Essays

India’s Economic Future

Harsh recently wrote an excellent piece on how India’s economy will grow from the current $2.5 trillion GDP to $12 trillion by 2030. His prediction rests on on two planks: increasing participation of women in the workforce, and technological change.

The Solow growth model – one of the few economics topics I actually remember something about from business school – takes three inputs, namely capital, labour and productivity growth, to project what the future output of an economy might be. Harsh has made a persuasive case from first principles, on how an increase in women’s participation in the workforce combined with the mobile internet revolution will propel India’s GDP to $12 trillion by 2030.

These media reports add a lot of colour to what can sound like a routine development – it is anything but that:

Rural Indian Girls Chase Big-City Dreams

Latest HRD survey shows girls going to college out number boys in seven states

Their Postcards For 2018: From 18 places, girls who turned 18 this year speak out

Harsh’s point on technology too is visible and obvious – Reliance Jio’s entry into telecom is making 4G mobile connectivity ubiquitous. Over the next 3-4 years, we should see 5G (with speeds on the order of hundreds of MB per second) rolled out across India. Consider what this will do for education, health care, media and entertainment. The possibilities are enormous.

Last year, I had co-authored two op-eds with investor Navroz Udwadia on how India can achieve sustained double-digit growth, by fixing the banking sector and building infrastructure for agriculture. The former addresses the capital piece of the Solow model, the latter helps increase productivity for agriculture through “technological” interventions. The introduction of GST too is a technological step change, the longer-term benefits of which monthly or quarterly economic data cannot capture.

There are real changes underway in how India allocates capital, in the composition of our labour force, and in technology. These will all mutually reinforce each other and the gains will compound. It can be difficult to see the bigger picture when we ourselves are inside the frame. I feel very positive about India’s economic future. It’s a great time to invest in India and to be an entrepreneur here.

Financing A Business

The accounting equation, a fundamental identity of accounting, states that:

Assets = Liabilities + Owner’s Equity

A business converts debt (liabilities) and equity (owner’s equity) into assets that generate cash flows. Those on the right side of the equation make claims on this cash flow depending on the security they hold. Debt capital providers receive a coupon on their investment, while equity capital providers participate in the upside (and downside) as the owners of the business.

With that 20-second crash course in accounting and corporate finance out of the way, the question, both practical and philosophical, every entrepreneur has to answer is how the business should be funded.

Selecting the capital source for a business is one of the most important strategic choices an entrepreneur makes. Founders may not necessarily think through it in the way I have described above, but as Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao said once, not taking a decision is also a decision.

Venture capital investors are equity participants, and expect higher returns compared to public equity investors. In recent years, the terms attached to equity investment by venture investors have turned equity into a quasi-debt instrument.

Debt financing is suitable for relatively predictable and regulated sectors, such as infrastructure and power, and it is unsuitable for riskier and innately unpredictable endeavours such as creative projects or technical innovation. Debt funding has an added advantage because interest payments are tax deductible, a provision introduced in the First World War.

Let’s examine what’s been happening in some sectors through the financing lens:

India e-commerce – Several e-commerce players raised very large sums of money at, it is now obvious with the benefit of hindsight, unjustifiably high valuations. These companies thought they were raising equity, but it was actually debt disguised as equity. This was not unique to Indian startups, and happened in other markets too. Venture capitalist Bill Gurley eloquently described the phenomenon as the “calcification of the cap table”. Onerous covenants on equity and the fund-raising arms race made the capital structure of many startups fragile, and the fragility has broken many companies. The calcification happened because founders chased higher and higher paper valuations. The price equity investors extracted for the high valuation was to take debt-like protections in case things went sideways. The transformation of equity into debt-like instruments was necessitated partly by the drive for higher headline valuation numbers. This is always irresponsible. Instead of fund-raising being a means to the end of building a business, fund-raising at ever-increasing valuations became an end in itself. While e-commerce startups have to do a capital raise to continue investing in the business, Amazon simply parks a chunk of the cash flows from its thriving marketplace and cloud businesses into India. Amazon is more conservatively financed than its Indian competitors and that is making a very big difference.

India telecom – Telecom spectrum is the essential “raw material” to run a telecom business. The corruption-mired allocation of this scarce and valuable resource by the Congress-led UPA government is one of the biggest scandals in India’s history. After the scandal, it became politically difficult to not maximize revenues on auctions of telecom spectrum. The legacy players borrowed huge sums of money from government-owned banks to license spectrum. Then Reliance Industries entered the business with Jio, funding spectrum acquisition and network buildout through very large equity-funded investments. Reliance can afford to invest on this scale because of its oil refining business. That business generates huge cash flows, and Reliance is investing some of this cash into its new telecom business. In a sense, Reliance Industries is doing to legacy telecom companies what Amazon is doing to e-commerce startups. Both Amazon and Reliance are investing equity, while the others are investing debt.

Global media and entertainment – A few months ago, Netflix issued corporate debt to fund new content. This is quite risky. Netflix’s low-rated and high-interest bonds were lapped up by investors starved of yield in the current low interest rate environment. It says something about the present environment that even though Netflix has told investors it will turn to bond markets to raise money frequently and invest the proceeds into a speculative assets like films and television shows, investors are handing over billions of dollars to the company knowing Netflix will keep burning cash. At the same time, digital music streaming startups in the US and India have raised enormous amounts of capital from private investors, probably with onerous terms attached – so these instruments may be labeled equity, but work more like debt. The problem the streaming services face is that the more money they make, the more content owners (typically large music labels and media companies) extract from them. As the intermediary, streaming services have limited bargaining power with the content owners. They are running the classic Red Queen race. The bet investors in such companies are taking is that the subscriber base can grow fast enough to a large enough scale so that eventually the economics of the model tilts in the favour of the licensee (i.e., the streaming service).

India agriculture – Indian agriculture is woefully over-regulated. Farmers have little control over both the price they can get for produce and where they are allowed to sell their output. For decades, India has simultaneously romanticized and infantilized the farmer. Farming is simply not viewed as a business, even though it is one. As if it wasn’t enough, farmers are left to the mercy of the weather too because India has a dearth of irrigation infrastructure. About 45% of employment is in the agriculture sector. Most people (we are talking tens of millions of people) just default to agricultural employment as there are limited opportunities to do anything else in rural India. There isn’t much equity capital entering farming, as farming tends to be largely subsistence-based. Deprived of equity funding sources, farmers turn to loans from formal and informal sources. They don’t have much of an incentive to invest in productivity tools for their farms either, because of pricing and other regulatory distortions. Given the high dependence of India’s population on farming and the inefficiencies built into Indian agriculture, every now and then there is a political clamour for farm loan waivers. This is a vicious cycle, and can only be broken by structural policy reforms for the sector.

When evaluating an investment, I find it very useful to think both backwards and forwards about how the business has been financed and how it will be financed. It reveals a lot about both the economics of the business and the management behind it.

Hindi Medium

English medium types like me read an Oscar Wilde short story called The Model Millionaire in school. The story is about how Hughie Erskine, despite being poor, gives away whatever little he has to somebody who he thinks is an old beggar.

Irrfan Khan-starrer Hindi Medium has elements of that story. The film portrays in stark contrast the nobility of a poor family against the pettiness of a rich couple. It conveys many truths about sections of India’s new (and old) urban elite.

The title of the film refers to the Hindi-language education of the two main characters in the story. One of them has an inferiority complex because of an inability to speak in “proper” English. Though they are wealthy, their educational and particularly non-English language background marks them as misfits in Delhi’s high society circles. Hindi Medium is about the social dynamics of being newly rich in a still-clubby urban India, and on the social challenges faced by the urban poor.

The film also shows how elite schools have become less about learning, and operate more like social clubs that have signaling value. It’s almost as if becoming a part of that club gives confidence – and connections – to an individual. Obviously, this is not what an educational institution should be about.

But the confidence factor matters. Believing it’s possible to succeed is the first step to actually being able to succeed. Developing that confidence, especially when you are an “outsider”, is not easy. The insanity of school admissions shown in the film is not exaggerated. It is particularly bad in cities like Delhi, and this is a problem created by bad regulations. The shortages are manufactured, as government clamps down on supply.

Government schools in a India are bad because teachers and administrators have no incentives to do any better. There is practically no accountability in the government school system. Consumers are choosing private schools because those schools deliver better learning outcomes for students. If they don’t deliver a good product, private schools will lose their customers. Unlike government schools, private schools go out of business, so they have a strong incentive to keep doing better.

The Union and state governments are doing the opposite of what they should do – rather than reducing entry barriers and making it easier for new schools to enter the marketplace, large numbers of existing private schools are being shut down across India. This hurts the poor the most, as they are forced to go back to the ineffective government schooling system they finally had the chance to escape.

The policy issues here are complex and multi-faceted, and this is where the film’s solution to the problem is wrong. Everybody sending their children to government schools will not improve those schools – for government schools to change, the incentives for those schools have to change. There needs to be accountability. There are very good reasons why the rich and poor alike wish to send their children to private schools. But I’m delighted somebody made a film like this, and that it is being watched and appreciated widely in India.

It is a movie with a great message, delivered in an entertaining way. These lines from a song in the film capture the spirit of India’s new generation and why the new India has achieved escape velocity:

इक जिन्दड़ी मेरी, सौ ख्वाहिशाँ

इक इक मैं पूरी कराँ

मुिश्कल हुमें रोकना !

Accelerating India’s Innovation Boom

Over the last three years, entrepreneurship has captured India’s imagination, and for good reasons. Never in our history has it been possible for first-generation entrepreneurs to start companies, raise seed capital and build a business in the way we have seen in recent times. The path available only to wealthy families and elite dynasties has been opened to every Indian today, thanks to the entrepreneurship boom.

Since taking office in May 2014, the Narendra Modi government has implemented a series of policy changes that have supported this unprecedented wave of entrepreneurship. The time taken for incorporation of companies has been brought down to a few days from several weeks. The Modi government has liberalised foreign direct investment across industries, and India is opening its doors to global capital even as the rest of the world becomes more protectionist.

In line with a commitment made in the 2015 Budget to gradually reduced the corporate tax rate, the government has cut the corporate tax rate to 25% for companies with revenues below Rs 50 crore, with the reduced rate now being considered for mid-size companies with revenues below Rs 500 crore. In a move to encourage startups to develop intellectual property-based businesses, the government implemented a concessional tax rate of 10% on income earned from licensing of patents, and India is now more aligned in this respect with global peers.

Small Industries Development Bank of India (SIDBI) has emerged as a significant domestic fund investor in India’s venture capital industry – with SIDBI’s support, several new early-stage funds have emerged to back Indian entrepreneurs, addressing a supply-side issue in the private capital market.

The public equity capital market, whose key function is to provide growth capital to businesses, has also seen substantive reforms. On the public markets side, the entry of Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) is bringing depth and stability to the equity market while enabling organised sector workers to become beneficiaries of India’s long-term economic growth. The successful rollout of the Aadhaar program has reduced friction and identification costs associated with bank account and demat account opening by over 95% – it takes minutes rather than weeks now to open accounts with Aadhaar’s e-KYC facility. 

The stock market has played a critical role over the decades in supporting the growth of Indian business. When banks were not willing to provide capital to young companies in the 1970s and 1980s, intrepid entrepreneurs turned to the equity market. In the process, wealth creation was democratised and ordinary individuals were able to participate in the growth of companies like Reliance Industries and Infosys, which are today counted among India’s blue-chip corporates.

There are two ideas the government should consider to further streamline capital allocation in the economy and ensure that the wealth created by India’s entrepreneurs is shared widely across society. 

There is a big gap between the long-term capital gains (LTCG) tax rate on unlisted private equity investment and the LTCG rate for listed public equity investment. For unlisted equities, the holding period for LTCG is more than 2 years and the applicable rate is over 20%. For listed equities, the holding period is 1 year and the gains are tax free. This wide discrepancy in treatment makes early-stage startup investment far less compelling when compared to investment in the stock market, even though the positive spillover effects for job creation and innovation are substantial in startup investment. 

This issue already seems to be on the Prime Minister’s radar – in a speech to the capital markets community in Mumbai earlier this year, Prime Minister Modi had said that stock market participants should make a “fair contribution to nation-building through taxes”. It is also worth looking at the taxation of dividends. The current regime of dividend distribution tax (DDT) is an indirect tax on all shareholders, even though it comes out of the company’s pocket. Shareholders, who are collectively the owners of a company, already pay corporate income tax on profits at the company level. DDT is effectively a double tax inimical to the interest of minority, non-controlling shareholders, who is typically a small retail investor. Introducing LTCG for listed equities, eliminating all taxation of dividends and bringing balance between taxation of unlisted private equity and listed public equity investment would go a long way towards improving capital allocation.

Finally, capital markets regulations on new listings and initial public offerings need to be relaxed and adapted to accommodate new-age technology and knowledge-based startups that aren’t able to comply with criteria that would apply more to industrial businesses. For example, companies wanting to list on Indian exchanges are required to have a minimum average pre-tax operating profit of Rs 15 crore in at least 3 years out of the last 5 years. In older times, when investor awareness and knowledge was low, a rule of this type served to protect inexperienced small investors. 

The landscape today stands transformed, where over a crore Indians are participating in the stock market through systematic investment plans, parking in excess of Rs 4000 crore every month into listed stocks. This is number that has doubled in the last few years. Crores of Indians are becoming indirect equity owners by virtue of being EPF beneficiaries. New media platforms and digital connectivity are helping educate the masses on the challenges and opportunities of stock market investing.

The effect of having the profit requirement for listing in India is high-tech businesses which have achieved significant progress and built an asset base but are still loss-making are forced to look abroad for raising capital through an initial public offering. Relaxing this requirement will help keep Indian companies in India, and will give an opportunity to India’s burgeoning retail investor base to build wealth by investing in tomorrow’s corporate champions.

The government’s war against black money has severely undermined the attraction of gold and land as investment alternatives. The taxation and regulatory policy ideas highlighted above would further help shift savings into productive, cash flow generating assets that spur the economy forward. India is well on its way to becoming an innovation-driven economy, and these policy reforms would accelerate our country on that path.

(Originally Published: Reflections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s website)

Rebalancing of Indian Equity Markets Will Smooth Volatility

Momentous changes in India’s equity market microstructure will improve market efficiency and smooth volatility over time.

Emerging markets are frequently stereotyped as being prone to wild swings and outsized volatility. In particular, India has historically been a market where foreign institutional investment has driven the direction of the market – bearishness by foreign investors has almost always pushed markets downwards, while optimism abroad about India’s prospects equally rockets equities to the stratosphere.

While sharp movements in either direction should not affect practiced value investors, the disproportionate impact of bipolar behaviour by international funds has both wreaked havoc in the Indian stock market, as well as created tremendous buying opportunities for the long-term value investor. For example, in 2014, when foreign investors pumped in over $40 billion into the Indian market after voters handed a single party with a majority in the general election for the first time in 30 years, the benchmark Nifty index rose over 30%.

Now, changes are afoot that will make India’s equity market more even-keeled over time. Employee Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO), an Indian government body, administers a pension fund drawing contributions from India’s formal sector labour force and controls about Rs 8 trillion (US$110 billion) in capital, In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Indian government decided that for the first time in India’s history, the corpus would be deployed in the equity market.

For its entire existence, EPFO had been investing heavily in debt securities. This was a system of indirect financial repression – the government would take workers’ pension and invest it primarily into government bonds. In line with how pension funds are managed globally, the Modi government decided that 5-15% of EPFO’s incremental corpus would annually be invested in exchange-traded funds tied to the major Indian market indices and a basket of government-owned enterprises. This is well below other large economies like Switzerland, where nearly 30% of pension money finds its way into the equity market, the United States (44%), and Australia (51%). EPFO’s equity allocation would translate to Rs 80-120 billion (US$ 1.2-1.5 billion) per year, and it invests in select ETFs that track India’s two benchmark indices, the Nifty and the Sensex.

EPFO draws over $12 billion a year in incremental funds from India’s salaried workers. Given that foreign investors pumped in $40 billion in 2014 and $9.5 billion in 2015, the share of the EPFO corpus invested in equities is relatively small today. Nevertheless, the entry of a significant domestic institutional investor into India’s equity market is a watershed moment. In its first year as an equity investor, the six decade-old EPFO parked 5% of the incremental corpus into ETFs. Late in 2016, it decided to increase the allocation from 5% to 10%, widening its mandate beyond large capitalization stocks to include mid-sized companies.

The Indian government is making a strong push to formalize the economy, and a burgeoning youth population means that EPFO’s incremental corpus from which a chunk is invested in equities should rise over time. The government also wants to increase the percentage allocated to equities over time, and the presence of a long-term domestic permanent capital will bring much needed balance and stability to the Indian market.

This is possibly the biggest structural change the Indian market has seen in the last 25 years, comparable to when the Indian market was opened up to foreign investors. Bringing this corpus into equities wasn’t an easy reform – powerful labour unions have resisted EPFO’s entry into equity investing for decades, but this time the Indian government prevailed.

Given this momentous change, investors would do well to move away from old notions and biases about the foreign investor-induced hyper-schizophrenia of India’s Mr Market. In practical terms, entry timing should matter less and volatility will be mitigated. The Indian market now has a new ballast. The permanent capital provided to equities by India’s largest pension fund means that foreign developments can’t whiplash Indian markets like they have in the past.

(Originally Published: Latticework)

India Can Emerge As An Innovation Leader

Has the Indian startup opportunity been wildly over-estimated? Mahesh Murthy’s article on this question has triggered a debate. Mahesh feels the “copy-paste” approach will not work in India — provided that most of India’s highly-valued startups are simply clones of successful US companies, “much of the growth assumed for our current unicorns is probably vastly overestimated”, he writes.

History is on Mahesh’s side. Desi Martini tried to be India’s Facebook — it was acquired by HT Media in 2007, but failed to scale and HT wrote off its investment. Guruji.com was a “search engine for India” backed by Sequoia Capital in 2006 — it was unable to compete with Google’s superior technology, failed to scale and eventually shut down. Seventymm, backed by substantial venture funding, tried to be India’s Netflix and also failed.

But it’s worth asking what’s different between the older crop of companies and the ones we see today. The obvious change is the rapid uptake of the mobile Internet and smartphones since 2008. Most Indians simply couldn’t afford to buy desktop or laptop computers, and pay for a monthly internet connection. Today, smartphones are available for a few thousand rupees and mobile data too is cheap enough, with telecom companies offering data packs and pay-as-you-go plans that allow even the lowest income groups to access the internet.

The broader story is about the rise of the Indian consumer — as I’ve written before, the US is the natural pioneer for consumer internet innovation because it is home to the world’s largest and most affluent consumer base, combined with an industrial commons in technology and engineering that is second to none. Russia and China don’t compete with the US because they are “walled gardens”, as Mahesh observed, and have very different cultural and language characteristics. In contrast, urban India is predominantly English-speaking and is also aligned with the US culturally. Whether its TV shows, Hollywood movies, English music, fashion or food, as India urbanizes, Indian consumer tastes are becoming more similar to the US, or loosely speaking, increasingly “westernized”.

The rise of the connected, aspirational Indian consumer who has a growing capacity to make discretionary spends is a robust and secular trend given India’s highly favourable demographics. In this sense, comparisons to the past are no longer relevant. This emerging consumer base will enable business opportunities in India over the next decade — including on the internet — that we cannot even imagine today.

One of the largest consumer markets in the economic history of the world is up for grabs, and the internet is a new distribution path to service that growing market. Venture funding is empowering first-generation entrepreneurs to create products and services for this new consumer. The global majors recognize the opportunity, and India-based internet companies are betting on it too. Just as Indian companies can’t cut-and-paste a model from abroad and succeed, even global internet companies cannot do a cut-paste job — the Indian market has its own quirks, and achieving success in India requires creativity and experimentation from all players, because everyone is in uncharted territory.

It can be debated whether valuations in certain cases are too rich, if private equity-funded startups can compete with well-established companies investing off their balance sheets, or whether some of India’s unicorns will be able to continue financing unprofitable growth — but debating such questions is very different from asserting that Indian internet ventures have no chance going up against global internet giants.

I think the opposite is true — the only country able to compete with the US on internet and technology innovation will be India, because only India has a large, growing consumer base and a comparable pool of technical talent. The challenge for India is to retain this talent at home, and attract talent from abroad. India’s open internet, compared to the “walled gardens” of Russia and China, will prove to be its strength in the longer run. The future won’t be like the past, as the expansion of the consumer base gives Indian startups the scale to build the next wave of the world’s great technology businesses.

Why Technology Matters For Sustainable Development

In his book Zero to One, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel addresses the distinction between globalization and technology. Globalization constitutes “horizontal progress”, he writes, or “taking things that work somewhere and making them work everywhere”; and China is the “paradigmatic example” of growth through globalization.

Technology, on the other hand, enables “vertical progress”, which Thiel argues is harder to imagine because it means “doing something nobody has ever done”. Moreover, while technology has for many come to mean information technology, there’s no reason to restrict its definition in this way, since “any new and better way of doing things” can be called technology.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, there has been an explosion of entrepreneurship around the world. Asian countries, particularly India and China, have demonstrated their ability to create high-growth start-ups. Around the world, there are 70 or so private enterprises valued at above $1 billion, and Asia is home to 15 of them.

But most of these ventures are products of horizontal progress (going “from one to n”, to use Thiel’s expression) and not vertical progress (“from zero to one”). Strictly speaking, even internet giants such as China’s Alibaba Group and India’s Flipkart are not technology pioneers: their well-earned success has been in deploying and scaling a proven business model in their home market.

So far, China, India and other emerging markets have grown by adopting and adapting technologies and business models from advanced economies. But can economic growth be sustained and delivered through the globalization model alone? Large populations in Asia and Africa aspire to join the ranks of the middle class; bringing sustainability to so many people will take innovation across a wide range of industries, which have so far remained relatively untouched by the rapid pace of change affecting information and communications technologies.

There is an enormous amount of latent consumer demand across the developing world that will be difficult to meet without innovation. Consider the challenges in energy, healthcare and financial services, for example. Energy and power requirements are so enormous that meeting them with fossil fuel-based technologies would result in serious environmental degradation, as China’s experience is proving.

In healthcare, large sections of the poor are being priced out of the market for life-saving drugs, and the industry requires a more cost-effective drug development model, as well as new government welfare mechanisms to deliver medicines to the bottom of the pyramid without violating the intellectual property rights of drug innovators.

In finance, tens of millions of people remain without bank accounts and are cut off from the formal financial system. Rapidly evolving crypto-currency technologies such as the Bitcoin (combined with internet-enabled smartphones) can help widen financial access.

The scale of need across these and other industries is such that the globalization approach alone is not sufficient: new technology is urgently required. Entrepreneurs have to deliver innovations in multiple sectors, not just ICT-related industries, to be able to make a large-scale impact.

Finally, it is more difficult for entrepreneurs and investors in advanced economies to deliver such innovations because they are not close to the customer. Increasingly, entrepreneurs in emerging markets will need to take the initiative and attempt to do what nobody has done, because the problems in these markets will be problems that nobody has really solved before. Additionally, these will be problems that advanced economies don’t really have a stake in solving.

In other words, emerging-market entrepreneurs will need to think of how to go “from zero to one” in myriad industries if they are to deliver sustainable and equitable growth for their large domestic populations. It poses a serious risk for global economic growth, but also presents the entrepreneurial opportunity of the century. Innovators who square the circle will not only create substantial wealth; they will also have done a tremendous service to human society by helping millions transition out of poverty.

Originally Published: World Economic Forum

Bitcoin and Emerging Markets

In my op-ed for Mint, I write about the potential applications bitcoin could have specifically for emerging markets like India:

India’s banking and financial services industry has incumbents that are inert, sloth-like and highly risk-averse. The banking industry in particular is heavily dominated by public sector undertakings (PSUs). PSU banks still control approximately 80% of all deposits. The industry is rife with corruption and mismanagement, for government banks know that their owner will always bail them out. But this was not always the case—before Indira Gandhi nationalized banks with the stroke of a pen, over 85% of deposits in India were held by private banks. Since the nationalization of banking, all innovation in the industry has come to a standstill.

For 2013-14, 63% of the total number and 35% of the total value of retail transactions was electronic. Average electronic transaction value has nearly tripled in four years, according to data from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), India’s banking regulator. But Indian banks cartelize and lobby their regulator to punish consumers with outdated usage practices totally out of tune with the needs of mobile transactions and electronic commerce. Instead of prodding the banks to improve their fraud detection and redressal systems, RBI simply makes it harder for consumers to transact and introduces artificial friction by way of two-factor authentication requirements so that banks get away without having to improve themselves.

Besides enabling transactions with reduced friction and at lower cost, there are certain applications of the protocol that can enable altogether new use cases. Cryptocurrencies can be used to write “smart contracts”, or contracts that are digitally written and require no third party for enforcement. The value of this application is difficult to overstate in an environment like India, which the World Bank ranks 186 out of 189 countries globally on the enforceability of contracts. Given the slow, dysfunctional judicial system and the paucity of social capital, individuals have historically preferred to do business with people already known to them, or people who are from their own community.

An alternate approach, outside the present broken system, that offers “self-executing”, tamper-proof contracts and does away with the need for third-party intervention for mediation or dispute resolution, could be truly transformational for countries like India by collapsing business risks and transaction costs. Cryptocurrencies like bitcoin could help dramatically improve contract enforcement.

Consider a bank that gives a secured loan to a person wanting to buy a car, on the assumption that the person will pay for the asset in a fixed number of monthly instalments over a period of time. If the person fails to pay the monthly instalment in any month, the bank reserves the right to take back the car. When a person has reneged on such payments, Indian banks have been known to send strongmen and professional bullies as recovery agents to intimidate and threaten customers and even the relatives of such customers. With an integrated software solution built into the car that verifies whether the monthly instalment has been deposited, a self-executing contract could remotely brick the car, making it inoperable by the consumer should he fail to make the payment. The software “key” to activate the car again would lie with the bank, which can then take possession of the asset easily.

Another game-changing application for cryptocurrencies specific to the Indian context is in the area of remittances. In 2013-14, India received nearly $70 billion in remittances from abroad. The volume of intra-country remittances is estimated to be some Rs.75,000 crore annually. In this digital age, anachronistic and expensive modes of money transfer such as the money order persist. Not only would the cryptocurrency protocol applied to a large market such as remittances be lucrative, it would also be a tremendous service to millions of bottom-of-the-pyramid migrant workers, who have been able to get the latest smartphones for a low price, but are still deprived of cheap, efficient and user-friendly banking and money transfer services.

Besides enabling transactions with reduced friction and at lower cost, there are certain applications of the protocol that can enable altogether new use cases. Cryptocurrencies can be used to write “smart contracts”, or contracts that are digitally written and require no third party for enforcement. The value of this application is difficult to overstate in an environment like India, which the World Bank ranks 186 out of 189 countries globally on the enforceability of contracts. Given the slow, dysfunctional judicial system and the paucity of social capital, individuals have historically preferred to do business with people already known to them, or people who are from their own community. An alternate approach, outside the present broken system, that offers “self-executing”, tamper-proof contracts and does away with the need for third-party intervention for mediation or dispute resolution, could be truly transformational for countries like India by collapsing business risks and transaction costs. Cryptocurrencies like bitcoin could help dramatically improve contract enforcement. Consider a bank that gives a secured loan to a person wanting to buy a car, on the assumption that the person will pay for the asset in a fixed number of monthly instalments over a period of time. If the person fails to pay the monthly instalment in any month, the bank reserves the right to take back the car. When a person has reneged on such payments, Indian banks have been known to send strongmen and professional bullies as recovery agents to intimidate and threaten customers and even the relatives of such customers. With an integrated software solution built into the car that verifies whether the monthly instalment has been deposited, a self-executing contract could remotely brick the car, making it inoperable by the consumer should he fail to make the payment. The software “key” to activate the car again would lie with the bank, which can then take possession of the asset easily. Another game-changing application for cryptocurrencies specific to the Indian context is in the area of remittances. In 2013-14, India received nearly $70 billion in remittances from abroad. The volume of intra-country remittances is estimated to be some Rs.75,000 crore annually. In this digital age, anachronistic and expensive modes of money transfer such as the money order persist. Not only would the cryptocurrency protocol applied to a large market such as remittances be lucrative, it would also be a tremendous service to millions of bottom-of-the-pyramid migrant workers, who have been able to get the latest smartphones for a low price, but are still deprived of cheap, efficient and user-friendly banking and money transfer services.

Read more at: http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/lv9RU1qcTVEA3MKSCXQsUJ/Cryptocurrencies-can-transform-financial-services.html?utm_source=copy

Besides enabling transactions with reduced friction and at lower cost, there are certain applications of the protocol that can enable altogether new use cases. Cryptocurrencies can be used to write “smart contracts”, or contracts that are digitally written and require no third party for enforcement. The value of this application is difficult to overstate in an environment like India, which the World Bank ranks 186 out of 189 countries globally on the enforceability of contracts. Given the slow, dysfunctional judicial system and the paucity of social capital, individuals have historically preferred to do business with people already known to them, or people who are from their own community. An alternate approach, outside the present broken system, that offers “self-executing”, tamper-proof contracts and does away with the need for third-party intervention for mediation or dispute resolution, could be truly transformational for countries like India by collapsing business risks and transaction costs. Cryptocurrencies like bitcoin could help dramatically improve contract enforcement. Consider a bank that gives a secured loan to a person wanting to buy a car, on the assumption that the person will pay for the asset in a fixed number of monthly instalments over a period of time. If the person fails to pay the monthly instalment in any month, the bank reserves the right to take back the car. When a person has reneged on such payments, Indian banks have been known to send strongmen and professional bullies as recovery agents to intimidate and threaten customers and even the relatives of such customers. With an integrated software solution built into the car that verifies whether the monthly instalment has been deposited, a self-executing contract could remotely brick the car, making it inoperable by the consumer should he fail to make the payment. The software “key” to activate the car again would lie with the bank, which can then take possession of the asset easily. Another game-changing application for cryptocurrencies specific to the Indian context is in the area of remittances. In 2013-14, India received nearly $70 billion in remittances from abroad. The volume of intra-country remittances is estimated to be some Rs.75,000 crore annually. In this digital age, anachronistic and expensive modes of money transfer such as the money order persist. Not only would the cryptocurrency protocol applied to a large market such as remittances be lucrative, it would also be a tremendous service to millions of bottom-of-the-pyramid migrant workers, who have been able to get the latest smartphones for a low price, but are still deprived of cheap, efficient and user-friendly banking and money transfer services.

Read more at: http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/lv9RU1qcTVEA3MKSCXQsUJ/Cryptocurrencies-can-transform-financial-services.html?utm_source=copy

Besides enabling transactions with reduced friction and at lower cost, there are certain applications of the protocol that can enable altogether new use cases. Cryptocurrencies can be used to write “smart contracts”, or contracts that are digitally written and require no third party for enforcement. The value of this application is difficult to overstate in an environment like India, which the World Bank ranks 186 out of 189 countries globally on the enforceability of contracts. Given the slow, dysfunctional judicial system and the paucity of social capital, individuals have historically preferred to do business with people already known to them, or people who are from their own community. An alternate approach, outside the present broken system, that offers “self-executing”, tamper-proof contracts and does away with the need for third-party intervention for mediation or dispute resolution, could be truly transformational for countries like India by collapsing business risks and transaction costs. Cryptocurrencies like bitcoin could help dramatically improve contract enforcement. Consider a bank that gives a secured loan to a person wanting to buy a car, on the assumption that the person will pay for the asset in a fixed number of monthly instalments over a period of time. If the person fails to pay the monthly instalment in any month, the bank reserves the right to take back the car. When a person has reneged on such payments, Indian banks have been known to send strongmen and professional bullies as recovery agents to intimidate and threaten customers and even the relatives of such customers. With an integrated software solution built into the car that verifies whether the monthly instalment has been deposited, a self-executing contract could remotely brick the car, making it inoperable by the consumer should he fail to make the payment. The software “key” to activate the car again would lie with the bank, which can then take possession of the asset easily. Another game-changing application for cryptocurrencies specific to the Indian context is in the area of remittances. In 2013-14, India received nearly $70 billion in remittances from abroad. The volume of intra-country remittances is estimated to be some Rs.75,000 crore annually. In this digital age, anachronistic and expensive modes of money transfer such as the money order persist. Not only would the cryptocurrency protocol applied to a large market such as remittances be lucrative, it would also be a tremendous service to millions of bottom-of-the-pyramid migrant workers, who have been able to get the latest smartphones for a low price, but are still deprived of cheap, efficient and user-friendly banking and money transfer services.

Read more at: http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/lv9RU1qcTVEA3MKSCXQsUJ/Cryptocurrencies-can-transform-financial-services.html?utm_source=copy

Horizontal Progress vs Vertical Progress

In his new book Zero To One, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel writes:

At the macro level, the single word for horizontal progress is globalization – taking things that work somewhere and making them work everywhere. China is the paradigmatic example of globalization; its 20-year plan is to become like the United States is today.

The single word for vertical, 0 to 1 progress is technology . The rapid progress of information technology in recent decades has made Silicon Valley the capital of “technology” in general. But there is no reason why technology should be limited to computers. Properly understood, any new and better way of doing things is technology.

Elaborating on the theme of Globalization as “horizontal progress” versus Technology as “vertical progress”, Thiel writes:

This age of globalization has made it easy to imagine that the decades ahead will bring more convergence and more sameness. Even our everyday language suggests we believe in a kind of technological end of history: the division of the world into the so-called developed and developing nations implies that the “developed” world has already achieved the achievable, and that poorer nations just need to catch up.

But I don’t think that’s true…most people think the future of the world will be defined by globalization, but the truth is that technology matters more. Without technological change, if China doubles its energy production over the next two decades, it will also double its air pollution. If every one of India’s hundreds of millions of households were to live the way Americans already do— using only today’s tools— the result would be environmentally catastrophic. Spreading old ways to create wealth around the world will result in devastation, not riches. In a world of scarce resources, globalization without new technology is unsustainable.

As I’ve written earlier, this is a fundamental dichotomy: while advanced economies have the knowledge base and networks to deliver such innovation, the market for such innovation lies in emerging markets.

Achieving higher resource efficiency and developing lower-pollution energy sources presents a considerable innovation challenge – and commensurately, an entrepreneurship opportunity. So far, major startup successes that have emerged from India and China have been adept at “globalization” – they’ve taken proven business models from abroad, and executed those models well in their own markets.

The “technology” successes, especially in non-software or Internet areas, have been few and far between – and there are some very good reasons for why this is so. The question is whether emerging markets can become economically developed by globalization alone. As Thiel writes, this won’t be possible – “globalization without new technology is unsustainable”.

Something’s got to give – either we have technological breakthroughs that enable sustained economic growth, or growth itself will become constrained. China is already facing enormous pollution and environmental issues – sample these news reports:

Air Pollution, Birth Defects and the Risk in China (and Beyond)

The pollution constraint on China’s future growth

Environmentalism with Chinese characteristics

China Needs Industry to Enlist in “War on Pollution”

India is a fair distance away from China – and it’s already “choking on air pollution”. So the question is, where will the innovation come from, and which startups will deliver “vertical progress” to help sustain growth in emerging markets?

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