The Union Budget: The past, the process and the expectations for 2020

There’s this nagging sense of dissatisfaction: I have spent more than my usual allotment of time coming up with today’s post, and that’s because I have still not been able to find the perfect way to kickstart today’s five links.

I was looking for a nice, easy-to-read and yet informative article about the Union Budget: what is the finance bill, what is the importance of Article 112, what is the process behind the budget being formulated every year, how the budget fits into the medium term fiscal policy – the works. Well, as it turns out, to the best of my knowledge, there is no article that fits (pardon the pun) the bill.

Hence the nagging sense of dissatisfaction. Still, on that rather dispiriting note, here we go: five links about the Union Budget

  1. Moneycontrol to kick things off, on the process behind the budget. Again, not great, but lets run with what we’ve got!
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    “”The budget is made through a consultative process involving ministry of finance, NITI Aayog and spending ministries. Finance ministry issues guidelines to spending, based on which ministries present their demands. The Budget division of the Department of Economic Affairs in the finance ministry is the nodal body responsible for producing the Budget.

    How is the budget made? Budget division issues a circular to all union ministries, states, UTs, autonomous bodies, departments and the defence forces for preparing the estimates for the next year. After ministries & departments send in their demands, extensive consultations are held between Union ministries and the Department of Expenditure of the finance ministry.”
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  2. “Boost to spending can revive the economy, which will improve the returns of equity mutual funds. However, a possible surge in inflation poses a key challenge. A careful tightrope walk is what is required.”
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    Macroeconomics – and I may have said this before, stop me if you’ve heard it – is hard. This article is a classic example of “On the one hand/ but on the other hand…”
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  3. “An MTBF is a set of institutional arrangements for prioritizing, presenting, and managing revenue and expenditure in a multiyear perspective. Such a framework enables governments to demonstrate the impact of current and proposed policies over the course of several years, signal or set future budget priorities, and ultimately achieve better control of public expenditure. An MTBF, therefore, does not refer solely to the actual numerical multiyear revenue and expenditure projections and restrictions presented alongside a given budget. Rather, an MTBF comprises all the systems, rules, and procedures that ensure the government’s fiscal plans are drawn up with a view to their impact over several years.”
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    MTBF stands for Medium Term Budget Framework. We’ve got one of our own! Dr. Vijay Kelkar helped prepare it. The point is this – and any corporate leader will tell you it’s importance – never look at a budget as a stand-alone exercise. It fits into a broader, more long term scheme of things. And we in India need to be aware of the more long term scheme of things. Except, uh…
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    “The idea at the time was that the Ministry of Finance would think on a one-year budget horizon, while the Planning Commission would think about deeper issues in public policy formulation wielding an array of different instruments. Now that the Planning Commission has been disbanded, we will need to build a medium-term budget system that incorporates both points of view. There is a need to clearly define the role and function of NITI Aayog in this new environment, so as to fill these gaps in the mainstream policy apparatus”
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    That excerpt is from a book that perhaps every student of economics should read: In The Service of the Republic, by Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah.
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  4. “However, data on revenue available so far suggests that the government has very little fiscal space for any significant growth stimulus. If the government’s off-budget liabilities (or withheld payments) are taken into account, the central government’s real fiscal deficit could end up being as high as 5.5% of gross domestic product (GDP) in the current fiscal year, a Mint analysis of public accounts suggests.”
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    This is old news to folks who have been following Union Budgets for a while, but might come as a surprise to those of you who are just now discovering the hidden delights of this sport: our fiscal deficit numbers aren’t – and haven’t been for a very long time indeed –  exactly crystal clear.
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  5. “To cut a long story short, there is very little that the government can do in the budget to revive the Indian economy. The government budget is, ultimately, a financial account. And financial accounts, ultimately, are financial accounts and nothing more. Keynes’s formula doesn’t always work, at least not in the way it should. ”
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    I’ve cut to the chase and excerpted the last paragraph from this excellent piece by Vivek Kaul, but you shouldn’t – read the whole thing very, very carefully indeed. I have a couple of points to nitpick here and there, but the broad thrust of the article I can’t help but agree with completely.

India: Five Articles on Makar Sankranti

An attempt, for myself, to understand Makar Sankranti better. Reading up about this festival threw up for me additional information about how the it’s one of the few festivals in the Hindu calendar that is based on the solar calendar. In addition, I got to read about sesame (the word ‘tel’, a professor of mine tells me, may well have its etymological roots in ’til”) and about festivals in other parts of the world that celebrate similar themes.

The traditional Maharashtrian greeting around this time is ’tilghul ghya, god bola’ which translates as – although you lose the romance in the translation – “Eat sesame-jaggery, speak well (of each other)”.

One can hope!

  1. As usual, the Wikipedia article to begin with.
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    “Makara Sankranti or Maghi, is a festival day in the Hindu calendar, dedicated to the deity Surya (sun). It is observed each year in January. It marks the first day of the sun’s transit into Makara (Capricorn), marking the end of the month with the winter solstice and the start of longer days.”
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  2. Heard of Maslenitsa? I hadn’t!
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    “”People burn an effigy made of straw, wood, and cloth, representing Mother Winter, to mark the end of Maslenitsa in the village of Leninskoe, Kyrgyzstan, on March 10, 2019”
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  3. “A Hindu holy man, or naga sadhu, prays as he bathes in the waters of the holy Ganges river during the auspicious bathing day of Makar Sankranti of the Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, India, on January 14, 2013. The Maha Kumbh Mela, believed to be the largest religious gathering on earth is held every 12 years on the banks of Sangam, the confluence of the holy rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. The festival is expected to attract over 100 million people.”
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    A lovely photo essay in the Atlantic about the Kumbh Mela. As the article suggests, best seen on a computer, and that too full screen.
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  4. “Does drinking a live fish out of a jeweled goblet sound like your idea of a party? Better book a trip to Belgium, stat. That’s how locals in the town of Geraardsbergen—and nowhere else in the world, as far as we know—get down on the last Sunday in February. To kick things off, participants (dressed as medieval knights, naturally) march to the top of Oudenberg Hill, where they proceed to toss thousands of krakelingen, or ring-shaped bread rolls, down on the town below. Later on, they set a wooden barrel on fire and carry torches back to the city, symbolizing the seasonal return of light. But not before they take turns drinking a live fish from chalices filled with red wine—even though everyone knows white pairs best with seafood.”
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    A fascinating (to me, at any rate) set of links about how some European cultures celebrate the end of winter and the start of summer. Celebrate, it would seem, the ability to light up a fire – a global phenomenon.
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  5. “Sesame seed makes a grand appearance in January in most parts of India, around the time of Makar Sankranti, as the sun moves into the zodiac of Capricorn. Up north and in the west, it assumes the forms of laddoo, chikki, revdi and gajak. In Punjab, they also go by the name of til pinni. Til pitha and tilor laru are prepared in Assam for Bihu celebrated around the same time.”
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    How could I not include a link about food?

India: Links for 6th January, 2020

It’s the first Monday of the year, and therefore the five articles today will be about the year gone by, the decade gone by, the year to come and – you guessed it – the decade to come. All, of course, focused on India.

 

  1. “Hope springs eternal in the human breast, which perhaps explains why some outrageously hopeful investors took India’s markets to greater heights in 2019, despite economic indicators getting progressively worse. The Nifty 500 index rose 7.7% last year, a marked improvement over 2018, when the index had fallen 3.4%.”
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    Economics professors, such as yours truly, are wont to clear their throats and look away when asked by students about the disconnect between macroeconomic indicators and stock market indices. Mobis Philipose in the Livemint to the rescue.
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  2. “Coming out of the current crisis is priority. But without trying to pick winners, India should also be getting its financial industry ready for the opportunities the 2020s may have in store.”
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    A nice blend of the past, the present, and how to be ready (from a financial markets viewpoint) of what is hopefully to come in the future, by Andy Mukherjee.
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  3. I’m not a fan of lists such as these. Specifically, in this case, the last three or four entries simply exist to take the list to 20. It is striking however, to see the obvious contradictions in the list itself. 20 things expected to happen in 2020, for what it’s worth.
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  4. “But consumption growth in 2019-20 has collapsed. In the first six months of this year, consumption growth has been just 7% (in nominal terms, without adjusting for inflation). It is the first time since 2004-05 that consumption growth has been in single digits.”
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    Vivek Kaul in the Deccan Herald, for the pessimists…
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  5. “In the 2019 Independence Day speech made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a key announcement was investment of Rs. 100 lakh crore in infrastructure over the next five years.This was also one of the promises made in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) manifesto for the Lok Sabha elections held in April and May 2019.
    Following the announcement by the PM, a task force was constituted within the Finance Ministry to create a roadmap for this investment.
    Officials from the Departments of Economic Affairs and Expenditure in the Finance Ministry and NITI Aayog were part of this task force.
    The report of this body was presented on 31 December 2019 by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.”
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    While Aashish Chandorkar with how the NIP might play out, for the optimists.

India: Links for 23rd December, 2019

  1. “When it comes to data centre storage though, India lags behind not just the developed world but even Asia-Pacific. With roughly 40 million less Internet users, Europe has more than 12 times its capacity to store data — 8,600 MW, compared to India’s 700 MW. And while India comprises 25% of Asia-Pacific’s Internet users, in 2017, it accounted for only 8.6% of its data centre growth, as per a 2018 research of the Data Center Advisory Group.”
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    A nice article from the Livemint about how this is set to change.
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  2. A short write-up from the Business Standard on reforms to the GST. The specifics do not matter (to me, that is) as the fact that this article needed to be written at all.
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  3. “The remedial measures have to be a combination of factors: capital infusion, capacity building on the supply side to resolve the unproductive assets, incentives for new entrants and tweaks in the regulatory framework. We need to wipe the slate clean and look ahead. The need of the hour is also to take some hard decisions impacting the current stakeholders. Remember, this situation is akin to the housing-led credit crisis in the US, where a turnaround was led by foreclosed properties and those under development.”
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    On revitalizing the real estate sector in our country. It is going to be a long, hard drive, but one that needs to be undertaken as soon as possible. This is necessary reading for anybody who would like to understand India’s economy today!
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  4. Niranjan Rajadhakshya, about nine months ago, on the need (“maybe?” he said then) for Operation Twist.
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    “One option right now is to borrow a trick from the US Federal Reserve—Operation Twist, named after the dancing style that was all the rage in the years after World War II. There have been two famous instances when the US central bank “twisted” a steep yield curve through clever money market operations, first in 1961 and then in 2011. In each case, the Fed changed the relative amounts of short-term and long-term securities in the market. How? It sold the short-term treasuries it had and used the proceeds to buy long-term securities. The result was that short-term interest rates went up while long-term interest rates came down. The yield curve flattened.”
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  5. And we went ahead and did it. However
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    “Yet it is far from clear that the RBI’s goal will be achieved. Certainly, there might be some flattening of the yield curve. But it is not clear that the amounts being discussed are sufficient. The response of the market for short-term bonds is also being questioned. The sale of the shorter-tenor bonds might well blow up yields in that segment, according to some market participants; on the other hand, liquidity at that end is so ample that there might be an effective cap on yields. The essential problem in the Indian bond market is that the country has, in spite of an apparently manageable debt-to-GDP ratio, entered a state of effective fiscal dominance. “

India: Links for 2nd December, 2019

What else?

  1. “The non-government part tends to form 87-92% of the economy. In the July-September period, it formed nearly 87% of the economy. If 87% of the economy is growing at 3.05%, the situation is much worse than it seems.”
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    Vivek Kaul about the GDP data is worse than it looks.
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  2. “At its core, Indian industry is cooling rapidly, with industries like coal, steel, cement and electricity having contracted in October. Eight core infrastructure industries have not grown in the first seven months of this year. Manufacturing, led by the automobile industry, has contracted, and mining stopped growing in the second quarter. Energy utilities and construction saw their growth rates almost halving from the same quarter a year ago. Another three months of declines will officially qualify as a manufacturing recession.”
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    The R-word is being heard, louder and louder.
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  3. “The good news is that GDP growth in the next quarter or the fourth quarter could well be a wee bit higher. The pop thesis is that given the lower base of the previous year, growth could be statistically higher—a bit like standing next to Leonardo DiCaprio, who is six feet tall, and then next to Tom Cruise, who is 5 feet 7. The bad news is that the slowdown is not going away anytime soon. ”
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    Shankkar Aiyyar, in top form.
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  4. ““Besides monetary easing by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), the government needs to simplify the goods and services tax (GST) and introduce a new direct tax code to clear the tax jungle created by our ancient income-tax law and rules,” he says.”
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    The “he” in this case being Arvind Virmani.
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  5. This may be behind a paywall for you, in which case, my apologies. But the final link in this set is from TN Ninan over at Business Standard.

India: Links for 25th November, 2019

  1. A difficult article to excerpt, so go ahead and read it in its entirety: Andy Mukherjee on India’s telecom woes.
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  2. “The NFMW should be determined based on macroeconomic considerations, namely (1) whether the NFMW would increase aggregate demand for mass market consumption. (2) Whether there are supply bottlenecks in responding to such aggregate demand and, if so, calibrate the NFMW to not cause inflationary pressures by driving up demand that would not elicit a domestic supply response- mass market textiles is a good example. (3) The impact of the minimum wage on the factor distribution of income i.e. wage and profit shares should be a key consideration not from the point of view of equity, but from that of macroeconomic stability and growth optimisation. (4) Subnational minimum wages could be set above the floor as desired with other considerations in mind.”
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    Rathin Roy in an excellent article on the need for minimum wages in India.
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  3. Vivek Kaul is less than impressed with the real estate bailout package.
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    “According to real estate research firm Liases Foras, the number of unsold homes in the country is more than 1.3 million. The number of unsold homes in India has risen dramatically primarily because of high prices. Builders have cited higher development costs as a reason for their inability to reduce prices of properties. The bailout package of ₹25,000 crore will lead to a further increase in the supply of homes, but without adequate price cuts these homes are not going to get sold. Hence, the problem will only deepen.”
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  4. “So he mounted his horse and galloped over to a nearby hill. “From the top of the hill there was a magnificent view embracing old Delhi and all the principal monuments situated outside the town, with the river Jumna winding its way like a silver streak…”The hill, near the village of Raisina, would become the epicentre of the new capital. By October 1912 the government initiated the legal process to acquire land. The first plots, required for the construction of what would be called Rashtrapati Bhavan, amounted to 4,000 acres.”
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    Sidin Vadukut in a lovely article on how modern Delhi came to be, well, Delhi.
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  5. “The scorers refused to continue after the covering over their heads went up in flames. Fire brigades were called and a riot squad formed a line between the dressing rooms and the pitch.”
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    The Guardian on riots in a Test match in Bombay during the 1960’s.

India: Links for 4th November, 2019

5 links about India’s middle class – whatever that means – for today.

  1. “The then managing editor of Fortune magazine, Marshall Loeb, was obsessed with the counterintuitive story of a fast-growing middle class in a country still synonymous with poverty. For my story, Loeb devised a headline that trumpeted, “India Opens for Business: The world’s largest middle class beckons foreign investors.” The article quoted NCAER data which estimated that the lower middle class, with annual household incomes of $700 to $1400, was responsible for 75% of unit sales of radios and soap and between a third and half of all shampoo and TV sets.”
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    Care to guess when this article – the one that is being spoken about here –  was penned? Read the rest of the article for a slightly pessimistic take on India’s middle class and its growth prospects.
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  2. I may have linked to this earlier, and apologies if I have, but a compendium of articles on India’s middle class is incomplete without linking to this magnificent – truly magnificent – article from Stanley Pignal in the Economist about India’s middle class.
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  3. Amitabh Kant et al provide for a rebuttal in the Livemint to the article I mentioned above. Given that it is almost two years since both articles were written, give or take, I leave it to you to judge which one has held up better over time.
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  4. Speaking of holding up over time, this is a McKinsey report from 2007 (yes, you read that right), about India’s big spenders – the soon to arrive middle class.
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    “The middle class currently numbers some 50 million people, but by 2025 will have expanded dramatically to 583 million people—some 41 percent of the population. These households will see their incomes balloon to 51.5 trillion rupees ($1.1 billion)—11 times the level of today and 58 percent of total Indian income.”
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  5. And finally, Vivek Kaul on a related note – the income-tax-paying Indian.
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    “In this regard, the Economic Survey of 2015-16 pointed out: “If the state’s role is predominantly redistribution, the middle class will seek—in professor Albert Hirschman’s famous terminology—to exit from the state. They will avoid or minimize paying taxes; they will cocoon themselves in gated communities; they will use diesel generators to obtain power; they will go to private hospitals and send their children to private education institutions.””

India: Links for 21st October, 2019

In honour of the delayed departure of the monsoons from India, five articles about what the monsoon is, and what it means for us here in India.

 

  1. “The unique geographical features of the Indian subcontinent, along with associated atmospheric, oceanic, and geophysical factors, influence the behavior of the monsoon. Because of its effect on agriculture, on flora and fauna, and on the climates of nations such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka — among other economic, social, and environmental effects — the monsoon is one of the most anticipated, tracked, and studied weather phenomena in the region. It has a significant effect on the overall well-being of residents and has even been dubbed the “real finance minister of India”.
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    Wikipedia is always a good place to start.
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  2. “Simulations of future climate generally suggest an increase in monsoon rainfall on a seasonal mean, area-average basis. This is due to the twin drivers of an increasing land-sea thermal contrast, but more importantly, warming over the Indian Ocean which allows more moisture to be carried to India. Typically increases in total rainfall over India may be in the region of 5-10%, although some climate models suggest more and some less. Climate simulations also show different patterns of rainfall change, so it is difficult to predict how rainfall might change within India. ”
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    The Royal Meteorological Society’s take on what is likely to happen in India in the years to come when it comes to the monsoon, and why.
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  3. “This Wednesday witnessed a rare meteorological coincidence. The southwest, or summer, monsoon, finally withdrew from the country, having overstayed and delayed its retreat by a record time. The same day, the northeast, or winter, monsoon made its onset, on time. The two events rarely happen simultaneously, though the three month-winter monsoon season is supposed to begin almost immediately after the end of the June-September summer monsoon season.”
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    The Indian Express on a relatively rare occurrence in meteorological terms.
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  4. … and the Livemint on the same topic.
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  5. “Along with their ancient perfumery, the villagers of Kannauj have inherited a remarkable skill: They can capture the scent of rain.”
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    I’ve probably linked to this before, but it is always worth a reread: on capturing the essence of petrichor.

EC101: Links for 10th October, 2019

  1. “Coase’s originality was not in his reasoning, but in recognizing that economic exchange is not the mere trading of physical goods but trading rights to property or rights to engage in certain types of conduct affecting property.”
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    Was Ronald Coase the first to come up with the Coase theorem?
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  2. “However, the joy of this book is less in the big picture than in the detail. And what a lot of it! The mind boggles at Smil’s extensive reading and absorption of information. We get the speed at which marathons are run – over the entire course of human history; the growth rates of piglets and weight of chicekns over time; sales of small non-industrial motors over time; the envelope for the maximum speed of travel; Kuznets cycles; Zipf’s law for city size…. The middle section of chapters offer a fantastic overview of technical progress over long periods in a wide range of technologies. I love all this detail.”
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    Diane Coyle thoroughly approves of Growth and Civilization.
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  3. “When a daughter is married, we do worry about her future. But why should I worry when the government of India is my son-in-law who married my daughter Syndicate Bank,” asked the late Tonse Madhav Ananth Pai in 1969, in the aftermath of the nationalization of the first-generation private-sector banks. Fondly known as “Brahma of Manipal”, Pai was the founding father of Syndicate Bank in 1925.”
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    A lovely read on bank mergers, bank nationalization and banks from a particular part of Karnataka.
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  4. “This is where the popcorn enters the picture. Pricey popcorn makes those lower ticket prices possible, And that is why you should buy popcorn at the movies.”
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    Expensive popcorn? Uh, no, cheap movie tickets. Yes, really. Cheap for whom, you ask? Welcome to microeconomics.
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  5. “This leads to the question: Why try these markets at all? This is quite similar to creation of super highways which help reach destinations much quicker but lead to accidents as well. Should we then not create highways?Policies always raise such trade-offs and hopefully, the regulator will take steps which minimise the negative aspect of creation of these markets.”
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    Amol Agarwal, in Moneycontrol, on securitization in real estate loans in India. Me, I think this is not such a great idea.

India: Links for 7th October, 2019

  1. This was a fascinating read. I was aware of the flu and its impact on India, but had no clue about the extent, the severity and the multiple what-might-have-beens. For example:
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    “y 1918, Gandhi was being seen in intellectual circles as a future leader of the nation, but he lacked grass-roots support. That spring, in his native state of Gujarat, he had organised two of his first satyagrahas, but these were followed by thousands of people, not hundreds of thousands. When the flu returned that autumn, he was struck down, as were other leading members of the independence movement who shared his ashram, notably Gangabehn Majmundar, the formidable spinning teacher, and Shankarlal Parikh, who had helped organise one of those early satyagrahas. Gandhi was too feverish to speak or read. He could not shake a sense of doom. “All interest in living had ceased,” he wrote later, in his autobiography.”
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  2. Professor Jayanth Varma is less than impressed with benchmarking for loans, and the rules associated with them:
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    “In the next few years, India needs to work on creating both a better banking system and better financial markets. One of the pre-requisites for this is that regulators should step back from excessive micro-management. For example, the RBI Master Directions require the interest rate under external benchmark to be reset at least once in three months while elementary finance theory tells us that if the floating rate benchmark is a 6-Months Treasury Bill yield, it should reset only once in six months. Either banks will refrain from using the six month benchmark (eroding liquidity in that benchmark) or they will end up with a highly exotic and hard to value floating rate loan resetting every three months to a six month rate. Neither is a good outcome.”
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  3. “The Socioeconomic High-resolution Rural-Urban Geographic Platform for India (SHRUG) is a geographic platform that facilitates data sharing between researchers working on India. It is an open access repository currently comprising dozens of datasets covering India’s 500,000 villages and 8000 towns using a set of a common geographic identifiers that span 25 years.”
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  4. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi, through “Make in India”, has the right idea when he says he wants to make India a global or regional manufacturing hub. But this cannot be accomplished by keeping an inefficient domestic industry shielded behind import barriers forever. Until something is done to change that, the industry will continue to lurch from crisis to crisis, and no lessons will have been learned.”
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    Rupa Subramanya and Vivek Dehejia in Livemint on what ails the automobile industry, and how to correct it.
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  5. Speaking of which
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    “For a car financed to the extent of Rs 6 lakhs and driven for 1500 km every month the effective cost of ownership/operations, with a driver is probably in the region of Rs 28 per kilometre. Shared mobility wins hands down against this arithmetic of ownership costs.”