Wednesday, November 30, 2005

India's re-emergence in manufacturing 

For the longest time, most analysts simply assumed that India had lost the manufacturing race to China and should therefore concentrate on developing its service sector, where it retained a competitive edge. In fact, there were those, like Stephen Roach, who argued that India would shoot itself in the foot by concentrating on building a manufacturing base. Not so, says Jo Johnson, who has written an interesting piece in the Financial Times about India's growing manufacturing capabilities, especially as companies look to avoid being over-exposed to China (not to mention a huge internal market in India). First, Johnson points to the problems India faces.
No one denies that infrastructure remains the biggest single obstacle to "Made in India" emerging as a world force. With the exception of telecommunications, the cost of most infrastructure services is 50-100 per cent higher than in China, with Indian manufacturers paying twice as much for electricity and three times as much for rail freight. The gap is widening, too. China spent seven times as much as India on infrastructure in 2003, the latest year for which figures are available, and three times as much relative to the size of its economy - Dollars 150bn (10.6 per cent of gross domestic product) compared with Dollars 21bn in India (3.5 per cent of GDP), according to Morgan Stanley. India's cash-strapped state and central governments are unlikely to be able to bring infrastructure up to Chinese standards any time soon, especially as politicians prefer to spray their limited resources at voters in the form of subsidies rather than invest in construction projects with a longer pay-back.

Specialists in process operations management say Indian factories are also years behind China's. Mark Gottfredson, global head of performance improvement at Bain, the management consultancy, says he has yet to see "any real stars" in Indian manufacturing. "China has world-class manufacturing. India has third-world manufacturing. I have been in a lot of auto plants, textile factories and metal foundries and was not impressed. They do not pay as much attention to process flow, inventory management, continuous improvement or safety. I've been in foundries where there are sparks flying around and the operators don't even have eye protection."

The reforms process, however, seems to be bearing fruit.
These reforms included the gradual abolition of import licensing and the reduction of extremely high industrial tariffs; the privatisation of aluminium, car manufacturing, telecoms and information technology companies; the liberalisation of the exchange rate regime and the cautious relaxation of rules governing foreign direct investment. Their cumulative effect has triggered a consumption-led boom that, in turn, has for the first time created a genuine mass market for Indian manufacturers.
Manufacturing has started to enjoy its fastest growth in memory, expanding at 9.8 per cent in the five months to August compared with a year earlier, and business confidence indices are at their highest levels since 1995. After slashing their workforces in the 1990s, industrialists are adding capacity, not just to cater to domestic consumers but also to feed a growing appetite for "Made in India" abroad. Exports in the seven months to October, three-quarters of which were of manufactured products, were up 22 per cent.

In no sector is India's emergence as a force in global manufacturing more evident than in mobile telecommunications equipment. It is not difficult to see why. With its operators adding 2m subscribers a month - and the figure is rising - India is the world's fastest-growing big mobile telecoms market, with 52m subscribers today and probably more than 300m in 2009, analysts say. Yet until South Korea's LG Electronics started a plant in Pune this March, none of the international market leaders offered a Made-in-India handset, preferring to import phones from around the world. Motorola will next month start to assemble phones in India in the "first step in a multi-phase manufacturing strategy for India", while Nokia plans to open its first Indian manufacturing facility in Tamil Nadu in the first half of next year.

Baba Kalyani of Bharat Forge makes an interesting point about manufacturing and job generation.
"Manufacturing jobs will get created but it will not be like before, when unskilled labourers from rural areas got work. They will need to find jobs in construction, building roads, ports and power infrastructure . . . What makes Indian manufacturing competitive today is technology, not cheap labour. We tried it the other way around before and it didn't work."

This makes it all the more important for the government to relax rigid labour laws, such as the requirement that companies with more than 100 employees receive approval from state authorities to shed staff, and further reduce the number of sectors, such as handloom, in which only inefficient small-scale production is permitted. Even if it does all this, India would still struggle to find jobs for a working-age population set to expand by 71m to reach 762m in the next five years, let alone cater for the millions leaving the land for the cities and the 38m backlog of unemployed. "India has a serious employment problem and manufacturing on its own is not a panacea," says Bibek Debroy, an economist helping the government to devise a national manufacturing strategy.

In related news, India’s economy clocked an 8% growth rate in the second quarter, compared to 6.7% last year. Financial services and construction seem to have registered the highest growth rates.

Quote du Jour: Of empty chairs and invisible cats 

If there were an invisible cat in that chair, the chair would look
empty; but the chair does look empty, therefore there is an invisible cat in it.

-- C.S."Jack" Lewis (1898-1963), British writer
(Via Martin)

UPDATE: To be taken with a sack of salt. Just in case. TYVM.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Goodbye Vodafone, Hello Google? 

For Manchester United, that is. Is Google trying to increase its global footprint or is Malcolm Glazer trying to take United to the States? Rumours. Rumours.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Rethinking the Media: The U2 Business Model 

Most references to U2 on this blog have been music-related. There's got to be more than just the music, though, to a band that has, despite its enormous success, remained utterly relevant and undergone no personnel changes in 25 years (unheard of in the music industry). I will go out on a limb and say that by the time U2 are done, they will probably have outsold Led Zeppelin and perhaps even the Beatles. On the business side of things, U2 will probably end the year as the most successful act of 2005, having sold out 130 shows (4 million attendees) in the U.S. and Europe, earning themselves $300 million+. This is in addition to sales in excess of 8 million copies for HTDAAB.

So, what's the secret? David Carr explains and I provide the consulting firm version of his explanations.

*MEET THE CONSUMERS WHERE THEY LIVE: Propaganda and U2.com have been effective vehicles. Ok, Propaganda has.

*APOLOGIZE, THEN MOVE ON: If you screw up, apologise, as the band did after the ticketing fiasco.

*EMBRACE TECHNOLOGY: Enable downloading instead of fighting it. As long as it's on iTunes.

: A lot of classic rock bands have.

*BE CAREFUL HOW YOU SELL OUT: They traded brands, not money, with Apple.


*IT'S CALLED SHOW BUSINESS FOR A REASON: Bono is Bono for a reason.

*SEIZE THE MOMENT, BUT DON'T STEAL IT: Americans love their flag. Use it to your advantage.

*AIM HIGH: The One Campaign is worthier than Total Request Live. So, send in yr SMS's now.

Must Read: The Day the Sea Came 

It's hard to believe, but it's almost a year since the devastating Boxing Day Tsunami that stunned every last one of us in the sheer scale of its destruction. While most of us watched (on TV) the destruction unfold in India, Thailand and Sri Lanka, noone really knew the magnitude of what happened in Banda Aceh, where two-thirds of the deaths occurred. There were no videos shot by tourists, no live reportage, so we had to pretty much imagine the horrors that were visited upon the people of Aceh. Until now.

Barry Bearak does a fantastic job of recreating the day the sea came and destroyed everything that stood in its path in Banda Aceh in this remarkable essay in the NYT magazine. Told through the eyes of six survivors in three stages (before, during and after the waves hit), this un-putdownable essay documents the devastation in painstaking detail. Yes, it's a very long essay and will take up a good chunk of your time, but trust me, this is feature writing at its absolute best. So, make sure you read it before it goes behind the Times' subscription wall.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Music Recommendation: Waldeck 

One of the beautiful things about the Yahoo Music Engine is that it creates radio stations based on your tastes. In addition, you can also stream radio stations which play music that is similar to a particular artist you like. While streaming the Morcheeba fan station a couple of days back, I came across Waldeck. According to the Yahoo bio, Klaus Waldeck is an Austrian producer who works for Vienna's Spray Records, which has been home to the likes of Kruder & Dorfmeister from time to time. Waldeck has the same downtempo sensibilities of K&D, but with a dash of Zero7-ish vocal tracks thrown in. If you're looking for music to just relax to, it doesn't get much better than Waldeck. Alternatively, if you own a bar/lounge, this is the sort of music you should be playing in there. Perfect to tap your feet to, yet nothing in the music that will disable conversation.

The album I listened to is The Night Garden and I'd highly, highly recommend it. If you're a fan of Morcheeba, Massive Attack, Thievery Corporation, K&D, Zero 7 etc, I think you will love Night Garden. The most intruguing track on the album is Waldeck's cover of King Crimson's "I Talk to the Wind," which you can stream of Waldeck's website. And if you aren't a fan of the above mentioned artists, you need to do something about it. Pronto! :)

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Review du Jour: The Squid and the Whale 

I watched The Squid and the Whale last night. It is one of those movies that I feel compelled to tell ZS readers/movie buffs to watch, since I think most of you will really enjoy it. The movie tells the bittersweet story (described with no sense of pity or sympathy) of a bohemian Park Slope family (both parents have Ph.D.'s in literature) falling apart. While mum (Laura Linney) is having an affair with a neighbour and then with the tennis coach, dad (Jeff Daniels) is trying to hook up with a 20-year old student of his (Anna Paquin). In the midst of all of this, the two kids are trying to find their way in the real world while also dealing with the craziness around their parents going their separate ways.

I think A.O.Scott says it best when he calls the movie both sharply comical and piercingly sad. The funniest parts IMHO occur when Daniels plays up his New York literati credentials by describing "A Tale of Two Cities" as minor Dickens and calls Frank Kafka "one of my predecessors." In between the cynicism and dark humour, the movie also manages to be warm at the same time, a testament to Noah Baumbach's directing skills.

Interestingly, director Noah Baumbach's parents were the novelist Jonathan Baumbach and the film critic Georgia Brown, so it would be fair to assume some autobiographical elements in the movie. The movie is produced by the incomparable Wes Anderson and has a 94% freshness rating at Rotten Tomatoes. If any of you are wondering, the title is a reference to an exhibit at the Musuem of Natural History in New York. Strongly recommended.

Remittances by Country 

The Economist has the latest remittances numbers for several countries, as reported by the World Bank. As has been the norm the past several years, India tops the list of recipients of inward remittances, though China seems to have overtaken Mexico to claim the second spot.

Interestingly, this set of numbers contradicts another set (pg 22) from the World Bank's Global Development Finance 2005 report. According to the GDFR, India's expected inward remittances for 2004 was $23 billion. More importantly though, it records Chinese remittances at $4.6 billion in 2003. According to the chart above, that $4.6 billion number has shot up to about $21 billion in 2 years. Now, that's more likely to be statistical voodoo than overseas Chinese sending almost five times as much money home in 2005 as in 2003. If you have any ideas on why there is this large discrepancy beyond the obvious (different metrics), please let me know.

As an aside, I think it would be a fun exercice to correlate remittances as a percentage of GDP across a larger group of countries. In addition, compile a list a countries which have suffered the most from brain drain, in terms of number of educated graduates living elsewhere. For example, India loses about 4.3% of her graduate population while Ghana loses about 47% and Guyana about 89% of her educated population. I suspect these two sets of numbers side-by-side might reveal something interesting about the true impact of brain drain.

NYT 100 Notable Books of the Year 

Every year, the New York Times carries a list of the 100 notable books of the year, drawn from reviews in the weekend edition. The notable 100 for 2005 (which will appear in print on Dec 4) is now available online. In addition, you can also access all the 100 notable books lists from 1997 onwards. And if you think there's any deserving book missing from the NYT's 2005 list, speak up.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Thanksgiving, Indian Style 

Today is Thanksgiving Day in the United States. Even as Americans the world over sit down with family to enjoy a sumptous dinner (not to mention a 4-day weekend), I propose that those of us of Indian origin need to celebrate Thanksgiving too. To say thanks to Christopher Columbus. For losing his way.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

BJP takes a principled stand 

I have not been a fan of the BJP beyond welcoming their rise as a viable opposition party, which is vital in a democracy, and their pro-business, pro-liberalisation agenda. The fact that the party harboured too many fundies always worried me. So, imagine my surprise when Khushboo (and Suhasini) received support from the unlikeliest of quarters -- the BJP -- in her bizarre battle with the moral police in Tamil Nadu.
"The BJP totally disagrees with the kind of agitations and protests launched against the film artistes," Vice-President M Venkaiah Naidu said, referring to agitators throwing chappals and and displaying broomsticks. Making it clear that the BJP did not subscribe to the views expressed by Kushboo, as reported in a section of the media, Mr Naidu told newspersons here "it is not part of our culture to throw chappals and rotten eggs at somebody. This will start a new trend and this is not a good thing," he said.

These film artistes had some appeal and they had done something for society, he said, adding it was not fair to run a campaign like this against them.Stating that Tamil Nadu had a great background of culture and heritage, he said naturally people got offended when traditions were sought to be broken, but they should react in a healthy manner. In a democracy, one had the right to express views and those views could be countered only through views, Mr Naidu said.

Of course, Mr. Naidu seems to forget that the BJP's close buddies, the Shiv Sena, were, not so long ago, responsible for destroying theaters that showed the movie, Fire, but such are the exigencies of power. At this point, they're taking a principled stand and they deserve to be commended for doing so. Let's hope they're not forced into backtracking by the hooligans who pretend to be the defenders of Tamil culture.

Monday, November 21, 2005

China Stats from the Big Picture 

Barry Ritholtz culls some interesting China numbers from a WSJ story.
• China has about $1 trillion in personal savings and a savings rate of close to 50%. The U.S. has about $158 billion in personal savings and an average savings rate of only about 2%.

• Shanghai boasts 4,000 skyscrapers -- double the number in New York City. Still, 17% of the entire Chinese population lives on $1 a day. Only about 300 million people in China, or 23% of the population, are considered middle-class.

• Wal-Mart Stores bought $18 billion of goods from China last year. With China's annual exports amounting to $583 billion, that means Wal-Mart ranks as its eighth-largest trading partner, ahead of Australia, Canada and Russia.

• In China, the 40-richest people are worth a collective $26 billion, up from $18 billion last year. China has 10 billionaires, up from three last year. The richest person is Larry Rong Zhijian of CITIC Pacific Group, who is worth $1.64 billion, according to Forbes magazine.

• China has 100 million Internet users, second to the U.S.'s 135 million users. In September, there were 62 people jailed for violating Chinese Internet laws, up from three in 2001. The word 'democracy' is banned in online chat rooms.

• Over the past decade, Russia and Israel have been China's main foreign sources of weapon systems and military technology. Russia has supplied more than 85% of all of China's arms imports since early 1990, the Pentagon says.

By way of comparison, India has...
* A savings rate of about 26%.

*150-200 million people in the middle class and about 24% below the poverty line.

*Wal-Mart would love to enter India if only the govt would relent on FDI in retail. The retailing giant currently purchases about $2 billion worth of goods from India.

*The richest man in India, Azim Premji, is worth $10 billion. The 4 richest people in India (Premji, The Ambanis, Sunil Mittal) are worth more than the top 40 richest Chinese.

*India lags far behind China with about 40 million Internet users and 116 million telecom users. However, I hear the word ‘democracy’ can be used freely at Indian chat sites :)

How Not to Spin! 

President Bush has had an underwhelming tour of Asia this past week, dogged just about everywhere he visited by questions about Iraq. The only exception to this rule was Mongolia, where the first visit ever by a sitting U.S. president received a very warm welcome. The spinmeisters decided to take advantage of this opportunity and go into spin overkill. According to them, Mongolia is a key member of the 'coalition of the willing' since it has the third-highest military presence in Iraq, on a per-capita basis. While third-highest per capita sounds pretty painful in and of itself, guess how many soldiers Mongolia has in Iraq? 160! Yes, that's right, the third-highest troop presence per-capita adds upto 160 soldiers. This sort of desperate spinning is probably a good indicator of how desperate the administration is to latch on to anything remotely positive about the Iraq war. Not to mention having the exact opposite effect from what the spinmeisters intended.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Does One Laptop Per Child make sense? 

A good portion of the noise emanating from the WSIS summit in Tunis has been about Nicholas Negroponte's $100 One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative. The hand-cranked machine is the latest attempt to bridge the once-sexy digital divide. There is a problem with the $100 number itself. My sources tell me that the laptop currently costs about $130 to manufacture and only a generous subsidy or humongous scale can bring the price down to $100.

More importantly, let's look at the cost-benefit aspect to this. Negroponte wants these laptops to become ubiquitous across the developing world, which means donors and governments will probably have to subsidise it. Let's assume there are about 200 million kids in India who will be targetted by the OLPC initiative. At a generous $100 per laptop, that adds up to $20 billion. This $20 billion is merely the hardware cost. Heaven knows how much it will cost once you add useful services and software to the machine, which is a pre-requisite for the initiative to work.

I think you will agree with me then that this very large sum of money is probably better off being invested in primary education and upgrading current primary education infrastructure (including better pay for teachers to attract the best) than in lime-green laptops, not one of which has actually been manufactured yet.

Bangalore Pot Holes dot com 

Amit Varma links to an outstanding initiative in Bangalore: putting all those nasty potholes in the city online at Bangalorepothole.com. What better way to draw attention to the problems of India's hi-tech capital than to put them online? The site also lets you post information about new potholes and even features a pothole FAQ of sorts. Hopefully, this new cyber initiative will also force the seemingly un-embarassable city authorities enough to do something about the obvious problems with the city's infrastructure. Link love, please.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

All Your Chicken Tikka Masala are Belong to the Base 

I suppose most of you have heard of Google Base by now. A couple of weeks back came the sneak preview and now, one of Google's most ambitious projects has gone live. I will post a lengthier review on here in a bit, but for now, what grabbed my attention on Google Base's home page is that one of the first things posted on there is a recipe for Chicken Tikka Masala. All our CTM are belong to them?

The United States. As it was intended. 

Some of you may know of the Treaty of Tripoli signed by the then fledgling United States to deal with the menace of piracy off the North African coast. Alex Tabarrok makes a post in this context, that is worth reproducing in full.
In the late 1790s the US was having difficulty with Muslim pirates in the waters off Northern Africa. After some difficulty, a treaty was signed in 1796 with the Bey of Tripoli promising friendship, trade and an end to hostilities. The 11th article of the treaty provides a remarkable contrast between how these sorts of issues were handled by the founders and how they are handled today. It reads:

As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen; and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

The Treaty was read aloud in the Senate and approved unanimously. In his proclamation John Adams said, "I John Adams, President of the United States of America, having seen and considered the said Treaty do, by and with the advice consent of the Senate, accept, ratify, and confirm the same, and every clause and article thereof." The treaty was published in a number of leading newspapers. It never aroused any opposition.

Hypocrisy, thy name is... 

As we all know, the communists in India are more sensitive to the plight of the poor than everyone else. They are also vehemently against capitalism and have made redistribution of wealth (or poverty, depending on perspective) their raison d'etre. These rules, however, apply only to us commoners, not to the leaders themselves and their families. The occasion? Comrade Surjit's grandson's wedding.
The groom arrived in a cream-coloured Mercedes to the stunningly decorated venue. Over 1,500 guests were entertained by a rock band from Delhi and singers from Mumbai and served a dozen different cuisines. Ludhiana almost came to a standstill to celebrate the wedding of Sandeep Singh, grandson of CPI(M) patriarch Harkishan Singh Surjeet. Sandeep married Ravinder Kaur, daughter of J.S. Khular, Income Tax Chief Commissioner, North Zone, who is posted at Delhi and hails from Ludhiana.

At the tony Harsheela Resorts spread over 8 acres in Mullanpur, on the outskirts of the city, a wedding planner from Delhi choreographed a grand wedding. The catering team from Chandigarh had 250 people—cooks and waiters...

Now, I don't mind anyone celebrating their weddings as lavishly as they'd like, but if ostentation is what the comrades like for themselves, perhaps they should spare us the bullshit about the immorality of wealth etc etc.

Monday, November 14, 2005

U.S. Student Stats 

Here's some stats of interest to those of us who went to school in the U.S. India continues to be the top exporter of students (80,466) into the United States, followed by China. 72 percent of Indian students enrolled at the graduate school level, while 20% enrolled for undergraduate programs. As a general trend though, international admissions into the U.S. seems to be declining, a pattern that emerged in the wake of post-9/11 rules and regulations.

The second table shows the top 5 importers of foreign students among U.S. universities. I am not surprised at all by USC, UIUC and UT figuring in that list, but was intrigued that Columbia and NYU would show up. After all, both schools are private and have relatively high tuition fees (not to mention the costs of living in Manhattan) compared to state schools. Is New York truly the best college town in the U.S. now, as a friend of mine had once suggested?

Top Exporters of Students

1. India
2. China
3. South Korea
4. Japan
5. Canada

Top Importers of Students

1. University of Southern California
2. University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
3. University of Texas, Austin
4. Columbia University
5. New York University

James Hamilton on Peak Oil 

There is no better blog today to read about the economics of the oil business than Econbrowser. James Hamilton/Econbrowser, economics professor at UCSD, spoke recently at the American Enterprise Institute about peak oil scenarios and its possible effects on the global economy. You can now watch his excellent 40 minute lecture in its entirety here. If, for some inexplicable reason, you hate watching stuff online, here's the transcript. Highly, highly recommended.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Telecom Sector Update 

The telecom sector in India continued to record rapid growth in the month of October, adding 3.24 million new subscribers. This takes the total subscriber base to 116 million and the tele-density to 10.66 (per 100 population). In the mobile phone sector alone, 2.9 million new subscribers were added, taking the GSM subscriber base to 53 million and the CDMA base to 15 million.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Patently Ridiculous 

I've never been much of a fan of patents, and even less so of business process patents. The Business 2.0 blog now points to an absurd new patent granted to Amazon: consumer reviews.
U.S. Patent 6,963,848 covers methods and techniques to encourage customers to write reviews and submit ratings of items they've purchased, through optimal timing of reminders on accessed pages and via email. . . .Amazon.com applied for consumer review patent in March, 2000. Amazon has not yet publicly commented on whether it plans to license the patent to other online retailers, or pursue ecommerce sites with consumer review features for infringement.
What will they patent next? Wish lists?

The Upside of Democracy? 

Some time back I had linked to an Economist special report, Democracy's Drawbacks, which talked about how India's democratic process held back reforms from time to time. A reader from Princeton, Bruce Gilley, responds in this week's Economist to that special report.
SIR – You write that India's people have chosen representatives who have questioned dramatic economic reforms. You write that the ruling coalition has had to reconcile those views and that some of the opponents of reform have begun to agree to faster changes as they face the realities of trade-offs. You write that India's economy is growing strongly and its stockmarket is rising. I noted a typo in the headline, which I assume should have been “Democracy's attractions”.

Goodbye Rangoon, Hello Pyinmana 

Somewhere in the midst of the bombings in Jordan and the riots in France, this little bit of news slipped past me and past most others. Apparently, the historically wise and sane Burmese junta have decided to move the capital of the country from Rangoon to Pyinmana, just 600 km away. And it's not like it's in planning stages. The move is already under way. Why the move, you ask? Here's the official version.
"The authorities have chosen Pyinmana because it is centrally located and has quick access to all parts of the country," Brig Gen Kyaw Hsan said.

But, seriously?
Some analysts point to a paranoia among senior military figures that they might come under attack, potentially from the United States, and that a location further from the coast is strategically safer. It certainly puts the generals closer to their frontline forces within the Shan, Chin and Karen states, our correspondent says. But others suggest the military leaders are simply repeating the habits of the Burmese kings in pre-colonial times who built new towns and palaces on the advice of fortune tellers.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Google Ad Sense makes no sense 

As regular readers may have noticed, I signed up to Google Ad Sense after a couple of years of holding out. I was driven more by curiosity than by anything else ($4 a month is a rounding error even to the owner of this blog) on how Google's algorithm scanned content and served up relevant ads. On the evidence thus far, Ad Sense is not doing very well. My last few posts have been on a Amartya Sen/Jeff Sachs lecture, a Vikram Seth interview, Faux News' interpretation of history and an impromtu Arcade Fire concert in NYC.

The ads being served by Google all day today? "Bitter Ex-Boyfriend. With Blog. Bad Combo. Great read for Teens." WTF? What is it about Amartya Sen and Vikram Seth that the Google algorithm interprets as worthy of a bitter ex-boyfriend blog anyway? That said, optimist that I am, I remain hopeful that these are in fact the sort of ads that you, dear reader, will be clicking furiously through, to pave my way to great advertising riches. Thanks in advance.

Help with Podcasting 

Folks, we've been considering podcasting the next IPEG meeting (mentioned in an earlier post) for those of you who have expressed an interest in the meeting, but cannot attend. The idea is to archive the audio someplace so people can listen in as and when they can. In terms of specs, the conference room is small, we expect about 30 people to attend and the main talk will be followed by a Q&A. I have never set up a podcast before, so I am pretty clueless. So, if any of you can give us some basic advice on how to set this up, that would be much appreciated. You can just leave a comment, or better still, just e-mail me. Thanks in advance.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Only in New York 

Every now and then, NYC throws up a delightful little surprise that reminds you how much fun it is to be living in this city. In November, for instance, was that secret U2 concert under the Brooklyn Bridge that I managed to attend. Here's another lovely little story that I came across via Fred Wilson and Brooklyn Vegan. Apparently, commuters travelling through the Union Square subway station were treated to the surreal sight of the brilliant new indie rock band from Montreal, Arcade Fire, sitting outside the subway station and doing an impromptu jam. Regine was using a guitar case for percussion even. Here's a link to a video clip of Arcade Fire performing "Boys don't Cry" by the Cure outside Union Sq Station. Viva New York.

PS: In case you haven't listened to Arcade Fire yet, they will be opening some of U2's Vertigo tour dates in November. In fact, U2 have been coming on stage to one of Arcade Fire's tunes all tour long.

A Conversation with Vikram Seth 

Sree Sreenivasan and Aseem Chhabra held a webinar with Vikram Seth yesterday to discuss Seth's new book, Two Lives. The conversation is now available online, in full. For those of you who'd like more information about the new book, read this review by Pankaj Mishra from the NYT magazine.

Jeff Sachs/Amartya Sen event at Columbia 

This is a public service announcement for those of you living in the New York City area. Columbia University is hosting an event called "The End of Poverty" featuring a conversation with Amartya Sen, Jeff Sachs, Emma Rothschild (Sen's wife and prof of history at Harvard), and Gareth Stedman Jones of Cambridge University. The event will be held at Roone Arledge Cinema at Columbia University (115th and Broadway) and is open to the public (no tickets or rsvp's necessary). I'd suggest that you get there early because I suspect this will be a well attended event.

History according to Faux News 

(Via Martin) I know most readers of ZS are fans of Faux News, for one reason or another. Many of you may have, in your moments of weakness, even wondered how their shrill reporters would have dealt with major historical events in the past, from the Trojan Horse to the Inquisition to Pearl Harbour. Well, here is a site that gives you a glimpse of history according to Faux News. Enjoy.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

On the Changing Media Landscape 

A few days back, I attended a panel discussion at the Columbia Journalism School on the 'Changing Media Landscape.' The panel was moderated by my friend, Sree Sreenivasan, and the panelists included Len Apcar, editor-in-chief of NYTimes.com; Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist; Andrea Panciera, editor of the Providence Journal website (projo.com); Jeff Gralnick of NBC News, and James Taranto, editor of the Opinion Journal of the Wall Street Journal.

As you can infer from the title, the discussion was mostly about the huge impact of new technologies on traditional media. Obviously, a lot of the discussion was focussed on the impact of blogging. I found it rather surprising that Len Apcar wasn't taken to task for walling off the op-ed page via Times Select, though he was questioned about TS several times. To me, it seems silly that the New York Times would try to prevent bloggers from discussing and linking to Maureen Dowd, Tom Friedman etc.

If I were Len Apcar, I would be thinking in terms of tying up with the search firms to deliver ultra-targeted advertising. After all, the NYT has both my location and a reasonably good idea of my tastes from my browsing habits. It seems fairly obvious that a tiny sliver of the fast-growing ad market would earn the NYT a great deal more money than a few thousand paying subscribers. Though Apcar insisted that Times Select would be a money spinner, what we can deduce based on current evidence is that Mo Dowd and Friedman don't appear in the most frequently e-mailed stories anymore.

Last but not the least, I have say, Craig Newmark is as interesting in person as I imagined him to be. He certainly believes is not saying much, describing himself as someone with very few opinions (the self-deprecation is oozing by this point). I suppose the advantage of being on a panel with James Taranto is that you really don't have to voice that many opinions :) Craig also has a wicked, cynical sense of humour, exemplified by his crack about the 'vigilant' media in the U.S. helping prevent 'vanity wars.' Craig also made a point about Wikipedia that ZS guest blogger Andrew Lih has made in the past. History is traditionally written by the winners and the western bias we see in modern historical records is more a testament to western dominance (in the last 500 years) than to actual fact. One could argue that Wikipedia democratizes the process of documenting history by allowing anyone to create/edit entries. To that extent, Wikipedia may well push the history writing process closer to the facts than ever before.

I could go on and on, but since Sree and gang have helpfully put the audio of the entire discussion online, I should direct you there instead. Video should follow shortly. If you'd rather read just the synopsis of the discussion, head over to Editor and Publisher.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Capital Glut and Risk 

VC blogger Fred Wilson writes about a problem of particular interest to me and to several of the guest bloggers on ZS. Economic theory predicts that capital should flow from where it is cheap and plentiful (the U.S., for instance) to places where capital is scarce (developing countries). Instead, we have a global scenario where capital actually moves from developing countries to the U.S. via those infamous currency reserves. But before going any further, here's a few extracts from a WSJ Page 1 story that Fred linked to.
There's an unprecedented wave of capital flowing around the world, with all of its owners anxiously searching for a better return. World pension, insurance and mutual funds have $46 trillion at their disposal, up almost a third from 2000. In the same period global central-bank reserves have doubled to $4 trillion, and other gauges of available capital have risen as well. Meanwhile, world central banks have kept short-term interest rates low, even after the Federal Reserve's latest quarter-point boost. That means investors who put their cash in safe money-market paper can net only a modest margin above inflation.

The result is that global investors are diving into a wide range of riskier assets: emerging countries' stocks and bonds; real estate and real-estate-backed debt; commodity funds; fine art; private-equity funds, which buy stakes in nonpublic companies; and the investment contracts called derivatives, including a kind structured to permit the sophisticated to take huge bond risks. For good measure, many investors use today's low interest rates to borrow money to amplify their bets. This "leverage," in effect, thus enlarges the already overflowing pool of investment capital.

What is the problem?
Policy makers increasingly see worrisome consequences of this global cash surplus. As the price of an asset rises, the income it throws off -- a stock's dividend, a bond's coupon, a building's rent -- automatically declines as a percentage of the asset's value. This means investors are demanding less compensation than usual for taking on the risk inherent in owning the assets. In the lingo of economics, the "risk premium" is low today.
But the concern is that, historically, very low risk premiums often presage a broad market decline that pushes down stock prices and pushes up what everyone must pay to borrow, hurting economic growth. "History has not dealt kindly with the aftermath of protracted periods of low risk premiums," Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan noted in August.

As Fred asks, why is it that this cheap capital is chasing after very risky opportunities when it could, theoretically, be invested in building infrastructure in developing countries or in developing non-petroleum based energy. The first part of Fred's question is what ZS bloggers are interested in. I had addressed this issue in an earlier post.

To investigate this further, I have put together a group of professionals in New York drawn from a wide variety of backgrounds (consulting, pvt equity, hedge funds, U.N., academia etc) who have an interest in the role of the private sector and capital markets in catalyzing economic growth. The International Private Enterprise Group (IPEG) currently has over 50 members, and we meet once a month to discuss specific issues, like, for example, the question that Fred poses. Our next meeting is on the 12th of November (next Saturday) and the speaker we have invited to speak is Rob Fogler, the founder of the Thousand Hill Venture Fund. THVF is the first for-profit, Africa-focused, mid-market VC fund that I know of. It promises to be an excellent meeting especially since we hope to discuss tricky issues like exiting from a mid-market fund, not to mention the risk involved in investing in Africa.

If you are interested in any of these issues and would like to pariticipate in our meeting on the Nov 12th meeting, send me a short note about yourself and why you'd like to attend. I need to know in advance because we need to know what sort of attendance we'll have before booking the conference room. We also run a moderated, low-volume mailing list to discuss these issues. So, if you're either interested in IPEG or the IPEG mailing list, shoot me a note and I'll be happy to update you.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

A Cartel is Forever 

Anil Dash just got married. So, congratulations are in order to the most prominent blogger of Indian extraction and his wife, Alaina Browne, a foodie like few else. In his lovely post announcing his wedding, he links to a piece he had written in 2003, which I had not seen earlier. It is a scathing attack on the diamond trade, something that connects directly with a recent post of mine. Dash lines up a different set of reasons from the usual.
The people selling them are fucking pigs. They're heavily invested in selling a world where men are insensitive, thick-headed incompetents transparently trying to dupe women who are vain, superficial, materialistic fools. I typically tend to be on the "eh, it's just a joke" side of things, but the sheer repetitive insistence of the cynical stereotypes in diamond advertising is astonishing.

I took a couple of pictures around town. The taglines range from creepy to blatantly misogynist. "Reduce the entire English language to three syllables. I love you." I suppose that's trying to be romantic, but if your significant other finds that their expressions of love are only prompted by being handed a rock, it seems that one of the 4 Cs you might want to worry about is "communication".

There are some that are just pathetic. "Get ready to hear one more tearful acceptance speech." "Never have to plagiarize another poem as long as you live." Who are these guys? Who does this appeal to? What hapless, undemonstrative loser identifies with stealing poetry as a subsititute for romance? Who finds the effort of copying someone else's sentiments so strenuous that he'd rather spend ten percent of his annual income on a pair of earrings?

Yeah, go on and click that last link, if you don't believe the sheer cynicism of the DeBeers cartel. Dash also links to an MUST-READ story in Salon that makes the same point I made earlier on why buying diamonds is a terrible idea, no matter how you look at it.
Despite its elite status, the diamond, which can be found in abundance from southern Africa to Australia to northern Canada, is not the rarest of gems. With no intrinsic value, all a gem-quality diamond has to offer is the perception of its preciousness. As a symbol of eternal love, the tradition of the diamond engagement ring has become so pervasive that it's hard to believe that this is a fairly recent phenomenon. And an extremely calculated one -- the result of a marketing campaign developed at a time when the demand for diamonds had sunk to an all-time low and an increasing supply threatened the precious (as opposed to semiprecious) nature of the stones.
As Edward Jay Epstein outlined in his 1982 book "The Rise and Fall of Diamonds," N.W. Ayer saw the challenge as one rooted in mass psychology, meticulously researching the attitudes of American men and women about romance and gift giving. From this research, the slogan "A Diamond Is Forever" was born, launching one of the most brilliant, sophisticated and enduring marketing campaigns of all time. Without ever mentioning the name De Beers, the campaign set out to seduce every man, woman and child in America with the notion that no romance is complete without a rock -- and the bigger the rock, the better the romance. That men also now had a way to show the world how much money they made was an added bonus.
The slogan "A Diamond Is Forever" was also designed to convince the purchaser that although a diamond is a good investment, for sentimental reasons no rock should ever be resold. Given the continuous mining of new stones -- not to mention the half-billion or so carats that will never rust, break or wear out walking around on the hands, necks, ears and lapels of hundreds of millions of women -- the last thing De Beers wants is to have previously sold stones coming back onto the market.
De Beers has also manipulated an artificial sense of the diamond's scarcity by buying up new mines, freezing out challengers and mopping up excess supply. Through a web of intricately intertwined businesses, De Beers successfully created a cartel in the strictest sense of the word, staving off dreaded price fluctuations by controlling everything from the stones' removal from the ground to their delivery into the hands of jewelers.

Then there's the little matter of how this vain indulgence fuels genocide and war in sub-Saharan Africa. And as my friend Rob Fogler told me, DeBeers has now started a campaign called Right Hand Rings, which is trying to sell the idea that a woman now needs a rock on the right hand as well, to signify "the strength, success, and independence of women." YEAH, RIGHT!!!

It's not so much that I care about people spending a ridiculous amount of money to pay monopoly rents to the cartel, but that they do it out of sheer ignorance. Most people buy into the crap that diamonds are somehow scarce and what not. No, people, diamonds are not scarce. They have very special properties, but properties that are easily replicable in artificial diamonds (which are also bought out of the market by DeBeers). The obnoxious prices you pay for diamonds is because DeBeers controls the supply of diamonds. And yes, in the process of paying these exorbitant sums, you are also doing your bit to fuel wars in Africa. So, think about it the next time you're tempted to pay through your nose to prove your love. Instead of buying blindly and UNIMAGINATIVELY into a perverse ad campaign, think up a creative way to show your love. And if you want to buy a rock anyway, give Moissanite a look. If nothing else, you won't have to rob the bank to pay for it.

The Snows of Killimanjaro? 

Back in March, 2005, I had posted a picture of the top of Mount Killimanjaro, where most of the snow was gone. Rising Hegemon has posted an even more dramatic picture, in colour, of the now almost non-existent snows of Killimanjaro.

ECOnomics: The environmental business plan challenge 

Here's something that might be of interest to several ZS readers. GE and Dow Jones have come together to announce the ECOnomics challenge.
GE and Dow Jones are looking for great business ideas that combine environmental innovation and profitability, because we truly believe that "green" business represents good business. In fact, we're so sure that environmental consciousness and effective business practice don't have to diverge, we're going to put up some green to help that belief along — $50,000 of it. So if you're a university student, an MBA candidate or a confident entrepreneur, submit your business idea and you could win $50,000. If you have an enterprise to help the earth, it's time to get it off the ground.

The deadline for entries is December 15, 2005. Besides the cash prize, three finalists will have the option of seeing their business plans feature in high-profile advertising campaigns in various Dow Jones publications, including the Wall Street Journal. Needless to say, all entries have to be sumbitted in green-friendly fashion. Online.

If you find this interesting, head right over to the ECOnomics FAQ.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


To all the readers of ZS, HAPPY DIWALI.