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Friday, August 24, 2012

Taxes vs. Penalties

As predicted the governments of developed world are responding with taxing legislation. The aim is to tax the rich. But the discourse has been simplified unreasonably. Here are some important points.

First, higher taxes are required. There is infrastructure to build, things to repair and government to run. This is legitimate expectation of government from the population that has capacity to bear the burden. Higher means higher than normal times. If taxes were taken below normal then increase will have to be in stages first up to normal and thereafter, if required, a little higher.

Secondly, the government has been defrauded because of the crisis, either directly (bailout going to bonus) or indirectly (economic impairment). The people who defrauded the government have gotten rich and they owe government more money than in first case. This money should come from prosecutions and penalties. Government cannot keep settling claims without clarification of guilt and facing shortfalls. The fraudsters must face penalties which are higher than cost to the government and economy. 

In the US the situation is worse. The taxes are reduced below normal, there are no prosecutions with penalties and claims are settled.

Thus, increasing taxes to the extent as described in first case above is rational, necessary and should be acceptable. Further, increasing taxes just to cover the fraud losses from second case, is irrational, unnecessary, unacceptable and can even be unconstitutional.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The waning of Society

When I wrote the book "Subverting Capitalism and Democracy" (click the picture to buy it) I was more interested in understanding why we, as a society, were unable to foresee and then stall the crisis. In my inquiry I found that there was systemic rot that had taken place. The reasons for the systemic rot is what I aimed to explain in the book. 

The systemic rot impacts social fabric on many dimensions. It explains poverty, our helplessness or inability to change the system, how and why political system was compromised, how media was compromised, etc. I have detailed these concepts in the book. To understand the systemic rot, we must understand some basic issues.

  1. We must see the economic-society as a network of transactions, not simply millions of transactions happening together, but a network connecting resources with needs. 
  2. We must understand that each transaction has bargaining power equation embedded in it. Unlike what economist like to believe, people participating in transactions always have some burden weighing on them. Using this burden one party is able to command better terms than fair exchange would allow. Michael Porter's 5-forces analysis captures the principle behind this very well from a corporate standpoint.
  3. Bargaining power is additive in nature. Thus, imagine a transaction chain A-B-C. A deals with B and B deals with C. Now, if A has higher bargaining power than B and B has higher than C, then C will have twice the burden. C will feel twice the pressure in the transaction with B. 
  4. In our democracy-capitalism system, bargaining power slowing started accumulating with the financial industry. In fact currently, the bargaining power rests with the investors and occasionally goes to the inventor. Thus, apart from financial institutions, companies like Apple seem to be doing really well.
  5. If bargaining power accumulates in certain places within the network of transactions, then it can give rise to a quasi-fiefdoms. It is incumbent on the government to ensure that this accumulation of bargaining power is broken down to allow a distributed system to start working again. 
  6. The fiefdom cannot survive only because there is bargaining power accumulated within it. It needs one more dimension when it becomes tyrannical. That happens when there is a class where bargaining power is always low, where bargaining power is always suppressed. If there is no such class then internal forces prevent formation of fiefdoms or allows fiefdoms to be taken down if they are formed at all. But if there is a class that does not have bargaining power at all, then it becomes victim of the bargaining power accumulation.
  7. Similarly there will always be poverty, because by definition, poverty is relative. However, if the poverty becomes permanent, then it is a sign that somewhere the bargaining power equations have gone awry.
  8. The capitalism-democracy system is highly regarded because it provides for three mechanisms wherein bargaining power is available to all. One is voting, second is entrepreneurship and third is judiciary (which cannot act on its own without exceptional circumstances). For a feudal society to remain stable, it needs to impair both these processes. Sadly, the current society everywhere in the world, this is true. It is true of USA, of Britain, of India, of Myanmar and every other country.
  9. The democratic system envisages a watchdog - the press. The role of press is to identify and call out any accumulation of bargaining power. The report of press has a lot of weights and can trigger a governmental response. However, even this part has been compromised. 
A revolution is not a solution. Traditionally, revolt works better if the new system is dramatically different than the old one. That is not the case. A functioning capitalism-democracy is the best system available currently. However, it needs to be populated with good people who understand the dilemma. The system needs additional checks and balances to ensure that this does not happen. The problem is any system we design will have forces that want to compromise it to their advantage, it will breed a set of incumbents who want to tamper it to their advantage, it will have its own set of power struggles. The solution is not another system but a refinement in system of checks and balances.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Automation and implication for employees

New York times has a fabulous article about how robots are taking over skilled work (using pic alongside). As part of firms we need to understand the nuances. What work can we substitute by robots? What work needs humans? Why so?

Understanding Automation
As discussed in my book Understanding Firms, overall work can be classified in three categories using ESK profile. ESK profile refers to content of work in terms of Effort, Skill and Knowledge. In first phase of productivity, machines developed to augment "effort". We called them tools as they were sufficiently dumb. As profile of the work changed towards higher skill-oriented work, the machines have caught on replacing human intervention in high skilled jobs. Earlier, these machines performed specified tasks repeatedly but a change in task was difficult for them to cope with requiring down time and modifications (temporary and permanent). What has changed is that, new machines are super flexible requiring no downtime to adapt. These machines work on variety of jobs and switch between them effortlessly. 

Yet, knowledge remains exclusive domain of humans. 
At the moment we do not or cannot have automated surgery machines as there are lot of decision points within a surgery process. However, robots do augment the surgeon in his skilled work of cutting, stitching, grasping etc.

Workforce profile will change
As I discussed in the book, the ESK requirement of the work is fulfilled by worker and machines together (and sometimes by process and materials used). Naturally, the workforce has to adapt its education and learning to take more decision centric roles rather than actual effort oriented task. It also means that workforce needs to have a higher knowledge profile.

With decision-making at the center of human contribution, creativity assumes prime importance as against uniformity and repeatability that were mainstay of prior manufacturing eras.

It means we need a more educated workforce (though nature of education needs to be drastically different). Previously, education was focussed on improving conformity, new education must focus on improving creativity.

Example of Material or Process contributing ESK is car painting where slight magnetic action allows uniform coating of paint. This work has contribution from material (a paint that has electro-magnetic properties) and by process (actually using that property to advantage). 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Agricultural income vs. Industrial income

I have often wondered why Agricultural incomes are less than industrial incomes. Following are some of the reasons:

  1. Agricultural incomes are not as tradable as industrial incomes because 
    1. they are tied to the land, corresponding weather and topographical externalities and therefore limited by its productive constraints. Other industries have freedom to migrate to better assets with higher productivity.
    2. they have low spatial availability as compared to industrial opportunities that are clustered. Thus geographically, agriculture is at disadvantage.
  2. Agriculture has been around for longer than industrialism thus it has gone through various stages of productivity development and now the labour component is stabilized. As industry will go through with similar development cycle the wages will taper off.
  3. The agricultural produce forms part of inflation basket and central banks make sure the value of basket does not grow rapidly thus capping the incomes from agriculture.
  4. Industrial products are more globalized and specialized as compared to agricultural products. The demand for agricultural products depends on tastes and those are more tuned with local produce. Only staple foods are truly globalized. The perishable nature of the products also prevents wider distribution of the products. No so for industrial products.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Some ways promoters withdraw money from their companies

Business Standard has an article how promoters are using royalty payments to move money from under the nose of shareholders. The article is very bare and except one tactic, don't seem to have any more details on tactics used. 

Incidentally, I discussed this as one of the forms way back with some people wanting to know some mechanisms that achieve this. Some, I have discussed in my ebook on Investing in Real Estate Developers. So let me discuss some here - some are ways and others are points of observations. And then you tell me some you know of. These may not constitute legal fraud but are definitely morally uncomfortable.
  1. Some promoters use a brand or business mark as separate asset and house it in an separate business entity which is exclusively held by them. The group companies must pay to use this brand or mark at a price that is agreed to by the board. Kingfisher from UB group uses this technique. Tata also uses this technique.
  2. Real estate developers use three or four different means:
    • Some Real estate developers choose to deal with "exclusive sales agents" which are promoter held companies buying from listed companies. Naturally, the listed company has lower realizations that actual markets allow. In many cases I have found listed real estate developers sales (on per sq. feet basis) to be lower by 15-25% of rates prevailing the location of their projects. This allows developers to show that their pricing is reasonable and hence their pre-sales is 100%.
    • Real estate developers also have related party land bank buying entities and their land procurement cost is significantly lower than that of listed entity. Naturally, the margin in this related party transaction can be adjusted as per situations. For example, when the listed company is likely to raise capital in next 3 years these margins are depressed leading to expanding margins in listed entity.
    • Pricing extras separately also helps share of revenue to be directed into other vehicles. Thus, parking is sold separately to sales agent while apartments are sold separately, one by listed entity and other by closely held promoter company.
    • Another way for developer is to sell to REIT and sell out the REIT at lower risk discounting factors. This inflates the asset values based on occupancy which is 90%+ at the time REIT is getting listed and drops significantly later. The key occupier is of course and exclusive rental-sales agent.
  3. Some promoters build into their sales expenses "management oversight expense". This is generally charged as percentage of revenues and usually is very small figure say 0.5% and can be termed slightly differently.
  4. Group Forex agency margins are another way promoters use. This is applicable for conglomerates or at least firms that have multi-geography locations with separate entities. The conversions on forex are routed through a separate group entity which is privately held. This agency marginally increases the cost and passes them to promoters. This used to be a viable approach in the past when there were lot of restriction on Forex dealings.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Operational vs Financial leverage

I want to highlight one comment he made. I paraphrase here "Germany has high operational leverage and when you have high operational leverage, you want to have very little financial leverage. That is why Germany is so averse to debt."

Then he mentioned Siemens vs. P&G. Interesting comment this.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

How Low interest rate can be bad for small business

Summarized from the book (click to buy)

We are told that when interest rates are too low, they are encouraging entrepreneurs to take risk.

However, this impacts the business models differently. At one end are business models, like infrastructure projects, that cannot add threshold value in the initial years of the venture. The low interest rate regime, allows a valuable gestation period for such business models. Often, government artificially lowers interest rates for such projects. At the other extreme, there are weak business models, those that are viable only in low return scenario. These business models, however, die out once the interest rates start rising. In between, there are experimental and innovative business models. Some of these use the low interest rate period to forge better, more robust models. Such businesses thrive later. Others, however, end up going bust. The role of banks is to identify each of these business models and fund them while appropriately mitigating the risks. 

How low interest rate leads to mal-investment 
A bank takes risk by investing in a venture. Interest rate is also a reward bankers get, for taking the risk. Ideally, even in lower interest rate scenario, those projects with best risk-return trade-off should get financed. 

However, in reality, lower yielding large borrowings backed by reputed corporates get access to financing more easily than new ventures. This means, irrational mega-projects or mal-investments of large corporates get financed at the cost of genuine investments of new ventures. 

Typically, such irrational mega-projects consume a lot of credit requiring load syndication. This has twin benefits for bankers. First, there is a higher degree of comfort in being with the herd. Secondly, bankers do not have to go through credit appraisal of many small entities of questionable risk profile. This makes them assign a lower risk to these projects than appropriate. Intelligent investors will find that this contradicts with the "diversification as risk management" strategy. But being with herd has a stronger lure and is treated as risk mitigation (though wrongly).

Further, at lower interest rates, debt starts being used as an instrument to amplify equity returns.  

Thus the second blow to new ventures comes from crowding out. It implies that even in a low interest rate environment, small businesses and entrepreneurs may not have access to lower cost capital. Therefore this impacts the long-term strength of the economy. 

In high interest rate scenario, the irrational mega-projects seem less promising. Hence, contrary to popular belief, it may be easier for smaller businesses to compete in high interest rate scenarios. 

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Rant - Keynes is medicine - not food

I wish to restate that Keynesian recommendations are like medicine, to be taken only in dire circumstances when the economy is ill. It is not, I repeat NOT, a dietary recommendation for running a country in usual times.