Economic Hit Men and Various Bonds

Rishab asked me to write something about infrastructure bonds which I do later in this post but before that something about the fascinating world of economic hit men (cool phrase, right?).

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Just finished reading the book “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man” by John Perkins. Fuck. What a book. I’m not referring to the writing style (which is good) but the content – a detailed narrative of the ‘corporatocracy’ of the US and the role that “Economic Hit Men (EHM)” played in it. This represents the latest form of imperialism that has played about and for almost all of us, nearly the only one during our lifetimes.

The Boston Herald newspaper likened it to something like a conceptual love child of James Bond and Milton Friedman (Nobel Prize economics laureate and advisor to Ronald Reagan). And that is exactly how I felt as I turned the pages – I kept playing and re-playing the storylines of the latest Bond films in my mind. I don’t watch much movies so Bond films are the only flicks that I can relate to in this context. Please read the book (you must) and if you can suggest some other movies (other than “The Panama Deception“) that resonate with the theme please do let me know.

John Perkins now writes about a lot of stuff on his website but I think that this book will always remain his magnum opus. In a nutshell, this is what is the core theme that Perkins talks about, of the post Jimmy Carter US:

– As the US became more and more powerful, its apetite for natural resources grew larger and larger. It’s hinterland, being as rich as it is, was never going to be enough for this world leader which has 765 (!) vehicles per 1000 people. In comparision, China is at 128 and India is just about at (ha ha ha) a dozen (though it is touted to become the larest car market by 2030)!

– So the US has always wanted to look outside its borders (just like every previous empire building state has done in the past) to secure it’s supply lines.

– But new methods were needed in the post WWII, Bretton Woods era.

– So US interests would identify countries rich with natural resources and with possibly non-democratically elected governments. The phrase ‘US interests’ is used deliberately here since it would later allow for a possible detraction and an escape route to denial and a possible high moral ground.

– Pocket the leaders of such nationalities and send in a team of consultants to the country (these would NEVER be on the payroll of the US Government)

– Cook up statistics and IRR and all assorted crap about a development plan and come up with an investment plan.

– Get the Bretton Woods sisters (the IMF and the World Bank) to provide loans. ‘Engineer’ things such that work contracts (construction activity mostly) were always awarded to US companies. Ensure that such countries remain indebted.

It talks about the assasinations of President Aguilera of Ecuador and President Torridos of Panama. Then about the US invasion of Panama (Dec 1989) to extradite President Noreiga done despite severe international opposition and violation of internal law. Air strikes on a country as threating as Panama? The book notes that the then President George H. W. Bush was under pressure to shed the wimpy image that the US media was heaping upon him. It also questions if killing thousands (though US media reported far far less) to remove one man accussed of drug trafficking, racketeering and money laundering is anti wimpy. The book says that Noreiga was negotiating with the Japanese to build a second canal in the Panama. What was interesting for me to read is that another anti-EHM, Saddam Hussein was castigated by the US for violating international law when he decided to strike Kuwait less than a year of the Panama invasion! I guess we have different laws for different states. But this time I guess Bush was able to shed his wimpy image and see his popularity ratings soar to 90% amongst the Americans and get more international support since Saddam himself was quite a dark guy. I was preparing for my board exams and seemed to miss much of this – who cares anyways when you are the most important point of your academic life. But when the twin towers were felled, I was very much hooked on to the news feeds. I talked about causality in my previous post – and now I wonder if we can see some causal relationship between today’s threat of terrorism on US soil and the policies of post Carter US. Just thinking. Hope no causality exists.

The lure of lucre and the power of world domination is understandable. The English practised their own form of ‘corporatocracy’ using the East India Company as their front. The Portguese did it though the Spanish conquistadors were more infamous and direct in their methods. I am sure even the Gupta empire in early India did it when it touched places like the Malay peninsula, Singapore, Ceylon, etc.

Whatever be the motivation and regardless of the official stand of the Government the book is a must read. It took immense resolve on the part of the author to write the book. Read it.

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From cross border economic shenanigans that look like a lift out from Bond movies to real bonds closer home:

If you remember, the recent Union budget had the Finance Minister announcing the re-introduction of tax saving infrastructure bonds. I remember having picked up some tax saving infrastructure bonds issued by ICICI and IDBI during the period 2001-2003. To save tax. My salary was lower then than what it is now and therefore a penny of tax saved had greater marginal utility, though the opportunity cost was HUGE since the equity markets were shooting up like crazy, picking themselves up from the dot com destruction. Today the situation is different since according to me the opportunity cost has reduced (not too many bargains to be found in the secondary capital market). But regardless of that, saving taxes is a virtue which increases one’s take home pay.

IFCI has been the one first off the block in issuing these infrastructure bonds. Here is the term sheet of the issue. A lot of material can be found on the internet so I will not ham. Check out this post on finwinonline – it covers the topic well. I have the following observations:

  1. All should invest. Period. Currently there is no substitute to IFCI bonds today and this gives you an INR 20,000 additional deduction from your taxable income (Section 80 CCF). Invest till 20,000 unless you are unweight and/or love investing in fixed income instruments. You can invest more, but A) you’ll not get the tax benefit and B) the yield will not be mouthwatering.
  2. While the deadline is 31Aug’10 and you need to have a demat account to apply, no need to fret in case you still have not opened a demat account. Other similar issues will indeed follow but the question is will they be at par or under or higher? (in terms of interest offered on the bonds).
  3. Since India does not (yet) have a deep corporate bond market, the Finance Ministry has done good to institute a buy back option for the bond holders after the mandatory 5 year holding period. Presence of this exit option has definitely made these 10 year bonds quite attractive to investors.
  4. The other good bit is that since these bonds would be sold through the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE), capital gains tax will apply on redemption (instead of the gains being taxed at the individual’s tax rate) and there will be no Tax Deducted at Source (TDS).
  5. The other important aspect about the issue is the generous waiver granted by the Finance Ministry of the necessity to procure and publish credit ratings of the issue/issuer as part of the issue. This is cool, right (sarcasm)? Is that why IFCI rushed in first off the block? So, according to me, you might not lose much in case you are a bit strapped for funds at the moment and are not apply to the IFCI issue. Also, I am not aware of the % of allocation in case the total retail appications are more than the bonds available. The reason for that is that A) you have a quota of INR 20,000 to fill; B) it is quite likely that local interest rates will rise in the near future; so C) even if you have other slightly stronger issuers (LIC, IFCI, IDBI, other NBFCs?) throwing out their paper, the dip in coupon induced by their stronger credit worthiness may be offset by the rising interest rates.
  6. Appopros my earlier post re IFCI (License to Bank, dt 5Jul2010), I guess I am in two minds now given this development. It may be possible that the banking license eludes IFCI. Some people are talking about the company selling out to a strategic investor. The Government of India has people on the board of IFCI and since extant shareholding issues are yet to be sorted out, I think the banking license trigger may not apply. While the position is 9.43% in the black for me, this is yet another instance where I’ve broken one of my resolves – to never put money on investment theories which have a digital event at the core of their persuasion.

Finally, the last word on the infrastructure bonds is the sense of equality it provides us common folk while our political leaders clamour for two successive salary hikes in two weeks – and get it as well. I think there is an outstanding demand by our leaders to make their salary tax free as well. If that happens, I know that I will puke on my pizza.

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The Bond Bubble

The bubbling stories going around this week in the financial blogosphere have mostly centered on the heady climb of US treasuries. In fact the topic has been quite hot the past month but the din is getting louder now. Comparisions with the dot com bubble and the housing bubble have started doing the rounds. The yield on the 10 year US paper is currently around 1% now. Which means that if you freeze the frame today, it will take a hundred years for the interest component to add up and match the price you pay for such bonds today. The P/Es (inverse of yield) of the no-brick and no-mortar tech companies were also in the heady hundreds during 1999-00. I don’t have too much of a view since it’s all happening outside of our shores. The Small Investor writes about it here as also the links I’ve listed below: it’s important enough for us to pay attention since we have NOT decoupled ourselves from the west. It’s actually the FII money that’s driving up our local markets here. Hot money.

  • FT Alphaville on the conundrum that equity prices and bond price are now moving in step. i.e. UP!

Logically, I’d guess that the bond market is bigger, more liquid and less amenable to manipulation. So, if the bonds and the stocks are sending out conflicting messages, should one not trust the former?

However, are bond markets better predictors of the economy? I think not: since nominal GDP growth and interest rates are both driven by inflation. Correlation is NOT causality. It’s a mistake many make – if two lines A & B move in tandem, that does not necessarily mean that A and B have a causal relationship. There could be a third factor C which is driving both A & B. So, bond prices are ↑; equity markets are ↑; economic data (US) is ↔. Thats the confusion. 

  • A website called bond-bubble (what else!) has come up and the graph on it’s homepage is quite telling.

It shows the super steep rise of US public debt – almost a parabolic rise. To me this looks similar to the rise of the Chinese stock market. That looked parabolic as well ( y = 4 * A * x↑2) and it could not defy gravity. But can US debt come crashing down? Maybe – if the currency crashes.

  • That seems to be awesome news for the gold bugs! It makes the case that the bursting of the bond bubble will pave the way for a massive upsurge in gold prices. The article notes that the yellow metal shines brightest in three situations – “heightened economical/financial risk; outright inflation and/or deflation”. And therein makes the case for a coming Gold bubble! Marc Faber,  (who keeps telling people to buy gold) has been bearish on treasuries right through the start of April but no one seems to be listening.

 TULIP SOUTH SEA RAILROAD ROARING TWENTIES → POSEIDON → JAPAN → DOT COM → HOUSING → BOND → IS IT GOLD NOW? 

This is making people like me (the “half informed”) even more nervous now. Ignorance is bliss – part knowledge is most painful. Anyways, the local markets are frothing on all the money that’s coming in from the US. The Fed there is busy buying up treasuries and sloshing money in their system (to buy the bonds, the Fed has to release money by paying whoever is holding bonds). They’re doing it by working their printing presses overtime spooking inflation. But I guess the game with inflation is that if you whack it too much too fast, the thing just snaps and the party careens towards deflation. I wish I had paid more attention during my economics classes. But to me it sounds logical that what comes in, goes out. So, this money will go back from where it came (at least in the interim). And all will fall down.

Though there is some more ground for the NIFTY to cover. That’s what the “experts” here are saying. The market isn’t fully stoned yet. It’s just started rolling the weed, maybe a few drags….let’s stop hallucinating. In 2008 so many of our local “experts” were shouting out that India is decoupled and that the housing bubble will not effect us. Even politicians had joined the chorous. De-coupled my moon. We are as joined to the US hip as our big bro in the vicinity.

Maybe I’ll be able to call the top.

Obama Speak

The US President is going around asking his fellow countrymen to produce more graduates and compete with the likes of India and China. These are good points to raise but then when this is accompanied by curbs on granting visas it begins to sound like rhetoric. All under the guise of protecting US borders! The border security bill will hike visa fees to $2,000 per applicant for companies that have fewer than 50% of its workforce as US citizens. Thats a cool $200 million bill for Indian software companies that rely heavily on “body shopping”. The standard line of the Indian industry has been a lament on the lack of the totalisation pact between the two countries. India has to contribute towards social security for the workers that it sends to the US – and if they return back to India, there is no possibility of a refund. I would welcome to hear something from Dr. Manmohan Singh on the issue. He is his usual quiet self.

While India remains preoccupied with flash floods, Kashmir, honour killings and the Commonwealth Games tamasha, China picked up the gauntlet and responded well by making outsourcing completely tax free if delivered from 21 cities. The Chinese have made no bones about the fact that they want to end India’s dominance in the sector. Should India not make a counter move to steal some foundries away from China?

India’s earlier responses sound quite pathetic to me. If the US politicians are ushering their wards back to school and hoping and helping their middle class to retain their sources of income, whats wrong with it? Cribbing about it and making it sound as if some grave injustice is being done against it is mooching. How would India feel if people across its eastern border arrived in hordes and stole away jobs? Some factions cannot even tolerate intra country movement of labour.

The rhetoric in the US however is also missing its mark. Senator Charles Schumer has called Infosys a chop shop. Its easy for the sound bytes to morph into an India/China hate undercurrent (if one does not exist already). Lou Dobbs, a popular media anchor, for instance has written a book on outsourcing and devotes much of his website to the phenomenon and how the American middle class is being killed. Is it? Don’t think so. Maybe going through a very tough phase. An important counterpoint to note is the indirect benefit that this can yield to the US.

It would be good for the US to note that the Indian middle class is gravitating towards more and more consumerism. People are seeing their incomes rise and are swiping their credit cards, buying second houses, ipods, etc. gleefully. This is allowing banks like BoA, Citibank etc to set up their shops in India. While such benefits selectively accrue to the Dells, Microsofts and BoAs of the world, the American middle class can certainly benefit. President Obama should also consider exhorting his masses to match imports (of services from China and India) with American exports to these countries. The oriental appetite for consuming intelligently designed goods and services in the occident will only grow. Americans would do well to understand one basic trait of most Indian middle classes – they are afraid to take risks. Innovation is rarely seen. While hordes of software junkies pound away at maintenance and basic software jobs, there is hardly any technological breakthroughs that emerge from this populous nation. The US has always thrived by managing risk and employing innovation which have set up a very strong financial acceptance to see capital freely flowing to fund ventures that are risky. Indians generally take the easy way out – outsourcing is one of them.

But these shifts and changes, as significant as they can be, happen slowly and the threat of the current American middle class losing its plot somewhere is indeed very real. And such Obama speak will found many takers and therefore votes. Whether the White House politicians actually act in earnest to plug the leak (which in my opinion they should not blindly do) is a different matter. Donations from many top industry groups may be funding the election expenses of these law makers.

In my opinion, its futile for the US (as a nation and culture) to fight outsourcing. Its perfectly logical and sane for the US society to agitate and therefore equally logical for the politicians to flog this sentiment for election victories. The US should focus on earning export dollars (USD should depreciate as years roll by) by tapping into the growing prosperity in China and India. India and China, on the other hand, should open up their economies further, slicing and selling off non-strategic assets to the highest bidders and generating more wealth in the process. Its a great lifetime to spend in the Indian and Chinese capital markets of today.

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