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.

Make in India spoilt by persistent low manufacturing inflation

A Copy of this appeared in Financial Express on 12-03-2018. Link: http://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/make-in-india-delivery-patchy-heres-why-rethinking-is-needed/1094828/

V Kumaraswamy

Make in India is one of the key cornerstones of the current government to raise growth rates and create employment. It has been almost 4 years since the Make in India was launched with much hope and fanfare. The Government has initiated several useful steps and reforms to actualise it. The most recent upgrade in credit rating and 30-odd points jump in Ease of Doing Business will get us some mileage.

But it is clear that the delivery of Make in India is rather patchy. Several reasons have been advanced for its lacklustre show – highly overvalued currency, unfavourable ASEAN FTA, tight and unyielding monetary policies, very high real interest rates, high logistics costs etc. All of them have a degree of truth.

But it has to be recognised that beyond all these, an entrepreneur or corporate will invest only if they get remunerative prices returns are competitive to what the other sectors yield. This last aspect has not been addressed at all by the Government or inflation conscience keepers. Had this single factor been corrected, Make in India would have had a far better report card to show.

Nature of Indian Manufacture

Indian manufacturing is not high tech where heavy engineering, high end electronics, aircraft and space crafts, ship building etc. dominate. It is relatively low to medium grade in its maturity. It has a heavy dominance by industries which prepare or convert produce from agriculture for domestic consumption.

To give a few examples: Textile sector (the biggest industry by employment) is dependent on agriculture for cotton supplies and silk which can account for about 60% of final product costs, Sugar industry on sugarcane, Cigarette on tobacco, Beedi industry on Tendu leaves and tobacco, Vegetable/ cooking oil industry on sunflowers, groundnut, sesame, Food processing industry on wheat, maize, fruits, fish, poultry and Dairy industry on milk. Roughly 40-45% of Indian manufacturing sector depend on agricultural for their inputs. And a few more for inputs from Mining.

It is important to maintain a balance between input and output prices in these sectors and they should ideally move in tandem, if the manufacturing sector has to stay attractive for investments.  In India since agriculture feeds industry and industrial final goods are sold to those in rural and agriculture areas, any persistent imbalance could hurt both.

Our Manufacturing Prices are down 41% since 2004-05 in relative terms.

Terms of trade in international trade means the prices a country gets for its basket of export goods versus what it pays for its imports and how the relative price moves over a period of time. In domestic trade it means how the prices which a sector gets for its output moves in relation to the prices it pays for its inputs from other sectors.

From 2004-5, the terms of trade have been relentlessly moving against Manufacturing. If the manufacturing sector has had to pay 165% more for its key inputs from agricultural sector, it has been able to recover just about 57% from its customers. If Agricultural input prices are taken as the base, the manufacturing sector is getting nearly 41% less today for what it sells to other sectors compared to what it pays for agri inputs. (see Chart)

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At one level it helps transfer of income from non agriculture sectors to rural and agriculture sector and thus corrects income skewedness. But a consistent increase of this magnitude has continuously eroded the margins of the manufacturing sector to unattractive and unsustainable levels leading to lack of enthusiasm in investing.

Reasons

Year on year for almost a decade and half, Agri inflation has been more than parity. This has come about by steep and arbitrary increases in Minimum Support Prices (MSP) announced by the Centre for many crops, especially in 2009-10, 10-11, 12-13 and 13-14 possibly due to electoral compulsions (see Table). Although MSPs are restricted to certain crops, farmers tend to gravitate towards higher MSP yielding crops till the yield per hectare for other crops equalises with those under MSP. Thus MSPs impact transmits with a lag on other crops as well. One has witnessed a similar phenomenon in rural wages consequent upon implementation of NREGA.

On the other hand,  ASEAN FTA agreement has more or less put an effective ceiling on the prices that manufacturing can recover for its end products. Free trade has more or less made recovering cost inflation through domestic price increases an impossibility over the years. India’s over-valued currency has played a spoil sport on top of these.

Need for Correction

India’s growth story to continue requires Indian manufacturing to expand and diversify and create employment for those released from rural and agri sector. As the sector saddled with the responsibility of creating jobs for those entering the market, it should be the one which is relatively more attractive. Unfortunately, things are exactly the opposite for the last decade and a half relentlessly.

Ease of doing business can contribute to encourage entrepreneur by making the state machinery less intimidating but it cannot alter the base investment arithmetic of Return on Investments (ROIs).

Year Wise Inflation for Mfg and Agri Products                     (2004-05 = 100)
Year Mfg Inflation Agri Inflation Agri Inflation / Mfg Inflation
2005-06 2.4% 3.4% 140.3%
2006-07 5.7% 8.8% 155.4%
2007-08 4.8% 8.0% 167.0%
2008-09 6.2% 9.9% 160.9%
2009-10 2.2% 13.1% 589.6%
2010-11 5.7% 17.0% 297.9%
2011-12 7.3% 7.8% 107.6%
2012-13 5.4% 10.0% 185.5%
2013-14 3.0% 11.2% 370.7%
2014-15 2.4% 4.7% 195.8%
2015-16 -1.1% 3.4% NA
2016-17 2.6% 5.0% 195.0%

 

The approach announced in the recent Budget for MSP fixation might lend stability and certainty. If the MSPs are linked to the input prices which should include manufactured items like fertilisers, pesticides, seeds, etc. the inflation of manufactured products would have a decisive say in the agri inflation and hence MSPs. They would get inter locked.

Details are awaited on the exact scheme. Even if a margin of 50% is built in (which should take care of imputed interest, rent and profit besides inflation of inputs), it would build some parity and hence rein in persistent deterioration of adverse terms of trade against manufacturing.

Even so the heavy backlog built up since 2004-05 would need to be corrected if manufacturing is to see green shoots again. The States also should have a say in the future FTAs; they should have a choice of what industries and products to offer for free imports and what products to seek exemption from our overseas importers. States should also have a say in the fixation of MSPs.