Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The flying car

Did you see the news item about a flying car, revealed by Kitty Hawk, a Silicon Valley startup funded by Google's founder, Larry Page ? If you didn't , watch the video below


I now petition Kitty Hawk that the best place in the world to launch it first would be in Bangalore. Everybody knows that a basic version of this already exists in the wonderful city's roads , for after all, a two wheeler can come from all 360 degrees to dent your car even  today. But passing over that lightly, let's examine how and why this would be a major hit in Bangalore

Everybody who works in the world famous Ecospace building would buy it immediately. Ecospace is the world's first building where traffic jams are inside the building area and not outside. Average mean time currently for exiting from parking and coming to the gate is 45 mts. With a flying car, the coder will simply jump out of his office window in it and zoom away.  Similarly coders in cubby holes in every other monstrosity - Maanyata, ITPL, Bagmane in that order - are enough to ensure that Kitty Hawk's order book for the next 10 years is filled up.

Two wheeler riders of Bangalore migrating to the flying car are likely to be confused initially as they are genetically programmed only to ride on the pavement or ride on the wrong side of the road. They will need some significant retraining to take to this new vehicle. Two wheeler riders are also currently used to taking the wife and both kids along with them. It is unclear from the prototype of the flying car as to where the two kids can be placed. Perhaps they can be made to hang from the wings. There is no safety worry -  in Bangalore, even babies are trained from birth on how to hang on while on a two wheeler

The world famous cab drivers of Bangalore will be the world's best drivers on this car, as they have considerable practice in ducking and weaving and zooming. So the maneuvers required of a flying car come to them naturally. They will also be doing a massive public service. As they are used to constant honking, they will take this practice to the air and thereby drive off all the pigeons who currently infest every apartment building.

One of the greatest features of this car appears to be that it can instantly stop and hover in a particular spot. This will be very useful to BMTC drivers who like to stop in the middle of the road in an instant, if the fancy hits them.

There is one problem however. In Bangalore, every type of a cable - be it electricity, TV or internet cable dangles about 2 mtrs above every public space. Kitty Hawk will have to design the car such that it can take off and land passing through the 1 nanometer space available between the cables. In this they will be greatly aided by the dodging powers of the legendary cab driver of Bangalore.

We have one of the most proactive governments in the world in Bangalore. They will instantly build KR Puram, Silk Board and Graphite junctions in the air so that Bangaloreans on flying cars would not be deprived of the unique experiences to be had at the aforementioned places.  They will also ensure that enough airpockets are released into the atmosphere so that Bangaloreans will not get sick from a smooth ride - their bodies having being conditioned to the soothing effects of pot holes.

Another design suggestion for Kitty Hawk would be to provide a glass panel whereby owners can paint or affix stickers saying Bhuvaneswari , Parthiban and Rajasekhar (please note that these will be written in Kannada and therefore will require some additional lateral space)

Drivers will have to adjust their perception of tree branches. Today, the sight of a tree branch on the road means a vehicle has broken down and a twig and some leaves have been lodged in a crack to warn others of this fact. From the flying car, a branch and leaves may be safely taken to be on a living tree.

I am not sure of the impact these cars will have on the traffic cops of Bangalore. Perhaps they can climb trees and tow away the flying cars that have been parked on every branch - the ex two wheeler driver being an expert at parking his vehicle on any vacant area in any terrain.

What I am not clear is  how two drivers who have banged each other will fight. Current practice, which is almost a holy covenant is that you stop right there, get out and hurl the choicest abuse on the other guy.  You cannot move even 1 mtr from the spot (ie move to the side of the road) before fighting).  How this will be done mid air in the future scenario requires deep thought.

All in all, Kitty Hawk must simply relocate to Bangalore and start here. In any case the CEO is probably Arvindkatakshan Ramasubramaniam, who originally went from here. Welcome home, Sir !

Sunday, 23 April 2017

I should have the right to vote out Trump

I am an Indian citizen. I have no right to vote in the US elections. That's fine - US citizens can make their own choices on who to govern them. But when the US starts passing laws that affect the world, expects global compliance and which  have global consequences, then I am not prepared to keep quiet.

Nowhere is the US effect more on other country citizens than in the area of finance. If it starts a war, as it did in Iraq, at least I am not affected too much and its unlikely that the US will start a war with India. But Trump, by the act of trying to roll back Dodd Frank,  is directly affecting me and is therefore fair game in being virulently criticised.

Dodd Frank what ? Yes that's a fair question as unless you are a student of economics you may not have come across the Dodd Frank Act. Here's the context in layman terms

- Remember the financial crisis of a decade ago. It was caused by global financial behemoths (mainly US based) going crazy
- Post the crisis, the Obama administration enacted the Dodd Frank Act to govern the conduct of financial institutions. Massive compliance requirements were brought in and severe restrictions and policing was introduced on what they could and could not do.
- At the time, the Republican Party was in the phase of "Hell No". Therefore the law was not passed on a bipartisan basis. It was mostly a Democratic Party legislation.
- Republicans hated it, largely because they hated anything Obama did. The big finance companies and banks absolutely loathed it.
- The law is complex, fiddly, adds huge costs of compliance and is an absolute nuisance for those in the finance business. All true.  But we have seen what havoc they can wreck on the world if they are let loose. So their complaints should simply be met with a stonewall.
- This is one perfect example of a bad law being infinitely better than no law.
- The consequence of another financial meltdown is that I, an Indian citizen, will have to pay for it even though Indian financial institutions played absolutely no part in creating the mayhem. Like it or not there's no "Buy American" in finance. Finance is global.

Trump is now trying to loosen the provisions of the Dodd Frank Act.  Thankfully he cannot repeal it as he needs 60 votes in the US Senate and he does not have them as the Democrats are now the party of "Hell No". But he can dilute it considerably and that's what he is starting to do. An Executive Order came out on Friday. Thankfully for now,  the Order is just asking somebody to do something , as most Executive Orders thus far have been.  Nothing really has happened.

But it will happen. Trump's cabinet and advisers are full of Wall Street types. They have a vested interest in undoing the Act .  They must be resisted with every force. And I'll loudly call for Trump to be resisted on this one. As should you, whatever nationality you are. It affects you and me.

Dodd Frank has lots of faults. It's 2300 pages long. That alone is enough to tell you that Ramamritham has run amok. BUT, before anybody tries to do anything with it, he has to prove that it will improve controls and not dilute it.

For, you see, if you want to be really scared, do not think of nuclear war with North Korea. Or Arctic melt down. Or an asteroid hitting the earth. Get mortally terrified with just this one statistic. The total value of financial derivatives in the world at this moment is some $1.5 quadrillion. By comparison the world's  GDP is $80 trillion

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Élection présidentielle 2017

France goes to the polls on Sunday to elect a new President. If you haven't been following this election, then you are missing something. It's a very crucial election and is much more fun for an outsider to follow than the US Presidential elections.

This blog largely tries to steer clear of political issues and focuses on the economic ones. So, although this blogger has strong views on the candidates and knows who he would vote for if he had a vote, he will avoid discussing that here. Instead, the focus is strictly on economic policies, which is of course, only one dimension of evaluating any candidate.

Who's the most dangerous of them all economically ? If the pat answer is Marine Le Pen, a more polished version of Trump, think again. Introducing Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far left candidate who is currently surging in the polls . Nearly 20% of France want him as President .


Here are his economic policies, without comment

  • 90% tax rate for those earning more than Euro 400,000 a year
  • 273 billion Euros higher spending over 5 years
  • 16% rise in minimum wage to Euros 1326 a month (Rs 90,000 a month)
  • 35 hour work week.
  • Exit the Euro
  • Abolish the treaties prescribing a target of deficit to GDP . In other words, simply print money
  • Exit EU, a la Britain, if necessary
  • Join Alba the economic pact between Cuba and Venezuela. Honourable observers of this pact are Iran and Syria
  • Right to housing to become a constitutional right
  • Nationalise utility companies

There is more, but this is enough for the time being.

The system of French elections is such that that he is unlikely to get through even in the first round. But it should give a pause for thought that a full 20% of the French electorate is willing to subscribe to such lunacy.

The right to vote is a heavy responsibility. Concepts like protest vote, angry voter, etc are deadly pitfalls. You are supposed to consider the options carefully and vote according to what you think is best for your country. You can have differing views, but irresponsible exercise of the franchise is catastrophic.

If you are of the view that this is all fear mongering, capitalism has failed, and we should give such a philosophy a try (yes, I am talking to you , if you have felt the Bern), then all I will say is that this has been tried before and the example is there for all to see. Venezuela.

The loony left is even more dangerous than the rabid right.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Buy American and Hire American

When this blogger started blogging in 2009, his very first post was titled "What is American goods, anyway ? " Eight years later, when returning back from a two year hiatus in blogging,  the same theme resurfaces as the second innings of blogging is started.

The trigger for this post is of course Trump's executive order titled the same as this post, which he signed with much fanfare three days ago.  The order , of course, is pure bombast and is only meant to show that the President is doing "something". It simply orders the Secretary of Commerce to tell the world what the hell this means in 60 days and orders sundry other Ramamrithams to specify how it will be implemented  in 150 days. I was not aware that you need an Executive Order to tell people to do their jobs, but apparently in the world of alternative reality, that is required.

Precious little, other than nuisance value, will come of it. For you see, in today's globalised world of supply chains it is almost impossible to determine what is "American" as my first ever post argued.  If "value added" is the yardstick for measuring national origin, then your iPhones are as American as mom and apple pie even though they are entirely manufactured outside the US. If the physical act of manufacturing (read final assembly)  is the yardstick, then the iPhone is Chinese while BMW is American.  If the entire supply chain has to be in the US, most products will simply disappear off the shelves as some of the raw materials and components are simply not available in the US and have to be imported.

The Executive Order gives some clues to the warped thinking - apparently they would like  that "for iron and steel products,  all manufacturing processes, from the initial melting stage through the application of coatings, occurred in the United States ."  US iron and steel has been on decline for decades. Only an idiot will set up steel capacity in the US - after all the next President can sign another Executive Order to the opposite. Not a single new job will be created. What will only happen if this pig headed policy is even half tried is that the existing US steel plants will jack up their prices. The American consumer shall pay.

The problem of disappearing jobs is a real and serious one, but there are no easy fixes. It cannot be tackled by trumpeting economic nationalism. It certainly cannot be solved by sitting on the toilet seat and tweeting whatever comes to your mind.

By the way, the GOP was meant to stand for free markets and trade. It would have been appropriate if a President Sanders were to try something like this. But a Republican President ?

PS : Its nice to be back. Sorry for going away for two years - I was dabbling in a social enterprise in the interim, but am now back in retirement, and therefore back to blogging.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

The land of the dinosaurs

The dinosaurs missed a trick when the comet (asteroid ?) hit the Yucatan peninsula 65 million years ago. They should have taken refuge in India. They wouldn't have gone extinct. India is veritably the land of the dinosaurs.

Well, at least corporate India is. In India, no company ever dies. It is extremely difficult to shut a company down in this country. They will live on for ever. Take the case of Andrew Yule.

If you had lived in British India and looked for a job, the bonanza would have been a job in Andrew Yule. It was one of the largest conglomerates of that time with businesses in jute, cotton, coal, tea, engineering, electrical, power, chemicals, insurance, railways, shipping, paper and printing, in addition to being a zamindar (land owner). The company was founded by, yes, a Mr Andrew Yule in 1863. He and his family ran it until India's independence in 1947.  The Indian government took majority control in 1948 under circumstances not very clear - perhaps it was socialism, perhaps the family decided to leave. It became a government majority owned company and then under the wave of socialism that Mrs Gandhi championed, the government took it over entirely.

It today is a pale shadow of its British India days. It currently does some engineering business and also owns some tea gardens. Long ago it became "sick" - Indian euphemism for bankrupt. Dinosaurs which fall sick come under the umbrella of the Bureau of Industrial and Financial Restructuring (BIFR), which is Ramamritham's idea of socialist utopia. Today , it has a turnover of Rs 400 crores ($ 70 m) and is still lumbering along. This year it managed to turn a small profit and declared its first dividend in 21 years.

Companies like this abound . Many have been taken over by the government under the misguided view that nothing should ever be closed down. The taxpayer funds this indulgence. The accumulated losses of such dinosaurs is Rs 60,000 crores ($10 bn). Veritable luminaries adorn this list. Air India is of course, numero uno, but there are other stars like Hindustan Photo Films (which still makes  the old film rolls), ITI (which presumably turns out analog telephone exchanges) and HMT (which makes mechanical watches). I have little doubt that there is also a company existing which makes music cassette tapes, or the telex machine, or something like that.

India is a culture that believes in the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Regeneration is intrinsic to the belief of the Hindu faith. And yet, when it comes to companies, we do not accept the same philosophy. Maybe the companies are not Hindu !

And yes, in case you wondered, the East India Company is very much alive. In a nice twist of fate, it is now majority owned by a Mr Sanjiv Mehta !

Monday, 25 May 2015

I agree with Elizabeth Warren !

Readers of my last few posts on TPP would have noticed my complete disagreement with one Elizabeth Warren - junior Senator from the Bay State of Massachusetts. In this blogger's humble opinion she is a card carrying member of the loony left. And yet, here is proof that even from the loony left, an occasional wise word may arise (granted this is as rare as a bright sunny day in the great state of Oregon, but ..... !)

Her utterance was actually from last year - "The message to every Wall Street banker is loud and clear. If you break the law you are not going to jail", said the good lady. Well, let us pass lightly over the fact that there are no banks on Wall Street and that the New York Stock Exchange is not the same as banks. She has a point, which has been doubly proven in the events of lastweek.

It was a familiar story. Six banks agreed to pay $5.6 bn in penalties for manipulating currency markets. Five of the six admitted to the crimes. And yet, there is not a single banker going to jail. In fact , in all the settlements (LIBOR rigging, abetting client tax evasion, etc etc), the penalties are in billions of dollars. And nobody has gone to jail.

The details of the current forex manipulation case are not the purpose of this post. The  banks formed a cartel and used coded communication in online chat rooms to rig the daily fixes of the exchange rate between the Euro and the US dollar. We won't get into the details. Suffice to say that this is a fraud, and that if prosecution were to be brought against the perpetrators, they would go to jail. Yet this never happens. Why ?

Firstly it is hellishly difficult to prosecute banks. They have access to the best lawyers, tons of money, and their actions are of such a highly specialist nature that proving the fraud in a court of law is extremely difficult, time consuming and expensive.  Secondly the authorities drool at the prospect of these huge settlements and greed wins them over the principle of criminal deterrence.  Thirdly, even though banks agree to these huge settlements, it is far from clear that a criminal act was actually involved - banks are so terrified about losing a case and having their banking license revoked (an automatic consequence) that at the first possibility, they agree on a settlement however outrageous the amount is and however strong or weak the case against them is.

Look at who wins and loses. The shareholders of the bank lose (after all these settlements are being paid out of their profits). Their customers lose - by rigging forex rates they essentially screwed their customers. The winners are firstly the bank management and the actual employees who committed the fraud. Nothing happens the bank management. As for the employees caught in the act, they get fired allright, but simply join another bank or fund house across the street. Worse, they get to keep their bonuses.

This is an outrageous state of affairs. This will keep happening again and again. Fines, even of such gargantuan amounts, mean nothing to them. The bank committing the fraud must be taken to court. The employees who actally did the deed must be locked up in jail. The bank must lose its license and suffer the consequence. Only such a deterrence will prevent such monstrosities from happening again and again.

In this stand I am in the camp of the said Elizabeth Warren, the Tea Party (they are outraged at this too) and The Economist ! Strange bedfellows, eh ?

Friday, 22 May 2015

In defence of TPP - Secrecy in Negotiations

One of the biggest criticisms of the TPP in the US has been that the negotiations with other countries have been carried on in secrecy by the US government. US politicians have been falling over to yell themselves hoarse against this. When Wikileaks published confidential negotiation documents in their expose, there was much ballyhoo of how evil the government was.

Stuff and Nonsense. (The Queen would appreciate this remark !!)

I have not read Wikileaks and the very fact that I, an outsider sitting a million miles away with no access to any negotiating document, is able to write this series should be ample evidence that there is no Fort Knox secrecy. The principles with which the US (and every other country) are negotiating are well known and have been well known for years. None of the contentious issues are any different from what the US has been stating and signing in bilateral agreements for the last 20 years. Neither is any of this different from the positions the countries took in the Doha round of  the WTO. The arbitration clause I referred to three posts ago has been touted as a major googly being slipped in secretly through the back door. Bullshit. It has been there in every US bilateral agreement for years. The principles and the US stand have all been open and perfectly well known. You may agree or disagree with them, but you can't say they are secret.

What has certainly been kept secret are the details, the fine print and the negotiating documents. Yes, I know, the devil is in the details. In fact there is an unprecedented levels of security including telling pompous US Senators that they can't take notes - a tactic designed to exploit their infantile memory. You can disagree with this level of secrecy, but it is at least understandable. Negotiations involve give and take and involve messy compromises. When they are made in the glare of publicity, no agreement can be reached at all. Nobody negotiates under the glare of television cameras. Single issue activists and voluble gassy politicians (you know who I am referring to) will pump money lobbying and make so much noise that no agreement is ever possible.  For example the US is currently leaning towards accepting agricultural tariffs being retained in Japan with a quid pro quo that tariffs on Japanese automobiles will also remain in the US. This is an ugly compromise, but there is no way any deal is possible without bowing at the sacred altar of Japanese rice. As it stands the American sugar producers are vigorously lobbying for TPP (since it will protect their domestic subsidies), while the US Chamber of Commerce is furiously lobbying against and are being egged on by Australian sugar exporters. This is just on one minor item - sugar. Imagine the chaos and cacophony if every lobby group were to be shouting at 10000 decibels on Clause 4a, subsection ii of a negotiating document. We might as well not attempt any agreement at all. Anybody who wants negotiations in the full glare of publicity is either a cynical manipulator with a huge self interest or has never done a negotiation in her life (notice the gender).

The second big  controversy is the granting of fast track authority to the President to negotiate trade deals. Fast track gives authority to the President to negotiate a trade deal which Congress cannot subsequently amend or filibuster - they can either approve in toto or reject in toto. Predictably, the biggest noise on this is coming from the good lady. Of all the self serving and pompous stands, this takes the cake.

Firstly the fast track procedure is nothing new. It has been in existence since 1975. Successive Republican and Democrat presidents have been granted this power. This is not some Obama evil invention.

Secondly how, and with who, does any other country negotiate with the US ? You only negotiate with somebody who has the power to negotiate. Who is that person in the US ? What is the use of spending 3 years negotiating with the President when after a deal has been reached, 100 Senators and 435 Representatives can then amend at their will. This is the US Congress which can attach completely unrelated amendments to any bill - they of the crowning glory of killing a human trafficking bill by attaching a clause on abortion. So if the President cannot make a commitment on behalf of the US, then who can ? Does Japan have to negotiate with 535 Congressmen ? Or with a committee of Congressmen ? - imagine negotiating with an American team comprising of Elizabeth Warren, Ted Cruz,  Bernie Sanders and Eric Cantor !!!!!! There is no greater laughable concept than that.

I will conclude this series with an appeal to the Americans I know. You have elected a President. Give him some credit - he is not a traitor selling off Mom and Apple Pie. Sure, disagree with any policy, but be prepared to negotiate and make compromises with the rest of the world . Do not listen to Elizabeth Warren and Ted Cruz - both the loony left and the rabid right will lead you to a hell hole. Not only are they unhinged, they act with zero responsibility. Weigh the pros and cons of any policy in total - there are always positives and negatives. It is easy to throw out any initiative simply because you strongly disagree to a single clause.

The TPP may not be the best deal ever. It is however not a bad deal. It is to America's benefit. You have been the champion of free trade in the world. Your own prosperity arose because of your commitment to enterprise and trade. The world has grown following your footsteps. Do not kill your greatest strength.

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