How Politics and Investing Walk Hand in Hand
Our desire to see India change for the better results in us overestimating the pace of change in the country in the short-medium run. This creates valuation anomalies that one can profit from.
A report by The Mint newspaper on 2 August 2018, quoting a piece on howindialives.com, said, “Falling farm incomes in rural Maharashtra might be an important factor fuelling the current spate of protests by the Marathas, who are demanding reservation in educational institutions and government jobs. The net returns from farming….declined for most of the major crops in the state between 2006-07 and 2014-15, reveals an analysis of data available from official sources…”
What’s Cramping Indian Economy’s Style?
When I moved to India in May 2008, I met several people who believed that the country was changing for the better. Within months, the global financial crisis engulfed India, and no sooner had the after-effects of that worn off, than the country was hit by a series of major corruption scandals which jammed the capital expenditure (CAPEX) cycle so comprehensively, that it still hasn’t recovered. Investors who had bet on CAPEX-centric stocks a decade ago, obviously suffered in the wake of this savage reversal in the CAPEX cycle.
The cost of capital has fallen – the ten year bond is between 7.5-8 percent now, whereas it was 1.5x that rate at the turn of the century. Availability of debt and equity capital for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) seems better now than it was a decade ago, not least because of the existence of numerous private sector lenders (who borrow funds from an active wholesale money market). Direct tax collections are growing at 18-19 percent per annum, and the early signs with regard to GST are promising.
So why is it that, in spite of these positive developments over the past decade, the country finds itself struggling with
- a burgeoning current account deficit (expected to be close to 3 percent of GDP in FY19 as against 1.9 percent of GDP in FY18);
- a weakening currency (the INR is down by 7 percent, versus the USD in CY18 so far);
- incipient inflationary pressures (at 5 percent, the consumer price index (CPI) is well above the RBI’s target of 4 percent);
- rising interest rates (the ten year bond yield is up 150 bps over the past 12 months);
- a broken banking system (stressed assets account for 12 percent of loans outstanding);
- comatose CAPEX cycle
Also Read : The Big Corporate Takeover of Political Funding
Interplay Between Voters & Govt
There is one major constant in India — the interplay between the government and politically active voters, is stubbornly resistant to change. Politically active voters are not only farmers, they are not only rural voters, but they also include their extended families who might have migrated to the cities (but who are firmly plugged into rural politics for reasons which seem to revolve as much around identity/caste/jati as economics).
Most of these politically active vote banks still do not have robust sources of income, either because they are working on unproductive assets (such as a hired labourer on a farm), or because they can be squeezed very easily by more powerful agents in the supply chain (such as agricultural middlemen who control the APMC wholesale markets, and who themselves are skilled political lobbyists).
Hence, the economic viability of these political active vote banks hinges on the largesse of the Indian state for things like NREGA (which puts a floor on wages for farm labour) or farm loan waivers or subsidised fertiliser (both of which are mitigants for the rent seeking activities of politically connected middlemen).
It is not surprising therefore, that expenditure on NREGA has risen at a CAGR of 17 percent over the past 5 years. Farm loan waivers are expected to rise to USD 40 bn (1.5 percent of GDP) by the 2019 General Elections, and the fertiliser subsidy accounts for 3 percent of the government’s expenditure. Anyone who believes that these numbers will drop then, has to convince the rest of us that the central narrative in Indian political life will change.
Handouts aside, there is another route via which the politically active vote banks draw succour from the Indian state. The state is the main provider of healthcare (low cost medicines, dispensaries), education (free schooling and subsidised colleges), power (electricity and kerosene), transport (roads, trains, buses) and law & order (cops, courts) for these groups.
While the quality of these services that the government provides is uneven, increasing the outlay on these items gives political parties more leverage on their vote banks. Overall government spending (the Centre plus the states) now stands at 26 percent of GDP, down marginally from 28 percent, 15 years ago.
The dynamics of the ‘great game’ creates some macroeconomic constants which one can use to invest profitably in Indian stocks:
1. The low productivity of labour and of farm land reduces the overall productivity of the Indian economy. As a result, to stay competitive, the Indian economy needs the INR to slide by at least 3-4 percent per annum to the USD. When such a devaluation hasn’t happened for five years, and when one can see that the competitiveness of exporters (of goods and services) has been damaged, then one knows that a major correction in the INR is overdue. Hence, my reckoning is that the INR will breach Rs 70/USD, with oil prices and domestic inflation being the obvious catalysts for this. Therefore, buying leading IT services, pharma and chemical exporters make sense, as does unearthing smaller companies who have credible export franchises.
2. This November, three key northern Indian states will head into assembly elections and then the general elections beckon. Hence, as we move into the festive season, one should expect money to be showered on vote banks, inflation to rise (as low income voters splurge their cash) and interest rates to rise (in response to inflation rising). This has two straightforward investment implications – one should buy companies which make money in rural India (FMCG, tractor and two wheeler companies), and one should sell lenders who borrow money in the wholesale market (especially if these lenders lend to urban consumers like you and me).
(Saurabh Mukherjea is the author of “The Unusual Billionaires and “Coffee Can Investing: the Low Risk Route to Stupendous Wealth”. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are personal. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)