Category Archives: economics

Bakeries

One thing that I’ve fallen in love with in my last one week in Europe is the concept of the breakfast bakery. Every few hundred metres both in Barcelona and Amsterdam you have bakeries. These bakeries offer a large variety of bread products that are to be consumed as breakfast. Apart from this, the bakeries also offer coffee and tea so that one can have a complete breakfast in some of them.

And I say “breakfast” only figuratively – I’ve had lunch on three days of my trip so far in such bakeries – again it’s with bakery products such as pizza slices or sandwiches, followed by coffee (which I must say hasn’t been bad for most of the trip). If I’ve to move to Europe, the presence of such bakeries would be one very strong reason to do so!

I was wondering why we don’t have such bakeries in India. The problem is one of liquidity – a very small portion of India’s population wants to have croissants and doughnuts for breakfast – most people in Bangalore, for example, prefer idli-vada and dosa instead. And so you still have the “fast food” places in Bangalore (lots of them) that offer such foods and coffee. And you have plenty of them – all of which are very reasonably priced and offer excellent quality!

As I try to write more and more about economic concepts, I get further drawn to this whole concept of liquidity. And each time I write about it I claim that it’s an underappreciated concept in economics outside of financial economics!

Perhaps I should make a better effort in changing that!

Raghuram Rajan replies to my Pragati article

At least I like to believe that! A couple of weeks back I’d published this article in Pragati (published by the Takshashila Institution, where I work part time as Resident Quant) slamming recent decisions by the Reserve Bank of India to make two factor authentication compulsory and to limit the number of free ATM withdrawals from non-home banks.

My criticism for both these decisions was that they were designed to take money out of the banking system, which would result in a reduction of money supply, and subsequent increase in borrowing costs, thus slowing down India’s economic recovery. I had some other criticisms, too, such as it being none of the RBI’s business to mandate what was essentially a pricing decision between the RBI and the customer, and the perverse incentives the rule created for banks seeking to set up new ATMs.

Could it be that the above regulations are a move by the RBI to curtail money supply without necessarily doing the politically tricky task of raising interest rates?

If it is (and it is a very remote possibility), we should commend the RBI for what will then amount to be a sneaky decision. If not, it must be mentioned that though noble in thought, the two decisions are completely bereft of economic and financial reasoning.

I had written.

So an article published an hour back in Mint quotes Rajan on these two policies, where he defends them. On the two factor authentication issue, he is surprisingly defensive, offering nothing more than a statement that banks and companies need to follow the rules and not try to circumvent them in the name of innovation. Rajan then added that he is looking into permitting transactions up to  a certain limit that don’t need two factor authentication – something I had pointed out in my Pragati piece.

On the ATM issue, I (and other news organisations who I got my news from) seem to have got my information wrong. Apparently currently regulation exists that five ATM transactions per month from non-home banks are supposed to be free, and that is being cut down to three. Rajan clarifies (as reported in Mint today) that the new regulation only allows banks to charge customers beyond the first three transactions in a month, and they are not obliged to do so. He talked about the perverse incentives that the earlier regime (where banks were obliged to permit a number of free ATM transactions from non home banks) created.

My apologies for not reading the regulations correctly (of course a part of the blame has to go to the newspapers that reported it thus! :) ). I admit I should have checked from multiple sources on that one.

Coming to the point of the post, why do I think that Rajan is responding to my Pragati piece? You might argue that it might simply be a case of correlation-causation – that it might be coincidental that Rajan has spoken about two issues that I had highlighted in that post. However, there are two reasons as to why I believe that Rajan was responding to my post.

The first has to do with the combination of subjects. While the two regulations (ATM withdrawals and two factor authentication ) were widely reported in the media, I haven’t seen any piece apart from mine which addresses these two issues together (I must admit my perusal of Indian media has dropped nowadays given my Twitter and Facebook sabbatical). Given that Rajan has chosen to address these two issues today, it is likely that he is responding to my piece.

The second reason has to do with the timing. The Takshashila Institution sends out a weekly “dispatch” which is a summary of commentary written by its fellows and employees and associates. This is an emailer which contains links to these articles along with short snippets, and a number of fairly influential people (within the government and outside) are on the list of recipients. The latest edition of the Takshashila dispatch went out this morning, and it has a link to my Pragati piece. Now, while Rajan is not on the mailing list (to the best of my knowledge), it is likely that an influencer on the list with access to him brought it up today (it could even be the Mint journalist who has reported the story – that would still count as Rajan, albeit indirectly, responding to my piece). This reaffirms my belief that he was responding to my piece in his comments today!

You might think I’m deluded. So be it!

A culture of thinking and differentiated services

In a very interesting Op-Ed in Mint this morning, Anurag Behar argues against vocational training at the school level, arguing that the purpose of school education is to enable children to think, and that the ability to think is paramount in offering superior services.

He gives the example of a welder who understands basic geometry and the mechanics of metals, saying such a welder can offer superior services to one who has just been trained in welding. Thus, a welder who had been through school and thus understands the basics of geometry and mechanics can do a much better job as a welder than one that has just learnt how to weld.

Now, while this culture of thinking is important, another important pre-requisite is the culture of differentiated services. The question we need to ask is if the market here is mature enough to pay a premium for the welder who knows geometry and mechanics compared to an illiterate welder.

Intuitively it makes sense – an educated welder is likely to be more careful in his work and is likely to offer much superior quality. However, what I’m not so sure of is that the market in India is currently mature enough to recognize this increase in quality and thus pay a premium for such services. And unless the market matures to pay a premium for an educated welder, an educated person will choose a career other than being a welder and we will be only left with uneducated welders offering poor quality.

Derivatives trading in football players

I love it! It’s a dream come true!! It’s official!!!

Football clubs have finally wisened up to trading in derivatives on players’ contracts, it is apparent based on the transfer deadline news of yesterday. Alvaro Negredo has been loaned out by Manchester City to Valencia, but at the end of the year Valencia have an obligation to make the deal permanent. The same article mentions Fiorentina taking Micah Richards on loan, also from Manchester City. In this case, however, Fiorentina has the option to make the deal permanent after a year.

In fact, thinking about it, this kind of option trading in football contracts is not all that new. When Brendan Rodgers was initially appointed by Liverpool in 2012, he was given a three year deal, with the club having an option of extending it by a year (the deal has since been revised).

It’s all very interesting. I’ve constantly lamented that some of the great concepts in finance which are well applicable to everyday life are not applied to the extent that is required. Option valuation is one such concept, for example. I wrote to a friend just now asking why I should join a club he is exhorting me to join, given it’s not doing much now. His reply can be condensed to “option value”.

Option valuation is not the only thing. There is the concept of liquidity. A very commonly used concept within financial markets, it is surprisingly absent in general economic literature. For example, in finance it is a well understood concept that the more the number of active market participants the less is the transaction cost (measured as the bid-ask spread). The same concept can be used to analyze markets for taxis, housing, cooks (why a cook costs much more in Rajajinagar where demand is much lower than in Jayanagar), etc. You never see too many economists talking about it, though.

The problem might be that practitioners of financial economics concepts find finance too lucrative to apply their concepts elsewhere, while mainstream or left-leaning economists might find finance (especially complex derivative finance) abhorrent, and thus are loathe to borrow concepts from that (generally speculating)!

In terms of liquidity, though, things seem to be changing. My old friend Sangeet has been practically making a living over the last couple of years evangelizing the concept of liquidity, through his excellent blog on platform economics. Check out his recent post on Uber, for example. Platform economics is nothing but the economics of liquidity. The success of Sangeet’s blog shows that people are finally beginning to take the concept seriously. Still not mainstream economists, though!

In which I thulp the RBI

I’m still so pissed off with the Reserve Bank of India doing a Ramanamurthy that I’ve written a serious editorial in Pragati – the Indian National Interest Review (published by the Takshashila Institution). In this piece I take on measures by the RBI to limit ATM transactions and the thing on two factor authorization.

I claim that both these decisions are economically unsound and there is only possibly a farcical explanation for them:

There is perhaps only one idea (more a conspiracy theory) that possibly explains the above decisions from the RBI. Both these decisions, it might be noticed, help push up the usage of hard currency and decrease the levels of bank deposits. Less bank deposits means less money available for banks to lend out, which means that the cost of borrowing from a bank implicitly goes up. Could it be that the above regulations are a move by the RBI to curtail money supply without necessarily doing the politically tricky task of raising interest rates?

If it is (and it is a very remote possibility), we should commend the RBI for what will then amount to be a sneaky decision

Link

Market forces

This morning I refused to board an auto rickshaw since it had one of those old analogue metres. Most autos in Bangalore nowadays use digital metres, which is the regulation. Except a few like the one I saw in the morning.

Now, given that most autos have digital metres people have a choice to choose only such autos. I’m sure the driver I met this morning will realise soon enough that he’s not getting as much business as he can due to his old metre, and make the switch.

It’s similar with usage of metres. In some parts of Bangalore it’s the norm for auto rickshaws to ply by metre. In such areas any driver who tries to make a quick buck by negotiating a higher fare is likely to lose customers. When a customer knows that after letting go of an auto which asked for excess fare, he had a good chance of finding one that will go by the regulated fare, he is less likely to heed to the demand for excess fare.

You can think of this being a case of what Malcolm gladwell calls the tipping point – once markets have tipped to one side (let’s say using regulated fares for auto rides) there is positive reinforcement that leads to an overwhelming move in that direction.

To get back to the metre example, when the fares increased a few months back traffic cops in Bangalore ran a drive where they checked for auto metres and fined those who had not made the switch by a particular date. Maybe that’s led to about 95% of the metres getting recalibrated. The beauty here is that market forces will take care of pushing this 95% to 100% and cops need not spend any more time and energy on enforcing this! Similarly if cops want to enforce usage of regulated  fares they would waste time by doing this drive in areas where most rides are by metre – the focus should be on tipping the other areas over!

To summarise, some parts of regulation gets enforced by sheer market forces, and regulators should not be wasting their energies there. Focus should instead be given to those areas where market failure is extreme – for that is where regulation has a role to play.

Why Keynes’s prediction has not come true

Writing in the 1930s economist John Maynard Keynes predicted at at the “time of our grandchildren” (figurative term since he himself had no kids) people would live a life of leisure and work for an average of fifteen hours a week. Yet, it’s been eighty years since and we still slog away, putting in anywhere between forty and sixty hours a week as we earn our living. And it doesn’t look like things are going to change soon

So why did this happen? I propose two reasons. When I quit my first job almost eight years ago within three months of joining I complained that the workload was way too high. I added that I didn’t need all the money that job paid me and wouldn’t mind taking up something that paid half the money and where I had to work only half the time. No such thing materialized and I slogged away, before going freelance two years back.

Now why does this little anecdote matter? I’m using this to show that the returns to work are not linear. If you were to plot the number of hours worked per week on the x axis and the total value added on the y axis you are likely to get a convex function. In other words the marginal benefit out of every additional hour you work per week is an increasing function of how much you’ve already worked.

The question is why this is so. One simple answer is that in jobs with a high degree of learning by working longer you end up learning faster. Then within the job you can have network effects where the work you do in one part of the job can help you do another part better (I constantly see this in my freelancing where I work on several projects at a time). If there is a steep learning curve it is easier for the firm to appoint one worker to work sixty hours a week than two to work thirty each – since the starting costs get saved. And so forth.

So this increasing returns to effort (in terms of the hours worked) is that the trade off between work and leisure gets resolved in favour of leisure only at a very high level of work – where you are working close to capacity and don’t want to risk burnout and want to maintain your sanity. Before that the increasing returns to effort means that you are likely to put off leisure in favour of “just a little more work”.

The question is if all jobs work this way, and why an economist as brilliant as Keynes didn’t see this concept of increasing returns to work. The answer is that increasing returns to work applies only to a certain kind of jobs – jobs that require a high level of skill and learning and which can be broadly classified as “knowledge jobs”.

Back in Keynes’s time such knowledge jobs were few – far fewer than they are today. Most workers were in jobs that didn’t require a high degree of skill or learning. In unskilled jobs or jobs that are physically demanding the expanding returns to effort part of the curve is extremely short. Once you have figured out the best way to bolt together two metal pieces doing more of this job is not going to make you much faster in bolting together two metal pieces.

Instead since it is physical after you’ve put in a certain number of hours in a day you begun to tire and become less efficient (notice this point occurs at a later stage for knowledge jobs). And the returns to hours curve starts flattening out much sooner. If you were to do the trade off with leisure using such a curve the equilibrium might occur much earlier than for knowledge work – perhaps at Keynes’s predicted value of fifteen hours per week.

Now even today while the proportion of non knowledge jobs is smaller than eighty years back the number of people doing such jobs is not small. So if the work-leisure equilibrium happens at fifteen hours a week why do people work longer?

The answer is that work-leisure is not the only equilibrium one is solving for. You also need to work enough to be able it fund your living. And it has happened that fifteen hours of non knowledge work pays nowhere close tO what is required to fund a reasonable living. For this reason non knowledge workers are forced to work much longer than their work-leisure equilibrium rule permits!

So why didn’t Keynes see this? I think what he missed was the boom in the knowledge economy in the postwar period. With the rise in the knowledge economy what you had was a set if jobs that had increasing returns to effort. Moreover these returns, on an hourly basis, were far larger than the returns on a non knowledge job. The boom in the knowledge economy meant that people working in such jobs impacted general prices and this forced the non knowledge workers to work longer!

So we have the unique situation now that those people who can afford to work for only fifteen hours a week have no incentive to do so. On the other hand people who have an incentive to work no more than fifteen hours a week are forced to work longer because otherwise they cannot find their lives!!