Friday, August 21, 2009

Adam Smith's Dharma

In January this year, President Sarkozy of France, former Prime Minister Tony Blair of England, and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, kicked off a debate in Paris on the nature and the future of capitalism. It was in response to the global economic crisis. This article--my inaugural column for the Times on Saturday--is a contribution to this debate.

The idea that an ancient Indian epic might offer insight into capitalism’s nature, on the face of it, appears bizarre. The truth is that the Mahabharata’s world of moral haziness is far closer to our experience as ordinary human beings than the narrow and rigid positions that define debate in these fundamentalist times. Capitalism is also about ordinary persons--buying and selling goods in the market place.

The Mahabharata believes that human beings are flawed and these flaws make our world ‘uneven’, vishama--making us vulnerable to nasty surprises. Duryodhana is one of the chief causes of ‘uneveness’ in the epic. Others too have their flaws--Yudhishthira’s weakness for gambling, Karna’s status anxiety, Ashwatthama’s revengeful nature, Dhritarashtra’s excessive love for his eldest son, and so on. These defects are dangerous and they drive the epic towards calamity. Investment bankers on Wall Street and rating agencies suffered from similar infirmities. And they have brought the global capitalist system to its knees.

John Maynard Keynes, the great economist, had a comparable insight about our ‘uneven’ world. He lived during the Great Depression when there were also many calls to end capitalism. The unevenness of the world is caused by what Keynes called, ‘animal spirits’, which drive businessmen to take risks, often in the face of insufficient knowledge. John Nash, the Nobel Prize winning hero of the movie, A Beautiful Mind, traced this to ‘asymmetries of information’. And this leads to crises--such as the dotcom bubble, in which many sensible persons quit their jobs in order to make a fortune. It burst in 2000 but was soon replaced by another mania of the ‘smart flippers of securitized mortgages of sub-prime properties’, which sent the world into a recession in 2007. Keynes believed that a capitalist economy left to itself is unstable, and needs state regulation.

Standard economic theory makes the mistake in ignoring the role of human passions and animal spirits. Ever since Adam Smith, classical economics has assumed that capitalism is inherently stable. People buy and sell rationally, and this results in equilibrium. Classical economics ignores vishama--that people get into manias and even paan-wallas start buying shares on the basis of rumours. When manias take over there are bubbles and when bubbles are pricked confidence falls sharply and the whole economy collapses. Hence, we need regulation to ensure people are not falsely lured into buy bad assets. This regulation, however, must not kill the ‘animal spirits’ of entrepreneurs, which is what happened in India during the ugly days of the License Raj…and we almost lost two generations.

If Keynes thinks the answer lies in regulation, the Mahabharata seeks to ‘even’ out the world through dharma. Dharma is a complex word—it means virtue, duty, law, religion depending on the context, but it is chiefly concerned with doing the right thing. The Mahabharata recognizes that it is in man's nature to want more. Dharma seeks to give coherence to our desires by containing them within an ethical life. No amount of regulation will catch all the Duryodhanas and the Ramalingam Rajus of the world. What is needed is self-restraint on the part of each actor in the market place in order to build trust within society. The sunny world of Adam Smith may have been a tad optimistic, but Smith understood the importance of trust which underlies each transaction in the marketplace. This trust is the ‘dharma of capitalism’.

Regulators and central bankers around the world are wrestling with how to reform their financial systems. They are expending huge energy in debates between the political Left and the Right when the greater divide is between conduct in accordance with dharma and adharma. It is not enough to punish Ramalingam Raju. Institutions must also develop a culture of self-restraint and reward an act of goodness--one of the very few things of genuine worth in this world.
The writer is the author of the book, ‘The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma’, which examines the ambiguous moral life of India under the lens of the Mahabharata. It is being launched next week.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

An old tale of two modern brothers

Once upon a time there was an ambitious young man named Mukesh Ambani who invested Rs 38,000 crores to look for gas, deep on the ocean’s floor off the turbulent coast of Andhra Pradesh. Some called him mad. If ONGC, the government exploration company, did not find anything after wasting thousands of crores of taxpayer’s money for decades, how could he risk his and his shareholder’s money in this reckless manner? What if nothing was found?

They did not know that Mukesh is one of life’s winners. Not only did he find the gas but the amount was beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. It was the biggest energy discovery in the world at the time. More impressive still, he has brought it into comercial production in half the normal time, thus creating another world record. No wonder he is a hero to millions. His breakthrough will reduce significantly the nation’s energy bill for importing oil and it reinforces our faith in private exploration. And there is still much more gas under the ocean floor, according to experts--Myanmar has also found gas at its end of the same ocean. Given the nation’s desperate need for energy, we must hurry and find it.

Mukesh Ambani has a younger, more flamboyant brother named Anil, who is also highly accomplished. But he has a different temperament--he loves glamour and power and cultivates politicians and film stars. In fact, he is married to one. All this does not not go down well with his sober, older brother. After their father died, power passed on to Mukesh. Since he did not trust Anil, he ignored and marginalized him. Anil fought back. After a fearsome battle, their mother intervened and divided the business. We have a saying in India: “Haveli ki umar saath saal”, which means the life of a business house is 60 years. After that the family splits up, usually in the third generation. But the Ambani brothers have split up in the second.

As part of the family division, Mukesh agreed to provide gas to a power plant which Anil intended to put up in U.P. at a price of $2.34 per mmbtu. This was the price that Mukesh also agreed to supply NTPC, the mamoth government owned power producer. Mukesh refuses to honour these contracts. He claims that the official price is $4.20, which is also closer to today’s market price (based on actual bids made in April 2007). The difference in the two prices is worth tens of thousands of crores. So, a lot is at stake. Both the brothers, it seems to me, have a strong case, which is now before the Supreme Court, and I am glad I am not the judge.

Normally a fight between two brothers should not matter to the nation. But it does in this case. The quantity of gas is so vast that it affects the nation’s finances. A lower energy price also means lower inflation—it means a lower government subsidy to fertilizer and power plants. But a lower price also implies that the government will make a huge loss from its revenue sharing contract with Mukesh. Hence, the court has to bear in mind the interests of both the producers and the consumers of gas.

Whatever the outcome in the court, it is crucial that the image of India as a mature democracy with a rule of law is protected. Only then can we hope to attract investor-explorers in the future. They are all set to gamble vast sums without any certainty of finding the gas. They should at least have the comfort that they are dealing with a trustworthy government, which will not nationalize, nor change the rules of the game midway, and will uphold their contract. If the court judgement upholds the lower price, it will certainly dampen the spirits of investors. On the other hand, by upholding the prior contract between the brothers, the court will also send a positive signal to future investors that the rule of law prevails in India.

Investors are thus watching the government carefully. The state should not take sides in private conflicts. It should be neutral and fair. This is how trust is built. But last month Anil Ambani attacked Murli Deora, the petroleum minister, at the annual meeting of his company. He suggested that something smelled rotten—the government was favouring Mukesh. The suggestion of crony capitalism has shaken the confidence of investors. I cannot remember the last time when a businessman had the guts to publicly attack a cabinet minister. Businessmen have too much to lose--tax raids, denial of licenses and loans from public institutions. Why did Anil Ambani take this risk? Wait for the next episode.
Gurcharan Das is the author of The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma, which interrogates the Mahabharata in order to answer the question, ‘why be good?’ It is being launched on August 25th.