Arbitrage and Writing

Here are excerpts from two newsletters that you should consider signing up for if you are a student of economics:

In late June, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), India’s central bank and the banker to the banks, released the household financial debt figures based on select financial indicators. Household financial debt is basically loans that you and I have taken from the formal financial system of the banks (both commercial and cooperative) and the non-banking finance companies (NBFCs).
Of course, there are other ways to borrow as well. One can borrow against gold as a collateral from a local jeweller or simply borrow from a local money lender or borrow money from friends and family, which is why, the RBI calls it household financial debt based on select indicators.
It needs to be kept in mind here that borrowing from the informal sources is perhaps easier but at the same time more expensive, given that the risk for those lending money is higher.
So, what does the RBI data tell us? In absolute terms, the total household financial debt based on select indicators has gone up from Rs 55.38 lakh crore to Rs 73.13 lakh crore, between June 2018 and December 2020.

That is from Vivek Kaul’s (relatively) new newsletter, Easynomics. It is written in Vivek’s trademark style: easy to read, gloriously simple sentences (which is hard to do!), and sprinkled with just enough additional information to keep you engaged as you read through his main points. In short, really, really well done.

Here’s an excerpt from the second newsletter:

Despite this, it is unreasonable to expect that the government will reduce tax on these two fuels. Why? Sample this: excise duties on petrol and diesel accounted for a whopping 28 per cent of the central government’s tax revenue last year. Which government would let such a bounty slip by, especially when the country’s economic recovery is fragile? Think about it.
And, unlike income tax and goods and services tax, which entail a collection cost, oil marketing companies just have to do a simple RTGS transaction to pay the fuel tax they collect from us to the government! The government then uses the money for a range of welfare schemes.

You and I may have our own personal opinions about which of these are better to read, but that’s not the point of this blogpost. The point of this blogpost is to point out that both writers have created simple, easy to understand posts about aspects of the Indian economy that matter to the common Indian citizen.

And they have done this by taking data from government websites. This data, as I have discussed here before, is not always easy to acquire. But those of us who have done the hard work of understanding how it is captured, where it is stored, when it is released, and how to go about making it analyzable1, have an advantage over those of us who remain blissfully unaware of all this.

But those of us who are blissfully unaware wouldn’t mind reading about the implications of this data, only if somebody were to take the time and effort to acquire that data and write simple, useful takeaways about it.

In finance, this is called arbitrage:

In economics and finance, arbitrage is the practice of taking advantage of a price difference between two or more markets: striking a combination of matching deals that capitalize upon the imbalance, the profit being the difference between the market prices at which the unit is traded. When used by academics, an arbitrage is a transaction that involves no negative cash flow at any probabilistic or temporal state and a positive cash flow in at least one state; in simple terms, it is the possibility of a risk-free profit after transaction costs. For example, an arbitrage opportunity is present when there is the possibility to instantaneously buy something for a low price and sell it for a higher price. (Emphasis added)

If you are an economics student, and you know where all this data hides, and you know enough about how this data impacts the daily lives of citizens, and you want to get better at communication, there is riskless profit to be made. Get the data, analyze it, write about it, and give it away for free.

You learn the art and skill of of acquiring this data, you learn the art and skill of analyzing it, you learn the art and skill of writing about it (and you only get better over time, so don’t worry if the first few pieces aren’t “great”). You get to publish stuff that you can put on your CV – in fact, as I am fond of saying, it has the power to quite literally become your CV. Folks get to read what you’ve written, and they therefore understand our field and its implications in their lives a little bit better.

Nobody loses out, and we all win!

And when that great and glorious day arrives, and governments in India acknowledge that the way they make data available to its citizens is crappy, you have the ability to write a series of posts about exactly how the government could do a better job in this regard.

Learn how to work with data if you are a student of economics in India, and then write about it.

It’s a great form of arbitrage.

  1. what an utterly horrible word![]