Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Fallen Angel Investing


(….it’s all legal)

You’ve seen McKenna’s Gold, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Goldfinger and Gold Rush. Deadly metal. A few lives don’t count for the reward. Goldfinger radiates menace....touches on the economic aspects (smart guy).  Gold holdings. Its working like the bomb the guy designed for the movie “Speed” – you can't slow down. Central banks around the world hold huge quantities of gold…it’s a stupid, useless metal relative to its price. By holding it, the price stays up….if they sell it….they’d do what Goldfinger couldn’t.

Indian citizens consume 800 tonnes of imported gold annually (domestic consumption is a multiple of that..2000 tonnes plus when I checked last a long time ago).  At today’s prices, that’s about US $ 46 billion or a little less than 3 % of real GDP. The Reserve Bank of India is concerned. Import duties are up to 4% in a bid to reduce consumption. The govt will earn $ 1.8 billion in revenue at current import levels. Right? Wrong.  $ 1.8 billion is arbitrage window for smugglers to bring in 800 tonnes of gold.  15 years ago, the same govt reduced import duties to a point where smuggling became unattractive business. Organized crime went back to extortion and kidnapping (read the front pages of a random Mumbai newspaper through 1997 and 1998 to verify).

In the US, a recent article in The Economist focused on differential taxes on cigarettes between neighbouring  states. Higher prices should curb smoking. Right? Wrong.  Its created an opportunity to smuggle cigarettes across state borders. Cigarettes are also a versatile trading currency, if you’ve read and watched the prison stories – war and criminal.

Gujarat, the home state of Mahatma Gandhi, has had prohibition in force since independence. It’s the only state that you can get home delivery of your favourite brand anytime you want. The long coast of Gujarat provides plenty of scope for smuggling.  The excellent roads built (I’m told, I haven’t traveled on them) are handy for the powerful cars that smugglers invest in while the L1 quotation supplies (L1 is lowest bidder, for the uninitiated) of cop vehicles can’t keep pace.   So guess who wins the chase in this sequence. It ain’t Dirty Harry.

States within India often have different tax rates for products and services. Result. Cross border smuggling, invoice fudging etc. Just picture armed cops in pursuit of a jeep carrying (gulp!)……..electronic computer parts…..while there’s mob violence unabated in a nearby town. Its like that guy at airport security in the movie "Airplane" telling the passenger with the dog, “Ma’am, I can’t let him go on board..no way….”.  In the background, some guys are walking through with automatics and rocket launchers.  

At an international level, this is called tax planning by legitimate corporations who book taxes in obscure island countries famed for nice beaches and clear blue waters.  And its all legal. The biggest price they pay is being called “the 1%”, “anti-national” and “anti-people”. Terrible stuff. I’m sure the accountants are feeling remorse while they sip their rum cocktail at the beach barbeque on starlit nights.

The “Drug War” led by the United States and United Nations is a colossal disaster.  Drug smugglers running heroin freely in the late 60s, said it was an easy competitive market with low margins. There wasn’t much killing then and much of the shooting was the users in their arms. Organized crime and drug cartels flourished post-drug war to the multi-billion dollar enterprises they are today. Further, their profits have been reinvested in new, higher value added formulations that are good for business.  On the other side, its led to the creation of a huge bureaucracy to combat these criminals – with associated vested interested. “Vested” means stakeholders.  Those employed in these bureaucracies with their large budgets plus those who supply the equipment and services to sustain them – no one wants this war to end. It means they lose business and / or a job. Even Batman struggles with “moving on” ("The Dark Knight Rises") after Gotham’s crime free – and he’s a good guy.

Once a distribution system is streamlined (this includes greasing corrupt law enforcement machinery), it can be used to deliver a variety of products – bombs, weapons etc.  The reported plot to assassinate a Saudi ambassador in the US last year, had the Iranian guy talking to a Mexican  “drug” executive (sic).  (A banker friend once told me that dispensing cash through ATMs is not very different from delivering pizza – aaah, the world of logistics).

When you extend such ridiculous laws to more common features of life in a developing country, it’s hardly surprising that crooked politicians, corrupt administrators and organized crime thrive.  It’s also not surprising that ordinary citizens become criminalized or are forced to bribe – a sustainable (the dream of development practitioners) solution for criminal enterprise. Some examples you may relate to:
i)                    Mandatory food certification – a recent article featured “underground” supper clubs in the USA.  Ingredients bought from the same sources as every home, cooked for those who’d like to eat it and are willing to pay. Its illegal.
ii)                   Street food – ubiquitous in any large city anywhere in the world. Street vending is illegal in most places – you aren’t allowed to sell. Forget that these entrepreneurs are trying to earn an honest living providing food at cheap prices to the citizens of the city, who voluntarily purchase it and consume it. The largest food-related health epidemics in India – adulterated cooking oil normally through “legal” traders (and it ain't Walmart), often cheating on quantities to make the slim margins that enable them to function.
iii)                 Licence / permit systems – an official of the real estate developers association in India has publicly stated that with about a 100 different permissions required from different civic departments, bribery is inevitable. As a result, real estate sales demand 30% of the sales price as cash or “black” money from buyers. And that's a conservative estimate.

Fiscal policies have been the Angel investors of organized crime. They create a huge arbitrage opportunity, enough to justify scale.  Even without scale, it creates huge opportunities for crooked administrators everywhere, including rich countries. When such things happen in parts of the world with poor government and judicial enforcement, it’s the road to disaster.  Militias (look at mineral rich Africa, drug rich northern Burma and Afghanistan etc) thrive. Where it isn’t militarized, crooked politicians love the access to illegal money for political reasons. Real estate dealing in India (and other countries like ours) is a huge source of finance for crooked politicians, many in bed with criminals of all denominations. It’s a secular business - so it meets that aspect our Constitution without reservation.

I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d discovered a shrine in the late Pablo Escobar’s palace with statues of the leading lights of the anti-drug war – the guardian angels who’ve given impetus to the business.

And in case you think these guys are sleazeballs – they make profits in cash for providing services and products, a cash return on investment. Not selling dreams or notional values of promised profits on a piece of paper with a price tag, based on long maths equations that require  a  Ph.D. to decipher. And sink your family’s fortunes and a country’s fortunes overnight…..and its all legal! 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Dusty

2002-2012




Wish you have a lot of open spaces to run around in the hereafter.

And thanks for the magic your brought into my life. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Forthcoming Blockbusters and Bestsellers - a prediction


Recent developments  across the globe have provided plenty of entertainment and drama. Like it has been the case for a couple of decades now, there will be plenty of scope for extending book and movie franchises and some potential blockbusters. Some of these are listed below:


“The Spy Who Loved Me” – an author’s inside view of the deadly military engagement in the Middle East

“Bloodsport” – the true saga of the Tour de France

“Kill Bills” – creative accounting by Parliamentarians in democracies as they fight to implement austerity measures

“Gone with the Wind” – New York’s fight to maintain pre-eminence against the evil forces of nature

“The Italian Job” – succession planning in a south Asian democracy

“For a Few Dollars More” – defence procurement across the globe (bonus chapter on "How to sell a toilet seat for $ 1,000). 

“The Seven Per Cent Solution” -  how to beat the competition in winning govt contracts in Africa and East Asia

“Debt Wish” -  a Greek tragedy

“The Sting” – achieving success on Wall Street (a CDO exclusive presentation)

“Mission Impossible – V” – a collaborative effort between three former US Heads of State and three Indian Prime Minister’s on piloting legislation in hung houses and coalition governments.

Any suggestions that you have?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Getting to Normal


This is an outcome of an assignment for a poetry course I'm doing.

The assignment uses Bernadette Mayer's suggestion in "writing experiments" : "Using phrases relating to one subject or idea to write about another. For example, use science terms to write about childhood or philosophic language to describe a shirt."

I used an article on the Economic crisis (2008 and thereafter) to write about human relationships and (implicitly) marriage.  The article : Getting to Normal by Daniel Gros

http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/comparing-the-financial-crisis-in-the-us-and-europe-by-daniel-gros 

The entire text is sourced from the article. Hope you enjoy the results. I enjoyed the process. I'll skip the philosophy behind it...if you don't get it after reading, then I've done it badly! 

Getting to Normal

Large assets suddenly appears
A normal risk return calculus quantified
Sometimes owners at any price
This has never happened before
The boom phase

a similar pattern
embedded
risk-free status
could explain the evolution
over time
The de facto default
Outright mutualization

concentrated debt
is not compatible
Socialization law expressly forbids
Continuing periphery

a mere value to be plugged
increased deficits
the height of the crisis
homeowners abandoning
own countries’ bonds

a return to normal
rebounded
still searching for “fundamentals,”
biggest risk
solemnly orchestrated
Toxic suddenly appears
Calculated
Decline unprecedented in securities

complacency
That guarantee
to disintegrate
the status quo ante
Residential peacetime shattered

Safe regulatory framework anticipated
Repricing rationally
At fire sale prices
A similar pattern Union
Underpinned losses


Thursday, November 08, 2012

2084 - You're watching Big Brother


Back to the futile – Part I

“Skyfall”, the latest Bond flick is pretty entertaining. As we exited the theatre, one of the blokes was commenting to his girlfriend, “Its become like a Hindi movie – revenge, family, and all that”. I like Hindi movies and I liked this Bond movie too. The sole sore spot was this Bond girl who’s acting talent is God like – you can’t see it. Thankfully, she’s got a shot role (sic). 

A significant event was to see the impact of Dr Ramadoss. The anti-smoking efforts at the theatre.  It begins with a gory clip of what happens to smokers – concluding with a towel (black) being squeezed out and filling a mug– that’s the annual tar intake for an average smoker, according to the ad. If you’re a smoker, the urge to have a puff climaxes with the clip and you want to race out to grab a puff.  Those who don’t smoke are wondering why the main feature has been delayed for this. 

Then, during a taut moment in the flick, a character (a few of them actually) lights up and THERE”S A STATUTORY WARNING IN LARGE PRINT AT THE BOTTOM OF THE FRAME!!  Also noticeable for the strategic product placement at points in the movie. There’s a notebook computer that’s clearly VAIO, just in case you forgot that Columbia Pictures is owned by SONY. Let’s call these guys – Big-Step Brother. 

Big Brother is here telling you to be a good boy (or girl).  Is what they hope.  Step Brother is happy that you spend on his product – regardless of the use you put it too.

What if we extend the “ multi-tarrer”  approach to the movies in entirety and commercialize it, then…. 

SCENE I – CAR CHASE

STATUTORY WARNING : Please observe all speed limits (normally 50 km / hr) when driving in cities, do not drive in opposite lanes, and carry third-party insurance policy in the vehicle.
Bond and Villian pause after banging cars to leave copies of their insurance policy.

ADVERT : Skoda : Strongly Built. Special discount for MP’s sons post-party.

SCENE II - HITMAN

Cigar smoking Mafia boss: “Here’s the advance, 50% on delivery” – pushes briefcase full of cash to Hitman.

STATUTORY WARNING: Please take PAN No: for cash payments over Rs 20,000 and collect service tax chargeable at applicable rates. Failure to do so will be…..

ADVERTISEMENT: Banco UnoPercentio – (backed by EU Bonds – not James’ family)
 Let us handle your wealth – free ticket to Zurich as promotional offer.


SCENE III – GIZMOs

Q :  James, these shoes have inbuilt radio transmitters that can frequency hop on Cellular Networks………..
STATURORY WARNING: Usage of wireless frequency in cellular spectrum is permitted by service provider who won the auction of  2G/3G/4G spectrum.
Bond film’s budget just went up by about Rs 20,000 crores. Remember his shoes will be on global roaming.

PRODUCERS' CAVEAT: Made from open source, no copyright infringement 

(I'm not joking about this. A recent article featured the auction of a music cassette that an Apollo mission took to the moon with Simon and Garfunkel, Jefferson Airplane etc on it. Several readers' comments stated - they'd be arrested on return these days for IPR violations!!! It was a blank tape recorded on)

ADVERTISMENT :  What an IDEA, Sir ji!

SCENE IV – ITEM NUMBER

The hero  adjourns to the Nightclub to nail some underling villain. Its an opportunity for an “item” number and the hero to dress well – (the post 2008 recession may have producers cutting back on Armanis and Gucci being ruined in action sequences in sewerage pipes). Of course, we don’t wonder everyone is wearing dark glasses at night.

STATUTORY WARNING: Usage of loudspeakers after 10 pm only with written permission from your local police station.
(Also, given the age of the dancers): Liquor will not be served to those under 25. ID proof may be required.
ADVERTISMENT:
SANDY – Sound systems to blow your mind 
(to be placed at point hero shoots underling in the head.)
RAYMAN – Dark glasses that can see in the dark.

SCENE V - CLIMAX

Climax: Total mayhem. Guns, bullets, explosions – the building collapses, the trees are on fire.

STATUTORY WARNING: Ownership of Guns without a license is prohibited. Only 3 litres of kerosene permitted at subsidized rate.  Villian’s henchmen cannot claim NREGA funds during the period of shoot (sic).
Burning of green vegetation and chopping trees require explicit approval of the Environmental Ministry.    

ADVERTISMENTS :
MendLIFE Corporation – If only the villain had insured with us……
Sholay Limited – fires created through usage of solar power on film sets.
PETA – all microbes on set safely evacuated to labs prior to destruction of sets. Only animal left was the villian, who wasn't hurt during shooting.

Somewhere, in between all this – you can pay attention to the dialogue. Maybe PVR will offer power Speed Reading classes with the popcorn). Though, if you’re watching some film like the Agneepath remake (no dialogue)…or Karan Johar (only songs……..and then some words like “love’…) or a Steven Segal movie (he’ s mumbling anyway).

(heart)BREAKING NEWS:  Leading corporate considering rebranding as “Big Brother” Entertainment.



Sunday, November 04, 2012

Applying Research to Life


If we applied Research knowledge to everyday situations

A recent phenomenon in daily newspapers has been the introduction of a  health page. The health page features research studies undertaken on various health issues. It’s a very secular page. All kinds of studies make the column. Just to highlight the range:

“Horror movies burn calories.” – If you’re a big fan of H P Lovecraft and his genre, dig into your buttered popcorn and fried chicken. No fear. Incidentally, "The Shining" was voted the scariest horror flick ever in the UK, based on a sample size of 34 (or something). Now it can be promoted as an entertaining weight-loss programme as well.

“4 most common sleeping positions discovered with related personality attributes”. – that’s right, 7 billion people on this planet sleep in four positions and represent four personality types. What are these marketeers cribbing about when their product launch bombs? Can’t figure out 4 types of personalities after a billion dollars in development – please return your marketing MBA to Harvard. This research was undertaken by a hotel on about a hundred guests.
                                                  
“Facebook, email more irresistible than sex” – this based on a survey of 205 people. Given a choice between the urge to have sex and check email while you’re on the train going to work, you’ll get on Facebook.

The page makes really interesting reading and is appropriately placed opposite the comic strips in some papers. Research studies like the above, support every phantom menace,  superstition and point of view.  Its truly egalitarian.

Supposing we applied such acceptable, mainstream research studies to everyday conversation, how would our world change? Let’s hypothesize a few everyday situations:

Scenario A

On Flight Landing:
“Ladies and Gentleman, we are delighted to welcome you to xxxxxx International Airport. ………and wish you a pleasant stay on the beautiful winter’s day.” (Flight attendant displaying initiative at the end).

Researcher : Of the 126 people on the flight, 79 are traveling on work – 32 are behind schedule on assignment, 15 have a painful boss or client to meet,  11 are suffering from various health ailments, 3 have to chase payments from errant clients,  14 are applying for a new job, 3 have serious marital problems.  1 person is happy.  Of the remaining 47 – 12 have hearing defects,  4 are visiting a hospital for advanced cancer patients,  17 are dreading meeting their spouse, 8 are dreading the taxi queue.  Research recommends : “We have a complimentary 4 minutes power Yoga and meditation class at the arrival lounge to ensure your sense of calm for the violent day ahead of you”.

Scenario B

“Good Morning, children! How are we today and are we looking forward to class today?”. Teacher to classroom.
Researcher:  Its winter, about 8 degree C outside and drizzling and the teacher has just walked into class carrying the Unit Test question paper in Maths. 38 out of the 40 children hate maths, 28 can’t stand the teacher,  39 are freezing in the cold, the 40th is wearing Arctic inners and is warm. Research recommends “Children it’s a miserable day for your lousiest subject, but I’m going to cheer you up….the LCD flatscreen in the class will be on CARTOON NETWORK while you do your test”.

Scenario C

“As usual, I’m looking forward to the frank discussions to approve the projects submitted for sanction to this Meeting of the Committee of Directors.” _ MD to Committee of Management.

Researcher: Of the 10 other members on the Committee, 6 know that the MD represents 60% shareholding and doesn’t give a shit about their viewpoint,  2 are checking their Android phones to strike latest deals on purchase and sale of shares based on the Meeting decisions,  1 is romancing his secretary via chat on his I-Phone and the 10th is actual paying attention – he’s the MD’s son. Recommendations: “Why don’t you guys just sign here and drift to the lunch room for some wine and food, while I complete this sham meeting and join you?” – might be a more morale boosting way of doing things.

Scenario D:

CEO to company officials at an offsite with specially invited VIP guests – closing remarks:

“….and I’m really happy that we have achieved our record sales for last year due to the strong FAMILY feeling amongst us……”

Researcher:  Of the 35 people present in the room, 24 have “dad” issues, 12 were regularly beaten up by their fathers, 17 have control freak moms,  23 have jealous siblings who sneaked on them to their parents earning them a beating or quite simply downplayed their role in family, 7 have run away from home at least once in their teen years.  1 person is happy about this, he grew up in an orphanage and is now a successful general manager.  Recommendation: “Our incentive policy of 12.5% commission on sales above target has suitably motivated the greed in our team and I recommend extending the policy……”.

Maybe we could submit these to the Management and Industry page as researched wisdom.  When read along with stock brokers’ views on the economic outlook, it’d be a laugh riot….except if they’re dealing with your investment money.

The More-holler-istic Majority


It was 1975.  If you were a middle class-kid living in urban India, entertainment options after school included, inter alia, your evening game (soccer, cricket, badminton – if  you were rich), watching the traffic, chasing butterflies in the garden (if you had one) and watching Krishi Darshan (literally “Visiting the Farmer”) on the telly and learning about the benefits of urea to crop growth.  You could also work on graffiti on your neighbour’s wall and risk his ire (it’s a real kick getting even with the grouchy uncle who never returns the cricket ball that lands in his compound).

On one such evening, The Kid was sitting with his friends (three guys, two girls – rain stopped play, so the kids are sitting in a shed) discussing the previous evening’s TV programme.

(TRUE STORY LIBERALLY EMBELLISHED FOR DRAMATIC EFFECT)

With just one channel to choose from, there was never much debate on what to discuss about TV. The chosen one for the moment was a lady singer from Bangladesh, beautiful voice and lovely looking woman.
“She’s a really good singer, but her ghazals sound horrible”, says The Kid. 

“What?!!! HOW CAN YOU SAY THAT? DON”T YOU KNOW SHE’S CALLED THE GHAZAL QUEEN?!!!!”, - his friends in chorus -   if screaming together qualifies as music.

“Abbey, he’s an Angrez ke aulad from Bombay”, pipes in Sanjay – he’s the leader of the pack. This is normally the alpha male – the guy who can beat everyone else up – just like the days of Alexander and Kublai Khan.   When you have a critical mass of buddies, you can become Emperor and Great Conqueror.

“She has been recognized as Ghazal Queen in The Times of India”. This is Laila’s contribution. Laila is the Cleopatra-female of the pack – very articulate, extremely knowledgeable and beautiful - and de facto leader of the women’s wing in the precinct. Her Mom is a Minister in the Central Government. The Times of India, of course, is the arbiter of all truth in this crowd.

After some heated debate, The Kid is now confronted with a tricky situation –

He can either battle through on a matter of principle  – “she-sounded–awful-to-me-on–the–ghazals-and-the-Times-of-India-isn’t–sitting-in–my-eardrum” is one course of action. This will have consequences such as social ostracism by new found friends and likely hard tackles on the soccer ground for a few days.

OR

He can do the “maybe-you-are-right-and-the-dog-was-barking-while-she-sang” line of rapprochement. Veiled threats wafting through the shed included zero-scope for making friends with the girls plus a beating by the Leader somewhere down the line.

The dog barked and sanity was restored along with the singer’s sobriquet as Ghazal Queen.  Everyone seemed happy about convincing The Kid otherwise. The group retired to catch the latest episode of Krishi Darshan. They would find out that this one was a cow-dung special. That was the bullshit for that day.

Similar things abound in adult spaces about forty years later.  A key benefit of the Internet and electronic media is that the mob now has a louder megaphone to back brute numbers.
Here are some gems that one routinely encounters:

“Hurricane Sandy is the worst storm ever “……media pandemonium. Records indicate its come in at number 17 (since 1900) in bad storms indexed by insurance companies with the met guys. Poor New York has floods, electricity and telephones down, transportation disrupted and, tragically, some people died. These things don’t happen when storms hit other places (the cyclone in Andhra in 1977 killed about 10,000 – even the media in India barely mentions it. It’ll probably turn up in some newsreel called “Classics”).    

“You mean you don’t care about the environment….” – this to a person who’s expressed a view that carbon-taxes are a dumb way of doing it or efficient operations are inherently environment friendly and profitable. The pro-environment mob MUST endorse carbon taxes and profit cannot coexist with efficient use of natural resources. Does this sound like a Fundamentalist?

“Romney can’t be trusted, he’s the 1%.” or some variant thereof. Its Romney’s fault that he is rich. By inference, rich people can’t be trusted with public welfare. Poor people are likely to be corrupt - they have an incentive to be. This leaves the middle-class. (No wonder rich and poor politicians work on screwing the middle class……they create all the electoral problems.)

“Arguably the greatest Grand Slam final every played….” Is a preferred description for every five-set  men’s final played in tennis. The “greatest” has been improved upon, on an average, about 2 to 3 times a year.  But a generation grows up believing this to be true, every year.

“How CAN YOU SAY SACHIN SHOULD RETIRE?!!!!! Don’t you know he’s our greatest batsman ever…!!!”…….after Sachin’s sole century in many months has been against Bangladesh (or some such sordid sequence). 

The above captures a typical line of argument on a random subject in public spaces. If you’re loud enough and can rally the mob, you win the argument and there is no other point of view.  Watch NDTV’s debate shows and measure the decibel count.

High Decibel levels plus numbers have a gravitational effect on the Truth. The More you Holler, the Truth bends your way.  It’s the fifth fundamental force.

We’re liberal and democratic. And we oppose any other point of view.

The More-holler-istic Majority.