Where George Orwell meets Wasim Barelvi 

george orwell
अभी कुछ दिनों की बात के एक मित्र जो के हिंदुस्तानी में थोड़ा बहुत लिखते हैं, उन्होने पुछा के जॉर्ज ओरवेल की Animal Farm में एक पंक्ति है “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,”  इसका हिंदुस्तानी में क्या अनुवाद होगा.

अब एक तरीका ये था के ओरवेल की इस पंक्ति का सीधे सीधे अनुवाद किया जाए. मुझे ये तरीका बड़ा बोरिंग लगा, क्यूंकि हर भाषा में इतनी गहराई होती है, के कम से कम मिसाल तो उसी भाषा में दी जा सके.
तभी मेरी tubelight हमेशा की तरह देर से जली और प्रोफेसर वसीम बरेलवी का एक शेर याद  आया: “गरीब लहरों पर पहरे बिठाये जाते हैं, समन्दरों की तलाशी कोई नहीं लेता”. इस शेर का भी लगभग वही माने है जो ओरवेल की पंक्ति का है.

ओरवेल ने अपनी बात प्रोफेस्सर बरेलवी से काफी पहले कही थी. क्या ओरवेल की ये पंक्ति प्रोफेसर साब के शेर की प्रेरना है? अब ये तो वही बता सकते हैं.

मतलब इसका ये है, के दुनिया में जो भी कहा जा सकता है, वो कहा जा चूका है. आप बस इतना कर सकते हैं को उसी बात को अपने अंदाज़ में कह सकते हैं. और अपने अंदाज़ में प्रोफेसर बरेलवी ने ये बात खूब कही है.

अब GST को ही ले लीजिये…

Dear Mr Urjit Patel, Have You Ever Heard of Wasim Barelvi?

For a man who rarely and barely speaks, the Reserve Bank of India governor Urjit Patel spoke quite a lot in the press conference that happened after the first monetary policy of this financial year was presented on April 6, 2017.

In response to the question, “What do you think are the implications of the farm loan waiver schemes and is it a cause of concern for the RBI?”, Patel had this to say: “There are several conceptual issues, if one were to put one’s hat as an economist on. I think it undermines an honest credit culture, it impacts credit discipline, it blunts incentives for future borrowers to repay, in other words, waivers engender moral hazard. It also entails at the end of the day transfer from tax payers to borrowers. If on account of this, overall Government borrowing goes up, yields on Government bonds also are impacted. Thereafter it can also lead to the crowding out of private borrowers as higher government borrowing can lead to an increase in cost of borrowing for others. I think we need to create a consensus such that loan waiver promises are eschewed, otherwise sub-sovereign fiscal challenges in this context could eventually affect the national balance sheet.

Basically in one paragraph, Patel summarised all that is wrong about waiving off farmer loans or in fact, any loan. I had discussed most of these issues in my Diary dated April 5, 2017, last week.

The first issue that a waive-off of bank loans creates is that of a moral hazard. The economist Alan Blinder in his book After the Music Stopped writes that the “central idea behind moral hazard is that people who are well insured against some risk are less likely to take pains (and incur costs) to avoid it.”

This basically means that once the farmer sees a loan being waived off today, he will wait for elections in the future for the newer loans he takes on to be waived off as well. Essentially, he will see little incentive in repaying loans that he takes on in the future. Or as Patel put it: “it impacts credit discipline, it blunts incentives for future borrowers to repay”.

The second issue that a waive-off of bank loans creates is that it can lead to the crowding out of private borrowers. The state government waiving off the bank loans needs to compensate banks which had given these loans. In case of the Uttar Pradesh government which recently wrote off the loans, this amounts to Rs 36,359 crore. The government will have to borrow this amount in order to pay the banks simply because its earnings are lesser than its expenditure.

When a government borrows more, it leaves a lesser amount of money for others to borrow. This can push up interest rates and as Patel aptly puts it, “higher government borrowing can lead to an increase in cost of borrowing for others”. What also needs to be taken into account here is the fact that the Uttar Pradesh government waive-off might inspire other state governments to waive-off farmer loans as well. This will mean greater government borrowing and a higher crowding out effect.

It will also lead to the overall fiscal deficit of the nation (i.e. fiscal deficits of state governments plus that of the central government) going up. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends during the course of a year. The difference between the earning and the spending is met through borrowing.

If several state governments waive-off bank loans and borrow more, it will lead to the national fiscal deficit going up. As Patel puts it: “sub-sovereign fiscal challenges in this context could eventually affect the national balance sheet.”

So far so good. It is nice to see the RBI governor speak out against what is essentially bad economics and can screw up the economic and financial situation of the nation. Nevertheless, the question is where has all this forthrightness been when it comes to the issue of corporate defaults and loan write-offs?

As is well known, corporates have defaulted on several lakhs of crore of bank loans over the years. These defaulters have been treated with kid gloves. Over the years, a huge amount of corporate loans have been written off. It needs to be mentioned here that loans written off are different from loans being waived off, at least theoretically.

This is something I discuss in detail in my new book India’s Big Government—The Intrusive State and How It is Hurting Us. The loans written off are no longer be a part of the balance sheet of the bank, even though they can be recovered in the future. There is no chance of recovery in case of a loan that is waived off. Hence, theoretically there is a difference between a write-off and a waive-off.

Let’s try and understand this issue in a little more detail. Let’s first take the case of the State Bank of India. As of April 1, 2015, the bank had Rs 56,725 crore of bad loans, or gross NPAs. During the course of the year, Rs 4,389 crore of bad loans was recovered. At the same time, the bank wrote off Rs 15,763 crore of bad loans. The loans written off would no longer be a part of the balance sheet of the bank, even though they could be recovered in the future.

As we can see in case of the State Bank of India, the total amount of the loans written off during the year was more than three times the total amount of the loans recovered. That tells us the sad state of the loan recovery process. There were also fresh bad loans that were added to the balance sheet of the bank during the course of the year, and by March 31, 2016, the total bad loans of the bank had slipped to Rs. 98,173 crore.

Or take a look at Table 1 which shows the overall scenario comparing write-offs and recoveries.

Table 1: Write-offs versus recoveries of public sector banks

Write-offs versus recoveries of public sector banks

Year Writes-Offs
(in Rs. Crore)
(in Rs. Crore)
2015-2016 59,547 39,534
2014-2015 52,542 41,236
2013-2014 34,409 33,698
2012-2013 27,231 19,832

Source: Reserve Bank of India

As is clear from Table 1, write-offs of public sector banks have been greater than their recoveries. And the absolute difference between the two has only gone up over the years. A bulk of these loans are corporate loans. Hence, it is safe to say on the basis of this data that a large portion of corporate loans which are written-off are over the years, are practically waived-off because banks are really not able to recover these loans.

Hence, if the issue of moral hazard comes up with farmer loan waive-offs, it also comes up with corporate loan write-offs. And given that a large portion of what is technically a write-off is actually a waive-off, the case for moral hazard in this case is really very strong. The RBI governor Patel could have talked about this as well, given that he has been in office for more than seven months now.

Over and above this, corporate loan write-offs have led to the situation of diminishing bank capital. This has led to the central government having to recapitalise the public sector banks over the years. Between 2009 and now, the amount of money put in has been greater than Rs 1,30,000 crore. This money is ultimately borrowed by the government and leads to crowding out, higher interest rates and a weaker national balance sheet. All these issues pointed out by Patel in case of farm loan waive-offs apply to corporate write-offs as well.

But a word hasn’t been spoken against them.

In the Diary dated March 22, 2017, I had quoted the British author George Orwell. In his book Animal Farm, Orwell writes: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” The point being, if there is a moral hazard for the farmer, there is also one for corporates. And if the RBI governor has pointed out one, he should have pointed out the other as well.

Over the weekend, I came across a very interesting couplet which makes the same point has George Orwell did in the Animal Farm, but rather more forcefully.

As Wasim Barelvi, probably the greatest Urdu poet alive today, writes:

Garib lehron par pehren bithaye jaate hain
samundaron ki talashi koi nahi leta”.

(I couldn’t come across a good translation of this couplet. Hence, I am leaving it untranslated. But its basic meaning is the same as the line from Orwell’s Animal Farm, quoted earlier).

The column originally appeared on April 10, 2017 on Equitymaster

The Orwellian Economics of Indian Banking

George Orwell towards the end of his brilliant book Animal Farm writes: “There was nothing there now except a single Commandment. It ran: All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

Nowhere is this more visible these days than at Indian banks, in particular the government owned public sector banks, and the way they treat their different kind of borrowers. As is well known by now, Indian public sector banks have a massive bad loans problem. This basically means that borrowers who had taken loans over the years are now not repaying them. The bad loans of Indian banks are now among the highest in the world, only second to that of Russia.

The borrowers who have defaulted on their loans primarily consist of large borrowers i.e. corporates, who have taken on loans and are now not repaying them. As per the Economic Survey of 2016-2017, among the large defaulters are 50 companies which owe around Rs 20,000 crore each on an average to the banking system. Among these 50 companies are 10 companies which owe more than Rs 40,000 crore each on an average to the banking system.

These are exceptionally large amounts. Typically, when a borrower defaults the bank comes after him with full force, in order to recover the loan, by selling
assets offered as a collateral against the loan. But this force is not felt by the large corporates. It is felt by the small entrepreneurs who borrow from banks or people like you and me who take on retail loans like home loans, vehicle loans, credit card loans etc.

As former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan said in 2014 speech: “Its full force [i.e., of the banking system] is felt by the small entrepreneur who does not have the wherewithal to hire expensive lawyers or move the courts, even while the influential promoter once again escapes its rigour. The small entrepreneur’s assets are repossessed quickly and sold, extinguishing many a promising business that could do with a little support from bankers.”

Given that they have access to the best lawyers and are close to politicians, the large borrowers don’t feel the heat of the banking system.

In fact, the large borrowers given that they are large, get treated with kids gloves. In some cases, the repayment periods of their loans have been extended. In some other cases, the borrower does not have to pay interest on the loan for a specific period. But all this hasn’t really helped and the banking mess continues.

The Economic Survey of 2016-2017 has recommended based on the data for the year ending September 2016 that “about 33 of the top 100 stressed debtors would need debt reductions of less than 50 percent, 10 would need reductions of 51-75 percent, and no less than 57 would need reductions of 75 percent or more.”

This basically means that banks will have to take on what is technically referred to as a haircut. Let’s say a corporate owes Rs 100 to a bank. A haircut of 51 per cent would mean that he would now owe only Rs 49 to the bank. The bank would have to take on a loss of Rs 51.

The Economic Survey offers multiple reasons why haircuts will be required. The first and the foremost is that the borrowers simply do not have the money to repay. Secondly, large corporates owe money to many banks and these banks need to agree on a strategy to tackle the defaults. That hasn’t happened.

Of course, what the Economic Survey does not tell us is that the large borrowers are politically well connected. It also does not get into the moral hazard haircuts would create. Once corporates are bailed out this time around, why would they go around repaying loans the next time around? They simply won’t have the economic incentive to do so.

And finally, the Survey does not tell us anything about why only the large corporates are being treated with kids gloves? I guess it does not need to because that was something Orwell explained to us many years back.

The column originally appeared in Bangalore Mirror on March 29, 2017.

Has the Chief Economic Adviser ever read George Orwell?

george orwell

Vivek Kaul

The writer George Orwell in his dystopian novel 1984 came up with the concept of “doublethink”. He defined this as a situation where people hold “simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them”. Arvind Subramanian, the chief economic adviser to the ministry of finance, seems to be in a similar situation these days. While speaking to the press after the Mid Year Economic Analysis was presented to the Parliament, Subramanian said that the government should consider increasing public sector spending in the medium term to revive economic growth . At the same time Subramanian said that the government was committed to meeting the fiscal deficit target of 4.1% of GDP during the current financial year. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends. How is it possible to stand for two absolutely opposite ideas at the same time? How can there be a commitment to increased government spending and maintaining the fiscal deficit at the same time? If the government spends more without earning more, its fiscal deficit is bound to go up. Nevertheless, before getting into this issue in detail let’s try and understand why Subramanian makes a case for increased public investment. In the Mid Year Economic Analysis Subramanian suggests that the public private partnership (PPP) model for infrastructure development hasn’t really worked. “There are stalled projects to the tune of Rs 18 lakh crore (about 13 percent of GDP) of which an estimated 60 percent are in infrastructure. In turn, this reflects low and declining corporate profitability as more than one-third firms have an interest coverage ratio of less than one (borrowing is used to cover interest payments). Over-indebtedness in the corporate sector with median debt-equity ratios at 70 percent is amongst the highest in the world. The ripples from the corporate sector have extended to the banking sector where restructured assets are estimated at about 11-12 percent of total assets. Displaying risk aversion, the banking sector is increasingly unable and unwilling to lend to the real sector,” the Mid Year Economic Analysis points out. What this means is that over the last few years corporates have borrowed more than what they can hope to repay. This has led to them defaulting and banks ending up in a mess. Currently the corporates are not willing to invest and banks are not ready to lend. In the process projects worth Rs 18 lakh crore (which is slightly more than the annual budget of the government of India) have been stalled. So what is the way out of this mess? “First, the backlog of stalled projects needs to be cleared more expeditiously, a process that has already begun. Where bottlenecks are due to coal and gas supplies, the planned reforms of the coal sector and the auctioning of coal blocks de-allocated by the Supreme Court as well as the increase in the price of gas which should boost gas supply, will help. Speedier environmental clearances, reforming land and labour laws will also be critical,” the analysis points out. But even this will not be enough, given that the PPP model hasn’t really delivered. In this scenario Subramanian suggests that “it seems imperative to consider the case for reviving public investment as one of the key engines of growth going forward, not to replace private investment but to revive and complement it.” The question that crops up here is on what should the government be spending money on? Subramanian suggests “there may well be projects for example roads, public irrigation, and basic connectivity–that the private sector might be hesitant to embrace.” He further suggests that one of the main lessons from PPP not working is that “India’s weak institutions there are serious costs to requiring the private sector taking on project implementation risks.” Hence, risks like “delays in land acquisition and environmental clearances, and variability of input supplies (all of which have led to stalled projects) are more effectively handled by the public sector.” And above all weak infrastructure (lack of power supply and poor connectivity) remains a major reason as to why the manufacturing sector hasn’t taken off in India. Increased spending by the government could address all these issues. The reasons presented by Subramanian for increased government spending make sense. One cannot argue against them. Nevertheless, he doesn’t address the most important question, which is, where is the money for all this going to come from? All he says in Mid Year Economic Analysis is that: “consideration should be given to address the neglect of public investment in the recent past and also review medium term fiscal policy to find the fiscal space for it(Italics in the original).” What he means here is that the government will have to somehow figure out how to finance the increased spending in the budgets to come. A document which runs into 148 pages could have done slightly better than that. So, let’s look at the options that the government has? It is not in a position to raise the tax rates, given the economic scenario that we are in. The other possible option is to cut down on non-plan expenditure which makes up for around 68% of the total expenditure of the government and use the money saved to increase public spending. Interest payments on debt, pensions, salaries, subsidies and maintenance expenditure are all non-plan expenditure. As is obvious a lot of non-plan expenditure is largely regular expenditure that cannot be done away with. The government needs to keep paying salaries, pensions and interest on debt, on time. Hence, slashing this expenditure is easier said than done. Another option for the government is to sell its assets, put that money into some sort of an infrastructure fund and use that money to finance higher public spending. But as we have seen over the last few years the disinvestment process has been a non starter. Now that leaves the government with only one option i.e. to finance the higher expenditure by borrowing more. This will lead to several other issues. As T N Ninan writes in the Business Standard: “The government could borrow more and invest, but the history of public sector investment is that, outside of sectors like oil marketing, the return on capital employed is lower than the government’s cost of borrowing.” While return on capital employed is not the best way to judge increased public spending, there are other issues that need to thought through as well. The government of India had managed to push its fiscal deficit down to 2.7% of GDP in 2007-2008. In 2008-2009, it decided to start increasing its expenditure to finance social schemes like NREGA and to give out subsidies as well. This pushed up the fiscal deficit to 6.4% of the GDP in 2009-10. This increased spending by the government helped the country grow at greater than 8% during a time when growth was collapsing all around the world in the aftermath of the financial crisis which started in September 2008. But it also led to a scenario of high interest rates and inflation, and a huge fall in household financial savings. The household financial savings have fallen dramatically over the last few years. The household financial savings rate was at 7.2% of the gross domestic product in 2013-2014, against 7.1% of GDP in 2012-2013 and 7% in 2011-2012. It had stood at 12% in 2009-2010. Household financial savings is essentially the money invested by individuals in fixed deposits, small savings scheme, mutual funds, shares, insurance etc. A fall in these savings led to high interest rates. The government was not creating any physical infrastructure through this increased spending. It was basically doling out money to asection of the population. As this money chased the same amount of goods and services it led to high inflation. Subramanian’s plan on the other hand is to use the increased government spending to create some physical infrastructure. Hence, increased government spending will not directly translate into inflation, as was previously the case. Nevertheless, all government spending in India has leakages and these leakages are likely to lead to some inflation. Further, there has been sharp fall in productivity over the last couple of years. As Swaminathan Aiyar puts it in his today’s column in The Economic Times:After 2012, the investment needed to produce one unit of output has gone up from four to seven units.” Long story short—these issues need to be thought through. Further, an increase in spending can push up fiscal deficit again to a level, which the international rating agencies as well as foreign investors may not like. If the rating agencies downgrade India or even threaten to downgrade India that will lead to a huge amount of foreign money leaving the debt and the equity market. If the foreign investors see the Indian fiscal deficit going out of control they can also choose to exit India. This will lead to the rupee falling to levels which are not health for the Indian economy. And since we import more than we export any fall in the value of the rupee tends to hurt us more. This is something that the country went through only last year, and it should not be so forgotten so quickly. Even if a part of the money invested in the debt market starts to leave the country, the rupee will crash against the dollar. This is precisely what happened between June and November 2013, when foreign institutional investors sold debt worth Rs 78,382.2 crore. The rupee crashed to almost 69 to a dollar. Over the last five years economists and columnists have been complaining about a high fiscal deficit, high interest rates and high inflation. A major part of this came out because of the huge jump in government spending starting in mid 2008. Ironically, the same guys are now recommending that the government needs to increase its spending to create economic growth. In fact, this noise is only going to get louder in the new year. What this tells us is that economists and columnists (who also fancy themselves as economists) basically have two ides: cut interest rates (an idea which came from Milton Friedman) and increase government spending (an idea which came from John Maynard Keynes). These two ideas keep repeating themselves in cycles. And now that Raghuram Rajan hasn’t obliged with an interest rate cut, the economists have jumped on to the increasing public spending idea. A version of the second idea is when the government decides to increase spending through printing money. The conspiracy theory going around is that is exactly what the government may be planning. Meanwhile, I am waiting for the day when an economist comes up with a third idea. The column appeared on www.equitymaster.com as a part of The Daily Reckoning, on December 23, 2014

If Sanjay Dutt can get four weeks off, why can’t others?


Vivek Kaul 

Leading male superstars of the Hindi film industry change anything that they don’t like about the movies they choose to act in.
If they don’t like the actress (or female actor, as the actresses like to call themselves these days) who is starring opposite them, they can change the actress.
Or if they are having an affair with an upcoming actress on the sly, they can promote her and get her a role in the movie by getting the writers to introduce an extra character in the storyline.
If they don’t like the storyline of the movie, they can ask the writers and the director to rework it.
Items numbers, songs, comic tracks, action sequences and just about anything that the male superstar demands is added to the movie. Even the end of a movie can be changed, if the superstar is not happy with the end that has been shot or narrated to him.
The Hindi film industry in a very euphemistic way uses the term “suggestions” in reference to all the meddling around by the leading male superstars.
Nevertheless this ability of male superstars to get almost anything that they don’t like changed is limited to “reel life” and not “real life”. Not unless if you are Sanjay Dutt.
The actor was supposed to surrender on April 18, 2013, to undergo his remaining jail sentence of 42 months, for having held onto illegal weapons under the Arms Act. But he had urged the Supreme Court to allow him to finishing shooting of seven films starring him. This he said would take him at least 196 days (that is around six and a half months). He also told the court that Rs 278 crore had been invested in these films.
The Supreme Court granted Dutt an extension on “humanitarian grounds”. “Considering the peculiar facts and circumstances of the case and reasons stated in the petition, we are not inclined to extend the time by six months. However, we extend the time by four weeks from tomorrow. It is made clear that no further extension will be granted,” a bench comprising justices P Sathasivam and B S Chauhan, commented.
This is rather ironical because yesterday the Supreme Court(a different bench) refused to extend the time to surrender in case of Zaibunissa Kazi and four other individuals. These are Kersi Bapuji Adjania, Yusuf Khan, Ranjit Kumar Singh and Altaf Ali Sayed.
Dutt was arrested in 1993, for acquiring three AK-56s rifles, nine magazines, 450 cartridges and over 20 hand grenades. Some of these weapons were later stored at the home of a woman called Zaibunissa Kazi, whose request to extend the time to surrender was refused by the Supreme Court yesterday. The weapons that were stored with Kazi included two of the three AK-56s rifles that Dutt had got. Kazi was convicted underthe Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (or what we better know as TADA). She is now seventy and is suffering from cancer.
The one AK-56 rifle that was left with Dutt was melted at the foundry of Kersi Bapuji Adjania. Adjania is now 83. As per his son “He is over 82 years old, partially deaf and has serious coronary problems. His movement is restricted.”
If Sanjay Dutt can get an extension of one month to surrender why haven’t Adjania and Kazi been given the same as well? Is it because they are not celebrities who don’t have Rs 278 crore riding on them? Like Dutt does. Or the fact that they don’t have the Press Council Chairman and ex Supreme Court judge, Justice Marakandey Katju, batting for them.
In fact the argument that Dutt has Rs 278 crore riding on him and thus deserves an extension does not work at all. In a month’s time he won’t be able to finish all the seven movies anway. Despite that the bigger question is how can losses being faced by a few Hindi film producers come in the way of justice.
In fact, when these producers signed on Dutt to star in their movies they should have been fully aware of the risk that they were taking on. Dutt has been out on a bail for a while now, and a bail can be cancelled at any point of time. When a bail’s cancelled, the individual has to go back to jail. This is a factor that should have been a part of their calculation. If they chose to ignore it, that’s their problem, not the problem of the Republiclic of India.
But his producers continue to remain an unhappy lot. “He is thankful, but he is still under pressure as to how he can finish six months of work in a month,” Rahul Aggarwal, the producer of the upcoming Dutt starrer 
Policegiri told Reuters. Well, the producers will simply have to wait for Dutt to come out of jail and then complete their movies with him. This was a risk that they took on and are now paying for it.
In fact, some producers have now come around to the idea of waiting for Dutt. Rajkumar Hirani and Vidhu Vinod Chopra, who were supposed to start the third instalment of the 
Munna Bhai series with Dutt, said in a statement recently: “Just two days back Sanjay called and said, ‘It’s tough to be in prison but I’m ready to go there because when I come back, I will experience freedom in its true sense. I will be rid of this monkey who has been sitting on my back for the last 20 years and scaring me’. When I walk out of prison, I want to walk straight onto the sets of Munna Bhai.” Dutt is lucky that there are people who are ready to wait for him for three and a half years. 
In school this writer was made to by-heart the Preamble to the Constitution of India for the tenth standard exams. A part of the Preamble goes like this:
WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC and to secure to all its citizens:
JUSTICE, social, economic and political;
LIBERTY, of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;
EQUALITY of status and of opportunity;
The preamble might vouch for justice and equality but it does help if you happen to be a Sanjay Dutt. To conclude, in life it is important to remember what George Orwell once wrote in the 
Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Sanjay Dutt is one such unequal animal, who now seems to be above the law of the land.

The article originally appeared on http://www.firstpost.com on April 17,2013.

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)


Biyani, Mallya, Suzlon, DLF: Easy money screwed up India Inc

Vivek Kaul

George Orwell the author of masterpieces like 1984 and Animal Farm once said “whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible”. The big Indian businessmen went through this phase between 2003 and 2008. They were invincible and the world seemed to be at their feet.
One impact of this was diversification or entrepreneurs following the age old adage of not having all the eggs in one basket. And so the Indian entrepreneurs went on a diversification spree. Vijay Mallya thought running an airline, a cricket team and an FI team was just the same as selling alcohol. DLF thought running hotels, generating wind power, selling insurance and mutual funds would be a cake walk after they had created India’s biggest real estate company. Deccan Chronicle saw great synergy in selling newspapers and running a cricket team and a chain of bookshops. Hotel Leela thought running a business park would be similar to running a hotel. Kishore Biyani thought that once he got people inside his Big Bazaars and Pantaloon shops, he could sell them anything from mobile phone connections to life and general insurance. Bharti Telecom thought that mutual funds, insurance and retail were similar to running a successful telecom business.
Banks were more than happy to lend money to finance these expansions. And if money couldn’t be raised domestically it could always be raised internationally by issuing foreign currency convertible bonds (FCCBs). The beauty of these bonds was that the rate of interest on these bonds was almost close to zero. Hence, the companies raising money through this route did not see their profits fall because of interest payments.
So everybody lived happily ever after. Or at least that’s how it looked till a few years back.
In the prevailing euphoria these entrepreneurs did not realize that all the money they were raising in the form of debt would have to be returned. Even if they did, they were confident that all these expansions into unrelated territories would soon start making money and would generate enough profits to pay off the debt.
Other than unrelated diversifications companies also borrowed to fund their expansion into their core areas at a very rapid pace. As Nirmalya Kumar, a professor of marketing at the London Business School explained to me in an interview I did for the Daily News and Analysis a few years back “capacity never comes online at the same time as demand because you have to add capacity in chunks, whereas demand goes up as a smooth function. Capacity comes in chunks and people generally add capacity at the top of the cycle, rather than at the bottom of the cycle because at the bottom of the cycle, everybody is hurt and nobody knows when things will turn around.I cannot set up a cement plant every time there is a 100-tonne more demand in the country, because when I set up a cement plant, I set up a 2 million tonne cement plant. There will be times when there will be a shortage and there will be time when there will be lots, right? So this boom and bust always takes place.” (You can read the complete interview here).
Telecom companies raised a lot of debt to establish their presence all over the country only to realize that the consumer had too much choice leading to the telecom companies having to cut calling and smsing rates to ridiculously low levels(I have a sms pack which costs Rs 25 and gives me 15,000 messages free per month. If I exhaust that limit one sms costs one paisa). At one point of time the Mumbai circle had a dozen odd operators competing.
The wind energy company Suzlon raised a lot of money through the FCCB route to expand at a very past pace and became the darling of the stock market. DLF raised a lot of debt to build a land bank.
So during the boom businesses just expanded into related and unrelated areas. NDTV, a premier English news channel, tried getting into the entertainment channel business with NDTV Imagine. It lost a lot of money on it and finally sold out. Even the selling out did not help and the channel has since been shutdown. Peter Mukherjea a successful manager launched News X, which he had to sell off. Satyam, an IT company tried to diversify into real estate and infrastructure as Maytas (Satyam spelt backwards).
With all the easy money going around Biyani soon had major competition in the organized retail space with the Tata group, Birla group, Ambani group and even Sunil Bharti Mittal deciding to enter the organized retail space. Then there was also Subhiksha which expanded so fast that it soon had 1500 stores all over the country. This was also the era where media companies got into the real estate business. They also wanted to set up power and cement plants, and buy coal mines.
And most of this expansion was funded by companies by taking on more and more debt. Banks also got caught on to the euphoria that prevailed and gave out loans left, right and centre. The boom period has now run out. What we are seeing right now is the bust.
Businessmen now seem to be coming around to the realisation that they have ended up raising too much debt too fast and need to bring it down. Some of them like Subhiksha and Kingfisher have had to shut down their operations. Others are facing huge losses. As Sreenivasan Jain wrote in a recent column in DNA: “Last year, Reliance Fresh posted a loss of Rs 247 crore, Bharti posted a loss of Rs 266 crore, and Aditya Birla group, which runs the chain of More supermarkets, posted a loss of Rs 423 crore. Some retail chains have actually shut down, like Subhiksha which at one time had almost 1,500 outlets,” writes Jain. (You can read the complete article here)
The realisation also seems to have come around among businessmen that they need to sell of what they are now calling their “non-core assets”. Deccan Chronicle recently tried selling its Deccan Chargers IPL team but found no buyers willing to pay more than Rs 900 crore. Over the weekend BCCI cancelled its franchise. So all the debt that was raised to get the cricket team up and going has now gone down the drain. There are next to no assets to sell against it. DLF sitting on top of more than Rs 25,000 crore debt has been trying to sell its wind power business for a while now. Media reports also suggest that it is in the process of selling off Aman Resorts its foray into luxury hospitality business. The hotel DLF set up with Robert Vadra is also reported to be on the block. A couple of months back DLF managed to sell off its 17.5 acre land plot in Mumbai’s Lower Parel area to Lodha Developers for Rs 2750 crore. The company also managed to sell off Adone Hotels and Hospitality for Rs 567 crore.
Hotel Leela has been trying to sell its business park. Vijay Mallya managed to sell a stake in his F1 team to Sahara. Media reports suggest that Mallya has been in talks with the British company Diageo to sell United Spirits. There are also rumors that he is trying to sell real estate that he owns in Bangalore to pay off all the debt on Kingfisher Airlines. In the meanwhile no one seems to be interested in buying Kingfisher Airlines even though the government has allowed up to 49% foreign direct investment in the aviation sector.
Kishore Biyani managed to sell off Pantaloons and Future Capital in order to pare down his debt. The Bharti group got out of the education business by selling Centum Learning to Everonn education. Also some of the big companies that had got into organized retail have either closed their stores or scaled down the level of their operations. Suzlon is in major trouble. Its FCCB loans amounting to $221million(Rs 1,160 crore) are set to mature later this month and the company is in no position to repay. Its request to extend the repayment has been rejected by the bondholders. It is now being speculated that the company will default on these loans and go in for liquidation.
The learning out of all this is that it is easy to expand when the money is easily available and the going is good. But selling out when the tide turns around is not so easy.
But what businesses should have hopefully learnt more than anything is that in this day and age it pays to focus on a few businesses instead of trying to do everything under the sun just because money to expand is easily available.
In the past things did not change in business. An interesting example is that of the Ambassador car. The car had the same engine as of the original Morris Oxford which was made in 1944. And this engine was a part of the Ambassador car sold in India till 1982. The technology did not change for nearly four decades.
Given this lack of change, the businessmen could focus on multiple businesses at the same time. That is not possible anymore with technology and consumer needs and wants changing at a very fast pace. Even focused companies like Nokia missed out on the smart phone revolution in India.
Look at the newer businesses some of the big-older companies have got into over the years. The retail business of Ambanis hasn’t gone anywhere. Same is true with that of the retail business of the Aditya Birla group. The telecom business of the Tatas has lost a lot of money over the years. Though, they finally seem to be getting it right.
Hence it’s becoming more and more essential for businesses to focus on what they know best. To conclude, in the movie English Vinglish one of the characters who goes by the name of Salman Khan says “entrepreneur, shabd na hua poori ghazal ho gayi”. For the Indian entrepreneurs the expansions they thought would be as soulful as ghazals have turned into headache inducing heavy metal. Hopefully they have learnt their lessons.

The article originally appeared on http://www.firstpost.com on October 15, 2012. http://www.firstpost.com/business/biyani-mallya-suzlon-dlf-easy-money-screwed-up-india-inc-490747.html

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at vivek.kaul@gmail.com)