I Started this before Covid, progressed during my Covid and polished it after Covid. Took 2.5 months.

I don’t know if this is poetry or prose; I don’t know if poems have stanza headings which this one has– but I hope you enjoy it – never mind the name.

PS:

God, why did you wait so late in my life to teach me this lesson, I asked.

God replied: ‘Elixir comes after the churn; the results of games follow the play, morals after the story,

Morals follow the story, healing comes after the wound: So Realization after the tumult of life’

‘If you put chapter headings before, not after the narrative, its your problem not Mine’, said God. 

In deference to the above the para names appear at the end of para and the title at the end of it all

It was a tiring previous day and we must have crisscrossed the City of Lakes till late last night,

Off I went to deep sleep, hoping to recoup energy to resume toasting the city of tranquil next day,

We were awakened by a medley of noisy loudspeakers, well short of our target sleep,

I shook my slumber and soon it dawned that it was a score or more of morning prayers to God.

Suddenly awakened

First, I thought that it was from different followers of the same God each outdoing the other,

Soon I realized it was different Gods with their respective creations trying to outdo each other,

It sounded a cacophony instead of a symphony, with each note raising or fading out of sync,

The soothing breeze from the lakes or beauty of hills around could not bring about any synchrony.

Many Gods; Different prayers

In the name of God and peace, so many divisions! I sulked in despair – both hope and sleep crushed,

Out of  bed as well as wits, I opened my door, to see how various Gods answer their believers’ prayers

Change of tide, a rush of refreshing air washed my face and one of the Gods planted a smile on my lips.

Washing away the sense of despair and I felt Hope seeping thru my skin to every dejected nerve. 

From Despair to Hope

Now shed your anguish and gloom and listen to My answers, commanded God.

There were countless birds and rodents in the dark raising a fusion of chirps and sounds,

The rustling of leaves and grating sound of tree trunks swaying added accompaniments of note,

The fountains in the garden added their dash of music with their swirls and waves, fall and flow,

Their subtle subdued symphony of feelings and emotions drowned out the noisier prayers for attention.

From questions to answers

In this confluence of cheer and hope, I felt God ask me ‘How is the answer to My believers’ prayers?

Where are you? I asked, darkness clouding sight for I did not know which of the Gods answered me.

‘In My Kingdom the alphabet of language is love and brotherhood, you don’t need light or eyes to see.

Unbounded Joy and happiness are My ways of answers to the million prayers of my devotees’: God.   

From answers to realization

I persisted with my childlike curiosity; God please tell me whose God are you that answered.

‘Can you segregate the voice of each bird, the rustle of each leaf, the groan of every branch’, He queried.   

I went silent. Helpless. In the deafening silence that followed, the answer seemed to dawn on me.

Various notes of the same symphony, same God with many names; the coherence of the same single One.

It is the same God with different names

 I closed my door, parted my curtains on window and found the same full moon looking twice as full,

The lustrous morning moon in the West so full of love and embrace with its calming influence,

Last evening, eastern Moon was bright and invigorating, now the setting moon dimmer but soothing,

It is the same Moon, same Moon but Mankind sees in different shades of darkness and light.

 It is not many Moons but One.

Awakened thus, I went back to the comfort of my bed to sleep till I would be awake again,

Secured by the warm embrace of the moon’s ray’s, to the morning symphony of a thousand birds,

Flowers beginning to blossom to welcome the Sun amidst so many blaring competing prayers,

With the new light in me that it is the same God with different names,

To each his own prayer, and to each His own answer by the same God to his devotes in different robes.    

Oh! It is not many Gods but One

Corona spirituality – a poem

By V Kumaraswamy

It was a call from my daughter, voice sweet as honey as ever, enquiring after my welfare,

I said I was fine and countered her on the inscrutable disease and its surrounding despair,

Precautions we insist on – last time we stopped visitors at our door, and sanitization a must

This time it is upgraded: We don’t let outsiders in or insiders out of our society’s gate.

God! You came in various Avatars – Fish, Wild Boar, Turtle; you came as half lion and half man,

But due to come was the winged one that soars and shows us the way to Heaven,

Bat it is this time: and if your winged creation prefers darkness over light,

You have taken over our lives through a virus which remains out of sight

First you shut the national borders and made us stay within our shores.

Next you locked us within our states and we learnt to live by new mores, 

Then it was national lock down and you made us all stay within our doors

Then you shut our workplace and made office part of household chores

Then you came into my life uninvited, sent shivers down every near one’s spine,

My office knew it and said to stay away from work was fine,

Courtesy and rules made me inform my society, who said the lift is closed for us,

Stay indoors they warned and made us prisoners within our own doors.

Then it was my wife, who shut the door of my room within the house’s larger door,

Sanity she called; I could not figure if it was society’s hygiene or my mental one to preserve,

Not satisfied with your sanctions, You made me voiceless with a mask around my face,

And made every sneeze, cough, and breath of mine an enemy of Mankind.

May be as a prelude to taking my last breath, You took my smell and taste away,

The sight of flowers outside my window became my only cherished company,

You made me discover different aspects of mine and explore the beauty within,

The Blue skies and fresh winds free of Man’s corruption for once felt so genuine.

Oh! Almighty Corona, you shrunk my energy and diminished my zest and zeal for life,

Can You also take away my ego, invisible like you but the scourge of our happiness,   

Can You shut the doors on greed and avarice and fear of future, my biggest demon within?

So I shed the several layers of false cloths I wear and see the true Me and its virtuous origin,

To Deliver this Realization, Oh Corona! hope taking our breath away is not Your only way!     

A case for science that is inclusive

Science that is inclusive

There is a kind of frostiness between science and the unscientific, that takes the shape of snootiness, dismissiveness to superiority or patronisation, with the so-called unscientific being at the receiving end most times. Scientists have the tendency to dismiss everything ‘unscientific’ as preposterous and illogical and hence undependable and unfit for use.

Instead of splitting into two classes – scientific and unscientific – it would be more worthwhile if we saw it as ‘adequately explained’ and ‘not yet adequately explained’. Science is ever evolving as Einstein (is claimed to have. Only Einstein can come back and confirm his having made it since there are so many quotes which are attributed to him without proof or evidence) stated, ‘science is but the existing state of knowledge of nature’ and will sure bring within its fold more and more currently unexplained aspects of nature which may have alternative explanatory routes than what science follows as of now.  

Things like intuition, premonition, astrological predictions, prejudices, tradition, sixth sense, occult sciences, lunacy and planetary influences and even many branches of medicine and traditional cure are currently deemed or dismissed as ‘unscientific’. For all we know they may be in the same state as earth being spherical but dismissed as superstition before Aristotle, Eratosthenes, or Pythagoras (take your pick) reasoned it out. And many such things which are today considered scientific have come after much agony and punishment to the discoverers from the church, orthodoxy and existing beliefs and their champions or those who stood to lose their status.

With a dismissive attitude and binary outlook unwittingly science and scientists may themselves become the new tormentors (like religion, royalty and vested interest were in the past) for faster discovery and assimilation of currently unexplained events or phenomena into the ‘scientific’ fold. A cross fertilisation of ideas between science and current un-science may lead to many beneficial outcomes which may otherwise be lost or postponed. If the church was dismissive of science before, it is increasingly the other way around now. 

Noted mathematician Ramanujan purportedly left behind 147 theorems for which he could not provide proofs or had no time to write before his demise.  If deductive reasoning is a primary weapon of mathematics, it is unbelievable that someone had the time to reason it out and write out the theorems but no time to write out the proofs. If one reads Hardy’s account of his association with Ramanujan clearly, Ramanujan wrote them down as it occurred but skipped many steps in between which he wasn’t himself aware of or in a position to explain. Do we dismiss his theorems as preposterous (until each one is proved) particularly when some 47 of them have been proved in the last 100 years? What status does the unproven set enjoy? – unscientific or scientific? How and who are we to conclude that the unscientific (like intuition, forewarning, sixth senses) will not one day be proven like Ramanujan’s theorems, causality explained, and embraced within the fold of ‘science’.  Or science itself will get redefined and one of its main pillars -cause-effect- loses its primacy.   

Its time science and rationality shed their snootiness, we shed our dismissiveness and arrogance to whatever we consider ‘unscientific’ and replace it with curiosity and respect facilitative of smoother and faster integration.  There is a need for a healthier dialogue between the conflicting bodies to understanding what is and how it occurs and how to use them for our collective benefit.  

Respect need not imply blind acceptance. It can lead to search for solutions by both factions by making use of tools and techniques known to both. It might involve adopting alternative routes to proof and acceptance that somethings may be beyond proof or at least as per existing methods. A worm’s eye view, a bird world view and snakes perceptual aids need not be same as mankind and a shift in definitional scales may break many existing notions and ‘prove’ unaccepted ones. Attempts to prove might also result in proving the opposite and setting at rest false notions. Responsibility for proof and disproof could be equally shared. The faster science and rationality expands, the domain of ‘unscientific’ would only shrink faster. Even if it is vast, the accretion to the bank of unscientific is slow and unlikely to gain momentum. 

Such an approach and attitude towards the currently not adequately explained occurrences or phenomena might hasten the process of unravelling the secret, mystery, enigma or plain ignorance behind them and bring them into usable body of knowledge with or without safeguards and caveats.

Church ‘and’ science can achieve a lot more together than church ‘versus’ science. There is no need for science to become the new church.  

Weird Adventures; Uncommon Lessons – a recapture of motivations behind the book

This is an interview with Gopi Keertinagar which probes into the motivations behind my perilous pursuits and passion for meeting people and sharing the positive side of stories. Enjoy.

https://photos.app.goo.gl/EnJ7auduzfPSCYGK8

Enjoy

Weird adventures; uncommon Lessons

This is my latest book. Based on my travel to over 4 dozen countries and the wit, wisdom and vignettes gathered in various meetings, conversations and experiences with various people from presidents, pushcart vendors, policemen to pole dancers. all written in a positive spirit. It is in #4 rank now… you can make it #1.

Weird Adventures; Unusual Lessons

Dear Friends:
I am happy to announce my new book: ‘Weird Adventures, Unusual Lessons’  is available as Kindle edition now (print will be available soon).  Briefly, 
I write for business dailies on economic and business matters. I also write on novel experiences during my various sorties to several parts of the world. 
my work and own interest in travel has exposed me to over 4 Dozen countries, their culture, their people, social mores, practices, peculiarities, local governance systems, etc. 
It has put me in touch with paupers and fishermen, guards and guides, monks, priests and boatmen, high and low ranking government officials from presidents, ambassadors,  ministers, and others to chiefs of some of the largest companies, tribal dwellers, politicians to pole dancers, lions and cheetahs, researchers to rogues  – poor and rich, cultured or otherwise, etc.  
It has put me in touch with people who still use flint stones, whose savings or investments for tomorrow do not go beyond a solitary piece of cloth on their loins; cultures where cow is still a currency, blind at birth, yet patriotic to their country which they have never seen. These experiences include  a trip to Egypt days before Tahrir Square revolution,  travel  in one of the most heavily land-mined areas in the world – Cambodia; pleasant experiences during innumerable trips to Myanmar; experiences and insights from the animal kingdom in South Africa. taste of Dutch humour, etc. 
This book is about the various unusual and novel (sometimes embarrassing, awkward, sometimes humbling and at other times moving) experiences, conversations with ordinary people yielding extra-ordinary insights on various facets of life, anecdotes, lessons and local humour, information and personal encounters which dispel known and established notions and beliefs and, shall I say, sometimes falsehoods spread by motivated sections about nations, people and systems mostly radiating positive energy. It is not a travelogue of various touristy places and historical monuments or beaches.
I have sent the contents and sample vignettes.
 I would like to have your comments once you have read the book either to me or in comments section in Amazon and Flipkart. 
Many thanks and best regards

Kumaraswamy
The world is too full of beautiful people and positive energy for  Mankind to mess up. You have only to experience it.

ReplyForward

Prof Dholakia: the policy rebel within the MPC

Prof Dholakia: the policy rebel within the MPC

V Kumaraswamy

The term of the first Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) has ended with the government nominees retiring at the end of their non-renewable and non-shrinkable 4 year term coming to end in September 2020. The Government has nominated Dr Shashanka Bhide, Dr Ashima Goyal and Prof Jayanth Varma as replacements for Dr Ravindra Dholakia, Dr Pami Dua and Dr Chetan Ghate.

Given its current orientation – banking on the lending side at least is largely industry and service focused – it would have been desirable to have an industrial economist or more appropriately an industrialist on the panel. If customer centricity is the prevailing buzzword, it would have been most welcome to have someone who could share with the committee the situation and consequences of policy actions.

Hopefully, Dr Bhide with his unique smell of the soil will bring in the necessary native knowledge to the proceedings. May be there is a case for broad basing the skills without increasing the number.

While the functioning may have been cohesive, whether the content and policy prescriptions were appropriate and optimal has been in doubt. How much the monetary policy framework is a contributor to the current run of economic sluggishness is yet not widely understood but that the date of birth of both coincide should give rise to doubts to the discerning. For on many occasions it seemed largely prescriptive in nature based on some borrowed ideals.

Prof Dholakia mostly appeared like the rebel within. And truth be told his dissensions captured the ground realities better than the official statements often.

Probably he was never comfortable with the concept of monolithic or prescriptive nature of the Dr Urjit Patel Committee’s (UPC) recommendations that has guided our monetary policy making since early 2014. As early as in 2014 he had countered the rationale articulated by the then Governor for setting up UPC. In an article published in Economic and Political Weekly in July 2014 he had concluded as follows:

 “It is clear from the discussion that the RBI Governor’s assertion of there being not serious trade off between inflation and growth in the country does not get any support from recent empirical evidence. On the contrary, deliberate disinflation would impose a sizeable immediate cost of loss of output on the system. His second assertion on the direction of causality also does not have any clear supporting evidence…” (Page 168, EPW July 12, 2014. But given the time for publication this must have been written much before the committee finalised its report).

That he found a place in the MPC speaks of the Governor’s and the Government’s encouragement of dissensions for enriching the debate.  

For him it is not the ideal but the optimal – one which weighs the costs and benefits of policy actions that counted. As briefly mentioned in 2014, he went to calculate the sacrifices made for every 1% variation from the optimal or natural rate of inflation and the prescriptions of Monetary policy. In an article published (with Mr Kadiyala Sri Vrinchi) by the reputed Journal of Quantitative Economics (April 2016), he proceeded to calculate the sacrifice ratio (the % of output sacrificed in order to obtain one percentage reduction in the inflation rate) based on a fairly long period of 18 years of Indian data. The sacrifice ratio is summarised in the table below:

 Estimates of Sacrifice Ratio (SR)
Inflation measureShort run SRLong Run SR
GDP deflator3.62022.2396
CPI3.29671.7329
WPI2.98242.2404

The numbers are not insignificant for an economy stuck with low employment growth and more onerous task of pulling people out of poverty. Especially for anyone aware of the deficiencies involved in calculating any statistics in India, the validity, narrow base, considerable lag and poor quality to enforce an ideal rate of inflation against an actual sacrifice of the above magnitude must seem wasteful.  His dissensions should be seen in this light and not intent of adding more heat than light to the debate.

He proceeded to arrive at the optimal rate of inflation for India as 5.4 to 6% while presenting his annual Presidential address to The Indian Econometric Society in January 2020. (it was later published in JQE in September 2020).

Based on the regressions on data between 1996 to 2018/19 he observed, “current targets are fixed for combined (states and centre) fiscal deficit at 6%, for CAD at 2%, and inflation at 4%, for a growth at 8%. These are not internally consistent targets, because with the given targets of FD, CAD and inflation rate, consistent estimate for the long run growth as seen (in the table) is only 5.6%—a shortfall of whopping 2.4% points!!”

His equations conclude that to reach 8% growth India would need 2.5% CAD, and fiscal deficit target of 6.5-7% and inflation of 5.4% to 6%.

Probably it explains his preference often for accommodative stance. One only hopes there is a serious review of the inflation targeting levels as well as the approach in the near future. While the targets appear too low, the approach cannot be divorced from our state and stage of growth, degree of integration, and monetary policy reach.

The current state of sluggishness cannot be validly analysed without removing the huge impact that the specific levels of inflation targets as well as the fiscal glide path given by the FRBM review committee whose recommendations again have been prescribed without calculating the optimal or sustainable levels with the result both have started operating as constraints on our growth.

A faster one time debt restructuring

A faster one time resolution plan

This appeared in Businessline today. https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/a-quicker-way-to-do-one-time-loan-resolution/article32489800.ece

RBI has been both sensitive and fast in dealing with Covid crisis. It has constituted a committee of eminent persons under KV Kamath with a tight and functional deadline. Laudable as it is, one requires a non-discriminatory and non-discretionary yet speedy mechanism at this time to tackle the crisis.

The committee will no doubt come up with a valid and justifiable set of criteria for onetime restructuring. This may have some industry wise criteria, some client-health specific criteria, some bank-client history specific criteria.  Whatever be the recommendations of the committee, its guidelines would involve application thereof which would call for discretion by bank officials at different levels including at Board level in major cases.  

This process involves time – to get revised projections from clients and justify such restructuring – to write up the proposal and present before the sanctioning committees at whatever levels, documenting such approvals, new amendment agreements, etc. involving great lot of efforts and lead times.

There is a great deal of inertia induced by the recent spate of financial frauds discovered and the way it has been dealt with in full public view.  The trouble with such ‘exemplary’ punishments is it affects the psyche of the honest (who make the near total majority) much more than the people who game the system. The net effect is a definite slowdown in systems and risk aversion.

Our public sector systems depend too heavily on the top for decision making. Most such functionaries are closer to retirement and prone to risk aversion, except where possibly the decision making is collective like at Board or committee level. Between protecting his borrower and their own pensions, they can’t be faulted for preferring their self-interest.

A faster approach may have been as follows:

  1. All principal re-payments due on loans could have been slid down by a year and all dates (beyond Mar 2020) in all existing agreements (as of March 2020) could have been deemed to read as one more year than mentioned in the repayment schedule. For example if the repayment was to be in 2020,2021, 2022, they should be mandated to read as 2021, 2022 and 2023 respectively.
  2. All interest payments due during the year, if the clients are not able to service could be accumulated and converted into a loan for 3 years with a small increment of 1% over the present documented rate, which clients may choose not to avail.

These could be legislated so amendments to individual loan documents made unnecessary. That will leave no discretion and hence neither bribe seeking/offering would be possible nor would risk aversion be necessary. This would be the fastest to implement. Such a systemic boldness has been demonstrated by Brazil thrice during the last century but in a different matter when they cancelled the last 3 digits in all their outstanding currencies overnight (like all 10,000 Reals were to be read as 10 Reals from next day morning). 

Banks would be rid of NPA and provisioning worries. Their cash flow for relending may be diminished but they are stuck anyway for both lack of inflow and not many credit worthy clients to lend.

It would still leave foreign loans. But the foreign banks are quick on such decisions and generally lot less cowed down by personal fear psychosis.

Firms which have been profitable even after Covid impact may not have to suffer any credit downgrades if the Credit Rating agencies sensibly factor in the match the obligations with the scenario after Covid subsides. Such firms may face the dilemma whether to seek re-scheduling or not for fear of stigma by rating agencies and lending banks in future. It would save them such blushes.

Those who have declared losses in the last 4 months would gain by interest moratorium and may have to deal with residual concerns.

If the Government could also sanction changes in Accounting Standards to capitalize all interest, forex losses and may be even Covid losses (even if not funded by banks), it would help in preventing many firms from breaching ratio covenants in most cases. Ratio covenants play a heavy role these days in decisions to lend, rating, and determination of rates.     

a Mix of Inflation and devaluation could tame Covid financial losses.

Overcoming Covid created financial crisis with a mix of devaluation and Inflation

V Kumaraswamy

The financial jolt from Covid virus should surely count as 3-sigma event or perhaps even 6-sigma. The global meltdown 2008, East Asian Crisis and Dotcom bubble seem to stand nowhere near this. They didn’t chock the physical economy as much as Covid. While the final loss count would depend on how long Covid continues, assuming it continues till end of September at the very minimum it is likely to shave off our GDP by 10-12% compared to previous year, leave alone the lost growth. That’s is a whopping Rs 20-25 lac Crores. RBI’s recently announced onetime restructuring addresses the liquidity issue but laves open the solvency issue completely open.  

Who should bear the Loss?

There is a huge systemic economic loss during Covid19 and we have to devise the least harmful way to share it between government, business, banks and people.

The Government bearing the losses will amount to about 3-4 years’ fiscal deficit in one go – simply too disastrous to the fiscal health. Government should focus more on revival through new investments and bail out others only to the extent it helps it in its effort of revival: it should limit its support to only the vulnerable sections of people (say income-wise bottom 20%) and firms. It would do well not to aggregate all the losses of private individuals with itself by bailing them out. Where would it load such losses? It ultimately has to load it back on the citizens through GST or Income taxes. The Government should therefore focus on the poor mainly by way of food security and medicare.

Businesses – both big and small – have accumulated a more than fair share of the losses and it will soon transmit to banking system thru credit downgrades. Many of them will become economically viable once the economy gets going, but have to service the additional losses accumulated during Covid period with their existing assets. When this inevitably transmits to the lenders, many a bank will suffer and the financial system might be too debilitated to support the revival investments required.      

We need to find novel ways of spreading the losses over a fairly long time. Examined below is one such measure of using a mix of devaluation and inflation by using forex reserves which is built for extreme contingencies but remains side-lined due to oppressive orthodoxy and perhaps lack of boldness.   

Suggested way by using Forex Reserves

India should de-value its currency by 12-15%. There will be a huge valuation gains on Forex reserves to RBI – may be $ 50-60 Billion in INR equivalent (say 3.5 to 4 lac crores). As law stands today, this unrealised valuation gain cannot be distributed as dividends to Central Government. But if we can be bold like US Fed Chairman and Treasury Secretary during 2008 crisis, and say what is not expressly prohibited is deemed permitted, the gains can facilitate RBI investing an equivalent amount as Equity in banks upto 15%. The banks can be permitted to buy back the equity so issued whenever Banks meet some designated criteria in the next 5-7 years. SEBI norms should be relaxed to facilitate this.

Alternatively, RBI can directly liquidate 10-15% of its forex $ assets and subscribe to the banks’ equity. The level of one year’s imports is too wasteful earning 1-2% returns (much below their costs) and if it is not used at this 6-sigma like crisis, what is its use!  

Use by Banks

This equity to banks can be used to write off (or provision) 10-15% of loans to all MSMEs, Mudra loans, and select other segments the criteria for which can be defined by a reputed committee following of whose directions can absolve the bank officials of any wrong doing and post retirement raids. Alternatively, the interest for one year can be written off for qualifying units – may be for all those who are paying the salaries as evidenced by withdrawals or interest for 12 months from date of restart, thus incentivising restart. The amount so written off can be recovered by hiking interest rates by about 1-2% over the next 5-7 years, enabling the banks to return the equity to RBI.  

Hopefully the Rs 3-4 lac crores write offs if properly targeted will save many bankruptcies. This in turn may save banks thus avoiding chain defaults and degrades both at corporate and bank levels leading perhaps to India country downgrade.

The central government’s efforts for avoiding downgrade by keeping a tight fist on stimulus spends as is seen now, can come to naught if many businesses go belly up leading to bank downgrades. So better to save the situation even if unorthodox.

Thus RBI can front end the losses through valuation gains. Banks can carry the write offs temporarily. And recover through 1-2% additional interest and ½% additional interest towards Covid interest fund. This will compensate the banks for their one time write off and the banks can pay back RBI with the money so recovered, thus completing the cycle over 6-7 years.    

Moment of reckoning for free trade theorists

I have always had my quarrels with Free trade. It was much like solving a simultaneous equation taking into account only one of the equations and ignoring the other. Good to see some noted votaries start deserting it. My article in Businessworld. would most welcome critical comments.
Article
Moment of reckoning for free trade theorists.

Free trade theory has always had its flaws. It is just that some diseases take a long time to manifest. Noted votaries of free trade theory are switching sides of late and sure more will follow in the days to come or lose relevance. Sure specialization has benefits but to think it is limitless in its application and would hold its ground irrespective of rigid political borders and impediments to factor mobility across political boundaries, overcome man vs machine issues exacerbated by savings glut is being naïve at best.

Unresolved half way truth
An economy is a circular prototype with producers on one side and consumers on the other, salaries wages and factor payments from one side, market prices from the other, capacity utilization on the producers’ side translating into employment on the other.

Any escape from one side in this circular system to outside entities (say of purchasing power of consumers spent on imports) has to be compensated by inflow of purchasing power, if the economy is not to shrink in size. Businesses would need to compensate this loss with exports to maintain their capacity utilization or it needs to be compensated by inward investments. Otherwise the system would shrink at a lower level of GDP than without free trade induced imports and exports.

When all economies are expanding, there may not be any nation facing absolute decline in income but no one would notice any relative decline compared to true potential without free trade. Theoretically if there are 10 nations in free trade any number from 10 to 1 can be gainers. The others may be losers in relative or even absolute basis (GDP lower than previously). So there is a possibility that all the gains from trade are garnered by a single nation at the expense of all the others.

While there is a torrent of theories on how gains from trade can be generated from cross border specialization, they left the distribution question vaguely and naively to negotiations. In that sense, it is a mathematically well-reasoned theory till the half way stage – covering the first leg but not its consequences. It was time that its shortcomings manifested themselves.

Failure to notice breakdowns
Any persistent trade deficits and current account deficit is sure a sign that trade is not beneficial and that any readjustment of skills and products to specialize in is not working. The country may be digging for copper since it is its comparative advantage by giving up digging for gold but the price of gold and copper may be such that the country becomes a net importer value wise. Unfortunately the prices copper or gold does not get decided only by costs for the theory to work perfectly.

There are twice as many losers due to trade (countries with persistent trade deficit) as gainers from trade (countries with persistent trade surpluses).

As consumers the citizens even in countries with persistent deficits will be happy with a wider of choice of goods and cheaper prices, but the same citizens have to face a slack job markets where businesses would not be able to provide them jobs to all those who seek it, unless the trade gets balanced at the country level. Little will they realize that their welfare comes at mounting debt at the country level which the future generations or they themselves have to settle in the future.
China’s productivity levels for labour, industry and services are 30%, 33% and 29% (all figures for 2015) of frontier efficiencies of advanced economies, as per IMF studies (2019). That China was clocking 10-13% growth rates for years on end despite such huge gaps in its productivity levels should have alerted the free trade evangelists like Nobel Laureate Krugman. But they failed to look behind the smokescreen how despite such low comparative productivity levels, China was competitively pricing its products right across a spectrum far wider than such low%s would suggest. China could not have done that without manipulation of currency and factor (esp labour) markets. China’s labour markets are hardly free and the share of labour in the GDP is nowhere near what would have been if labour markets were free, leave alone a fair share similar to western standards. Instead its labour was saddled with loans to upgrade their prosperity and its private debt/income is at unprecedented levels perhaps in excess of private debt levels of US before 2008.

Deceptive Protectionism – key to gaining from free trade.
The best negotiation strategy to maximize gains was very well being demonstrated by Japan in 1960s to 80s and later China even while the trade theory apologists kept believing in their half complete theories. The indoctrinated theorists watched naively as China manipulated its currencies, manipulated its own factor markets, violated IPRs, subsidized key inputs from the back end while Japan erected tight barriers to its distribution systems. Vietnam is the free trade theorists’ new poster boy; but little do they realize how with various non-tariff barriers they have zealously guarded their domestic market. ASEAN has emerged as the chief factory of non-tariff measures in the last decade (the NTBs by ASEAN outnumber India’s by 17 times as per TRAINS) and nearly half of Vietnam’s imports are subject to NTB of one form or the other.

The experience of China as indeed several others would only suggest that to win this game, one needs to know how to manipulate the rules cleverly at least as much or perhaps even more than increasing cost competitiveness. India was a naïve practitioner (perhaps free trade’s chief adherent), not clearly aware of where it’s enlightened self-interest laid and much less how to achieve it.

Flawed foundation
Even without manipulation by any of the players, the theoretical foundations underpinning free trade would suggest that there are equal chances of being a losing country as much as being a gaining country. If your country’s comparative advantage is in commodities or products with flat demand and supply curves, payoffs would be far less than resources consumed; you will most likely end up losing if the particular commodity has high point elasticity of price.

Even if the country as a whole gains, if one’s skills are in such industries as above, one is more likely to lose than gain. Unfortunately more of the poor, less skilled have their skills predominantly in such industries even in advanced countries. And the biggest threat they face is atomization of low skill jobs at rapid pace.

Even within same corporate entity production can sometimes be reallocated between various centres for reasons of efficiencies. But allocating portions of the profit of the more efficient to the one who has to accommodate is generally an impossible task. There are simply no mechanisms for doing it across countries.

Alternative
Much of the potential benefits from Free Trade can be achieved without necessarily being subject to the ill effects and distorted distribution of its gains due to machinations of rogue players. Largely similar results can be achieved by freeing domestic production and investments from controls, encouraging inward FDIs, freeing or even encouraging technology transfers and skill development i.e. promoting cost competitiveness within the economy including where necessary dismantling size related restrictions.  India can easily clock a couple of additional % of growth if only its administration and law making bureaucracy sheds its audit and suspicion mindset which erects so many detailed rules and regulations which unfortunately favours only the crooks and those confident of several sieves of the leaky judicial systems.

An evil worse than free trade
The far more dangerous offshoot can be that the anti-trade gang would equate free trade with free markets and seek to throw the baby with the bathwater. Free market within the economy negates very many troubles and lacunae of free cross border trade especially where factor mobility is not an issue or constraint. It will be easier for a plumber to move from Dibrugarh to Delhi than to Dacca which is at one third the distance. Inter trade mobility is easier within one’s own country – the plumber can more easily become an electrician within India than migrate to
Australia for a different trade even if so mandated by free trade comparative advantages.

There is a fatal risk of socialists and communists making a grand re-entry given that neither in China nor in any of the countries which have suffered due to its brand of aggressive free trade, has Labour gained – in China due to its policies of allocating much more to investments through the government and other countries due to shift in many low end industries into China which have thrown many low wage earners out of jobs resulting in heightened inequalities. If such a twist does come about, it would be an unfortunate case of replacing a minor curse with a confirmed catastrophe like socialism or communism. At least free trade works with only minimal conflict with democracy unlike socialism and communism which seek to decimate free markets.

The wake up call hasn’t come a day too soon. If the way China is seeking to use the accumulated gains of free trade for aggressive pursuit of military ambitions during Covid pandemic does not wake up the indoctrinated theorists nothing else will.