Gimme a break – a tax break

Are there industries in India more profitable than the IT industry? If there is one, it must have an awesome business model. Companies like Infosys make 25% net margins after taxes. At $20B in revenues, the industry is no longer a small industry needing encouragement.

So why does the IT industry not pay corporate income tax? Not just that, under the SEZ act, that tax holiday will now be extended, indefinitely.

In the late 80s, early 90s, the STPI Act was used to incentivize the then fledgling IT industry. It was needed. The Software Technology Parks were needed. The cost of a telecom link to the US was high. Many small companies in the STP could share a telecom link. Custom duties were very high on computer hardware, software and networking equipment which could make IT company uncompetitive. So there was the duty-drawback. Last but not least, there was a 10 year tax holiday on export revenue out of the STP. For all this the companies within the STP had to be 100% export oriented.

So far so good. I might have an issue with the tax holiday, but the incentives were timely and well directed. The industry, led by a few major companies like Infosys, TCS and Wipro grabbed the opportunity. Later their ranks swelled with many other smaller companies. Soon the BPO industry (also called ITES or IT enabled services, I think to justify their need for special treatment) also swung into action.

Fast forward to 2006. We now have a large and still rapidly growing IT and BPO industry entirely focused on offshore services to developed markets. Most of the larger firms are very profitable. The custom duties are way down. Telecom bandwidth is dirt cheap. So why in the world would the industry need more tax breaks?

That it doesn’t is very clear. Not just because of the reasons I give. But because industry leaders like Nandan Nilekani say that they don’t. However, if the SEZ provision is available, it would be irresponsible for them to not secure the best tax status for their shareholders.

The income tax lost to the IT industry, by my calculations came to $1.3 B last year. That would be a pretty significant % of the Indian govt. budget. Why would the Indian govt. run a deficit budget, skimp on investment in infrastructure yet spare the wealthy shareholders in Indian IT companies? One could argue that since deficit financing causes inflation, the government is taking from the common man and giving to the wealthy shareholders of IT companies. It is no wonder that the Finance ministry does not support this loss of revenue.

You could also argue that a tax holiday has no impact in the IT industry. If you make profits, you get the benefit of the tax break. But if you make profits, why do you need the tax break? The IT industry is not a capital intensive industry like say the steel industry, where a certain RoI must be met, beyond just being profitable.

The SEZ Act might make sense for many, especially manufacturing industries. For the IT industry it does not. But, profitable industries have wealthy industrialists. Some of them know how to lobby the government. Then there are the real estate developers, who too stand to gain by getting the right to develop the SEZ parks. They too have deep pockets and political connections.

In 10 years when we need to take a relook at the SEZ act, the IT industry will be even bigger. The industrialists will be wealthier. If I were a betting man, I’d say, this ain’t going away.

The right time for labour market reform is now

In my first job out of business school with Hindustan Lever, as Area Sales Manager I had a team of over 20 unionized salesmen. I ran a Voluntary Retirement Scheme in my first year and then again in my third year by which time we were down to half the original team size. Yet we introduced new brands in the market, grew our sales and in general did well as a team.

In my third year I took over a small new business of hot beverage vending for Lipton (at that time a division of HLL). The business was small but growing rapidly as we expanded our city coverage. In Sales, Distribution and Service we had about 50 people. Of this the number of direct Hindustan Lever employees was 2. The rest were all outsourced, contract or distributor’s employees.

I then moved to Infosys in the US and over my 11 years there, hired scores of employees onto the company’s US payrolls. I also had to let go of some people for performance or other reasons. At all times, I was acutely aware that I myself was an ‘At Will’ employee. I could be fired with two week’s wages without giving a reason. As long as the reason was not discriminatory (race, sex, religion etc.) I could not bring legal action upon the company.

My experience with the vastly different labour environment in both India and the US has driven home a very important lesson – a business exists to make money for its investors, not to provide employment. And that is, paradoxically, the best way to generate employment.

Let’s take a look at how India’s labour laws distort the business environment and harm employment and employees:

1. It discourages capital investment – particularly in service oriented industries. Investing capital means taking risks. Market risk – the risk that the business may not succeed – is a risk that ‘comes with the territory’. In most countries, investors know that if their business fails in the market, they close down the business, sell off the assets at knocked-down prices, book the loss and take the remaining capital to some other investment opportunity. However, in India, failure, or a downturn, in the market also means that you are still saddled with the payroll costs because you can’t restructure or layoff anybody. You can’t exit the business because employees will lose jobs. That’s something investors don’t have to deal with in most countries. You look at so many rusting factories in every major city in the country where the factory owner has not been able to layoff employees even when the networth of the company has gone down to zero, and you wonder – what a colossal waste of assets. You also wonder –  what do future investors think when they see these rust-buckets? More likely than not it’s – ‘That could be my investment 10 years from now.’

2. It provides no incentive for raising productivity through automation. Look at all the government offices or offices that have unionized staff like banks. To the last one, they opposed computerization. Why? because it could do the job faster and so it would reduce the number of jobs.

Yes it will and that is a good thing. Doing more work with fewer people raises productivity. Productivity raises incomes. The developed world’s prosperity is entirely linked to higher productivity. Also higher productivity creates the surplus (or the profit) that can be invested to create more jobs.

3. If you want to produce a quality product or service it needs carrots AND sticks. With an employee who is not performing, you train, you mentor, you put them on Performance Improvement Plans. But in the end, the employee needs to know that if his performance does not improve he can lose his job. Without this freedom for businesses to manage for performance, it may be possible to compete against companies who are similarly hampered, but it is a clear disadvantage in the global market.

4. It pushes employment generation into the informal sector. In my second stint at Levers I would have loved to hire people directly into the company instead of outsourcing critical functions like Sales. With the Levers brand name as an employer we would have got great talent which would have been better for the company. However, Levers would not do that for a new business that could have failed leaving them with employees they wouldn’t know what to do with. So all of the hiring was done by outsourced contract firms. Did these employees get the PF and benefits they would have got at Levers? I doubt that very much. I don’t think these contract firms even paid any taxes since they were probably classified as Small Scale.

In summary, the current labour laws in India distort the business environment to where it reduces employment generation by discouraging investment, reduces income growth by discouraging productivity increases, reduces quality by taking away the freedom to manage for performance and pushes employment generation into the informal sector.

Whenever I bring this up with people in industry in India, I am given many reasons why this is not a problem. Someone says ‘Only 20% of my workforce is unionized, I just work around them’. Another one will say ‘If you really want to fire an employee for performance, it can be done.’ But most of all the reason I get is ‘But the economy is doing so well why do we need to think about redundancies and labour flexibility?’ On the contrary, it is because the economy is doing so well that this is the right time for labour reform.

I believe this is the most important reform that government must now address. However, this is also the most difficult. Dismantling industrial licensing was like a walk in the park compared to this. With the government dependent upon the CPI(M) to stay in power makes it almost impossible to do major reforms. But major one-shot reforms aren’t the right answer anyway. There should be a 10 year road map on labour reform. But starting now. Let’s begin the discussion.

Street Power

The recent fiasco in France holds many lessons for democracies everywhere.

France has this strange combination of a thriving corporate industry and high unemployment especially amongst youth. The culprits here are France’s rigid labour laws which make it almost impossible to dismiss or layoff employees. Companies therefore prefer not to hire. If they have to, they use temporary workers. Since older employees can’t be fired easily, unemployment hits the youth. Much of the unemployment is among the children of immigrants which ultimately was the cause of rioting in France a few months ago. People with no jobs are more likely to riot – they have time on their hands and nothing to lose.

The government in France, with the best of intentions, decided to fix some of these problems to regenerate employment amongst youth. But they could not suddenly change labour laws across the working population. If layoffs were permitted across the board, sure, growing companies would start hiring young people, but there would also be a lot of older workers laid off and out of jobs. So the government decided to make it easier to fire only young workers in the first two years after they join.

Big mistake. Within days, massive student and youth protests were organized across the country. Colleges shut down because all the students were in the streets protesting against what they were calling a law unfairly targeting young people! The government first said it was willing to negotiate the time period – make it 18 months instead of 2 years. In the end, Jacques Chirac just withdrew the bill, in effect dashing the Presidential hopes of his trusted luitenant Dominique de Villepin who was the author of the bill. So were all students against the new bill? No. Last week they were interviewing a law student from the Sorbonne on BBC. The student was being asked about the law and the protests. She was against the protests and for the law. She didn’t like the fact that the colleges had been shut for the past 4 weeks and who knows what would happen to her final exams. But more importantly, she thought that the new bill would generate employment for the youth! She also said that none of the economics and law students of her university were in the protest marches.

I think the new bill would have worked. Not that the French government didn’t deserve the shellacking it got. They have nobody to blame but themselves for making France into an insular, inflexible place to do business. But really, this bill didn’t have a chance. Why? For two reasons:

1. The rationale for the new law is not easy to explain. It is not obvious that making it easier to fire young workers will result in higher employment among the same workers. I can imagine myself trying to explain that to a 3rd year medieval history student. Even if I knew French, I don’t think I could. On the other hand, the opposition can easily spin it the other way portraying it as an evil law designed to protect older workers or even designed to keep immigrant youth from keeping good jobs. Here I don’t just mean the Opposition in Parliament. Every change has opposition to it simply because someone is going to get hurt by the change.

2. The opposition to the law had Street Power. The people who were in favour of the new law like the Sorbonne law student and her friends, did not.

Cut to India. Labour flexibility, for decades, has been the one reform that no politician wants to touch. It is hard to believe that if you are the owner or manager of a company, your company can make losses, go bust and lose its entire net worth, but you can’t restructure your workforce. Capital treads softly where labour is inflexible. There was a time when there was talk of an Exit Policy for sick companies. A very unfortunate choice of name, if you ask me. The opposition (trade unions) quickly positioned the Exit in Exit Policy to be the exit of employees. ‘Hire and fire’ was another colorful phrase they used. The government had to bury the whole thing.

But its now resurfacing. You hear snatches of statements made by the PM and FM about the need for labour flexibility. Although they’ve picked a better name this time, I don’t like the government’s odds of passing any substantive legislation on this matter. Why? because of the same reasons that the French government failed.

How do you explain the rationale of labour flexibility to Mr. Godbole who is a teller in a bank? Mr. Godbole, we plan to make it easier to fire people such as yourself because this will encourage capital investment which will generate more jobs. I can just see Mr. Godbole’s eyes glazing over. Before he gets angry. Even Mr. Godbole can understand that making it easier to fire him is not good for his pension. Self interest is a great motivator. When it comes down to Godbole’s job security vs. more employment in the country, Godbole knows which side of his toast is buttered. And finally, Godbole is part of a union. He has Street Power. His union can call a strike, do a dharna and if it comes down to it, burn a few buses. The stakes are very high. And a burning bus is an arresting sight on TV.

The challenge of sound economic policy making is that often doing the right thing benefits a silent majority, but hurts a vocal minority. In some cases the vocal minority can make their voice heard. In others they can take their campaign funding elsewhere. You need money to run elections. You need votes to win them.

I do think that one of the most important reforms that the Indian economy can benefit from is bringing labour flexibility. This is the best time to do it when economic growth is strong. But I won’t be holding my breath waiting for it. Not while the govenment depends upon the support of CPI(M).

New Bombay or Renew Bombay

A couple of weeks back I spent a day in Navi Mumbai with a friend. Every time I go there I am elated by what I see there – a great city in the making. But I am also saddened. Is the only hope of urban India to build new cities? Are today’s cities doomed?

For those not familiar with it, Navi Mumbai is a 344 sq. km area on the mainland next to Mumbai. It was developed with the objective of decongesting Mumbai, which was (and still is) the land of promise in India – a cross between LA and New York with its Bollywood and Dalal Street. Unfortunately, it is a strip of land largely surrounded by the sea and its growing population had no room to expand.

CIDCO (‘we make cities’), the organization that was entrusted with the task of developing Navi Mumbai has done an all around fantastic job. It not only planned and developed the land, it also undertook much of the housing construction there, when no builders thought it would be worth their while. CIDCO continues to plan and develop and run civic services in Navi Mumbai. The results are fantastic and are noteworthy in three seminal ways.

One, Navi Mumbai is a planned city. It is laid out with what I am sure is a Master Plan behind it. It reminds one of the Chandigarh in my school days with numbered sectors and roads intersecting at right angles. Two, the infrastructure is remarkably good – roads, bridges, rail, optic fiber…it’s all there and well maintained. The administration actually runs a surplus and at this time the sale of land must be so profitable for it that investing in very good infrastructure is feasible.

But the most visible difference between Navi Mumbai and Mumbai itself is the almost complete absence of illegal construction and slums. Enforcement of property rights is complete. And that is what is amazing.

I see a great future for Navi Mumbai. There are big corporates like Reliance that are making big bets on Navi Mumbai. I think that is good for Navi Mumbai and for Mumbai itself. Mumbai can’t handle its urban crisis itself, so a helping hand from a satellite city should be welcome.

Cities like Mumbai and Bangalore are crumbling under the pressure of rapid growth. But growth is really a handy excuse. Its not like you couldn’t see it coming. Its just that it was nobody’s  problem. Unfortunately, urban development is a long cycle endeavor. Developing urban infrastructure with foresight is a waste of time for an elected government. Its benefits are not seen by the electorate in time for the next elections. On the other hand urban development is a most lucrative opportunity for corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. Planned development that benefits future administrations versus builder driven development that lines ones pockets today – the choice is easy. Even if one is an honest administrator, doing the right thing will require you to fight so many vested interests, why not let sleeping dogs lie?

Which is what saddens me. Is the difference between Navi Mumbai’s rise and Mumbai’s meltdown a matter of new versus old? Or is it the difference between governance by an elected government and a state corporation (CIDCO)? Either way, the odds are stacked against today’s Indian metros. We need strong leaders and able adminstrators. And citizens who care.

Paperbacks in India

Every trip to India, I bring back half a suitcase full of books. My wife is a voracious reader of fiction and she reads a lot of Indian fiction too. Also, we want our children to read Indian mythology and other Indian stories and it’s impossible to get Indian childrens’ books in the US (there’s eBay retail opportunity for someone out there).

Of all the reasons why I buy books in India, cost is not one of them (unlike for Hindi film music and DVDs where there is a cost arb opportunity). But I think I may have to reconsider. I had just bought The Argumentative Indian’ by Amartya Sen in the US before going to India. It was the hardcover edition and cost about $25. In India the same book was available in paperback for less than half that price.

I know what’s going on of course. A book is an information product (like music, magazines, software and cinema). All of them are digitizable and the medium that carries them is immaterial (more or less) to the enjoyment of the product. All information products have a similar business problem. The marginal cost of producing the next copy is minimal and so variable cost has no bearing on the pricing of the product. For instance, the cost of a blank CD disc is insignificant compared to the price of the CD. So how does one price such a product?

In the case of books, the cost is not insignificant but it is much less than the price of the book (20% of the cost of a hardcover). So how does one price a book? The main technique is what I will loosely call ‘windowing’, though this is a term more widely used in the movie business. Publishers first come out with hardcover editions for (in the US) a $20+ price. With this they cover the well informed, price insensitive crowd. After a year or so comes the paperback with a price of around $10 that caters to the more price sensitive crowd.

However, there is another problem that publishers must deal with. Readers in different countries have vastly different purchasing power. How do they preserve their pricing model in the developed world without losing readers in developing countries like India? In the past they would just delay the launch of the book in India. However, in today’s global village, the media buzz around the launch of a new book creates demand everywhere at the same time. Postponing the book launch in India could mean lost sales.

So the solution is to launch relevant books in India simultaneously (or closely after) with the US market, but go straight to paperback. The different covers in a way justifies the different prices. For me, this is great news. I hate buying hardcovers because I do most of my reading on long flights and that is just extra weight to lug around. But many times, I just can’t wait. Paperbacks in India are like having your cake and eating it too.

Pricing of information products is one of the most fascinating subjects in business. My own company sells an information product. Many an hour has already been spent on how to price it. I’m sure this is not the last time I’ll be talking about this subject on this blog.

The Competitive Indian

Last week I did some travel within India while on my trip here. On the Mumbai to Bangalore trip I saw something really fascinating. The flight was more or less on time. When it landed in Bangalore, the airplane had barely steadied itself after landing (still taxiing) when about a quarter of the passengers on board stood up and started taking their things out of the overhead compartments. The plane was still taxiing when there had formed a line at the door. The stewardesses repeatedly announced that the plane had not reached the gate and that passengers were required to be in their seats, but to no avail. These were people in a hurry.

On the next leg of my journey from Bangalore to Delhi I did not see this rush for the exit. Which is surprising if you know Dilliwallahs. So I wondered a little about it.

Later, I came to this conclusion – the people who formed the line knew that there was an aerobridge at the Bangalore airport. Therefore, if they got off the plane first they would actually get out of the airport first if they didn’t have checked baggage. In Delhi there was a bus to ferry us to the terminal and so there was no advantage in trampling over old women and children to be first off the plane. If my conclusion is correct, we are in for more stampedes as our airports modernize and have more aerobridges. Sobering thought, that.

In a more serious vein, is all this competitiveness good or bad for us as a nation? (Some of you may contest this conclusion that we are ultra competitive simply by pointing to our cricketing performance). I think that on balance it is good for us. While we do have to put up with the occasional dent in our Honda Accords from aggressive SUVs, it still has its advantages. It is Darwinism at its best. The students coming out of colleges today are tough. They know that if they don’t make it in the job market there is no social security safety net to break their fall. They also know that in the growing private sector the only thing that matters is merit. Hard work will pay. And when they do start making the big bucks, the marginal rate of tax is a moderate 30-35%. Compare this with the European social states where you can maintain a pretty good lifestyle on dole but if you make the mistake of working hard for a decent income, the state can take more than half of that away from you in taxes.

So the next time someone cuts into the check-in line at the airport in front of me, I’m going to think calm thoughts. Here’s someone who wants to get ahead in life, I’ll tell myself. May his tribe increase.

Back to school

I am on a trip to India. We just closed our funding. Now the action in India is going to be thick as we build our team in Mumbai. The quality of people we hire is going to be the single most important determinant of our success. And so the opportunity to go talk to students at the premier business school in the country was almost impossible to turn down.

One of us was invited to go talk to a forum at IIM Ahmedabad that comprises of students interested in startups. Either doing a startup or joining one. Since I was in Mumbai and this was over the weekend, I decided to go as well. I hadn’t been there for over 10 years (I graduated in 1989) and needed just an excuse to visit the alma mater.

I went there with some trepidation. IIM A is not known to produce your entrepreneurial sort. Most students have little or no work experience, and perhaps rightly so, seek to get some. And there are all kinds obscenely high-paying jobs in India and abroad in investment banking, management consulting and other spheres that are just waiting to be landed.

I was pleasantly surprised by the turn-out. There were about 40 students from both PGP I and II (first year and second year). They were engaged and had good questions. In the break I learnt that many of them were choosing not to take up jobs but instead start a new venture immediately. I thought that was just great.

I also caught up with Prof. Arvind Sahay who teaches Marketing at IIM A. Arvind and I were in the same graduating class from IIM A. Since then he had done a Ph.D from UT Austin and had taught for a while at London Business School. Next stop – Ahmedabad. It seems many Indians abroad who are doing well in academia are heading back to quality institutions like IIM A. Arvind reeled off an impressive list of recent hires. This is great news. The 1990s weren’t the most exciting times for IIM A. Now a new generation of faculty is injecting much needed change. There are new courses, new programs (like the PGP Ex on the lines of ISB) and a lot of investment in the right things. The new campus is still not done but it looks quite impressive. Different architectural theme from the old campus, but retains some of the old flavour.

It felt good to go down memory lane a bit too. For those in the know, the magic of Louis Kahn Plaza at night does not diminish with time.

Indian Real Estate Funds

The world of business is fascinating. There are parts of it that are science – you can predict outcomes based upon the conditions and a set of rules. Or you know that you could if you knew enough about the rules and could measure all the conditions. And there are parts of it that aren’t science. Or if they are, they are more of a ‘social science’. I find joy in both CAPM and Leadership theory. Both make sense to me.

But then, I have another category – Things That Don’t Make Sense To Me. Over time I have generally found that most things in the TTDMSTM category don’t make sense to me only because I haven’t found the answer to my question, or haven’t found the right person to ask. But sometimes they just don’t make sense. The Indian Real Estate Funds question is one I have put to many people and haven’t yet found a satisfactory answer. So if anyone out there has a good answer I’ll be eager to hear from them. Here it is:

In the US there is a vehicle called REIT, which is essentially a publicly listed company that invests in real estate. Management fees are low and they are available to the public to invest in (both facts are linked in a way).

In India in the last few years real estate funds have been mushrooming like rabbits. Every company that has an asset management side of the house, and many that don’t, either has a real estate fund or is starting one. Which is not surprising, since the thesis that real estate is a good investment in a booming economy with crowded cities is reasonable. However, all these funds are structured so that they make a lot of money for the fund managers at the expense of the investors. Most of them have the economics of a Venture Fund – 2% Management Fees; 20% Carry. (20% Carry means that the Fund managers will keep 20% of the returns of the Fund over a certain hurdle rate of return).

There is a big difference between the risks in a Venture Fund and a Real Estate Fund. VC thumb rules say that a third of a VC’s investments go bust, a third are chart-busters with the remaining third somewhere in between. This is a high-risk business. It is also a business where the expertise of the fund managers in attracting and backing good ventures hugely determines the success of the fund.

Investing in real estate is not like that at all. The risk on individual properties is much more contained. Also, the level of expertise is not that high. A local real estate broker will know far more about a property than an MBA who manages the fund. I am not saying that the quality of management, the reputation of the firm and so on doesn’t add value, but 20% carry for just diversifying one’s real estate holdings sounds like a ‘get rich’ scheme – for the Fund managers.

As you may have guessed, I have so far not bought into any Indian real estate fund. If they come up with a REIT like instrument that is publicly traded, regulated and has low mutual fund like fees, I will gladly invest in that. Or if someone can explain what justifies the fees. If it is simply supply and demand for such funds, that’s not a good enough reason. I’ll wait.

Before you get influenced by this post, let me tell you about another TTDMSTM of mine – GOOG (Google). For a long time, my wife was on my case to buy GOOG. I didn’t. My reason – its P/E didn’t make sense to me. Where were they going to get that kind of growth from? Recently, when GOOG dropped over 20% from its high of $475, I told my wife that I felt vindicated about not buying GOOG. She sneered "I told you to buy it at $180!"