Why the proposed Ola-TaxiForSure merger is bad news

While a merger intuitively makes economic sense, it’s not good for the customers. The industry is consolidating way too fast, and hopefully new challengers will arise soon

Today’s Economic Times reports that Ola Cabs is in the process of buying out competitor TaxiForSure. As a regular user of such services, I’m not happy, and I think this is a bad move. I must mention upfront, though, that I don’t use either of these two services much. I’ve never used TaxiForSure (mostly because I never find a cab using its service), and have used Ola sparingly (it’s my second choice after Uber, so use it only when Uber is not available).

Now, intuitively, consolidation in a platform industry is a good thing. This means that more customers and more drivers are on the same platform, and that implies that the possibility of finding a real-time match between a customer who wants a ride and a driver who wants to offer one is enhanced. The two-sided network effects that are inherent in markets like this imply super-linear returns to scale, and so such models work only at scale. This is perhaps the reason as to why this sector has drawn such massive investments.

While it is true that consolidation will mean lower matching cost for both customers and drivers, my view on this is that it’s happening too soon. The on-demand taxi market in India is still very young (it effectively took off less than a year back when Uber made its entry here. Prior to that, TaxiForSure was not “on demand” and Ola was too niche), and is still going through the process of experimentation that a young industry should.

For starters, the licensing norms for this industry are not clear (and it is unlikely they will be for a long time, considering how disruptive this industry is). Secondly, pricing models are still fluid and firms are experimenting significantly with them. As a corollary to that, driver incentive schemes (especially to prevent them from “multihoming”) are also  rather fluid. The process of finding a match (the process a customer and a driver have to go through in order to “match” with each other), is also being experimented with, though the deal indicates that the verdict on this is clear. Essentially there are too many things in the industry that are still fluid.

The problem with consolidation at a time when paradigms and procedures are still fluid is that current paradigms (which may not be optimal) will get “frozen”, and customers (and drivers) will have to live with the inefficiencies and suboptimalities that are part of the current paradigms. It looks as if after this consolidation the industry will settle into a comfortable duopoly, and comfortable duopolies are never great for innovation and for finding more optimal solutions.

Apart from the network effects, the reasons for the merger are clear, though – in the mad funding cycle unleashed by investors into this industry, TaxiForSure was a clear loser and was finding itself unable to compete against the larger better-funded rivals. Thus, it was a rational decision for the company to get acquired at this point in time. From Ola’s point of view, too, it is rational to do the deal, for it would give them substantial inorganic growth and undisputed number one position in the industry. For customers and drivers, though, now faced with lower choice, it is not a great deal.

This consolidation doesn’t mean the end, though. The strength of a robust industry is one where weak firms go out of business and new firms spring up in their place in their attempt to make a profit. That three has become two doesn’t mean that it should remain at two. There is room in the short term for a number three and even possibly a number four, as the Indian taxi aggregation industry tries to find its most efficient level.

I would posit that the most likely candidates to emerge as new challengers are companies such as Meru or EasyCabs, which are already in the cab provider business but only need to tweak their model to include an on-demand component. A wholly new venture to take up the place that is being vacated by TaxiForSure, however, cannot be ruled out. The only problem is that most major venture capitalists are in on either Uber or Ola, so it’s going to be a challenge for the new challenger to raise finances.

\begin{shameless plug}
I’m game for such a venture, and come on board to provide services in pricing, revenue management, availability management and driver incentive optimisation. :)
\end{shameless plug}


Aggregate quality of life

I was going through some discussions on the “Bangalore – Photos from a Bygone Era” (membership required to view) group on Facebook. From some of the discussions, it is evident that people are nostalgic about the quality of life in Bangalore in “those bygone days” compared to now (irrespective of your definition of bygone).

For example, someone was marvelling about how empty the HAL airport used to be in those days, until it became intolerably crowded in the late 1990s necessitating the construction of the new airport in Devanahalli. Someone else, perhaps in the same thread, wondered about how one could make a dash from HAL airport to Commercial street and back in 30 minutes “back in those days”. Outside of the group, I remember Vijay Mallya mention in an interview a couple of years back about how when he was young he could drive from his home in the middle of town to HAL airport in 15 minutes, and it’s not possible any more.

Reading such reports, you start thinking that life back in those days was truly superior to life today.

While narratives like the above might indeed make you believe that life in a “bygone era” was significantly superior, what that doesn’t take into account is that life was possibly superior for only certain people back then – airports were empty because tickets were prohibitively expensive and the monopolist Indian Airlines ran few flights out of Bangalore. Traffic was smooth because there were few cars, so if you were lucky to have one you could zip around the city. However, if you were not as lucky, and one of the many who didn’t have access to a personal vehicle, things could be really bad for you, for you had to either walk, or wait endlessly for a perpetually crowded bus!

One of the ostensible purposes of the socialist model followed by India in the early decades after independence was to limit inequality. Yet, the shortages that the system led to led to widening inequality rather than suppressing it. By conventional metrics of inequality – such as the Gini coefficient, it might be that wealth/income inequality in India today is significantly higher than in the decades immediately after independence.

However, if you were to take into account consumption and access to living a certain way, inequality today is far lower than it was in those socialist years. In the 1970s you could get an asset only if you knew someone that mattered (my father waited four years (1976-80) before he was “allotted” his scooter. His first telephone connection took six years (1989-95) to arrive), and this only served to exacerbate the inequality between those that had access to the “system” and those that didn’t. Today on the other hand you are able to purchase any asset on demand as long as you can afford it! And so a lot more people can afford a “reasonable” quality of life that was beyond them (or their ancestors) back in those days!

What we need is a redefinition of the concept of inequality from a strictly monetary one to one based on consumption and access to certain goods and services. While wealth inequality is indeed a problem (because of lower marginal utility of money the super-rich don’t spend as much as the less rich), what matters more is inequality in terms of quality of life. And this is something standard measures such as the Gini coefficient cannot measure.

I tried getting some students work on a “quality of life index” to show the improvements in quality of life (as explained above) since the “bygone era”. Perhaps I didn’t communicate it well enough, but they just stuck to standard definitions like per capita income, education, life expectancy, etc. What I want to build is an index that captures and tracks “true inequality”.

More on the Swiss Franc move

The always excellent Matt Levine has reported in Bloomberg (with respect to the recent removal of the cap on the price of the Swiss Franc) that:

Goldman Sachs Chief Financial Officer Harvey Schwartz said on this morning’s earnings call that this was something like a 20-standard-deviation event

While mathematically this might be true, the question is if it makes sense at all. Since it is mathematically easy to model, traders look at volatility of an instrument in terms of its standard deviation. However, standard deviation is a good descriptor of a distribution only if the distribution looks something like a normal distribution. For all other distributions, it is essentially meaningless.

The more important point here is that the movement of the Swiss Franc (CHF) against the Euro had been artificially suppressed in the last three odd years. So from that perspective, whatever Standard Deviation would have been used in order to make the calculation was artificially low and essentially meaningless.

Instead, the way banks ought to have modelled it was in terms of modelling where EUR/CHF would end up in case the cap on the CHF was actually lifted (looking at capital and current flows between Switzerland and the Euro Area, this wouldn’t be hard to model), and then model the probability with which the Swiss National Bank would lift the cap on the Franc, and use the combination of the two to assess the risk in the CHF position. This way the embedded risk of the cap lifting, which was borne out on Thursday, could have been monitored and controlled, and possibly hedged.

There are a couple of other interesting stories connected to the lifting of the cap on the value of the CHF. The first has to do with Alpari, a UK-based FX trading house. The firm has had to declare insolvency following losses from Thursday. And as the company was going insolvent, they put out some interesting quotes. As the Guardian reports:

In the immediate aftermath of Thursday’s move by the Swiss central bank, analysts at Alpari had described the decision as “idiotic” and by Friday the firm had announced it was insolvent. “The recent move on the Swiss franc caused by the Swiss National Bank’s unexpected policy reversal of capping the Swiss franc against the euro has resulted in exceptional volatility and extreme lack of liquidity,” said Alpari.

The second story has to do with homeowners in Hungary and Poland who borrowed their home loans in Swiss Franc, and are now faced with significantly higher payments. I have little sympathy for these homeowners and less sympathy for the bankers who sold them the loans denominated in a foreign currency. I mean, who borrows in a foreign currency to buy a house? I don’t even …

There is a story related to that which is interesting, though. Though Hungary is more exposed to these loans than Poland, it is the Polish banks which are likely to suffer more from the appreciation in the CHF. The irony is that the Hungarian market was initially much more loosely regulated compared to the Polish market, where only wealthier people were allowed to borrow in CHF. But in Hungary, the regulator took more liberties in terms of forcing banks to take the hit on the exchange rate movement, and the loans were swapped back into the local currency a while back.

In related reading, check out this post by my Takshashila colleague Anantha Nageswaran on the crisis. I agree with most of it.


Irreversible policies

Some policies are so badly designed that they become irreversible. Take, for example, the “5/20″ rules for airlines in India. For an airline registered in India to fly abroad, it needs to have been in operation for 5 years and have at least 20 aircraft. The rule is silly, and the government wants to change it. But established players say that changing the rule will be unfair to them, for they have sunk costs in order to comply with the rule and want newer competitors to go through the same.

Now, given that the airline industry is dynamic in terms of firms going in and out of business, there will always be new firms and old firms in the market. And given that the rule is fundamentally senseless, there will be proposals to change it at many points in time. Now, notice that the arguments that today’s established players are making can be made at all those points in time! In other words, if you were to postpone changing the rule because older airlines are going  to be unhappy, you are giving reason to postpone the rule change indefinitely!

When you design a policy, you should keep in mind that there is a chance that changed market environments might render it useless/absurd (as for the 5/20 rule, it was absurd from inception!). Hence, you need to consider how easy the rule is going to be to dismantle when it goes past its use-by date. If such a “poison pill clause” doesn’t exist in the rule, then it will be very difficult to undo and the absurdity will propagate into perpetuity, causing much more damage than necessary!

Then again, if the rule has been framed due to the influence of bootleggers (the 5/20 rule definitely has indications of that, and it is hard to identify any “baptists” who could have backed the rule), then the bootleggers are likely to prevent any such “poison pill clause” from being put in. Such are life.

Op-Ed in Mint on Environmentalism, Baptists and Bootleggers

After a very long time (~7 months) I’ve written an Op-Ed in Mint. It got published in the physical paper this morning. I’ve used the “Baptists and Bootleggers” framework propounded by economist Bruce Yandle in 1983 to analyse the hijacking of the green cause in India. An excerpt:

In the context of Indian environmental regulation, bootleggers refers to the vast coalition that seeks to profit from curbing industrial growth and development. This includes but is not limited to industries seeking to stifle competition (by preventing competitors’ plants from being built), political parties that rely on people’s poverty and backwardness in order to come to power, and local politicians with vested interests.

The baptists are environmentalists, conservationists and people who are truly interested in the green cause and ensuring sustainable development. Their motivations are straightforward, in that they do not want any developments that could cause lasting damage to natural resources, and they believe that strong environmental regulations are necessary to guard natural resources and ensure sustainable development.

While I was writing the piece I found that Yandle himself has written about the application of the framework to climate change, Kyoto Protocol, etc. This paper (possibly paywall, I only read the abstract) and this one (I’ve read it, and it’s good) are some suggested readings if you want to know more of the concept.

The effect of fall in petroleum prices

As I was driving away after having filled petrol in my car, I was wondering about the steep drop in petrol prices. Not so long ago, you would get only about 12 litres for Rs. 1000 in Bangalore. Today I paid the same amount and got close to 15 litres – almost a fourth more than what I used to get not so long ago!

I started thinking of the economic impact of the fall in petroleum prices. The obvious effect is the direct effect in that products for which petroleum is an input (this includes pretty much any good that is transported) see a fall in prices to the extent of the contribution of petroleum to their final prices. That, however, is only a small part of the impact on the economy.

The more important impact on the economy from the fall in petroleum prices is that it results in a drop in transaction costs (costs borne by buyer of a good/service which don’t accrue to the seller)! This is because transporting anything now has become a lot cheaper (by about 20%, which is significant), so goods and services that were not being traded earlier because of the transportation cost being prohibitive have a good chance of being traded now!

This graph shows the impact of transaction costs (tax is a special case) on the clearing price and quantity. Notice that a fall in transaction cost (mentioned as “tax” in the figure) leads to both increase in traded quantity as well as lower prices

The fall in transaction costs means that economic activity will increase, and given that the fall in transaction costs in this case is rather sharp (20% is no joke), the corresponding increase in economic activity should be significant! My personal take is that analysts are grossly underestimating the impact of falling petroleum prices on GDP growth in India.

Coffee pricing at Bangalore airport

I had what I thought was a neat theory on coffee pricing at the Bangalore International Airport. However, on second thoughts, I think the theory is bunk. On third thoughts, however, I think I should publish it, even though I don’t believe it is true. So here goes.

There are two places where you get great filter coffee outside the terminal of the Kempegowda International Airport near Bangalore. At the Western edge, close to the departure gates, there is Maiya’s, which also sells South Indian snacks and food items apart from pre-mixed filter coffee (without sugar). The coffee here is priced at Rs. 30 per cup. At the Eastern edge, close to the arrival gates, there is an outlet of Hatti Kaapi. Now, this outlet has started selling snacks, too, and now sells coffee in cups and pots of various sizes. However, the “basic” filter coffee, which is mixed fresh on the spot (you can choose the level of sweetness, and strength) and is available in a paper cup the same size of that at Maiya’s, is priced at Rs. 15.

The argument I had in mind for this differential pricing was that the clientele of Maiya’s, it being at the departure gate, is mostly passengers on their way to board flights. Given that they can afford to fly, they can afford to pay a premium for good coffee. Hence it is good economics to charge a high price for the coffee. Also, given that departing passengers are usually short on time, it is unlikely that they will pay the additional time cost of walking down to the Hatti Kaapi outlet in order to save the Rs. 15 per cup monetary cost of coffee there.

At the other end, Hatti Kaapi is at the arrival gate, and its major clientele consists of drivers. Given the distance of the airport from Bangalore city, it has become almost unheard of for relatives and friends to go all the way to the airport to pick up people. So people waiting at the arrival gate are mostly drivers. And given that drivers are not particularly rich (not rich on an average as airline travellers at least), they are much more price-sensitive when it comes to their coffee. And so the coffee at this end of the airport is priced at a much more reasonable Rs. 15 per cup. This makes for a nice economic theory, right?

The theory falls apart, however, if you compare the prices at Maiya and Hatti kaapi outlets at the airport to their prices elsewhere in the city. A good parallel is in Jayanagar, where the same two establishments have outlets across the road from each other (intersection of 7th Main and 30th Cross).

The kind of service in the two establishments is similar. You stand in line, take a token and stand in line again to get your cup of coffee. Hatti serves its coffee in a paper cup while Maiya serves in a ceramic cup-and-saucer. Like at the airport, Hatti’s kaapi is mixed on the spot and you can set your sugar level. Unlike at the airport, Maiya also mixes coffee fresh on the spot, but like at the airport no sugar is added and you need to add it yourself. It must be mentioned here that the Maiya in question has been there for several years while the Hatti outlet across the road started only a few months back.

And how do Maiya and Hatti price their coffee in Jayanagar? Maiya is at Rs. 18 per cup, and Hatti at Rs. 10 per cup. So the ratio of prices of a cup of coffee between Maiya and Hatti at the airport (2:1) is not very different from the ratio of prices of a cup of coffee between Maiya and Hatti in the city (1.8:1). So the theory I mentioned above falls flat on its head.

Where the theory stands, perhaps, is in explaining why Maiya and Hatti are located at the airport at the ends where they are located – Maiya being a more premium brand in general captures the passenger crowd at the departure gate, while Hatti being a more price-sensitive brand captures the driver crowd at the arrival gate.

And regarding the coffee itself I’ve had coffee at all four outlets and can confirm that both in the city and the airport, the quality of Maiya’s coffee is much superior to Hatti’s. In fact in Jayanagar, where the two outlets are a 5-minute walk from where I live, I prefer to pay the price and time (the lines at Maiya are generally longer than at Hatti) premium to drink coffee at Maiya rather than to drink the more “reasonably priced” stuff at Hatti.