All Things Considered, The Mumbai-Ahmedabad Bullet Train Is Still A Good Idea

Bullet_train
This column is essentially a follow up to the column titled In Defence Of The Mumbai-Ahmedabad Bullet Train which was published a few days back. In this column I will try and answer some questions that were asked by readers in response to the previous column.

One feedback that came through very strongly was that the Modi government has got its priorities all wrong and the bullet train is essentially a show-off project. This was very well summarised in a tweet in which I was asked whether I had ever tried taking a local train at the Parel station (one of the local train stations in Mumbai on the central line) in the evening? The short answer is yes, I have boarded local trains at Parel in the evening and at various other stations in Mumbai. And it’s a pain.

The point that the reader was trying to make was that taking the local train in Mumbai in the evenings (and the mornings) is very difficult. The trains are usually all packed and there is very little space to even stand properly. There are many more people packed into the compartments than these compartments are built to take in.

In fact, today’s edition of the Mumbai Mirror newspaper reports that ventilators on 80% of the trains don’t work. As the newspaper reports: “Over 400 commuters have died of heart attacks and other complications this year, triggered in most cases by suffocation. A majority of these deaths took place during peak hours.”

Long story short—forget standing properly, you can’t even breathe properly while traveling on a Mumbai local. Given this scenario, why are we interested in starting a bullet train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad? Why not use that money to try and improve the condition of the local trains in Mumbai? Has the government got its priorities all wrong?

This is a fair question. Nevertheless, it needs to be understood that we are not in an either-or kind of situation here. Most of the money to build the bullet train system between Mumbai and Ahmedabad is not coming from the current revenues of the Indian government or the Indian Railways for that matter. This means that the money is not being taken away from something else that the government could have done with that money.

This, further means that the money that will be used for the bullet train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad could not have been used to improve the local train system in Mumbai. It could not have been used for increasing the education, health, environment and road and highways budget of the government as well. It was available only for the bullet train.

So where is the money to build the bullet train going to come from? This money is being lent by the Japanese government at a highly concessional interest rate of 0.1% per year to be repaid over a period of 65 years (Yes, you read that right).

Why is the Japanese government lending this money at close to 0% interest? They are lending this money so that the Japanese Shinkansen Technology is adopted for the bullet train project. This is in the interest of the Japanese business which is currently going through a tough time. So the Japanese government is lending money to the Indian government to buy stuff from Japan. This money is not available for anything else.

Further, as the press release announcing the bullet train said: “Japan has offered an assistance of over Rs 79,000 crore for the project. The loan is for a period of 50 years with a moratorium of 15 years, at an interest rate of 0.1 per cent. The project is a 508 kilometer railway line costing a total of Rs. 97,636 crore, to be implemented in a period of seven years.”

So 80% of the money to build the bullet train line is coming from Japan. This loan comes with an interest rate of 0.1%, which more or less means that this is an interest free loan. It is to be repaid effectively over a period of 65 years. The loan comes with a moratorium of 15 years, which means that the repayment does not have to start immediately. It will start in 15 years time and will be repaid over a period of 50 years after that.

Given the long repayment period of the loan, the impact of inflation on the “real” value of the loan needs to be taken into account? As an editorial published in the Business Standard newspaper today (December 16, 2015) points out: “India’s average wholesale price inflation in the four decades between 1970 and 2010 has hovered at 7.6 per cent and consumer price inflation in that period has been estimated at an average of over eight per cent.”

At an inflation of 8% per year, by the time the loan repayment starts fifteen years down the line, the “real” value of the Rs 79,000 crore loan, in today’s money, would be around Rs 24,900 crore. At 5% inflation it would be Rs 38,000 crore. The broader point is that by the time the loan repayment will start the real value of the loan will be considerably lower.

This calculation does not take into account the fact that the loan will most likely be in Japanese yen. It does not take the currency risk into account. Currency risk is important because if the rupee depreciates against the yen, then the Indian government will need more rupees to buy the yen that it will need to repay the loan.

This was another feedback that I got in response to the last column. I was told that I did not take currency risk into account while putting forward my analysis. I did not do that because over a long period of time (65 years in this case), I think it won’t really matter.

In October 1996, one yen was worth 0.4 rupees (or 40 India paisa). Currently one yen is worth 0.55 rupees (or 55 Indian paisa). Since 1996, the worst situation came in August 2013(when rupee was rapidly losing value against the dollar as well) when one yen was worth around 0.69 rupees (or 69 paisa). Over the last twenty years, the general trend has been of the rupee depreciating against the yen except in the late 1990s when the rupee appreciated against the yen.

There have been periods of volatility where the rupee has rapidly depreciated against the yen, but over a two-decade period, the depreciation has happened at a very slow rate. Given this, even if the rupee were to continue to depreciate against the yen, it won’t really matter over a period of 65 years, especially once we take inflation and economic growth into account. The size of the loan by the time the Indian government starts repaying it, will be significantly smaller in comparison to the size of the economy as measured by the gross domestic product.

Another question asked by readers was that why is the train being started between Mumbai and Ahmedabad, which already has good connectivity? Given the nature of the project the train has to be run between Delhi and some place or Mumbai and some place (or Bangalore and Chennai). That is where the initial market of people likely to use the bullet train is, given that these cities have the highest number of air-travellers.

And given that among all India cities, Delhi tends to get the most money when it comes to building physical infrastructure, linking Mumbai with Ahmedabad makes immense sense. In fact, if the government has plans of a second bullet train, it needs to be between Bangalore and Chennai.

As far as the financing of the bullet train project is concerned, I don’t see any problems. The major problems will come in the implementation part. Getting the land required to build the track at a reasonable price and ensuring that the tickets are priced at a level, where the entire thing is viable and doesn’t just become a show-off project. That is where the real challenge is.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He can be reached at vivek.kaul@gmail.com)

The column originally appeared on Huff Post India on December 16, 2015

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About vivekkaul
Vivek Kaul is a writer who has worked at senior positions with the Daily News and Analysis(DNA) and The Economic Times, in the past. He is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. Easy Money: The Greatest Ponzi Scheme Ever and How It Is Set to Destroy the Global Financial System , the latest book in the trilogy has just been published. The first two books in the trilogy were published in November 2013 and July 2014 respectively. Both the books were bestsellers on Amazon.com and Amazon.in. Currently he works as an economic commentator and writes regular columns for www.firstpost.com. He is also the India editor of The Daily Reckoning newsletter published by www.equitymaster.com. His writing has appeared across various other publications in India. These include The Times of India, Business Standard,Business Today, Business World, The Hindu, The Hindu Business Line, Indian Management, The Asian Age, Deccan Chronicle, Forbes India, Mutual Fund Insight, The Free Press Journal, Quartz.com, DailyO.in, Business World, Huffington Post and Wealth Insight. In the past he has also been a regular columnist for www.rediff.com. He has lectured at IIM Bangalore, IIM Indore, TA PAI Institute of Management and the Alliance University (Bangalore). He has also taught a course titled Indian Economy to the PGPMX batch of IIM Indore. His areas of interest are the intersection between politics and economics, the international financial crisis, personal finance, marketing and branding, and anything to do with cinema and music. He can be reached at vivek.kaul@gmail.com

2 Responses to All Things Considered, The Mumbai-Ahmedabad Bullet Train Is Still A Good Idea

  1. mukul chand says:

    Good Idea for sure. nice post

  2. Logic against emotion! says:

    Statistics can be used conveniently to make anything sound sensible or idiotic…. all depends on how numbers are played around with. I know why you choose 1996 as the base to justify your thesis on why currency fluctuation is irrelevant. It is simply because that was the time when INR/JPY rate was at the extreme which helps to justify your analysis. But when you are talking of 65 year loan, why 20 years?? Moreover, if the loan is in JPY, why are you using Indian inflation rate to deflate the value of the loan to 24000 crore? Basics of economics would say that the discount rate applied should be the Japanese inflation rate because the loan is in JPY. And Japanese inflation rate is 0% or at times even negative, which could even inflate the loan value. So it goes against your analysis and hence you have conveniently used Indian inflation rate. I tried to locate long term exchange rates and I could find only upto 1972. Hence, I’m using 43 year history instead of 65 years. But in 1972, one Rupee could buy more than 40 Yen. In 2015 today, we can only buy 1.8 Yen. That is an annual compounded depreciation of Rupee against Yen of 7.8%. Hence, the cost of this loan is going to be 7.9% (7.8%+0.1%). Noted that this is based on historical trend, which may not be true for the future. But no one knows 65 years of future. Economics says that ignoring short term fx movements, over the long term, exchange rate depreciates/appreciates based on difference in inflation rate in the 2 economies. Based on that, the 7.8% depreciation seems quite logical because Indian inflation in past 40 years certainly has been approximately that much higher versus Japan. Future no one knows, but what we know is that Japanese economy is a mature economy and inflation may remain close to zero, but Indian economy still is growing very fast and hence inflation will remain. Even RBI projects a long term target of 4% inflation rate in the future. If we take that also, the interest rate on this loan will be 4.1% (4% +0.1%). Let’s not mislead people by such irrelevant statistics. Indian Rupee has been constantly depreciating against JPY and will continue to stay on that trend. 1996 was just an aberration.

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