Saturday, February 13, 2016

Book Review: Day’s End Stories (Anthology)

Life after sun set is quite different in small-towns from the metros and big towns. And for a diverse nation of India, each small-town has unique identity of its own. Those who lived in these towns but migrated to larger towns in later part of their lives tell their experiences those small towns offered them. This book is an anthology of ten essays by different authors. The small towns featured here are Patna, Gaya, Aligarh, Shillong, Mc Leod Ganj, Bikaner, Ahmedabad, Siliguri, Puducherry and Mananthavady. They cover the entire geography of India and each essay observes the vivid culture and social practices these small towns are made of. Some of them are light read and funny and few are dark and terrorizing.

I enjoyed the essay “Monsieur, Keen on Rajnikanth?” which is set in Pondicherry. It is written by a Bengali author who relocates to this small town and observes the cultural differences between Ashramiites and rest of the residents spending their nights in the bars and the growing differences between the economically high profile residents of Auroville and rest of the society. Another essay “Bihari Nights” set in Patna and the villages of Bihar was entertaining read too where-in author interviews childhood friends of Bollywood actor, Manoj Bajpai. In the essay “The bigness of small towns” author wonders about the prospects for a person choosing to be a full time writer. “Crossing Lines” is about the divide between two religions in the town of Ahmedabad. “Seeking the spirit of night” explores how the town of Shillong came into existence.

Authors of all these essays had lived some part of their life in the towns they wrote about but also elsewhere so they could clearly bring out the distinct qualities these small towns possess. Since these authors have literary inclinations too, these essays become long lasting as well. If you want to experience the night tours across the small towns of India sitting at the comfort of your home, get this book on your table.

Book Review: My Gita by Devdutt Pattnaik

The great epic Mahabharata has many versions to it. It has been told and retold throughout the history of mankind. Similarly, decoding Bhagavadgita too has been attempted by a numerous people. It was told by Krishna to Arjuna in the battlefield. Sanjay through his divine sight told what he saw to Dritharashtra. Since this is part of Mahabharata, Vyasa told this to all. Or Lord Ganesha put it in written format as he heard from Vyasa. This can go on but what is important is the message of the Gita. The circumstance was the highly skilled warrior Arjuna had got into a dilemma in the middle of the battlefield. Krishna succeeded in convincing him to pursue the war through his message which became a foundation stone for survival and revival of the Hindu religion since time unknown. From Adi Shankara to Swami Vivekananda have their own interpretations of the Gita. So is author of this book too, so he names this book “My Gita”. This is not a verse to verse translation or commentary like the majority of the books handle the subject but to explain the underlying themes to modern audience who do not have a deeper understanding of Hinduism and Vedanta or similar subject lines.

It has eighteen chapters to cover, each explaining a theme in a simple language with lots of charts, figures, decision tree, and flow diagrams etc. which help the reader to get the concept and logic right. I am giving the names of the first five chapters here which would help the reader to understand how it is arranged.

  • You and I do not have to judge
  • You and I have been here before
  • You and I experience life differently
  • You and I seek meaning
  • You and I have to face consequences

So goes the flow. There are enough examples (mostly taken from Mahabharata, Ramayana and Purana) to explain each theme in detail. For those who agree with the Gita, it can offer a great relief from mental trauma. Since we do not have to judge, and cannot control the outcome of our actions, we are neither the cause or the source of grief. We are responsible only for our actions but not the results. It also restricts from taking the wrong path too. Since it says we have to face the consequences of our actions in this life or next (though we may not remember of our previous life in the next birth), one needs to acquire good Karma through their actions to earn a better life. Until the soul is cleansed clean, birth-death cycle continues. It can be viewed either as a great philosophy or as a nice brain wash. I am not sure if this is a message of the God or creation of a human intellect, but I see great efforts in putting this together in explaining the whole life and things beyond it, in a logical way. Hindu’s believe this the rock bed of their religion and for right reasons. Earlier I was thinking it does not matter if you have read Gita or not but not anymore. Now I believe and suggest everyone to read Gita, irrespective of whether they are Hindu’s or Indians. This is meant for those seeking the meaning of the life. Gita would answer most (or all) of your questions and take away the burden of emotional stress, if you had any. You neither brought any thing to this world nor take it away. You can make cosmetic changes in this world but the spiritual aspects would never alter and is not affected by time. So the message of the Gita had remained same from time immemorial and would remain so forever, though interpretations may acquire different forms.

Devdutt Pattnaik is a popular author and a columnist. He demystifies mythology and brings forward the message hidden in them in an appreciable manner. I have been reading his columns for many years and reading this book of his did really help to improve my understanding of the Gita. Now I believe synthesis of two great epics – Ramayana and Mahabharata along with the Gita would open the doors to the spiritual world. They are the essence of all Veda and Upanishads but in the form of stories.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Drag of the Dragon

Do you know why iPhone sales did top out last quarter? Apple said look at China. Do you know why Jaguar and Land Rower sales have dropped affecting our Tata Motors, the owners of the brand? Look at China. Why copper and iron ore prices are low and who has stopped buying? China. Who would be responsible for steel dumping in India? Why global trade is shrinking? Where are the big bad loans in the world? This can go on.

China was a driver of global economic growth and now has become a drag. Its currency is off the hook. Capital flows are reversing. Their forex reserve has come down by almost a trillion USD. Growth is steadily dropping. Dragon is wounded and bleeding. Probably this should have happened a couple of years ago. But China’s central bank and the Govt. decided against it. They tweaked many policies for a soft landing. But it appears like they were not entirely successful as their economy seems to be touching the ground hard and crushing many before they can steer it from export driven economy into a consumption based economy.

If other regions of the globe were doing well, China would have turned this around smoothly. But US Fed wants to restore normalcy after providing easy money for years that has triggered the reversal of capital flow from emerging countries. Thanks to China’s huge forex reserves. It sold off around a quarter of it to pay for these reverse flows. But the investment void cannot be filled easily. China’s debt is already high. To keep its economic growth, it built roads to ghost towns. And money is not returning from those projects. They have potential to end up as bad loans which will make the economy suffer for long times to come.

In a highly connected world, China can impact the global trade hugely. It can hurt the sales of US phone maker which in turn can take the chip makers in Taiwan and South Korea down who will further impact the entire supply chain under them. When China was booming, it created mining barons all over the world. Bellary, a town in Karnataka came to prominence with the price it received for its iron ore from China and became home to many political king makers but soon lost its shine when the iron ore prices dropped with reducing demand in China. Be it technology or metal commodities, China was an important end market. As its appetite is lost, it is hurting global trade. India’s growth or US becoming a steady economy is not helping to offset the lost sales in China. So along with China, everyone else is revising down their growth numbers.

In 2015, oil producing countries were biggest losers with a sharp drop in crude oil price. But it benefited other economies by bringing the inflation down. When China loses, no one gains significantly. Probably some jobs will move back to US and China’s neighbors would tear away some of the growth towards them. But that does not take global GDP up. Global markets had a bad start in 2016 and the trend is likely to continue for some more time in this year.

If you think otherwise that there is no problem with the world economy, which country do you think will drive growth and why?

Monday, February 8, 2016

Lost half-decade for the world markets

Japan’s lost decade is a well known thing of the past and studied by many. But now it is time for the entire globe to witness the same. 2010-2015 seems to be lost five years for the financial markets. Be it Dow Jones or DAX, they are already at two at years low and breaking the long term supports which may open the gates to another 20-30% fall in this year that will take them to where they were in 2010. 

Copper is going back to 2008 levels and Crude is already below that. For crude it is already a lost decade. For others it is not yet, but if the slowdown continues for couple more years, 2009 to 2019 has the potential to become a lost decade for world’s equity and commodity markets.

Reforms of Modi or Obama, policies of Bernanke or Rajan would have helped their respective economies from getting worse but they do not seem to offer any resistance to the market forces which are at play now.

If you are an equity or mutual fund investor, your investments would be showing negative returns. Accept the reality, you knew stock market investments were risky. And playing for a V-shaped recovery may not be wise. Probably it is time to sit on the sidelines for indicators to turn around.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

King of bad loans and the ending domination of PSU Banks

If you follow the stock markets, you know that Bank Nifty (an index of 12 Bank stocks) is at two years low. It has lost 25% from its top. Markets do not go in one direction always. What is happening in global markets is affecting India too. But it does not mean there are no issues in Indian Banking system. It is plagued by bad loans. Thanks to the king of good times, he is the king of bad loans too. He is not alone; he is followed by many who are not as flamboyant but yet owe big money to banks. Steel, Power and Infrastructure companies have a bigger share in causing depression in the banking system. But again the bad loans are nothing new. They are bothering the banking system for couple of years. Banks were writing off these loans in small proportions taking hit in their profits. But Modi getting elected in 2014 with a big agenda of reforms had brought fresh wave of hope, so Bank Nifty too had seen a new high. But all that seems to be deflated now as we are getting back to reality on the ground. When the credit growth has taken a hit, bad loans still remain bad, how do you write-off bad loans without capital erosion? Forget profit making, capital is being lost, no wonder Bank Nifty is gong back to where it was two years ago.

If you look into the details, it is Public sector banks having higher bad loans, so when some of the capital is written-off, Govt. will have to inject capital (from tax payer’s money) for these banks to continue their normal business. But anyway their domination is lost to the booze. When they come out of hangover they see that they are left far behind in the race.

The irony is, irrespective of you consume alcohol or not, your money was paid for the mistakes of liquor baron and his alike. This is India, a land of contradictions. This is where Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda were born and so many bad souls too.