The Irrelevance of CCI in an Open Economy

https://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/decoded-relevance-of-competition-commission-of-india-in-an-open-economy/1193644/

Like particles behave unpredictably under zero gravity in Physics, in economics what works well in a closed economy may not work that effectively in an open economy and vice versa.

The current controls over monopolies, anti-competitive practices, abuse of dominant positions and mergers exercised by Competition Commission of India (CCI) seem inappropriate for an open economy.

Somehow, from the days of Joan Robinson whose work on imperfect competition is the basis of such market interventions, lesser prices are taken to mean better consumer welfare in our socialistic mindset. Indian telecom market which has expanded solely based on cheap and cheaper prices is an example of how unremunerative  prices can destroy consumer welfare and lead to shoddy services: you cannot even say ‘I love you’ to your beloved on cellphones these days without 3-4 call drops in between.

As it stands today, India is a considerably more ‘open economy’ and particularly more so since ASEAN-FTA, trade agreements with S Korea and Japan from where virtually most goods are available at zero duty at cheaper import parity prices and from China despite duties.

Most manufactured goods can be freely imported – so how can anyone (or in collusion) control or manipulate prices and fix them beyond import parity prices? Conversely, if the Indian prices are lower despite nil-duty imports, it only signifies domestic industry being competitive – so what’s the grouse anyway. Indian firms would be exporting in such cases.

In an open economy the comparative competitive landscape is not just Indian firms alone but includes other relevant supplying countries say China, ASEAN, Japan, Korea and some others, over which CCI has no control. Controlling only the domestic subset leads to loss of competitiveness. Bangladesh and Vietnam have taken a huge part of our share in Textile trade (the prime reason for bleak domestic employment scenario is textiles, potentially our largest employer) due to scale economies: average firm sizes in BD and Vietnam are 10-20 times that of India’s. In some cases, a single machine or unit in China manufactures what the entire Indian industry manufactures or consumes. Scale is an essential component of efficiency and competitiveness and restrictions on them are self-destructive.

Indian regulators have often gotten into the morals of pricing – the very antithesis of free markets. Indian agri produce markets are the most ‘perfect’ competitive – many tiny producer sellers and many individuals buying: the ideal of any Robinsonian economist. Yet from time to time, Tomato and Onion prices fluctuate like an ECG graph whose needle has come unhinged – much more violently than tractor prices, airline prices, white goods, and electricals. Should the CCI get into controlling Onion and Tomato prices and underlying market practices? These have more impact on the daily lives of more people on the brink than many manufactured goods.

Does collusion work in India. Price is the main driver for most consumer decisions in India. Its not unusual to find a Mercedez buyer  bargain for a free key chain. In markets where demand curves have high elasticity there is very limited scope of manipulating prices by firms: small hikes in prices will drive away lots of customers to alternative products. Competition legislations are relevant more for inelastic demands.

Collusive price hikes would lead to reduction in sales in price sensitive markets. But who would volunteer to take these cuts like Saudi Arabia does for Opec? If demand is weak, most players would want to jostle with others and gain market share. If demand is inelastic and hefty price increases are possible with small cuts in production (very few such examples in India: can washing machine manufacturers cut production by say 5% and achieve 25% price jumps?), will any player cut his volume and watch others make money at his expense? Preposterous.

As economist William Baumal concluded over half a century ago, firms are more guided by sales maximization and other such proxies than profit maximizing in their behavior.

Collusion requires co-operation. Where sly and open evasion of every rule or tax-laws are the norm, gentlemen agreements or voluntary self-controls in India is unthinkable. We are terribly competitive in our behavior: otherwise you won’t see such uncouth queue jumping or impatient driving or ‘one for each day in year’ number of national level political parties. Giving up for greater good is just not in our bloodstream.

The right focus

Why be concerned with B2B transactions when both parties are informed, experienced and likely to behave rationally and not psychologically pressurized? Far more collusive behavior is witnessed in B2C transactions say between a doctor (prescribing tests upon irrelevant tests, refusing an operation unless you pass the ‘show me the money’ tests) drug firms and diagnostic labs or between lawyers, a legal system completely under their thumb and hapless clients. To focus on such B2C transactions would be far more welfare additive. CCI should focus more on beefing up enforcement and delivery of consumer protection laws.

Competition laws should definitely be concerned where the products or services are priced below their variable costs. A society not paying variable costs is wasting resources. Such cases in telecom, power and petroleum pose huge systemic risks to the financial system.  In any case why would an Ola or Uber recover less than variable costs unless it is to drive away competition and start exploiting when others have folded up. Such practices are a matter of larger concern, but don’t seem to merit the attention of our CCI.

Competition laws should not be concerned with products can be imported at zero duties or are being imported in large quantities despite duties or products of discretionary expenditure. Why be concerned with scale or prices of consumer electronics, white goods or cars except to ensure that contractual obligations are adhered to and people are not ‘cheated’. Let the consumer choose to stay away, if they are not satisfied with service – after all it is discretinary.

Competition laws should kick in only when firms reach one-half of ASEAN’s biggest capacity. It can be applicable for life saving drugs or non-discretionary products. Others can be followed up based on surveillance or based on grievance from end users.

There are several areas where there are no market structures or performance of existing ones is poor. The commission should work out structures in those areas (example: market structures for electronic wastes, scrapped automobiles, vehicle parking, rural finance and insurance, Public distribution systems, etc.)

CCI in our open economy context seems more a status symbol pining to belong to economic fashion street.  If Make in India refuses to get up, sub-scale will be one key reason and legislations like CCI will have a lot to answer for. India badly needs to consolidate and scale up for cost competitiveness.

Way to kick start economy – Currency Devaluation or Fiscal Stimulus?

An edited version has appeared in Financial Express on 13 Oct 2017

Currency Correction or Fiscal Stimulus?

V Kumaraswamy

The feeling of sluggishness is palpable everywhere. There are talks of stimulating the economy by fiscal incentives etc. This can be a very innocuous medicine for reasons of (i) dosage, (ii) potency, and (iii) long lead time.

First the dosage. The government may throw Rs 50-60K crores as fiscal stimulus. This is about 0.4% of our GDP. Given the current moribund state of economy with 25-30% underutilised capacities it is too tiny to have any impact. The current closure of capacities or lack of investments have not become so for 1-2% poorer realisations or profitability. While the figures vary for different industries, it is substantial – more in the range of 10-20%. We need a correction of this magnitude. The gaps in our competitiveness with countries exporting to us like China, ASEAN and Korea is 10-15%; not a 1-2% pittance.

Next the potency and wastage. Any incentive will reach both Units operating at full capacity and units with low utilisation and poor profitability. Units which are closed or NPA currently could hardly be revived with a small ‘spread thin’ incentive. The incentives reaching units operating at full capacity will neither create incremental growth nor new employment. There will be a lot of wasted (applying where not needed) efforts.

Finally, the lead time. If stimulus is by way of Income Tax rebates, it will be a year or many quarters before the recipient feels it and reckons it in his decisions. If it is by way of Indirect tax cuts, the recipient knows that it is for a limited period and will not motivate him for taking a long term investment decision. We need some immediate actions and most fiscal measures take a long lead time to get results. It may be well beyond 2019 that one would see perceptible results.

The current problem

The economy is stuck at a low and unresponsive equilibrium.  The current economic impasse is born out of 3 main factors (i) high internal value of currency (low inflation targets resulting in high real interest rates), (ii) may be partially from it, high external value of Rupee and high real interest rates attracting too much forex flows which are beyond the capacity of economy to absorb and (iii) free trade with ASEAN which kicked in from Jan 2014 in full.

ASEAN FTA did increase supplies and kept prices under check. It made import parity as the main basis of price determination for many manufactured goods. But it also eroded domestic industry’s profitability since manufacturing prices have hardly risen to cover inflation of inputs in wages and inputs from agriculture. It delivered customer stable or reduced prices but took away their jobs. India’s growth is creating Jobs but in other countries!

Somehow inflation control has become the focal point of our monetary management in recent years just like fiscal deficit is for our Union Budgets. While the fiscal deficit control is understandable, in an open globalised economy when product of every description could be freely imported, supply shortfall induced inflation is out of question. From Pulses and rice, to apparels, to electronics and Ganesha and Navrathra idols everything can be imported these days. So supply constraint induced inflation is the least that RBI or the Government needs to worry about.

Ways to correct imbalances

The main contributory reason for our lack of competitiveness with other regional players is the high external value of our currency. The sooner it is corrected the better, either by devaluation or dis-incentivising inflows.   But devaluation can cause inflation. As is reasoned out below inflation can be phantom enemy if things are calibrated well.

The first thing is to reduce debt limits available to overseas investors and strictly adhere to such limits. There is nopoint accumulating reserves to earn 1-2% returns by paying 4-5% overseas as interest in $ terms.

Secondly, there could be a temporary tax on overseas investments into India. This can be even for ECBs, investments into government debt and all inflows which are not required for physical imports. Taxing interest on GOI bonds will lower their yields and contain inward flows. There could be a surcharge on inflows till the related imports also take place. These could be used for re-capitalising our banks.

As a corollary, Government can mandate that fresh foreign investments can only be in new government bonds issued, on which the GOI can offer much less interest rate. Such an exercise will help the GOI as well. Such issuances can be allowed for secondary trades may be a separate bond segment with lower interest will develop as a result.

Containing Resultant Inflation 

The Government should bite the bullet like it did with GST and correct the near 22% over valuation in one substantial go. It can reset $=Re at Rs 71-72, which is 11% correction.

Monsoon is good throughout the country and agricultural inflation may not be a risk. If in fact there is excess production, a good forex rate might help evacuate some surplus so that domestic prices don’t crash due to oversupply.

In the long term, a 11% devaluation is about $ 40 billion in added inflation. This on a GDP of approx. $ 2400 is about 1.6% – may not be unbearable. But it’s the short temr effect on imported products and their immediate derivatives and next level products.

Oil is the largest at 25% of import bill.  Government (state and Central) should put a price cap. Their duties (customs, Excise and VAT together) account for a third of final price. There can be a freeze for 12-18 months in Re-terms on these. Oil marketing companies which have expanded their margins in the last few months can be told to absorb a third and the rest can be passed on. An additional 3.7% inflation on oil will amount to about a 1% on final inflation. Gold and Diamonds are next. We should not bother with Gold (the costlier it is, the better) and Diamond is largely for processing and hence related exports will make up for the input inflation.

That will confine inflation largely to manufactured goods. Most prices today in manufacturing sector are determined by import parity prices. A 10-11% correction would most likely translate into a similar uptick in their prices, which could help several factories (most especially textiles) to start chugging again. In any case, buyers of manufactured goods have had it too good for the last 5-6 years without much inflation.

Protecting the pensioners and interest earners needs to be balanced with the interest of freshers in the job market. The total interest paid on all bank deposits and Small savings and MFs is less than 5.5% of GDP. If we remove the government pensioners and those who have not yet retired from this, it would not be more than 1-2%. The number of those entering the job market and finding themselves without jobs will far outnumber those surviving solely on interest.

Currency correction will also solve a lot of NPA issue. A 10-12% increase in industrial realisations will turn many industrial units from potential NPAs to preforming ones.

Superiority over fiscal stimulus

Currency correction will hit the problem where it is. The dosage at 11% on the total value of trade (both imports and exports) is huge. It will alter the domestic profitability substantially and have an immediate impact – from the following day morning.

Sure forex borrowers will suffer. But those who have covered their exposure need not worry. For those who have not covered or partially covered, they have made good gains for the last 12 years on the trot. Why should not they not be made a pay some back now?

An equilibrium cannot be corrected by fiscal stimulus which will be better for rectifying confidence issues.

(The writer is the author of Making Growth Happen in India, Sage Publications).