), and has forgotten more macroeconomics than I will ever learn.

Tomorrow, at some point of time, I and Dr. Parchure will be sitting down – at our respective homes, of course – for a chat about what India can do when it comes to macroeconomic policy after the worst of the corona virus lock-down is over.

First things first: health comes first, and that’s a non-negotiable. There’s no version of this story in which we can discuss trade-offs about “getting things back to normal” so that “the economy isn’t destroyed”.

As Russ Roberts puts it:

So we’ll be talking tomorrow about an as yet unspecified date in the future, where India might not be as mobile and social as she was before, but not as locked-down as she is right now. But when that day comes, what should macroeconomic policy look like?

Here are two articles that I will be basing this discussion on:

  1. Ira Dugal’s take on India’s monetary policy.
  2. Ananth Narayan’s take on India’s fiscal policy.

Please read both, and don’t worry if you don’t get some details. Just power through both write-ups regardless.

Here are some aspects that I will definitely be asking questions about tomorrow:

  • The advisability of giving a monetary and fiscal stimulus: everybody seems to be taking it as a given (myself included). But is there a case to be made for limiting it, if at all?
  • That out of the way, should both fiscal and monetary policy be wheeled out simultaneously? Either ways, why?
  • What are the major tools in the monetary policy toolbox? Which of them will give the most bang for the buck? Which should we be holding back for later, and why? What mistakes should we be guarding against?
  • Ditto for fiscal policy.
  • What would Keynes have advised? I have this book in mind when I ask this question.
  • What episodes, in 20th century macroeconomic history, have parallels we can learn from? If there are none, are current macroeconomic models good enough to handle such scenario? If not, how might they be updated?
  • If you, Dr. Parchure, were in charge of things – interpret that as you being given carte blanche to handle India’s economy, no questions asked – what would you do? What are the political realities that in reality will stop some of these solutions from being implemented?

I’ll be sharing this blog post with Dr. Parchure, but in the meantime, if you have any questions that I have missed, please let me know in the comments, or email me.

The conversation will be up on YouTube tomorrow at some point of time.

Stay home, stay safe!

Mental health amid these times

A student of mine from Gokhale Institute sent me this email (lightly edited for clarity):

Hello Sir,

I just watched your videos related to Coronavirus.

They are great and helpful, somehow they leave the viewer feeling a bit optimistic.

However, I’d also suggest you to (I’m not sure if it’s actually needed or it’s something which you haven’t talked about implicitly) talk about the psychological drainage that this situation is creating. This situation actually looks like a flickering bulb, a very scary prospect indeed.

Amidst all this, people are panicking some loudly like my mother and some internally like me. And, it looks like a weird situation.

I mean I presume that even if we control the virus just like China has flattened its curve, we can only rest if the last case is eliminated of the virus which is closer to an impossibility. Sorry for sounding pessimistic but that’s how my mind is working at the  moment.

I also am allowing myself to think that maybe the virus will spread everywhere and act like an elimination round. It sounds brutal but looks like a possibility and the prospect of that happening does make me sad. I think humans will have to naturally cope up with this phenomenon and artificial measures would only aim at minimizing misery but do we actually look like we stand a chance at minimizing this loss?

What’s your take on the mentally distorting effects of the virus? Because, it’s not even slow poison it looks like an apocalyptic situation right now. And, if you could give some sense of hope to people like me – viewers and readers of your works.

Regards
Ayushi Baloni
Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics

It’s a question that other people will also have, I’m guessing, which is why the reply is here, rather than directly to Ayushi.

This is from Nature Asia:

A mental health institute at the Second Xiangya Hospital in Hunan, China followed a protocol for ensuring the quality of life of those in isolation. The steps were simple – daily digital communication with their closed ones, group counselling, catering to individual dietary needs, comfort and leisure, continuation of job-related activities and updates on the outbreak condition. Weekly supportive psychotherapy sessions and periodic hygienic measures were ensured for healthy living. These helped preserve the dignity of those in isolation and their compliance to restrictive protocols. In the absence of such care giving, we often see people defy isolation or abscond for the fear of getting ‘stranded’, which is a larger menace to public health.

Setting up a goal for yourself: creating a list of tasks which should be completed has been helpful for some folks, myself included. That, along with making sure that I call at least one friend on a daily basis, usually more.

But speaking of tasks, as my friend Girish says here, don’t beat yourself up if you can’t complete the task. Half the fun is in drawing up the list! Read the rest of the post as well: great advice in there.

Do not be overly self-critical or disappointed if you make a list of things you can achieve in lockdown and end up completing none. Making lists is a soothing exercise and our mind’s way of trying to make sense and seek order in the surrounding chaos. We are also in the initial phases of the isolation so the need to change our habits and tackle self-improvement lists will not kick in without enormous struggle and discipline. The longer our lives are affected by the virus, the better the chances we’ll actually get around to the simple full-body workout, the basic cooking hacks, cleaning up behind the fridge or heck, showering every day.

The WHO has a video up about this issue as well:

Some advice from the NYT:

When he feels anxiety seep in, Dr. Hanson, who creates guided meditations for the digital platform Simple Habit, said he takes a few slow, deep breaths and reminds himself of what is true in this exact moment. Then he takes stock, telling himself, “In this moment, your heart is beating. You’re breathing in this moment. No saber-tooth tiger is coming after you in this moment.”

“Our fear is about the future. It’s what we anticipate,” he said. “But if you stop and say, ‘I am healthy in this moment,’ it pulls you out of rumination and anxious, helpless preoccupation. Your brain will come to this moment of quiet realization. ‘Things are not great, but they’re basically OK. I am still surviving.’ It gives you more of a sense of agency.”

Calm is an app available on both Android and iOS, designed to help you meditate, and headspace is another. There are plenty more, of course – no reason for you to stick to just these two! Tara Brach has guided meditations that are free, if that helps. Feel free to add more sources in the comments below, of course. Help others!

Speaking of helping others, I cannot recommend this strongly enough. Become a mentor to somebody. Teach a kid the alphabet, teach somebody how to cook, teach somebody something that you are good at. Personally, I find this very helpful indeed.

Read this, from BrainPickings – and read as much as you can of BrainPickings!

Hope — and the wise, effective action that can spring from it — is the counterweight to the heavy sense of our own fragility. It is a continual negotiation between optimism and despair, a continual negation of cynicism and naïveté. We hope precisely because we are aware that terrible outcomes are always possible and often probable, but that the choices we make can impact the outcomes.

Who can you follow on Twitter?

My recommendations would be Dr. Bhooshan Shukla, and Dr. Soumitra Pathare. I’m sure there are others, please provide references in the comments, or email me. I’ll update this post.

India Today says switching off is important:

According to author and mental health advocate Shuchi Singh, it is important that one does not give in to the hysteria that may be created by constant updates about the disease.

“The panic around novel coronavirus is primarily because of the bombardment of news everywhere, you can’t escape it. You don’t need to stay in touch constantly, need to know what’s a good balance between staying connected and not. You should follow precautions in your own way,” she says.

And finally, The Guardian channels its inner Douglas Adams, and tells us not to panic:

Yes, this virus is obviously a massive challenge: medical, political and – perhaps most strikingly at present – social and economic. But it is worth remembering the world has never had better tools to fight it, and that if we are infected, we are unlikely to die from it.

Thanks for reading, and please keep your questions coming!

Ayushi, thank you for your question! 🙂

India’s National Disaster Management Planning

Sharing some links that I have been able to find online. If anybody has better resources, more up to date information, please let me know, I will update this page.

  1. NDMP, as of May 2016. Pages 96-97 especially relevant.
  2. The document about India that is available with the UNDP. Pages 49, 97 and 112. Almost certainly out of date, please help with the latest link if you have it.

 

Clear communication matters, and we need to know the details of the top down approach.

For those of you who wish to study this in greater detail, chapters 7,9 and 10 of this document might be worthy of a more in-depth read.

Econ101: Policy Responses to a Pandemic

If you haven’t played it already, go ahead and give this game a try: The Fed Chairman Game. I have a lot of fun playing this game in class, especially with students who have been taught monetary policy. It usually turns out to be the case that they haven’t understood it quite as well as they think the have! (To be clear, that’s the fault of our educational system, not the students.)

But the reason I started with that is because the game always throws up a scenario that mimics a crisis, and asks you what you would do if you were the Chair of the Fed.

In this case, policymakers the world over are now staring at a very real crisis, and they need to be asking themselves: what should we do?


 

There are two broad answers, of course: monetary policy, and fiscal policy.

The Federal Reserve has cut interest rates to zero, and while it has other tools to stimulate the economy, a crisis like this requires fiscal as well as monetary responses. The legislation passed thus far has been important, but another round of fiscal policy will be required immediately to fully address this crisis.

A robust fiscal response can provide income support to households, ensure broad and continuous access to safety net programs, provide incentives for employers to avoid layoffs, provide loans to small businesses, give liquidity cushions to households and firms, and otherwise stimulate the economy.

That’s a write-up from Brookings. The specifics follow in that article, but the article makes the point that more of the lifting will need to  be done by fiscal, rather than monetary policy. And that is true for a variety of reasons,  which the article does not get into, but long story short – fiscal, more than monetary.

But, ok, fiscal policy of what kind? Should we give money to firms or to workers? Here’s Paul Krugman with his take…

And here’s Alex Tabarrok with his response:

So what’s the correct answer? Well, as we’ve learnt before, and will learn again, macro is hard! In an ideal world, all of the above, but as is manifestly clear, we are not in an ideal world. If we must choose between giving money to firms or to people, to whom should we give it? My opinion? People first, businesses second. This is, of course, a US centric discussion, what’s up with India?


 

Here’s, to begin with, a round-up from around the world – you can search within it for India’s response thus far.

Calls are getting louder for governments to support people and businesses until the new coronavirus is contained. The only questions are how much money to shovel into the economy, how to go about doing it, and whether it will be enough.

Already, officials from Paris to Washington DC are pulling out the playbook used in Asia for slowing the spread of Covid-19: they’re restricting travel and cracking down on public gatherings. While those measures have the potential to reduce deaths and infections, they will also damage business prospects for many companies and cause a synchronized worldwide disruption.

Here’s the FT from two weeks ago about the impending slow down:

Venu Srinivasan, whose company TVS is one of India’s largest makers of motorcycles and scooters, said the business had lost about 10 per cent of production in February owing to a lack of Chinese-made parts for the vehicles’ fuel injection system. He added that TVS has now managed to find a new supplier.

But Mr Srinivasan said he was bracing for India’s recovery to take longer than anticipated. “One would have expected a V-shaped recovery, but instead you have an L shaped recovery,” he said. “It’s been the long haul.”

R Jagannathan in the LiveMint suggests this:

This is how it could be designed. Any unemployed urban youth in the 20-30 age group could be promised 100 days of employment and/or skilling options paid for by the government at a fixed daily rate of ₹300 (or thereabouts, depending on city). At an outlay of ₹30,000 per person annually, the unemployed can be put to work in municipal conservancy services, healthcare support, traffic management, and other duties, with the money also being made available for any skill-acquiring activity chosen by the beneficiary (driver training for Ola-Uber, logistics operations, etc). All companies could be given an opportunity to use the provisions of the Apprentices Act to take on more trainees, with the apprenticeship period subsidized to the limit of ₹30,000 per person in 2020-21. If the pilot works, it could be rolled out as a regular annual scheme for jobs and skills. Skilling works best in an actual jobs environment.

 

He also mentions making the GST simpler, which the Business Standard agrees with:

Certainly, the rationalisation of GST will also affect government revenues. However, a simpler and more transparent system would allow greater collection and reduce evasion. The government will receive a windfall this year from lower crude oil prices. The moment to move on the structural reform agenda is now. The GST Council has done well to address the inverted duty structure in mobile phones. Further rationalisation will give confidence to the market that the government is serious about reforms. It was promised that GST would remain a work in progress, and that the GST Council would act often to improve it. So far, however, the changes have been marginal and haphazard. A more structured and rational approach, which outlines a quick path to a single rate, would pay dividends for the economy in the longer run. It would also be an effective way to manage the immediate effects of a supply shock such as is being caused by the pandemic.

Also from the Business Standard, a report on the government now considering (not happened yet) relaxing bad loan classification rules for sectors hit by the corona virus. That’s pretty soon going to be every sector!


 

Assorted Links about the topic – there’s more to read than usual, please note.

Here is Tyler Cowen on mitigating the economic impacts from the coronavirus crisis.

Here’s Bill Dupor, via MR, about the topic:

First, incentivize behavior to align with recognized public health objectives during the outbreak.

Second, avoid concentrating the individual financial burden of the outbreak or the policy response to the outbreak.

Third, implement these fiscal policies as quickly as possible, subject to some efficiency considerations.

Again, via MR, New Zealand’s macro response.

Arnold Kling is running a series on the macro response to the crisis.

Claudia Sahm proposes direct payment to individuals:

This chapter proposes a direct payment to individuals that would
automatically be paid out early in a recession and then continue annually
when the recession is severe. Research shows that stimulus payments that
were broadly disbursed on an ad hoc (or discretionary) basis in the 2001 and
2008–9 recessions raised consumer spending and helped counteract weak
demand. Making the payments automatic by tying their disbursement to
recent changes in the unemployment rate would ensure that the stimulus
reaches the economy as quickly as possible. A rapid, vigorous response to
the next recession in the form of direct payments to individuals would help
limit employment losses and the economic damage from the recession.

Here are the concrete proposals, the entire paper is worth a read:

Automatic lump-sum stimulus payments would be made to individuals
when the three-month average national unemployment rate rises by
at least 0.50 percentage points relative to its low in the previous 12
months.
• The total amount of stimulus payments in the first year is set to
0.7 percent of GDP.
• After the first year, any second (or subsequent) year payments would
depend on the path of the unemployment rate.

 

Macroeconomics IS HARD!

Economics in the times of COVID-19, there is already a book. I learnt about it from Tim Taylor’s blogpost. I have not read the book, but will soon.

The NYT, two weeks ago, on the scale of the problem facing policymakers.

 

Information about the Coronavirus in India

What is the corona virus?

There isn’t one specific coronvirus.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses which may cause illness in animals or humans. In humans, several coronaviruses are known to cause respiratory infections ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

By the way, the’re called corona viruses because they look like coronas, or crowns.

Coronaviruses are named for their appearance: Under the microscope, the viruses look like they are covered with pointed structures that surround them like a corona, or crown.

The most recently discovered virus causes the disease COVID-19.

How does it spread?

People can catch COVID-19 from others who have the virus. The disease can spread from person to person through small droplets from the nose or mouth which are spread when a person with COVID-19 coughs or exhales. These droplets land on objects and surfaces around the person. Other people then catch COVID-19 by touching these objects or surfaces, then touching their eyes, nose or mouth. People can also catch COVID-19 if they breathe in droplets from a person with COVID-19 who coughs out or exhales droplets. This is why it is important to stay more than 1 meter (3 feet) away from a person who is sick.

WHO is assessing ongoing research on the ways COVID-19 is spread and will continue to share updated findings.

 


 

When and how did it reach India?

As best we can tell, 30th January, 2020. This chart below shows you the spread since then.

Data and visualization can be tricky, and later on in this post, keep an eye out for another visualization about the corona virus.

Where does one get official data from in India?

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) is the official source that you should begin with. This is their website, this is their Twitter ID. At the moment of writing, the website reports 110 confirmed cases in India.

How is testing being done in India?

On the MoHFW website, there is a link about when to get tested for the corona virus in India. Shown below is a screen grab of that link.

Two things stand out:

  1. The second bullet point uses the word “and“. Having the symptoms is not enough, you must necessarily have traveled to any of the countries listed above. Other than whatever has been said in the previous sentence, you qualify for testing if you are a contact of a laboratory confirmed positive case. Unfortunately, “contact” isn’t clearly defined, at least on this page.
  2. Testing will currently be done by government laboratories only.

Which immediately leads to the next question:

What is our capacity to test for the coronavirus?

India has activated 67 laboratories for conducting the first test, and 51 of those are equipped to conduct confirmatory tests, which is not even one lab per district. India has 732 districts.

At present, cases are being reported from 13 States and Union Territories. In a country with a population of 1.3 billion, till now, only 6,500 throat swab samples from 5,900 individuals have been sent to these labs; at least 107 have tested positive.

That is from the Hindu Business Line, in a report that came out yesterday.

This is the COVID-19 page on the ICMR website. These are the locations of the testing laboratories in India. These are the locations of the sample collection laboratories.

 


 

OK, but 110 cases, how bad can that be?

Exponentials are hard. Anybody who has taught math or statistics will tell you that. Look at the graph(s) below:

A golden rule that I always teach my students in statistics: first look at the axes! On the horizontal axes here, we have the lag in days behind Italy. But the vertical axis is the more important thing to look at, because it is not linear. We go from 1 to 10, from 10 to 100, and from a 100 to a 1000 (and so on). Each tick on the vertical axis is a 10x increase.

In English? Every country where the virus has spread has seen a 10x increase. If you ask a data scientist to take a look at these data points, and then ask the about the trajectory in India, there’s only one possible answer: we probably go from a 100 to a 1000, and from a 1000 to 10,000. I hope not, of course, and mitigation is possible – social distancing is key!

By the way, if you want to play around with the data, click here to go to the Github page.

OK, so the numbers will go up rapidly, maybe. But the fatality rates are low, right?

Two important things to note:

Two numbers that you need to keep in mind when you think about the corona virus. The R0 and the fatality rate. The R0 for the coronavirus seems to be about two, although of course that number can vary because of a lot of factors. But a baseline R0 of 2 seems to be a reasonable estimate.

In English? If you get it, you will on average spread it to two other people. That’s why the quarantine and the social distancing measures are so very important. It’s not just because you shouldn’t get it yourself – it is more because you shouldn’t be giving it to others.

Now, the answer to the question itself: are the fatality rates low?

The Case Fatality Rate (CFR) for COVID-19 is 3.48 percent.

But as an statistician, it is important to state that the correct answer is it depends!

Unfortunately, it is common to report the CFR as a single value. But the CFR is not a biological constant. The CFR is not a value which is tied to the given disease, but is instead reflective of the severity of the disease in a particular context, at a particular time, in a particular population.

The probability that someone dies from a disease is not only dependent on the disease itself, but also the social and individual response to it: the level and timing of treatment they receive, and the ability of the given individual to recover from it.

This means that the CFR can decrease or increase over time, and that it can vary by location and by the characteristics of the infected population (age, sex, pre-existing conditions).

The real problem is rapidly overwhelmed medical facilities

Read the entire thread, not just the tweet quoted above. The point of sharing that tweet is to help you realize that opportunity costs will come into play very, very quickly at medical centers in India. Whom do I treat – patients with the coronvirus or other patients? And soon enough, it’ll be whom do I treat, this coronavirus patient or that one?

Worst of all, there is no treatment per se, yet. There’s encouraging news on the front from all over the world, India included, but there’s time for a recognized cure to be acknowledged and made widely available. Best to proceed on the assumption that there won’t be one, and prepare accordingly. That’s just good strategy in times like these: budget for the worst case scenario.

OK, so what can we do?

Follow government instructions! We’re all in this together, so whatever your local/state/national government is telling you ought to be followed, no questions asked.

Social distancing is key, and that’s fancy English for avoiding going out. Stay at home as much as possible over the coming days, and cooperate with local authorities. Classes, colleges, schools, clubs, restaurants, malls, gyms – anything in the nature of a public gathering ought to be avoided as much as possible.

Panic is not going to solve anything, but precautions will go a long way towards helping.

Stay home, stay safe!

Where can I learn more?

Here’s a list of resources:

Myth-busters from the WHO.

WHO’s advice for the public.

The Situation Update Report from the WHO (I have posted the latest update at the time of writing, but keep checking for more up to date ones as the days go by)

The WHO dashboard.

Read the Wikipedia article on the Epidemic Diseases Act.

A useful article about the how to think about exponentials.

A request: please email me at ashish at econforeverybody dot com with any resources that you think may prove useful. I’ll do my best to share the more useful ones with everybody.


 

Coming up tomorrow: technology in the times of COVID-19.