Perils of Overtaking Investments

By V Kumaraswamy

There are severe risks attached to investments that are overtaking in nature, even while temptations to make them are high. This is an area that justifies market intervention by the government in the larger societal interest.

An easy-to-understand example is Jio’s launch, which does not introduce a new service or previously unknown product, but essentially an enhancement or more cost-effective solution to an existing demand. It is mostly a differentiated packaging of what was available through Airtel, Idea, Vodafone, etc.
The current wave of investments in retailing, some banking services, building airports in nearby areas, building parallel roadways or expressways are other examples. Jio’s financial engineering and data plans makes it more attractive for customers to switch. It is most likely commercially feasible: Perhaps by incorporating the lessons and piggybacking on other investments, it will generate better margins than previously seen by others—but these are for Reliance.

The problems with such investments are the wide divergence between private returns and net incremental returns at the societal level. Sure, it will attract new customers who couldn’t afford cellphones earlier and, to that extent, the incremental value-addition from investments will be equal at both private and societal levels.

But for customers who switch from other service providers, the two will vary vastly. Some customers may switch for better quality or range of service and, hopefully, their bills will also increase. In such a case, the net difference between their earlier bills and the current may count for net increase in value-addition at societal level (GDP increase). But for customers switching purely for better prices, even measurement becomes an issue.

In all the above cases, the private player will enjoy the full benefits of sales. However, the net value-addition for the sector as a whole after deducting the decrease in sales of other existing players is what the society gets as incremental value-addition. This will be significantly lower than new private player’s income depending upon the degree of substitution and customer switches. While the net value-addition is so constrained, in investments no such adjustments are possible. The returns on investments at the individual corporate level and at the societal level will differ, with the societal return on investments most likely to be far lower. While the former will be higher than the prevailing interest rates (otherwise the concerned corporate won’t be investing in the venture), it will be difficult to be ensure the same at the country level.

This subpar (at country level) investments will sure create problems for lending banks and equity investors. The key question is: Should the society’s savings be invested in such ventures?

If a different division of Airtel had come up with an exact replica of Reliance (even without Reliance coming out with its own), would its board approve it in the larger interest of customers and risk writing off huge standing assets on the ground? Doubtful.

And even where innovation was distinctly better; GE’s Edison fought tooth and nail for continuation of DC current over AC current supply systems being attempted by its competitors, largely to protect its standing investments rather than due to any conviction that DC was less risky for consumers. Many consumer products and durables also have such examples, but they do not create the same societal inefficiencies like in infrastructure or capital-intensive industries.

Precautions
While consumers should have choice on at least cost, emerging economies can ill-afford such investments. There will be many investments into newer sectors that can deliver far superior returns at national level. We should ideally be pursuing those, rather than ‘overtaking investments’. It is easy for emerging economies to fall into the trap of investing in ventures that individually look attractive, but do not deliver much GDP, growth or employment on a net incremental basis since tested alternatives are readily available elsewhere.

Sure, in a free-market economy, there can’t be any legislations to bar private players from investing in such sectors. But those investments could be mandated to bring in equity to support such investments since the risk is higher due to uncertainties in market share capture, new investments being able to reach planned customer switches, etc. The lending banks could be mandated to insist on a far greater proportion of equity in such ventures. This could be based on net social returns calculations. Banks may also be empowered to require the existing players to bring in more equity on the advent of such investments into the related sector. This may, in some cases, force the existing ones to seek exit by selling out to the potential newcomer. The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code at least makes exits faster and reduces idling investments.

A certain level of such investments is inevitable or perhaps even necessary for continuous upgrade of services. The sector regulator or banking regulator could perhaps prescribe minimum social return criteria for lending public money in such ventures. Alternatively, the proportion or quantum of funds that can stay invested in such ventures may also be specified.

One thought on “Perils of Overtaking Investments

  1. What jio did in India wouldn’t have passed muster through Competition Commission in western countries. If you add the value destroyed (of competitors) , disruption in the industry and then subsequent expected price increase in tariffs (which has started), it’s a big question whether any societal value increase is there?

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