Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Opinion: The New Silk Route to World Bank of China

Old route or a grand plan?

The New Silk Route is not just another road or route for trade with China. And the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is not another cooperative global bank. They both are set to accomplish much more than business. Both are promoted by China to make it economic superpower and their currency a reserve currency, an alternate to Dollar and Euro. Here is how.

Interest free loans

The US dollar as a reserve currency, dominates international transactions now (even when US is not involved in transactions). For example, when India buys Gold from Switzerland or Gulf buys clothing from Asian countries, they are likely to carry out the transactions in dollars. Companies in both countries must possess dollars to carry out the trade, which leads to greater demand for the dollars. So the Central Banks around the world hold majority of their foreign exchange reserves in dollars. That is like interest free loan to US Govt. which gets capital at no cost to spend on the welfare of its own country. Who would not want interest free loan? China is on its way now.

Higher reserves for a weaker currency

For many years, China had pegged its currency to dollar. That helped China to mop up trillions of dollars reserves and print its currency to fund domestic growth. Once you have enough money, you do not wish to be a daily wage labor; instead you want money to work for you. As the wages in China went up, its advantages of low cost manufacturing hub started losing out, and China is planning to avoid dependency on exports for its economic growth by devaluing its currency. It has to find ways to slowly disengage itself from US and dollar reserves. But that will hurt growth and converting dollar into yuan may cause inflation.

Grand plan

What if those forex reserves are used to fund someone else, let us consider, you help neighboring countries to build roads to China and finance it? Nice, you found a way to lend your money and also upgrade your infrastructure at the borders. Those roads help boost bilateral trade, avoiding the use of dollar as China will insist it that way. That means China can reduce its dollar reserves and convert it into its own currency and lend it through Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank for building the silk route. As many partners begin to accept Yuan/RMB for trade, it becomes a reserve currency for Asia and some parts of Europe. China can go on printing which will end up as reserves in many countries replacing dollar at least partially. That lets China do what US does now, make others fund your growth.


Everyone has a plan 'till they get punched in the mouth, so said Mike Tyson. Resisting China’s moves, the US and Japan have refused to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. That means Russia is in. India happily joined the Bank as it is set to get second biggest share there. One needs to see how China’s ambitions will take shape when its neighbors want to see the end of dollars dominance but are also wary of China’s arrogance and intriguing strategies.

Times ahead

‘The New Silk Route’ will not be built in a hurry and dollar’s dominance would continue for some more time. But most of the world’s growth is coming from Asian countries and they are free to choose the currency they want to use. The new Bank would come in handy to limit the use of dollars over a period of time. If and when that happens (I guess it is at least a decade away), dollar would not command the same value, wages in Asian countries would rise quickly from here, and the gap in GDP valuation (at current prices) would narrow between US, China and India.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Temple Dancer by John Speed

This is one more book I thoroughly enjoyed. It is set in 17th century of India. Two women protagonists take the Centre stage and crossover their paths toward their destinies. Dasanas is a Portuguese trader family based in Goa, are interested in reviving their trade relations with the Sultans of Bijapur. To make it happen they have something to offer in return to grand vizier of Bijapur, Maya a fine dancer. Portuguese has family bought Maya paying a hefty price and have to send her off to Bijapur. The caravan to carry her is joined by Lucinda, heiress to Dasanas family and Geraldo, a cousin of Lucinda who has arrived in India. The travel is led by settlement man Da Gama, and Pathan to ensure safety of the caravan. Slipper, a eunuch is also part of the caravan, but he is more than company to women in the journey. He is after something (jewelry and a robe cladded with precious stones) which is his but in possession of Maya.

 Journey begins from Goa via the Western Ghats. They are attacked by bandits, many of the guards get killed, Pathan saves Lucinda from the verge of getting killed from bandits and Maya is saved by Da Gama. Their relationships are strengthened after the incident. They take rest at Chitra’s house in Belgaum. Maya is attracted to Geraldo, and would like to forge a relationship with him but Geraldo has higher ambitions. When Da Gama reaches Bijapur he meets up with Victorio, representative of Dasanas family in Bijapur. Victorio finds that there is one more suitor for Maya, Whisper, head of eunuchs, willing to a pay seven lakh Huns for the nautch girl. Eunuchs are willing to pay a fortune for Maya since the stones she has in possession are worth more than the price they are paying her. That secret is known to only Maya and the Eunuchs. But Maya passes it to Da Gama for safe custody. Da Gama takes the stone to a jeweler shop and gets a look alike, fake stone made for him. He keeps the original stone with him and gives the fake to Maya.

Victorio plays cards with both Wali Khan, chief minister of Bijapur and Whisper offering Maya to both parties. And he has a plan to get married to Lucinda, who is the heiress to Portuguese clan. When the caravan begins journey out of Belgaum towards Bijapur, Victorio gets killed by Geraldo and Lucinda is accused for this. If Lucinda is punished to death, Geraldo would become sole survivor in the Portuguese family, and can become rich in less time and no efforts. He is supported by Slipper, the eunuch who has set eyes on the stones is possession of Maya and he does not want Maya to go Wali Khan at any cost. Both Geraldo and Slipper become a team and begins their journey to Sultana (wife of Bijapur Sultan, who is ruling until her young son Adil grows up to be a king). The travel path has routes through Gokak falls, a tiny passage, which can be passed by one man at a time. Making use of this opportunity, Pathan saves Lucinda again by kidnapping her. Later they both get married.

Rest of the caravan, Maya, Da Gama, Geroldo and Slipper reach the courts of Sultana. Both Wali Khan and Whisper claim ownership of Maya. Sultana decides Maya should belong to Wali Khan. Later in the day at the edge of the river, Slipper tries to snatch the stones from Maya. Since the bridge they were standing on collapses, Slipper falls into the river along with the precious stone. But it was a fake stone he took it away. Everyone who were aware of the stone, think it got lost in the river.
Da Gama returns the original stone to Maya. But Maya gets again sold to Mughals by Wali Khan. When she is set leave Bijapur, she hosts a dinner party to Geraldo. Before Geraldo departs, Maya shows off the stone in her possession for which many fought and lost their lives. Once she wanted to belong to Geraldo but was rejected. Geraldo with all his plots and evil schemes thought he had become rich but now he gets to know the fortune he let it go.

Subject, strategy and language are surprisingly superb for an author who has produced his first novel. John Speed, author, began studying history of India while in his school. While working on his novel, Tiger Claws, the characters of this novel haunted him, so ‘The Temple Dancer’ came first setting the stage for his next novel.

For anyone interested in historical fiction, this novel is surely an enjoyable read.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Michael Lewis: Flash Boys, The Money Culture and The Pacific Rift

If you are/were an online trader in equity markets or know about it, then you would appreciate reading ‘Flash Boys’ which decodes High Frequency Trading for the common investors and traders. Few big firms made use of High Frequency and algorithm based trading to take advantage of the information available on the order books of the stock markets and make favorable moves to pocket quick money. It looks unethical to bend the whole system to get to know the information few micro seconds earlier than the broader market and to have customized ordering systems for them to make this kind of trading work but that is how the Wall Street works.

There are few who made killing in the market by mastering the subject or by manipulating the system. And those people are the subjects of interest for Michael Lewis. ‘The Money Culture’ is a collection of essays which show the changing perceptions of investment bankers towards money and other stories from the Wall Street. The last few chapters of this book and the whole book of ‘The Pacific Rift’ are about the trading and investment relations between Japan and USA. Do you know why Japanese products are cheaper outside Japan than in their homeland? Why Japanese pay more than market value for properties in the US? And how is Japan able to manage trade surplus for so long? Why US based or any other foreign firms are not able to make into Japan’s domestic market in a big way? Are they not trying hard enough or is it the system in Japan makes it impenetrable? How a big earthquake in Tokyo can cause a severe damage in US financial markets while Japan comes out of it quickly? Author finds out answers for these through his research, travels and interviews with those high stake holders and the connecting links.

Michael Lewis was an investment banker employed with Solomon Brothers during 1980s but gave up that job to become a full time writer. Now he is a columnist for Bloomberg News and a contributing writer to Vanity Fair. He is one of my favorite authors and I intend to read all of his works. I have read six of his books and others too would be a matter of time.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Opinion: Rani Padmini and Indira Gandhi were India’s daughters too. BBC, don’t you see this?

With the backstage of BB documentary in news, I was looking into history to see if the situations were similar.

Flash back to 13th century into the life of Rani Padmini, the queen of Chittor. Her legendary beauty brought her misfortunes. When Alauddin Khilji destroyed her kingdom with only intention of calming down his lust, what he could get was ashes and burnt bones as the queen walked into jauhar (divine suicide by walking into fire). Suicide and getting killed are different means to same end. But it was not just one life. The whole kingdom was perished before they let their queen die. Please note woman was not just an object of desire but was a symbol of pride too. [A similar incident of one woman’s beauty sparking a battle happened in 14th century in south India. See 'The Goldsmith’s Daughter'. Link: http://cristoraul.com/ENGLISH/readinghall/UniversalHistory/INDIA/Cambridge/III/15/6-Goldsmiths-Daughter.html]

But for those who think all of Indian women are underprivileged, I would like to remind of Indira Gandhi. When she was born, her grandfather Motilal Nehru had said ‘she will be better than a hundred sons’. She could outsmart that expectation. Did you say, she was not a common person but was daughter of a Prime Minister? Then, what do you say about Didi (Mamata Bannerjee), Amma (Jayalalitha) and Behen ji (Mayawati)? If you want to look beyond politics, how about Kiran Bedi? Come to the world of business, you cannot afford to miss Chanda Kochhar or Kiran Majumdar Shaw. Many Bollywood beauties have busier schedules than their male counterparts. How could they find success in male dominated society? They were/are all India’s daughters too. Go to the poorest village and visit a family at random. You will most likely see a woman running that family and earning at par with her husband but contributing more to family than her husband. Ask her children, you will know who is a reliable parent. It is the individual's ability and not the gender which decided things for them. Check with an old father who does hand holding for him, his son or daughter? You would not need further evidence from here. When they could command respect, why say India’s daughters are underprivileged?

If you still think India's daughter is at disadvantage, one need to understand that perhaps it is not just limited to India or this time. It is a gradually disappearing social ill.

BBC, why don’t you see this? 

Opinion: Higher forex reserves and weaker currency, India is going China way

Foreign cash flows into India are over Rs.1,000 crores a day. In the last 2 months, more than $16B foreign funds have hit Indian markets. (Link: http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/markets/stocks/news/over-rs-1000-crore-a-day-foreign-inflows-cross-11-billion-mark-in-2-months/articleshow/46491347.cms)
Such an inflow would have caused Indian currency to gain but it hardly saw any improvement because most of those foreign funds ended up as reserves at RBI. Indian central bank’s intentions are clear; it does not want a stronger Rupee. But how does it finance those dollar buys? Simple, it has printing machines at command. Look at below charts. You will see that both forex reserves and M3 money supply have hit  all-time high.

India's Forex Reserves and M3 Money Supply (Source: http://www.tradingeconomics.com/)
That’s what China did too. Its central bank bought all those dollars coming in as trade surplus to increase its reserves, at the same time it expanded its balance sheet. It printed domestic currency to pay for those dollars. Now its forex reserves are at $3 trillion – plus. So it could keep its currency valuation low and use the newly printed money for its infrastructure investments. Unlike China, India does not have trade surplus (we have deficit) but there is an investment interest which is bringing in dollars into India. All those dollars are now sucked by RBI and it is turning them into Indian Rupees. This would mean stable currency for India as RBI has built a war chest and making it further strong.

Will it cause inflation?

It is not the balance sheet expansion or the new money hitting markets causes inflation but how this new money is being used creates inflation. Let us say money supply is increased in the same proportion our economy is expanding, or it is used to fund good investments, it would not lose value through inflation. But let us assume, new money is used for wasteful expenditure and for projects with negative return (our Govt. has many of them including Air India, subsidy payments, welfare schemes), or to fund trade deficit, then it acts as an indirect tax in the form of inflation.

India's Fiscal Deficit and Balance of Trade (Source: http://www.tradingeconomics.com/)
Inflation in India (Source: http://www.tradingeconomics.com/)
Inflation is always proportional to money wasted and the deficits funded. It sounds like an awful hypothesis. But take a look at charts. In 2009 and 2010, it was fiscal deficit, which led to run-away inflation. And the trade deficits in 2011 & 2012 helped it remain high. But in 2014, thanks to prudent spending and lower commodity prices, both fiscal deficit and trade deficit were low, so was the inflation.

For 2015-16, Govt. in its recent budget aimed to limit it fiscal deficit numbers, and RBI is able to maintain Rupee in a range, so inflation also is expected to remain in a lower range. Expansion of balance sheet by RBI would do no harm unless it ends up as wasteful expenditure. With fiscal prudence in place, money is more likely flow to deserved projects. And the increasing liquidity will put pressure on interest rates. Though RBI sets policy rates, only way it can influence call market rates to match with policy rates is by managing liquidity. Whenever it reduces rates, it has to pump-in more cash into system and the forex inflows are a good reason for it to print more money.

What-if things go wrong?

Let us say some of these foreign funds will want to leave India when US raises its interest rates that would put pressure on Rupee. RBI will be able to curb that volatility by selling its forex reserves. And for the resulting contraction in liquidity in Rupee terms, it can reduce SLR or CRR, which would increase money supply in the banking system balancing out the liquidity situation again.

What-if things get better from here?

We will see continuation in the trend of RBI increasing its forex reserves and proportionately printing new money in Rupees. That increases liquidity and pushes down interest rates. Lower finance costs will help businesses do better and trigger consumption resulting in quick expansion of the economy. We will see GDP numbers which will be lot better than many are anticipating now.

So time to say good days are here for India? I believe so.

How do I profit from it? From 1-2 years perspectives, by playing the spread in INR-USD. For those looking for long term gains, owning the house you live in (if you do not own it yet) or buying commercial land (at affordable prices) would help. Not from the perspective of holding and selling it but in terms of valuation and the future returns from it.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Book review: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Tsukuru Tazaki is one of the five friends group - three boys and two girls in their school days. After their school, only Tsukuru leaves the comfort of hometown to head to Tokyo for further studies. He is passionate about building railway stations that becomes his subject of study and the profession too. Whenever he is back in hometown Nagoya, he regularly meets his friends. During one of such visits, all of his friends refuse to meet Tsukuru or talk to him. He finds it strange and after repeated attempts, he learns that his friends have abandoned him, cut him-off from their group without an explanation. It pains Tsukuru a lot; he goes into depression for five months. From the verge of suicide, he recovers and learns to get on with his life. After that incident he finds it difficult to make friends and it takes two decades for him to find a promising girlfriend in Sara Kimoto. After they get to know each other better, Sara notices the emptiness in Tsukuru and feels that it has roots in what has happened to Tsukuru in his school days. She helps to track those friends and advises Tsukuru to meet them to fill up the void and eliminate the emotional baggage he is carrying for years.

Tsukuru goes on to meet his two boyfriends first, hears their version of stories and reasoning. One of the girl friends is already dead and she was the prime reason behind the friends maintaining distance with Tsukuru. But another girl friend is living in Finland far away from Japan. Tsukuru goes to Finland to meet up with her friend and many of the facts which were unknown to him open up and things start falling up in place. His friend suggests Tsukuru to hang on to Sara. Once he is back in Tokyo, Tsukuru proposes to Sara and waits for her response.

This has all the ingredients of Murakami’s novels. Loneliness, depression, death, wild dreams, music, liquor and sex. Using all of that into a good recipe, Murakami transports the readers into the story he tells. But he makes few observations which are not usually part of novels, such as science of building railway stations, skills needed to sell the cars, and the effort needed to be competitive in corporate world which he explains through the characters of this novel.

A million copies of this book were sold in the first week of its release. That shows Murakami’s acceptance and commercial success as an author.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Mini-tale: A page from the diary of a soul

I am not the soul of a human being but that of a small bookshop. Though I cannot speak, I can yet see and listen to all those humans who walk into my store. I do become aware of their emotions too. That student, who walked in worried, was worried about passing in his exams; so he was in search of a ‘Guide’ as text books did not help him get through. That middle aged person who spent hours in comics section, was assessing what kind of comic is good for his daughter. In the fiction lane, there were few exploring the new arrivals but they all ended up asking for help to find where their favorite author’s books are stored. There were many college going boys and girls visiting the bookstore but they rarely bought anything. They shared jokes and laughed as they do in canteen and moved on. Encyclopedia section did not attract any buyers at all and they say thanks to Wikipedia and Google!

Owner of the store is served with a notice to vacate this building along with its co-occupants, as it is set to be demolished to widen the road and ease the traffic. He does not seem to be worried as this business is no more profitable and he is checking what else he can do to earn a living. When he got this notice, he understood it is time to move on. If he is not moving this store to somewhere else, what I, the soul of this bookshop, should do? I do not wish to go to warehouses of Amazon as they are not lively. I always enjoyed seeing people from all walks of life visiting this small store. Yes, I am not a human soul and do not have emotions but it is so boring to occupy a warehouse where humans rarely walk. And I am not that daring to drive on the bikes like Flipkart delivery boys do to visit the customers at their homes.

Image source: The Guardian
My future looks bleak now. During good old times, those who wanted to shape their destinies, walked into bookshop to see if they can get help and they would not be rejected. I heard they now depend on Internet. Times change, so the ways. I shaped destinies but I don’t have one now. I remained relevant and important for a century. I would rather be happy with the memories of it. Human world evolves, as always. I was part of it before but now our ways are going separate. I do not feel sad as I do not have emotions (I have said  it already). While those human beings who spent time with me (without recognizing me) would still remember the ambiance of a small bookshop, but the new generations will fail to notice the fading away spirit of it as all the info is available at fingertips on their smartphone.

Every soul will rest in peace when its time comes. I am waiting for mine.