Arbit Raj

Email alarm made government close arbitrage window“, screams the headline in this morning’s Business Standard. Upon reading further, you will find that the said “arbitrage” opportunity in question consists of remitting rupees abroad now and then bringing it back as remittances once the rupee has depreciated further. There are so many things wrong with this approach that I can hardly get started.

1. Technically speaking, arbitrage refers to a situation where through a set of trades one can make riskless profit. The riskless point is important here. If I were to convert my rupees to dollars today and then convert the dollars back to rupees later, it would be arbitrage if and only if the price at which I would sell the dollars is guaranteed (as of today) to be higher than the price at which I buy dollars. If I buy dollars today in the hope that the rupee will depreciate, it is NOT arbitrage.

2. By calling this process “arbitrage” the government is admitting that the rupee is expected to drop further, and significantly in the coming months (the extent of capital controls being imposed now suggests this). This is bad signaling

3. Regulating arbitrageurs is futile, and can be counterproductive. Arbitrageurs are quick to spot any price inconsistencies in the market and ruthlessly exploit them by means of their trades. Thus, if it is expected that (say) the USDINR will trade at 65 tomorrow, it is arbitrageurs who make sure that this expectation is reflected in today’s price (through a set of spot-future currency trades). By trying to curtail the operations of arbitrageurs, the government is missing out on valuable price signals. In other words, they are beheading the messenger (a la the Khwarizmian Shah, and everyone knows what happened to his empire once he did that).

The measures the government has been taking in recent times to help prevent further depreciation of the rupee are so ad hoc and badly thought out that it would make eminent sense to call the current dispensation an “arbit raj”.


Two of the four full-time jobs that I’ve done have been “offshored”. They’ve both involved working for the Bangalore office of American firms, with both jobs having been described as being “front end” and “high quality”, while in both cases it became clear in the course of time that it was anything but front end, and the quality of work depended on what the masters in the First World chose to throw at us.

In between these two jobs, I had done a “local” job, at an India-focused hedge fund based in India, which for the most part I quite liked until certain differences cropped up and grew. While doing that job, and while searching for a job while looking to exit it, one thing I was clear about was that I would never want to do an offhshored job again. Unfortunately, there came along an offer that I couldn’t resist, and so I ended up having not one but two experiences in offshored jobs.

Firstly (this was a bigger problem in the second job), I’m a morning person. I like to be in at work early in the morning, say at eight. And I like to be back home by the time the sun in down. In fact, for some reason I can’t fathom, I can’t work efficiently after the sun is down – irrespective of when I start, my productivity starts dipping quickly from 5 pm onwards. Huge problem. People say you can take calls from home and all that but that blurs the line between work and life, and ruins the latter. You are forced to stay in office even if you don’t have anything to do. Waste of time.

Then, there is the patronizing attitude of the “onshore” office. In both my offshored jobs, it turned out that an overwhelmingly large portion of the Bangalore offices actually consisted of employees who were there because even the stated reason for their existence in the firms was labour cost arbitrage. It was simple offshoring of not-particularly-skilled work to a cheaper location. I don’t know if this was a reason, but a lot of people in the “main” offices of both firms considered Bangalore to be a “back office”. And irrespective of the work people here had done, or their credentials, or record, there was always the possibility that the person in the foreign office assumed that the person in the Bangalore office existed solely because of labour cost arbitrage.

And then you would have visits by people from the onshore office. Every visitor who was marginally senior would be honoured by being asked to give a speech (without any particular topic) to the Bangalore office. In the first offshored company I worked for, people would actually be herded by the security guard to attend such speeches. The latter company was big enough to not force people to attend these talks, but these talks would be telecast big-brother style from television sets strategically placed all over the floors.

And these onshore office people would talk, quite patronisingly, about how Bangalore was great, and the people here were great, and they were doing great work. Very few of them would add actual value  by means of their lectures (some did, I must mention, talk concrete stuff). Organizing this lecture was a way for the senior “leaders” in the Bangalore office (most of whom had been transplanted from the firms’ onshore offices) to etch their names in the good books of the visitors, we reasoned.

Then there was the actual work. Turn-around time for any questions that you would ask the head office was really high, unless of course you adapted and did night shifts (which I’m incapable of). In the earlier offshored firm, there would be times when I would do nothing for two or three days altogether because the guy in the onshore office hadn’t replied! Colossal waste of billable time! Also, if your boss sat abroad, there would be that much less direction in whatever you did. In my second offshored job, there were maybe two occasions when I was on two-hour phone calls with my boss (in the onshore office), where he patiently explained to me how certain things worked and how they should be done. Those were excellent sessions, and made me feel really good. But only two of them over a two year-plus period? Apart from which, most one-to-one interaction with the boss was with respect to “global” stuff. Yeah a local boss can get on your nerves by creeping behind your back every half hour, but at least you get work done there, and can learn from the boss!

Then there is training. Because of the cost-arbitrage concept on which most offshored employees are hired, the quality of training programs in the offshore offices are abysmal. During my second offshored stint, I happened to attend one training program in Hong Kong, in common with people from onshore offices in the rest of Asia. None of the numerous training programs that I attended in the Bangalore office attained even a tenth of the quality of that program in Hong Kong. The nature of employees in Bangalore meant all programs had to start at an extremely basic level, so there was little value added.

I can go on, there is a lot more. But I’ll stop here, and let you tell me about your stories of working in an offshored environment. And I certainly won’t make the same mistake third time round – of working for an offshored entity.

The problem with real estate taxation

I spent a year working in an India-focused high frequency trading hedge fund. I used to trade stocks and equity derivatives there. We were primarily an arbitrage hedge fund, and our aim was to make money by trading on assets that were mispriced, in order to make riskless profits. For example, if the price of a certain stock at a certain instant was Rs 100 on the BSE and Rs. 99 on the NSE, we would buy the stock at the NSE and sell it at the BSE, simultaneously, thus making riskless profits. Contrary to what some of the “99%ers” say, we saw social value in what we did. We were making prices fairer for the rest of the market, and removing anomalies.

There was one big problem though, this beast called “securities transaction tax”. Every transaction in securities in India attracts this tax. While it seems to be a fairly small number, when you are trading large volumes and looking to arbitrage out wafer-thin margins, it ends up being significant. This tax, we figured, was a big hindrance in true arbitrage-free pricing of securities in India. The tax meant that assets could be mis-priced up to a certain limit, because wiping out that mispricing through a trade was unprofitable thanks to this tax. This “flow tax”, thus, makes financial markets inefficient.

The problem is bigger when it comes to real estate. Historically, property taxes have been really low, but property transaction taxes have been high. There is a good reason for this. Back in the old days where record-keeping was inefficient and incomplete, it was impossible for the government to map out who owned which piece of land. Instead, they figured that they would have a record on all property transactions, and thus put a tax on that. This is a worldwide phenomenon.

It has led to two big problems in India. First is the market inefficiency that I spoke about with my equities example. High transaction taxes means that property markets are illiquid, and this prevents more people from entering and investing in the market. This also means that any price changes in the broad market are not reflected easily enough across a vast majority of property. Secondly, the high transaction taxes means there is massive under-reporting of the actual prices at which transactions take place. Both the buyer and the seller have an incentive to do so, and deprive the government of tax money. This leads to creation of massive amounts of black money in real estate. The problem is similar to the creation of all those Swiss bank accounts back in the days of 99% marginal tax rates.

There is a side-effect also, one that our socialist-minded government and the National Advisory Council (NAC) might be sympathetic to. Low reported prices of land transactions also implies lower realization for farmers and other villagers when land is forcibly acquired by the government. Though compensation might be declared as multiples of the “market value”, the true market value in most cases is so depressed that farmers usually get paid a pittance.

That aside, so what prevents us from dismantling these distortionary transaction taxes on property? Firstly, they are a massive source of income to state governments and local bodies, and if they are to be dismantled they need to be replaced with another equivalent tax. Economists usually advocate property holding taxes as a less distortionary and more stable means of funding local governments. Till recently, however, bad record-keeping meant those weren’t enforceable. You already have nominal property taxes that are collected, but reports in newspapers suggests that implementation is lax, and there is significant tax evasion there.

Even if all property records are formalized and computerized, there is another major hurdle in dismantling property transaction taxes and increasing property holding taxes. Higher property holding taxes means that the value of property will see a sudden drop (lower “free cash flow” each year, and all that). Markets might become more efficient and liquid, but real estate companies who have sunk in millions assuming a certain valuation of their properties will see a sudden erosion in that value, and see value in lobbying against this change taking place. In the long run, they will benefit, in terms of greater investment, greater liquidity and faster disposal of the properties they have built. But the initial “shock” in terms of reduced valuations will mean they will lobby against this change.

Thus, unless something drastic happens in terms of reforms, it is likely that we will be stuck in this inefficient regime of high property transaction tax.

Cross posted at The INI Broad Mind

The Lingaraj Effect and Financial Regulation

Lingaraj was a driver who used to work for my father. He had a unique way of dealing with traffic jams on two-lane roads without a divider down the middle. He would instinctively swing the ambassador into the right lane – meant for traffic in the opposite direction (the jam ahead meant there was little traffic flow in that direction).

I remember both my father and I abusing him (Lingaraj) for this method which would only make the jam worse. However, he would persist. And we soon found that he wasn’t unique in his methods. It is the favoured method of most Bangalore drivers. Thus, whenever there is a minor jam somewhere, thousands of Lingarajs clog the “return lane” in all directions, and end up making it worse.

The funny thing about Lingaraj’s method was that it was “too big to fail”. Having switched to the right lane, we would progress much faster (till the site of the jam, of course) than our law-abiding brethren stuck in the left lane. There, someone who had taken responsibility of clearing the jam (not necessarily a cop) would realize that a necessary condition to clear the jam was to get our ambassador out of the right lane. And we would be given passage to shift to the left lane, and past the jam site, much ahead of those suckers who stuck to the law.

For drivers like Lingaraj, moving to the right lane in the wake of a jam is seen as “arbitrage”. And a necessary condition for it to be an arbitrage is that the offending vehicle is “too big to fail”, as I mentioned earlier. And given that in Bangalore, measures like traffic tickets sent by post aren’t that effective, this continues to be an arbitrage, and hence you still see so many drivers use this “method”.

While stuck in a traffic jam like that one last weekend (I was driving, and I consider myself socially responsible so stuck to the left lane), I realized how similar this was to the financial crisis of three years ago.

Traders noticed an “arbitrage” that didn’t really exist (namely, some AAA rated bonds traded at higher yields than other AAA rated bonds) and proceeded to trade on it. When they got into trouble the regulators realized that they had to be bailed out in order to clear the larger mess. The resemblance is uncanny.

So what should the regulators have done? Basically, drivers should’ve been prevented from getting to the right lane in the first place. Then there would have been no requirement to bail them out. In some places, this is done by installing road dividers, but in my experience I’ve seen that doesn’t help, too. People use whatever gaps are available in the divider to go to the right lane, and contribute to the jam.

The only option I can think of is some variation of postal tickets – having bailed out the drivers for going to the right lane, they need to be made to pay for it. Yeah, postal tickets (sending tickets by post for traffic violations) may not be effective, but that seems like the best we can do to regulate this problem. The upshot is that once we figure out how to solve this problem on the road, we can extend the solution to financial regulation, too!

Strategic Food Attack at Functions

While standing in line waiting rather impatiently for my dinner at Monkee’s engagement today, I was thinking of strategies that one can employ in order to get one’s food quickly in places where there are long lines. I’d faced the same question a couple of weeks back at Sharadha’s wedding, where again the lines were insanely long. On both occasions, I think I managed to figure out reasonable solutions.

The thing with most guests at functions like these is that they tend to approach the food in linear fashion. They start from one end and go through the whole line taking little bits of everything on the menu. Most people I know, especially from the older generation, don’t go back for a second helping. And so this means that they need to get everything the first time round.

The key to cracking the puzzle is to approach things in a non-linear fashion, as I realized at both Monkee’s and Sharadha’s functions. Like for example, today I managed to break down the queue into various sub-queues and with quick mental analysis understood the bottlenecks, and decided my diet for the night based on that.

For example, today I noticed that the main queue was for one table where you got the plates, pakodas, thair vade, jalebi and some salads. These things had all been arranged around a table which seemed non-intuitive to a lot of people because of which the crowd was heavy. And I realized that just to pick off the plate from the stack and scoot off, I could break the line without being impolite.

Next, analyzing the main course queues, I realized that one main line was at the dosa counter, and decided to forego it in the interests of getting my food quickly. Again I quickly ran this optimization algorithm in my head which told me that it was best to have rotis (involved a small wait) and curries in the first round and then rice in the second. It worked beautifully, and I had a hearty dinner without ever standing in line!

At Sharadha’s wedding too I had managed to spot and exploit arbitrage opportunities. For example, I realized that people never stood in queues to get second helpings, and that I could peacefully get around the line by taking the plate from the hardly-crowded salad counter and then going to the main line looking like I was going for second helpings.

The key at buffets is to keep your eyes and ears (yeah, I managed to “spot” that spoons had arrived by hearing their clanging) open to any sort of arbitrage opportunities, and once spotted to ruthlessly exploit them. And you need to be a little RG. If you try to take along too many people when you are implementing such plans, it will be self-defeating and your returns diminish.

And if you find yourself at a buffet which has lots of financial traders, I really pity you.

Uniform Civil Code

I intended to blog this on Sunday, which was the 17th anniversary of the Babri Masjid Demolition (I remember that because it was also my 27th birthday – yes, I’m really old now) . Due to certain other activities, I couldn’t find the time to blog then so doing it today. I also want to apologize to my readers for not being regular enough at blogging of late. I hope to be more regular henceforth, but there are other things which are taking up a lot of my time.

So the other day I was thinking of the concept of the Uniform Civil Code and how the lack of one such is causing “religious arbitrage” (the most famous example being Dharmendra converting to Islam so as to marry Hema Malini). I was thinking of the BJP which is trying to establish one such code, but all parties that have a significant number of Muslim voters being opposed to it since monogamy is against the tenets of Islam. So I was thinking about this issue from a completely libertarian perspective, and this is what I have.I think I best do it in bullet points.

  • Any pair of consenting adults can have sex with each other and the state has no business bothering with it. The only excuse for the state to get involved in this is if one of the “pair” accuses the adults of rape.
  • Children in the backseat can cause accidents and accidents in the backseat cause children. Despite condoms and i-pills, there is a good chance that a random pair of consenting adults might produce kids.
  • Any man or woman can have as many sexual partners (long or short term) as he wishes. The state has no business interfering in this.
  • A pair of sexual partners might choose to live together, and make babies together. Society might impose conditions on them that they be “married” but the state need not know. The state is not supposed to bother about the fact that this pair is living together, apart from recognizing the same postal address for both of them
  • A citizen might choose to live along with several of his/her sexual partners, assuming all of them consent to the arrangement. Again, the state has no business interfering.
  • So when should the state be concerned about this institution called marriage? I argue that the only reason the state should be bothered about “marriage” is because of property inheritance principles
  • From the point of view of property inheritance, multiple “married partners” can be messy stuff. It can lead to extremely complicated cases, especially when the graph involves cycles. Hence, I suggest that without loss of generality, for the sake of easy legal redressal, any person cannot have more than one legally wedded spouse
  • This, mind you, doesn’t stop people from having illegally wedded spouses. For example, it is well known that M Karunanidhi has 3 wives, but I’m sure that he’s legally wedded to only one of them. When he dies, his property will naturally go to only his legally wedded wife and his children with them. The rest will get nothing. Nada.
  • However, clever financial structuring can be used to overcome this discrepancy. For example, a man might offer to pay a woman extra pocket money so that she become his illegally wedded wife rather than his legally wedded wife. I think concepts of CDS (credit default swaps) pricing can be used here in order to figure how much more the illegally wedded spouse and resultant children should get as “illegality premium”.
  • Given this framework, people of no religion need to fear the loss of practice. If Muslim society allows a Muslim to have four wives, he can as well go ahead and marry four women, except that in the eyes of the state, only one of them will be legally wedded to him. The rest will need to negotiate appropriate premia on pocket money
  • This “maximum of one legally wedded spouse person” can be used to legalize gay/lesbian marriages also. All that it takes is for the law to not specificallly mention that the spouses should belong to different genders.
  • Not having a uniform civil code can give room for religious arbitrage which needs to be discouraged
  • Hence, having a uniform civil code makes eminent sense. It wont have much impact on most people’s lives. And it will simplify a lot of laws and just make implementation better.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

Taleb’s Recipe

No, unlike the previous post, this has nothing to do about food. It is about Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s recent op-ed in the Financial Times where he gives his “recipe” for saving the global financial system. Two of my favourite bloggers Arnold Kling and Felix Salmon have responded to it, but I didn’t like either so I thought I should post my response as well.

I borrowed The Black Swan from Aadisht sometime in late 2007. I tried starting to read it several times but never got past Taleb’s childhood stories of his hometown Amioun. I took a couple of months to get past the first 50 pages, I think. And then it was easy reading. I loved the sub-plots. I broadly bought into the main plot. By the time I had finished reading the book, I wanted to ask Taleb to accept me as his sisya. I  bought and read Fooled By Randomness, and liked that too. And then decided to read The Black Swan yet again. It was only a couple of months back that I finally returned the latter book to Aadisht (in the meantime he had bought two other copies of it, and read it).

Till very recently, I would read up any article of Taleb’s that I could find. I wrote to him a couple of times with my CP, and he even responded. I infact wrote to him about “Positive Black Swans and the World of Romance” and he responded with a “Thanks Karthik, Ciao, Nassim”. I had become a worshipper.

However, now I think he’s kinda lost it. I don’t think he intends to write another book and so he has nicely settled down to peddling his last theory (black swan). In response to a recent post on studs and fighters, Kunal had said, “He that is good with a hammer tends to think everything is a nail.”. The same disease affects Taleb I think, as he goes around the world trying to force-fit his black swan model to every conceivable problem.

And then I have a problem with people like Taleb and Satyajit Das, and actually with all those ibankers who are asking for bailouts. These guys made full use of capitalism, and made heaps of money, when things were good. And now that their money has been made, they call for government intervention, and socialism. Taleb and Das are different from the other wall streeters because they are calling for full-scale government intervention, unless the other bankers who are only calling for a bailout!

Now that the elaborate intro is done, let us get to the point. Taleb’s essay consists of ten points. The headings are italicized and there’s a detailed explanation. For purpose of brevity I’m putting only the headings here, and writing my comments after each of them. Go to the FT site to read the full points that Taleb has written.

1. What is fragile should break early while it is still small.

I agree with this. And my take is that competitors need to keep each other in check. For example, if this round of bailouts were not to happen and the biggies were let to fall, no one would grow so big in the future, and even if they did, they would make sure that they were insulated enough from one another. This round of bailouts will make the next crisis (whenever it will happen) worse.

2. No socialisation of losses and privatisation of gains.

Agree with this.

3. People who were driving a school bus blindfolded (and crashed it) should never be given a new bus.

Taleb has clearly not learnt his own lessons (fooled by randomness). I might have crashed the school bus once, but it may not be my mistake. the one data point of one bus crash should not be used to decide my career as a driver. One should look at how the driver drove before the crash to determine whether he gets a second chance. Blanket banning of people involved will not help.

4. Do not let someone making an “incentive” bonus manage a nuclear plant – or your financial risks.

It’s all about structuring. Taleb was a trader and he forgets about structuring. As long as incentives of the employee and the employer are reasonably well aligned, there is no problem with an incentive bonus. The problem in ibanking was that too much emphasis was placed on short-term performance of employees. It’s tragic that the fall of the financial system has brought to an end what was an excellent compensation system (in principle, mind you; not the way it was practised) – where each person was paid fairly based on his/her contribution.

5. Counter-balance complexity with simplicity.

I think the simplest way would be to leave things to the market. Government intervention would lead to a new form of complexity, and in the overall scheme of things increase complexity rather than decrease it. None of the stuff that Taleb has mentioned is easily implementable.

6. Do not give children sticks of dynamite, even if they come with a warning .

Again Taleb prescribes mai-baap sarkaar. Does he realize that if governments had always had tight control over the markets, the markets wouldn’t have crashed on October 19 1987, and he wouldn’t have made any money? (Taleb has reportedly made 97% of his life’s earnings out of this one event). What is “complex derivatives”? And how can you ban it? If you ban it, it’ll go to the black market. You are better off collecting hefty security transaction tax.

7. Only Ponzi schemes should depend on confidence. Governments should never need to “restore confidence”.

I agree

8. Do not give an addict more drugs if he has withdrawal pains.

Agree once again. We need to structurally change things to get to saner leverage than what was practised 1-2 years back. Regulations should be simple and principles-based, minimizing chance for regulatory arbitrage. Remember that the purpose of creation of most “complex derivatives” in the last 25 years is regulatory arbitrage.

9. Citizens should not depend on financial assets or fallible “expert” advice for their retirement.

Bullshit. The point on markets not containing information, that is.

10. Make an omelette with the broken eggs.

None of this makes any kind of practical sense. It’s just an old man ranting. Thanks, guru (pun intended).

Recession notes

Over the weekend I spoke to a few friends, over phone and GTalk. And enquired about their business. Some interesting insights:

  • On Saturday, I spoke to this guy who is a banker in the City of London. He says that one major fallout of the global economic crisis is that the financial markets have become highly inefficient.
  • Knowing that they won’t get bonuses, he says, bankers have no incentive to arbitrage these inefficiencies. Sadly, people refuse to believe that investment bankers perform socially useful and productive work
  • Yesterday, I was talking to this guy who runs a manufacturing SME. He says that apart from one really bad month (January) when orders fell over 50%, he is doing quite well.
  • Thanks to the downturn, a few manufacturing shops have shut down in various places in Europe. Now, the erstwhile customers of these erstwhile manufacturing shops are looking towards India for their sourcing. My friend is hopeful of bagging one such contract.
  • Thanks to the downturn, firms are integrating their manufacturing. For example, a prominent stationery manufacturer has decided to manufacture 100% of its products from its plants in India. My friend has been a long-term supplier to the india plant of this particular manufacturer, and now expects to get more business from them.

Interesting stuff overall.

Money and religion

No matter how much you preach, how much you write, how many arguments you make in favour of your stand that there is no god, the believers will ignore you. And given that believers usually have strong sense of belief, it is very unlikely that your preaching and reasoning will have any effect on them.

Instead, the easiest way for you to spread your message is to make the religious ones pay. Literally. Religious arbitrage, I call it. Religion usually comes with a set of beliefs. And superstitions. And the religious people are more likely or less likely to do certain things because of their beliefs. And you need to exploit these beliefs. Exploit them as much as you can, and try make money at the believers’ expense.

My argument is this: if you think your religion or the lack of it is better than any other religion, there must surely be a way in which you can exploit this to make money at the expense of the other religion. So go ahead and do it. Nothing talks like money.

I did my bit in this direction last Diwali. I went to buy a mobile phone, and figured that it being dhan teras the shopkeeper was loathe to send me away without selling me anything. I managed to get the phone for almost a thousand rupees below what it cost the shopkeeper (I confirmed this figure with a friend who is a sales manager at Nokia). The poor guy even gave me a bill for an amount much larger than what I’d actually paid.

You might claim that I could have bargained harder. But as I said, even religion has its monetary limits, and the shopkeeper would’ve figured that incurring the wrath of the gods would’ve been cheaper than selling the phone to me for lower than he actually did.

So stop preaching. Stop preaching when you know you have no chance. Stop bringing up the FSM in every line of conversation. And let money do the talking.

PS: Religion might just be a special case for this argument. You should be able to take advantage of all sorts of beliefs (including the non-religious ones) using this strategy.