Implementation and rule of law

Draconian laws coupled with lax implementation deliver too much power to regulators. This makes the business environment unpredictable and makes it harder to do business.

Following the arrest for rape of a taxi driver who was hailed using the Uber app, the Delhi government has gone on to ban Uber. Not satisfied with that, it has gone on to ban all other app-based taxi hailing services (Ola and TaxiForSure are the other big ones). Following the incident last weekend, the government has suddenly decided to throw the rule book at these aggregators and accused them of running taxi services without a license. The point to note here is that until the weekend’s alleged rape, it seems that these businesses were all kosher.

A few months back Mint had an excellent piece (I hope I’ve got the link right) on the absurdities of some of India’s labour laws, and pointed out that most companies are in the breach of such laws. Essentially while the labour laws in India are not very short of being Draconian, what allows businesses to do business and people to go about their lives is lax implementation. And it seems that this issue of draconian laws and lax implementation is not restricted to labour alone.

The iconic Bangalore Club in Bangalore has had its liquor license withdrawn following a raid by the excise department last week. The trigger for this raid is alleged to be a case where a security guard of the club refused to let in the car of a police officer who was not carrying his membership card. This is alleged to have led to a series of cases which finally led to the excise raid and the cancellation of the license. It seems that before the police officer’s car was stopped, there was no violation of excise rules.

In a recent dispute on VAT, the Karnataka government has forced Amazon to stop storing third party goods in its “fulfilment centres”. There has since been back and forth on this and the commissioner of commercial taxes who implemented the order has since been transferred. It was initially expected that the Karnataka government would take the legislative route to clarify this tax dispute in the current Assembly session at Belagavi, but that seems to now be put on hold. Instead, it is likely that the laws are going to remain the way they are and Amazon will by “spared” on account of lax implementation.

Lax implementation of laws is a major impediment to doing business, for it removes predicability. Clear laws which are implemented well set down clear rules for businesses and there is little in terms of what is right or wrong. Such laws make it possible for businesses that choose to be “100% legal” to take a path where there is no ambiguity on their activities. Lax implementation, however, biases the playing field in favour of players who are willing to play on the borders of legality and who rely on lax implementation and benevolence by regulators to continue doing business which is technically illegal. Soon, this results in an equilibrium where everyone is in violation of some rule or the other and remains in business only due to the “benevolence” of regulators.

This implies that regulators who are in charge of implementing these draconian laws have enormous powers over the business they regulate, for any move by the business that the regulator does not like can be responded to by a throw of the proverbial rule-book. This places these businesses at the effective control of these regulators and helps perpetrate what Amit Varma calls the “mai-baap sarkar” – where you function solely due to the benevolence of the government or people acting on behalf of it.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stated that one of his goals is to improve the ease of doing business in India. As long as we do not have predictable and rule-based implementation of law, it results in giving significantly higher powers to the regulators, which makes the business environment unpredictable, and makes it harder to do business. If we have to improve our ease of doing business ranking to 50 (as stated by Modi), a necessary step is to implement each of our laws in letter and spirit, without any room for ambiguity. Of course this will lead to the diminishing of power of the regulators over their “regulatees”, but solving that is a political problem which the government ought to solve.

Crowding out with public transport

This is an idea that’s been in my head for a while. About whether it is possible to nudge people who normally travel in cars to use public transport by simply flooding the roads with buses. The motivation for this comes from the hassles associated with marking and enforcing bus lanes, a form of public transport that is generally considered superior to subway trains in terms of cost of implementation and effectiveness.

So the idea is that as the number of buses on the road increases, the average speed of cars comes down. And after a point, the number of buses on the road means there’s enough supply that one can travel comfortably in them. And there will come a point when people will give up their cars in favour of buses since they can now spend the time more usefully rather than waste it by concentrating on the road.

Of course, this point is still far away for a city like Bangalore, though the BMTC has been making efforts, with initiatives such as the Bus Day. Still, now I’ve begun to have my doubts about it. About whether just increasing bus connectivity and frequency and quality will be enough to take cars off the road. I’ve begun to think if the comfort of not having to drive but travel at the same speed is enough to compensate for the cost of walking to and from bus stops and waiting for buses. The other cost of traveling by bus is that once you get into a bus you travel by a fixed route rather than adapting to daily traffic flows.

The important thing here is the distribution of waiting time for catching a bus. If a passenger is convinced that he is very likely to get a bus within a certain span of time with a very high probability (using vague words to avoid putting random numbers) he is likely to wait for a bus. However, if there are no such bounds, then the passenger might choose to travel by an alternate means of transport.

Still it needs to be seen. From what I know, all cities that currently boast of great public transport actually built a lot of the basic public transport infrastructure before the boom of cars in the place. I can’t recall off the top of my head any city that has actually nudged passengers from personal cars to public transport after cars had become default mode of transport (if you know of such cases, please let me know). In that sense, this nudging towards public transport is still a hard problem to solve. Nevertheless, I still think it might still be a good idea to try crowd out private transport by public transport.

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).

Fighterization of food

One of the topics that I’d introduced on my blog not so long ago was “fighterization“. The funda was basically about how professions that are inherently stud are “fighterzied” so that a larger number of people can participate in it, and a larger number of people can be served. In the original post, I had written about how strategy consulting has completely changed based on fighterization.

After that, I pointed out about how processes are set – my hypothesis being that the “process” is something that some stud would have followed, and which some people liked because of which it became a process. And more recently, I wrote about the fighterization of Carnatic music, which is an exception to the general rule. Classical music has not been fighterized so as to enable more people to participate, or to serve a larger market. It has naturally evolved this way.

And even more recently, I had talked about how “stud instructions” (which are looser, and more ‘principles based’) are inherently different from “fighter instructions” (which are basically a set of rules). Ravi, in a comment on Mohit‘s google reader shared items, said it’s like rule-based versus principles-based regulation.

Today I was reading this Vir Sanghvi piece on Lucknowi cuisine, which among other things talks about the fact that it is pulao that is made in Lucknow, and now biryani; and about the general declining standards at the Taj Lucknow. However, the part that caught my eye, which has resulted in this post with an ultra-long introduction was this statement:

The secret of good Lucknowi cooking, he said, is not the recipe. It is the hand. A chef has to know when to add what and depending on the water, the quality of the meat etc, it’s never exactly the same process. A great chef will have the confidence to improvise and to extract the maximum flavour from the ingredients.

This basically states that high-end cooking is basically a stud process. That the top chefs are studs, and can adapt their cooking and methods and styles to the ingredients and the atmosphere in order to churn out the best possible product.You might notice that most good cooks are this way. There is some bit of randomness or flexibility in the process that allows them to give out a superior product. And a possible reason why they may not be willing to give out their recipes even if they are not worried about their copyright is that the process of cooking is a stud process, and is hence not easily explained.

Publishing recipes is the attempt at fighterization of cooking. Each step is laid down in stone. Each ingredient needs to be exactly measured (apart from salt which is usually “to taste”). Each part of the process needs to be followed properly in the correct order. And if you do everything perfectly,  you will get the perfect standardized product.

Confession time. I’ve been in Gurgaon for 8 months and have yet to go to Old Delhi to eat (maybe I should make amends this saturday. if you want to join me, or in fact lead me, leave a comment). The only choley-bhature that I’ve had has been at Haldiram’s. And however well they attempt to make it, all they can churn out is the standardized “perfect” product. The “magic” that is supposed to be there in the food of Old Delhi is nowhere to be seen.

Taking an example close to home, my mother’s cooking can be broadly classified into two. One is the stuff that she has learnt from watching her mother and sisters cook. And she is great at making all of these – Bisibelebhath and masala dosa being her trademark dishes (most guests usually ask her to make one of these whenever we invite them home for a meal). She has learnt to make these things by watching. By trying and erring. And putting her personal touch to it. And she makes them really well.

On the other hand, there are these things that she makes by looking at recipes published in Women’s Era. Usually she messes them up. When she doesn’t, it’s standardized fare. She has learnt to cook them by a fighter process. Though I must mention that the closer the “special dish” is to traditional Kannadiga cooking (which she specializes in), the better it turns out.

Another example close to home. My own cooking. Certain things I’ve learnt to make by watching my mother cook. Certain other things I’ve learnt from this cookbook that my parents wrote for me before I went to England four years ago. And the quality of the stuff that I make, the taste in either case, etc. is markedly different.

So much about food. Coming to work, my day job involves fighterization too. Stock trading is supposed to be a stud process. And by trying to implement algorithmic trading, my company is trying to fighterize it. The company is not willing to take any half-measures in fighterization, so it is recruiting the ultimate fighter of ’em all – the computer – and teaching it to trade.

Preliminary reading on studs and fighters theory:

Studs and Fighters

Extending the studs and fighters theory

Stud and Fighter Instructions

My apologies for the third S&F post in four days. However, this blog represents an impression of the flow of thought through my head, and if I try to time my thoughts to suit readers’ interests and variety, I’m afraid I may not be doing a very good job.

I came across this funda in one of the “sub-plots” of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, which I finished reading two days back. Actually, there is another post about the main plot of that book that I want to write, but I suppose I’ll write that some other day, maybe over this weekend. So Dawkins, in some part of the book talks about two different ways of giving instructions. And thinking about it, I think it can be fit into the stud and fighter theory.

I must admit I’ve forgotten what Dawkins used this argument for, but he talks about how a carpenter teaches his apprentice. According to Dawkins, the carpenter gives instructions such as “drive the nail into the wood until the head is firmly embedded” and contrasts it to instructions which say “hold the nail in your left hand and hit it on the head with a hammer held in the right hand exactly ten times”. By giving instructions in the former way, Dawkins argues, there is less chance of the apprentice making a mistake. However, in case the apprentice does err, it is likely to be a significantly large error. On the other hand, with the latter kind of instructions, chance of error is higher but errors are likely to be smaller.

A set of “stud instructions” typically tell the recipient “what to do”. It is typically not too specific, and lists out a series of fairly unambiguous steps. The way in which each of these smaller steps is to be accomplished is left to the recipient of the instructions. Hence, given that each instruction is fairly clear and unambiguous, it is unlikely that the recipient of the instructions will implement any of these instructions imperfectly. What is more likely is that he goes completely wrong on one step, maybe completely missing it or horribly misunderstanding it.

“Fighter instructions”, on the other hand, go deep into the details and tell the recipient not only what to do but also how to do what to do. These instructions will go down to much finer detail than stud instructions, and leave nothing to the reasoning of the recipient. Obviously the number of steps detailed here to do a particular piece of work will be significantly larger than the number of steps that a set of stud instructions. Now, the probability that the recipient of these instructions is likely to make a mistake is much larger, though the damage done will be much smaller, since the error would only be in a small part of the process.

Dawkins went on to give a better example than the carpenter one – consider an origami model of a boat on one hand, and a drawing of a boat on the other. Origami gives a set of precise and discrete instructions. Drawing is as good as a set of “continuous instructions”. Dawkins talks about experiments where kids are made to play a version of “chinese whispers” using the origami and the drawing. I won’t go into the details here but the argument is that the stud instructions are much easier to pass on, and the probability of the tenth kid in line producing a correct model is really high – while in case of a drawing, there is a small distortion at each and every step, so each final model is flawed.

Stud and fighter instructions have their own set of advantages and disadvantages. Fighter instructions require much more supervision than do stud instructions. Stud instructions enable the recipient to bring in his own studness into the process and possibly optimize one or more of the sub-processes. Fighter instruction sets are so-finegrained that it is impossible for the recipient to innovate or optimize in every way. To receive a set of stud instructions, the recipient may need to have certain prior domain knowledge, or a certain level of intelligence. This is much more relaxed in case of fighter instructions.

I personally don’t like supervising people and hence prefer to give out stud instructions whenever I need to get some work done. However, there was one recent case where I was forced to do the opposite. There was this IT guy at my company on contract and I was supposed to get a piece of code written from him before his contract expired. Given the short time lines in question, and given that he didn’t have too much of a clue of the big picture, I was forced to act micro and give him a set of fighter instructions. He has ended up doing precisely what I asked him to do, the only problem being that he has  written code in an extremely inflexible and non-scalable manner and I might have to duplicate his effort since this bit now needs generalization.

I have noticed that a large majority of people, when they have to give out instructions spell it out in the fighter manner. With a large number of micro steps rather than a small number of bigger steps. And until the recipient of the instructions has got enough fundaes to consolidate the set of micro-instructions he has received into a natural set of bigger chunks, it is unlikely that he will either be very efficient or that he will produce stuff that will be flexible. It might also be the case that a large number of people don’t want to let go of “control” and are hence loathe to give out stud instructions.

In the general case, however, my recommendation would be to give stud instructions, but have a set of fighter instructions ready in case the recipient of the instructionss wants things to be more specific.

Preliminary reading on studs and fighters theory:

Studs and Fighters

Extending the studs and fighters theory

How do i describe my job?

One of the “problems” with my job, if I can describe this as one, is that it’s tough to explain my job to a layman. There are multiple levels of disconnects here, and multiple “pitfalls”, if I can call them that. So when someone asks me about my work, it gets tough indeed to describe to any degree of accuracy while at the same time being concise, and at the same time talking in Kannada.

I am a quant at a hedge fund.

My work involves coming up with trading strategies, and then developing them to a level where I can have the ultimate fighter – a computer – to trade using these strategies. Then, I will need to figure out how the computer is going to implement these strategies and this part involves some heavy engineering work. And finally I code. Ok now I haven’t been accurately able to describe in one paragraph, writing in English, about my job. How do you expect me to describe it to the layman speaking in Kannada?

Coding is a part of my job, but I’m not a coder.

I deal with financial products – equities and equity derivatives. But I’m strictly not a finance guy – as far as I’m concerned, each security is just a time series. A time series on which I can trade and make money. In fact, apart from my short stint selling interest rates swaps in London, I haven’t really done any finance. My entire view of the markets is based on my idea that a security is just a tradeable time series. I think I should do a separate post on that. Anyways, I’m not strictly a finance guy also.

One of my degrees is an MBA. A PGDM to be precise, from IIMB. But I’m not a manager also. I don’t manage people apart from myself.  I’m not sure I’ll find that interesting either – I sometimes think managing is too fighter a job for me.

And so on.

And then, I work for a hedge fund. Most people don’e have a clue what a hedge fund is. I sometimes make an approximation and tell them I work for a mutual fund. And immediately I get bombarded with questions like my opinion on whether the markets will go up or down, and about how long the recession is going to last. And then there are those who start telling their sob stories about their investments in the markets when the Sensex was at 20,000 and about how markets can’t be trusted any more.

Another level of contradiction is that I’m based in Gurgaon. All finance companies are supposed to be in Bombay, right? Surely, given that I’m in Gurgaon, I must be doing some back office kind of work?

Last night my uncle was filling up some arranged marriage exchange registration form for me. And he asked me to describe my job in a short phrase. I immediately came up with “trader” and that got quickly shot down since that would give the image of a lala sitting behind huge weighing scales. Next I tried “financial trader” and “quantitative trader”. No go.

Then I wanted the simple “quant”. My highly stud uncle himself had trouble exactly figuring that out, so fat chance anyone would appreciate that. So out again. I relaxed constraints a bit and said “hedge fund professional”. But most people wouldn’t understand “hedge fund”. “mutual fund” was no go for a written form. “quantitative analyst” was considered too country by my uncle. He then asked me my designation. “Associate” doesn’t mean anything, he said and shot that down too.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve unnecessarily complicated life for myself by choosing the path that I’ve chosen. If I were working for some software company I could’ve just written “software” over there and all would’ve been fine. The whole world would’ve understood, or at least claimed to have understood. Or even better, if I were living abroad, I wouldn’t have even been required to say that much. I’d’ve been just qualified as a “foreign huduga”, with most people not even caring for which city I was in.

For the record, my listing application records my profession as “financial services professional”, as country as it sounds. This was the only middle ground where my uncle and I didn’t disagree. And in it went. It increasingly looks like I’ll have to put fundaes to Cesares about why the stock markets have gone down in the last one year in order for them to allow their daughters to marry me. I have half a mind to start describing Ito’s lemma the next time someone asks me where the markets are headed. I’ll probably start off describing to them a random walk. And say that it’s a drunkard’s walk. And perhaps use that to change the topic. I think I might need to start practicing this. In Kannada.

I’m a quant at a hedge fund.

Car Ownership

People, especially in the US, make a big deal about home ownership. In fact a large part of the current economic meltdown has its roots in the American craze for home ownership. Fannie and Freddie were created to help home loans become cheaper, then there was the CDO wave. Then came subprime. NINJA (no income no job amortized). All that. Boom. Bust. Jai.

A related concept that no one seems to talk about is car ownership. They say that the safety of a neighbourhood goes up if the proportion of owner-occupied homes goes up. And this is the underlying theory behind most of the home ownership craze.

|||ly, road safety is directly proportional to the proportion of owner-driven vehicles on the road. Take Bangalore for example. Till the late 90s, the traffic there was excellent and well-behaved. Some roads were already clogged, yes. But drivers were in general very well behaved. And the reason behind that was that most people owned their bikes and cars. They had a greater incentive to make sure that there was no damage done to their vehicles nad drove more carefully.

Yes, personal safety also plays an impact and is independent of whose vehicle the driver is driving, but I think in the progression of severity of accidents, vehicle safety gets compromised before personal safety. In other words, there is a one-way implication here – if you drive keeping in mind the aim of not damaging your vehicle, it is more likely that you are not going to get injured. The reverse doesn’t necessarily hold. And that is why car ownership is so important.

So what happened in Bangalore in the early 2000s when traffic suddenly became horrible? This thing called BPO happened, which brought with it the mostly chauffeur-driven taxis. Now, on one hand, these guys had perverse incentives as their efficiency was measured on the speed from which they got from point A to point B. Apart from this, most of them were not driving their own vehicles (this was a departure from the earlier wave of taxis and autos, most of which were owner-driven) and so they didn’t care so much about damaging their vehicles, which led them to drive more rashly.

Similar is the case with Delhi, which is known to have always had horrible traffic. Being the political capital, Delhi has always had a reasonably high proportion of chauffeur-driven cars. Which is why, for a long time, its roads have been known to be rasher than roads in other cities. And things still haven’t improved.

The thing with car ownership is that it forms a positive-feedback loop. Suppose the number of chauffeur-driven cars goes up. Then, the traffic in general becomes more rasher. And driving becomes more of a headache for you. Which increases your incentive to employ someone to drive your car. Which further pushes up the proportion of chauffeur-driven cars. This is what has happened in Delhi over the last 50 years. This is what has happened in Bangalore over the last 10 years.

In order to make our streets safer, we need to incentivize people to drive their own cars and bikes (one clarification – by own, I mean either your own or something that belongs to close family or friends; in both cases, incentive to keep vehicle safe is high). If I’m not wrong, people can claim tax exemption against the salaries they pay their driver. This needs to go first. Next, insurance companies need to have different levels of payout for self-driven and driver-driven accidents (I know this is going to be hard to be implement).

Yes, this might increase unemployment since driving other people’s vehicles is a major occupation nowadays. But is greater unemployment too high a price in order to ensure greater safety? (ok I can quickly think of one counterargument for this – if people become unemployed, the chances they’ll become goons rises, which makes society in general less safe)

Sit down behind the wheel, and be counted. Say no to drivers. Drive your own car. It is in your own, your car’s , other people’s and other people’s cars’ interest. You don’t need to be driven. You need to be in the driver’s seat.