February 07, 2005
Stray thoughts on building sustainable advantages in IT

- McKinsey Quarterly recently published a report (unavailable without priced membership) about the comparative advantages in IT industry for India and China. The report concluded that Indian IT industry's economy of scale, established ladership and business practices provides India with powerful advantages. Chinese IT industry - because of its highly fragmented nature - would take a long time to catch up. It seems to have gotten wide coverage in Indian media.

- I recently read news coverage of an interview with Narayan Murthy (Infosys Chairman) in which he talked about the infrastructure burdens of the cities (power, roads, water, transportation) and how these are limiting the growth of IT industry in India (I lost the link).

-International Herald Tribune has a story about how Wipro is trying to widen its talent pool:

" By hiring Prity Tewary, Wipro, India's third-biggest software exporter, may have found the key to expanding the engineering talent pool that Indian universities produce in a year .... She and 1,100 others, many of them plain vanilla science graduates, are studying for a four-year master of science degree in software, telecommunications and microelectronics on Saturdays. Wipro is paying their tuition, providing them with classroom resources on its sprawling, university-type campuses, and giving them stipends that start at 6,000 rupees, or $137, a month. In turn, the student-workers are helping the company go beyond the limited universe of 184,000 fresh engineers available for hiring as programmers each year.

"We build our own engineers," says S.K. Bhagavan, who oversees Wipro's in-house "talent transformation" team of 70 faculty members. In a year, Bhagavan's team conducts 150,000 hours of training, and that includes coaching in "soft skills" needed by a work force that interacts with clients globally.

... At an aggregate level too, India needs to convert more of its generalist scientific talent into software professionals to sustain the industry's competitiveness. Of a total population of 7.7 million science and technology professionals in 2000, about half, or 3.8 million, were science graduates. Only 970,000 were graduate engineers, according to an estimate by the Institute of Applied Manpower Research in New Delhi. While India does need more science doctorates to carry out research, it doesn't need more unemployed physics graduates.

Seven out of 10 employees hired in the last three years by Infosys Technologies, Wipro's slightly bigger competitor by market value, were fresh graduates. In order to raise the quality of the talent it hires, the Bangalore-based company has released some of the course material it uses to train employees to universities under a $2 million "Campus Connect" initiative."

- Joel Spolski gave some interesting advise to computer Science graduates in USA a few weeks back (via Kingshuk). They are as applicable for Indian developers:

Would Linux have succeeded if Linus Torvalds hadn't evangelized it? As brilliant a hacker as he is, it was Linus's ability to convey his ideas in written English via email and mailing lists that made Linux attract a worldwide brigade of volunteers.

Have you heard of the latest fad, Extreme Programming? Well, without getting into what I think about XP, the reason you've heard of it is because it is being promoted by people who are very gifted writers and speakers.

Even on the small scale, when you look at any programming organization, the programmers with the most power and influence are the ones who can write and speak in English clearly, convincingly, and comfortably. Also it helps to be tall, but you can't do anything about that.

Posted by Kaushik at 06:49 AM
January 31, 2005
Communication history trivia

It does give you a sense of proportion:

On Feb. 10, 1825, a young man named Samuel sent a letter from Washington, D.C., to his ailing wife Lucretia: "I long to hear from you," he wrote plaintively. The next day, Samuel received word that his wife had died the day before he mailed his letter. By the time he got home to New Haven, Lucretia had been buried for three days. The man's full name was Samuel Finley Breese Morse. He eliminated the possibility that such a tragic irony would ever darken anyone else's life by inventing the telegraph in 1844.

And on July 14, 1846, a young U.S. Army captain was posted from Charleston, S.C., to a new base in Buena Yerba in the Alta California territory. How long do you think it took him to arrive in what we now call San Francisco, as fast as the U.S. Army could muster? The trip took six and a half months.

The captain and his wife wrote letters to each other every day. In April 1847, he finally got his first letter from her; she had written it in October 1846. When this soldier, William Tecumseh Sherman, became famous for his March to the Sea in 1865, his two priorities were to destroy the railroads in the Southeast and cut the telegraph lines. He knew exactly what he was doing.

In three breathtaking years from 1866 to 1869, travel time from the East Coast to California dropped from six months to roughly two weeks?and nearly everyone who crossed the continent survived. Suddenly, food and medicine could traverse immense distances in time to save lives. Suddenly, today's New York Times described what happened in Europe yesterday, instead of what had happened two or three weeks earlier. Suddenly, people could learn that it was a matter of life and death for them to get somewhere immediately; and they could actually get there.

Now how could anyone claim, as one venture capitalist did in early 1999, that the Internet is "the greatest invention in the history of the world?" It's simply an incremental improvement in the high speed at which we already share information by phone and fax and FedEx. It's a big deal, but the telegraph and the railroad were at least as big.

From Jason Zweig's speech to Morningstar Investment Conference in June 2001

Posted by Kaushik at 06:56 AM
December 16, 2004
Economic armageddon, anyone?

Last month Tyler Cohen threw down a challenge to those painting a gloom and doom scenario for the US economy:

.. The doomsayers are not obviously richer than the rest of us. Many of them (they know who they are!) do not invest on the basis of their gloomy prognoses. And no, buying a house is not enough, I want to see at least five percent of your net worth in puts on T-Bond futures.

While not exactly that, Jeremy Grantham has gone on record on a forum this month as having 10% of his portfolio in S&P shorts.

I have 50% in hedge funds, very cautious ones. Two-thirds are run by [my firm] GMO, one-third outside, 20% in emerging-country equity, 15% in small-cap international equity, 5% in forestry, 10% in foreign bonds. I also have minus 10% in S&P contracts [in other words, he's short]

The complete transcript is here. (It is accessible only to subscribers right now.But it should become available to all by the next fortnight. It is certainly worth reading in its entirety)

In the same panell Milunovich also noted that he is 70% cash and commodities (someone should have asked him - cash in what currencies) But then Milunovich doesnt have the sort of brand equity that Grantham has ....

They managed to scare the hell out of me!

Posted by Kaushik at 06:02 PM
December 06, 2004
A simpler explanation

Tyler Cowen lists reasons for longer lines in some stores. I think there is another reason too:

8a) Some stores do a better job of dicing and slicing customer behavior data that lets them develop more sophisticated plans for the number of registers that need to remain open in a given store/location/ season/time/day. One company headquartered in Bentonville has a bit of a reputation about that! Not everyone is equally good. (In one famous example i read recently, Bank Of America researchers found that if they provide cable Television on top of their teller counters, the perceived wait time would go down by as much as 30% (I think). The cost of HDTVs per counter in that geography was much less that the cost of implementing an EAI project that would have reduced the actual wait time. Increase in revenue per branch because of the TVs were projected to to be higher than the cost for the TV purchases. The TVs were in. The EAI project was thrown out)

b) The point about impulse purchases is related to this. The success of 'impule buy' merchandising is not only a function of the instinct of the merchandisers / store buyers, but also (I would say more so) of the sophistication of the business analytics applications used by the retailer.

c) Some stores have buggy software or messed up user interface. We go to 'Stop and Shop' and 'Shoprite' for our groceries. Shoprite's software has trouble reading discounts correctly and often brings lines to halt. But Shoprite managment deduced (correctly) that its price sensitive target audience in unlikely to walk away. Stop and Shop is at a slightly higer price point and (probably) made the necessary investment in more state of the art POS software

I think retail is one of the last frontiers. Regular Margin erosions and huge cost of implementations have made the majority of retailers risk averse.

Posted by Kaushik at 10:16 AM
December 03, 2004
A lousy tax system
" .... Businesses in Bangalore run their own bus services, contract with private suppliers for drinking water, and install generators to protect themselves from interruptions in electricity supply. The state can't fix the shambles because it is broke. India's government debt exceeds 70% of GDP, so more than half its tax receipts go to paying interest.

But the debt isn't because of excessive spending in the past. India's government expenditures amount to about 15% of GDP, compared to an average of around 40% of GDP in the OECD. Rather, India's financial difficulties stem from a badly designed and administered tax system. Rates and rules for personal and corporate income taxes appear reasonable by international standards. Nonetheless, India's government collects income taxes amounting to only about 3.7% of GDP, about half that in South Korea and the other Asian tigers.

Agriculture in India accounts for about a quarter of GDP, but even wealthy farmers don't pay taxes. Export-oriented companies in the software and other industries enjoy tax holidays on their profits, although their employees do pay taxes on their personal incomes. Despite reasonable rates, tax evasion is widespread. "

From Amar Bhide's article on tax system in India

Posted by Kaushik at 09:43 PM
November 24, 2004
A follow up on my post on US dollar

Stephen Roach's recent comments seem to have started another round of hand wringing (not that he is saying anything that he hasn?t been saying for some time in a more guarded way). Respected investors like Gross and Buffet had been exhibiting a similar belief either through word or deed for quite some time now. (For a gallows humor perspective read this Daniel Gross story on John Snow)

If the subject interests you, Nouriel Roubini?s web page on US current account deficit seems to be a good place for keeping track of the big picture.

The Wikipedia entry on fiat money is nice reading.

Posted by Kaushik at 03:40 PM
November 16, 2004
A weak dollar and the IT industry in India

backgrounder in NYT about the impacts of the falling dollar :

"...There are at least three schools of thought on whether a dollar collapse is likely and, if it happens, what it would mean.

One group, which includes the Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan, contends that ...the dollar may well decline in value,.. but the decline would be gradual and would help reduce American trade imbalances by making exports cheaper and imports more expensive. The Bush administration goes one step further, arguing that America's huge foreign debt simply reflects the eagerness of others to invest here....(Ed: Dr DeLong demolished the treasury department argument in this post).

A second school of thought holds that foreign governments like China and Japan will continue to finance American borrowing and keep the dollar strong because they are determined to sustain their exports and create jobs.

But a third school, which includes officials at the International Monetary Fund, worries about a collapse in the dollar that would send shock waves through the global economy. ..... That group argues that the dollar needs to depreciate another 20 percent against the other major currencies but warns about a run on the dollar that could reduce its value by 40 percent.

A collapse of that size would severely affect Europe and Asia, which ave relied heavily on exports to the United States for their growth. steep drop in the dollar could lead to higher interest rates for the federal government and American private borrowers, as foreign investors demanded higher returns to compensate for higher risk. And it could expose hidden weaknesses among financial institutions and hedge funds caught unprepared.

"There is a school of thought that the U.S. can keep borrowing forever," said Kenneth S. Rogoff, professor of economics at Harvard University and a former chief economist at the I.M.F. "But if you add up all the excess saving being thrown out by the surplus countries, from China to Germany, the United States is soaking up three-quarters of it right now."...

For Mr. Rogoff and several other economists, the question is not whether the dollar declines - but how fast and how far the fall turns out to be."

What does it mean for India?

Bad things obviously. We are sitting on the biggest reserve of US$ in our history. I read a few news stories that suggested that Chadambaram is looking to invest them in infrastructrue projects. (I wish we would use it to pay off part of our debt!)

The IT Industry is probably slightly better prepared for the short term. The big three have long since recognized that future holds a stronger Rupee. They may be able to buy themselves some protection fo the immediate future, . But in long run, it would obviously impact their revenue stream adversely - about half of India's IT revenues come from USA.

Unfortunately, this is happening at a time when the effects of rising staff cost are also being felt. The bigger firms are increasingly looking towards China and elsewhere to bridge the resource gap. (I should note here that right now English speaking Chinese software engineers are more expensive. But Indian salaries should reach parity soon. On the other hand, the churn rate in China is lower. They also have a larger pool of untapped IT personnel). Add to this, increasing commoditization of many sortware support / maintenance activities.

IT sector in India is staring at serious margin erosion. I think we are looking at a shake up in the industry in the next two to three years. Obviously like all such naval gazing, this could be way off base.

This article in Outlook looked at a different set of parameters and reached similar conclusions.

Posted by Kaushik at 09:08 PM
October 23, 2004
On Infosys

John Heilemann has a nice story about Nandan Nilekani (the CEO of Infosys) in next month's Business 2.0.

Incidentally, the slides of the presentations from Milan 2004 (the Infosys client meet) now seem to be available online.

Posted by Kaushik at 10:14 AM
September 16, 2004
Ricardo?s difficult idea

A few days back, Amardeep Singh, (who writes a lively and erudite weblog primarily about South Asia) linked to an intriguing article on NYT describing an upcoming article by Paul Samuelson (apparently) questioning the economic arguments for free trade in services. Obviously questioning free trade is nothing new, but what is unusual about this is that an economist of Samuelson?s stature is writing it.

In the context of the article, Amardeep wanted an explanation of Comparative Advantage theory of Ricardo. A commentator has already linked to the Wikepedia entry on a comment to his post.

As a non-economist, I found this page to have the most lucid explanation. It also linked to ?Principles of Political economy and taxation? in its entirely in both html and PDF. Modern theory of comparative advantage has apparently come a long way since 1817 when Ricardo wrote it, although Ricardo remains something of a patron saint of free trade.

One the reasons people keep taking potshots at comparative advantage theory is because the argument for free trade is built on the mathematical foundations provided by it. You can?t fight the idea for free trade in respectable economic circles without at least euthanizing Ricardo (kind of like you can?t talk about creationism without taking on the elephant in that particular room, Darwin?s theory of evolution).

As early as 1994 Krugman wrote a paper entitled Ricardo?s difficult idea that anticipated and addressed most of the challenges to the comparative advantage theory on the op-ed pages. (It is a little unfortunate that Krugman?s reputation as a political commentator seems to have overshadowed his academic reputation as one of the finest economists of his generation; he is also one of the most lucid writers on political economy for laymen like us). In order to get a context, it is worth reading that particular Krugman paper when reading any critique of Ricardo.

The last prominent op-ed attacking comparative theory that I had noticed was in January 2004; written by Charles Schumer and Paul Craig Roberts. This response by Noam Scheiber in TNR to that article was particularly witty. I think it still remains relevant as a rejoinder.

However, it would be ridiculous to even suggest that Samuelson doesn?t get Ricardo. (Although I do think that Western thinkers often make certain wrong assumptions about outsourcing and Dr Bhagwati in an interview for that article suggested as much). Stanislaw Elam once asked Samuelson to name one theory, which is both true and non-trivial in the social sciences. After several years Samuelson replied that it is the theory of comparative advantage.

"That it is logically true need not be argued before a mathematician; that it is not trivial is attested by the thousands of important and intelligent men who have never been able to grasp the doctrine for themselves or to believe it after it was explained to them.?

I don?t expect to get Samuelson?s scholarly article when it appears (when economists write for other economists, I suspect they take great care to ensure that it is inaccessible to those outside the fold!). Perhaps someone like Edward Hugh or Dr Delong would interpret that article for people like us!

Posted by Kaushik at 07:19 AM
August 01, 2004
Return of the depression society

I finished reading Paul Krugman's Return of Depression Economics a few weeks back. It describes the causes behind the currency crisises and the impacts of the resulting meltdowns that effected most of the South East Asian and Latin American economies in the waning years of the nineties.

At that time, I was not terribly interested in international political economy. Outside of a perception culled from cursory readings of BusinessWeek et al that the 'paper tigers' in South East Asia are having a tough time and it is good for them in the long run, I did not really have a clue.

Krugman's book provides a lucid, witty and frightening perspective of the global economy at that juncture and surprisingly for a free-trader, holds IMF responsible for much of what went wrong. All of us in India and China who are currently going ga ga over our own emerging economies should read up on the emerging economy meltdown of the nineties. It is scary how fragile our national prosperity really is and how little it takes for it to go wrong.

Posted by Kaushik at 05:19 PM
October 06, 2003
The next big thing

Fred Wilson, a New York based VC agrees to Guy Chiarello's (Morgan Stanley CTO) comments:

(Chiarello say) "I have stopped worrying about the next big thing, I just worry about my big problems, which are security, open source, business continuity, systems management tools, etc".

This is so true. The reason why the Internet was so big was that it changed the whole paradigm of the technology business. Now we are in an evolutionary paradigm, not a revolutionary paradigm. We've built an open, connected, computing platform that scales and evolves bit by bit, piece by piece. And as such, there won't be a next big thing in tech for a long time.

But we've still got big problems, some of them created by the architecture of the net, some of them created by the the hyper competitve global economy we are in, and some of them created by the increasingly tense world we live in.

So get used to it. Stop looking for the next big thing and start solving problems. That's the new way to make money in tech."

This is bang on target. All this enterprise scale naval gazing on the future of tech is ridiculous. There is otherwise intelligent magazines like 'The Economist' which published an entire survey on IT industry to convince us that IT is now a matured, cyclical industry where the gold will come out of efforts to make existent technologies more useful rather than from emergent technologies (The survey is well written and worth reading, even though its conclusions are wrong headed). Then there are people like David Carr who is now writing a whole book explaining how IT does not matter.

What people often forget is to differentiate between emerging technologies and matured information technolgies. Most people tend to put both maturing IT and emerging IT in the same bucket when talking about growth. This is wrong. This is doubly wrong when you try to track the growth of maturing/matured tech companies like Amazon or Cisco as a yardstick for measuring the growth of emerging technologies (a point I started to make in a comment in Barry Ritholtz's amazing weblog on capital market). The tech companies get this. Cisco has been buying emerging technology companies in order to sustain its growth (among other things), but considering its size and the rate in which it needs to grow such acquisitions have less and less impact. . Oracle and PeopleSoft are market leaders in an ERP space which is now shaping up to be an oligopoly. They are trying to consolidate in order to sustain grown and to lock out new entrant.

Meanwhile, innovation has been happening underground away from the glare of media. Widescale adoption of those technologies may be years away. John Scully (ex CEO of Apple) made this observation in a News.com interview (Via Rajesh Jain):

We're going through a systemic, secular change in high technology. We saw, in the 1990s, the commoditization of hardware. Now, we're going to be seeing the commoditization of almost everything, including software and services. This makes a lot of sense because, as the technology world moves from being computer-intensive to communications-intensive, you have to have open standards, which means innovation is going to have to take place in different parts of the value chain. The things that we used to think of as the areas for "wow" technology, like computers, have become commoditized and even transparent, as they are embedded into systems. The innovation now is taking place with things that are largely being driven by market opportunities and customers.

I think where the amazement is going to be is in the ability to do things with information and content that was never possible before. There are huge opportunities for search technologies to deal with information, and they are increasing in orders of magnitude over the next decade. If you take something as simple as sensor devices, like RFIDs (radio frequency identification), and, if Wal-Mart put RFIDs on every item on their store, it would generate something like 7.5 million terabytes of new data every day. So as we move to real-time systems and sensors and robots, and all of these things that have been kind of like experiments over the last decade are turned into things that can be productized over the next 10 to 15 years, the world of real-time information, and how it becomes incorporated into more parts of their lives, is going to be where the amazement is going to take place.

If I may go out on a tangent here; widespread adoption of RFIDs (an existent technology) is at least 3-5 years away. Wal Mart is backing away from aggressive persusal of RFID and asking their suppliers only for adoption RFIDs at carton level (even that is a big deal) by 2005. Until prices come down from the current 30 cents / chip to something like a few cents it is not very viable for the retail sector. But the footprint of sensor based systems has the potential to be much, much bigger than RFIDs. A few weeks back stardusts / sensors made the cover of 'MIT Technology review', 'New Scientist' and 'BusinessWeek; simultaneously; which at the very least means that a lot of reasonably powerful, well connected people think that this technology is now ready to 'emerge' and hyped up.

This is kind of beside the point, But Fred Wilson also has a very interesting post about General Clark here . Incidentally, Cameron Barett (he is part of Clark's blogging team) says that the Clark is planning to start writing on his weblog soon.

Posted by Kaushik at 09:27 AM
October 03, 2003
Azim Premji, BusinessWeek & Wal Mart

There is a largely flattering story on Azim Premji (the chairman of Wipro) on the current issue of BusinessWeek (Asian edition).

In last week's BW (US edition), there was a story savaging Wal-Mart (registration needed). It is interesting for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it confirmed to my mind BusinessWeek's tendency to go for alarmist headlines. A few months back, it went after IT outsourcing to India and China with blazing headlines on the cover "Is your job next?". Obviously, the Asian edition has a different slant where they interview people like Premji! But having said that, the article does present some thought provoking statistics about how the outsized influence of Wal Mart in America effects almost all aspects of life. I did not like what I read about the wages.

On average, Wal-Mart sales clerks -- "associates" in company parlance -- pulled in $8.23 an hour, or $13,861 a year, in 2001, according to documents filed in a lawsuit pending against the company. At the time, the federal poverty line for a family of three was $14,630. Wal-Mart insists that it pays competitively, citing a privately commissioned survey that found that it "meets or exceeds" the total remuneration paid by rival retailers in 50 U.S. markets. "This is a good place to work," says Coleman H. Peterson, executive vice-president for personnel, citing an employee turnover rate that has fallen below 45% from 70% in 1999.

Critics counter that this is evidence not of improving morale but of a lack of employment alternatives in a slow-growth economy. "It's a ticking time bomb," says an executive at one big Wal-Mart supplier. "At some point, do the people stand up and revolt?" Indeed, the company now faces a revolt of sorts in the form of nearly 40 lawsuits charging it with forcing employees to work overtime without pay and a sex-discrimination case that could rank as the largest civil rights class action ever. On Sept. 24, a federal judge in California began considering a plaintiff's petition to include all women who have worked at Wal-Mart since late 1998 -- 1.6 million all told -- in a suit alleging that Wal-Mart systematically denies women equal pay and opportunities for promotion. Wal-Mart is vigorously contesting all of these suits.

I also thought that their cultural gatekeeping is foolish:

Wal-Mart cites customer preferences as the reason it does not stock CDs or DVDs with parental warning stickers and why it occasionally yanks items from its shelves. In May, it removed the racy "lad" magazines Maxim, Stuff, and FHM. A month later, it began obscuring the covers of Glamour, Redbook, Marie Claire, and Cosmopolitan with binders. Why did Wal-Mart censor these publications and not Rolling Stone, which has featured a nearly naked Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera on two of its recent covers? "...

Wal-Mart was the only one of the top 10 drug chains to refuse to stock Preven when Gynetics Inc. introduced the morning-after contraceptive in 1999. Roderick L. Mackenzie, Gynetics' founder and nonexecutive chairman, says senior Wal-Mart executives told his employees that they did not want their pharmacists grappling with the "moral dilemma" of abortion. Mackenzie was incensed but tried to hide it. "When you speak to God in Bentonville, you speak in hushed tones," says Mackenzie, who explained, to no avail, that Preven did not induce abortion but rather prevented pregnancy. Wal-Mart spokesman Jay Allen says "a number of factors were considered" in making the Preven decision, but he denies that opposition to abortion was one of them. "If anybody of any belief reads any moral decision [into] that, that's not right," he says.

....By most accounts, though, Wal-Mart's cultural gatekeeping has served to narrow the mainstream for entertainment offerings while imparting to it a rightward tilt. The big music companies have stopped grousing about Wal-Mart and are eagerly supplying the chain with the same sanitized versions of explicit CDs that they provide to radio stations. "You can't have 100% impact when you are taking an artist to a mainstream audience if you don't have the biggest player, Wal-Mart," says EMI Music North America Executive Vice-President Phil Quartararo.

But I am not specially concerned about their moral obsessions. In today's Internet enabled age, most people in North America can buy what they want, though may be not on Wal Mart prices.

As I have noted earlier, I admire what they have managed to achieve. (And I love the price!). But I queasy about their labor policy.

NYT has an interesting story about how Netflix is trying to use speed of delivery to fight off Wal Mart on the online DVD rental space. (Very cool analysis of their DVD rental allocation system here). I used Netflix for some time when I was in California. I was very happy with their service. I hope they make it without having to sell out to someone like Blockbuster.

Posted by Kaushik at 04:32 PM
June 30, 2003
india and China I

There has been a spate of coverage recently about the Vajpayee's summit meeting in Beijing. Frankly, it is pretty rare for good news from South Asia to get so much coverage here! I suspect part of the underlying cause is the subterranean Western media paranoia about China.

Like most other Indians, I am a tad obsessed with China. And would probably spend the next few days trying to post my thoughts on the subject.

In a excellent report titled 'Two systems, one grand rivalry' Economist (June 21-23, 2003) compared the two economies (it is not available free):

"China's and India's relative success in attracting FDI represents the sharpest contrast of all between the two countries. According to official data, China received 527 billion last year; India just 4% of that amount. Again some Indian economists cried foul.

India's figures are understated, they say, because they exclude foreigners reinvested profits, the proceeds of foreign stockmarket listings, intra-company loans, trade deficits, financial leases and so on. China's, on the other hand, are inflated by "round tripping of domestic investment through Hong kong. ...As for FDI, Sadhana Srivastava, in an article in India's Economic and Political Weekly, has recalculated both India's and China's figures for the year 2000 to make a fairer comparison. He found that China's FDI fell by half, while India's more than tripled. This meant that, as a percentage of GDP, there wasn't much differenc; 1.7% for India against 2% for China.

.....However, even on this basis, India was still attracting just 40% of the amount of foreign investment that went to China. Much of the gap is attributable to the activities of overseas Chinese ..they have ploughed back far more of their money into the motherland than have non-resident Indians..."

It goes on to ask

"Can there be much argument about the relative pace of growth fueled by such investments?....All evidence of the senses suggest that it is far faster than India's. This is specially true of industrial growth, and above all of manufacturing, which in 2002 made up just 15% of India's GDP, compared to 35% of China's ...

Much that holds India's economy and businesses back has little to do with democracy has such: corruption, fiscal mismanagement, a lack of international ambition and a history of over-protection at home.Where India overcomes these obstacles, and has a clear competitive advantage- as in software and other information-technology services- it can be a huge success...The way India's democracy has evolved has undoubtedly complicated policymaking. Coalition governments give disproportionate power to regional and caste based minority parties. Worse, the electoral time table, with many important states holding polls between the national votes, tends to put governments into cautious, electioneering mode for much of their time in office."

I completely agree that endemic corruption and red tape are huge hindrances against the growth of manufacturing sector in India. It not only acts as a break to existing ventures, it stops young people from starting out on their own.

But one the key reasons behind China's gigantic leaps in the manufacturing sector (and here I am on dangerous ground) is the incredibly cheap Chinese labour. India does not have that sort of cost advantage. In an earlier story Economist had referred to it,

"It is already by far the biggest garment exporter in the world, with average wages in the industry of 40 cents an hour?less than a third of, say, Mexico's. Now that China belongs to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), moreover, it will benefit from an agreement by members to eliminate the quotas completely by 2005. As a result, according to estimates by the World Bank, China's share of world garment exports will increase from about 20% today to 50% by the end of this decade.

Shoes, semiconductors and televisions are expected to follow. .. Heinrich von Pierer, the boss of Siemens, a big German electronics and electrical conglomerate, has called the country ?a global factory? for his company. Comparisons are made with Manchester during the Industrial Revolution. China, it is said, is becoming the ?workshop of the world?.

A few weeks back, I read a fascinating conversation on the net. While commenting on James Surowiecki's column on the impact of the spread of SARS on world economy, Paul Krugman took us on a historical analysis of causes behind the rise and fall of slavery in Western civilization.

"Imagine a pre-industrial society where population is pressing on limited land supplies, and the marginal product of labor - and hence the real wage rate under competitive conditions - is barely at subsistence. In that case, why bother establishing property rights in human beings? It costs no more to hire a free worker than to feed an indentured laborer. Indeed, by 1300 - with Europe very much a Malthusian society - serfdom had withered away from lack of interest.

But now suppose that for some reason land becomes abundant, and labor scarce. Then competition among landowners will tend to push up wages of free workers, and the ruling class will try, if it can, to pin peasants down and prevent them from bargaining for a higher standard of living. In Russia, it was all about gunpowder: suddenly steppe nomads were no longer so formidable, and the rich lands of the Ukraine were open for settlement. Serfdom was an effort to keep peasants from taking advantage of this situation. (And if I've got it right, those who were venturesome enough to run away and set up outside the system became Cossacks.)

Meanwhile, the New World opened in the west. Sure enough, the colonizing powers tried various forms of indentured servitude - making serfs of the Indians in Spanish territories, bringing over indentured servants in Virginia. But eventually they hit on a better solution, from their point of view: importing slaves from Africa."

He ended by asking ....

"And an even bigger question: why hasn't indentured servitude made a comeback in the modern era? Yes, I know, human rights and all that - but if it was profitable to have indentured servants in the modern world, I'm sure that Richard Scaife's think tanks would have no trouble finding justifications, and assorted Christian groups would explain why it's God's will."

Dr Brad De long addresssed it in his weblog:

... Elites in developing countries can no longer be confident in their ability to earn hefty incomes by employing workers and paying them much less than their average product: an elite monopoly of land ownership is no longer worth much. So why haven't they responded to the potential erosion of their collective economic edge by turning to politics and force to bind workers. One answer is that, to some extent, they have: Consider that modern states are surprisingly effective as tax-collection machines, and in large chunks of the world the elite's power and (relative) prosperity is rooted in its "new class" control over the flow of resources from the state. Consider, also, the Communist Party of Vietnam--what is it but a gang labor boss for unfree labor deployed to produce shoes for Nike?"

Towards the end of an otherwise excellent article published last year (that I had linked to earlier too), Kenichi Ohmae bared the dark secret of China's cheap labor:

".... At the same time, I do not believe China should be forced to hold democratic elections, even if that were possible. Its population would vote for leaders who distribute wealth to the poor. But there are still 900 million farmers in China with an average annual income of $500; distribution of wealth would simply be a synonym, as it is in India, for the distribution of poverty.

The Western debate over China?s political acceptability should not be cast as a simple matter of right or wrong, but of when and how. Politically, China is comparable to the United States of 1800: an emerging nation with high ideals but widespread poverty and a great many practices that other regions find intolerable. People tend to forget that the U.S. did not establish civil rights legislation until the 1960s. A decade or two of economic growth, under the shrewd and highly motivated leaders of Chung-hua Inc., will provide China?s people with the necessary education in the ways of capitalism,...."

I am not claiming here that labor in India does not operate under slavish conditions. But that sort of activity happens largely away from the glare of governmental inspection processes in semi organized sectors like bangles, carpets etc. In the vast majority of larger manufacturing companies, in spite of the all the corruption, all the thuggery, labor has recourse to unions and access to press and the judiciary.

Neither do I mean to denigrate the superhuman achievements of China in all aspects of business in the last two decades. But I also do believe that the Chinese advantage on cheap labor partly derives from the nature of government that it has at local levels. it is foolish to compare oneself or even try to compete with it on low end cheap labor products. I'll try to take off on this tomorrow.

Posted by Kaushik at 05:58 PM
May 02, 2003
Wall Street revisionism

As I read it on the train on my way to New York, I felt that this editorial was right on the mark. No one expected that the very next day Mr. Purcell will go on to prove how justified those concerns are.

I must also admit that I was pleasantly surprised by the sudden demonstration of SEC's backbone. Of course it could also be because Mr. Donaldson is set to testify before the senate next week. (Donaldson's letter here).

Posted by Kaushik at 06:13 PM
January 09, 2003
Wal-Mart wants to buy some banks

I caught the end of an interesting discussion about Wal-Mart's decision to offer cheap financial services (registration required) on Kudlow and Kramer last night.

The commentators had it right. Competitors have consistently lost out by underestimating Wal-Mart. K-Mart went into bankrupcy trying to compete with Wal-Mart on price. (well, that wasn't the only reason). If Wal-Mart gets into in-store financial services, they would give everyone a run for their money.

Wal-Mart is one of the very few retailers that are opening a number of new stores this year (the linked page probably won't be available until next week unless you are a subscriber to the print edition). It is also one of the few retailers that has consistently been on the vanguard (pdf file) of technology innovations that has revolutionized the retailing landscape in the United States in the last 15 years. And they learn fast. Not so long ago, their e-business initiative was sputtering. An acquaintance of mine consulted for the team that was putting up the Wal-Mart e-commerce site in '99. The business managers were apparently clueless about how e-tailing works. The version they were working on wasn't up by Christmas. Wal-Mart made them work through Christmas. Now BusinessWeek has Fleming saying that the "site will be profitable ahead of plan -- though he won't say by when".

I have a lot of admiration for the discipline, agility and innovative leadership of the company. Yet I hardly find anyone in the industry who actually likes the company. The requirements for doing business and the bare knuckles burgaining turns off the suppliers (yeah, they haul you through coal). The competitors of course don't like them. They seem to inculcate a cult like devotion in their employees that made even 'The Economist' uneasy. And when they set up shop in the subarbs it hurts the small businesses which doesn't exactly make them popular in a lot of quarters. But shoppers like me love their prices and their range. And at the end of the day that's all that counts.

Posted by Kaushik at 07:26 AM
October 30, 2002
Yahoo goes completely open source

yahoo is migrating its application logic from C++ to PHP. Radwin has an interesting slide deck online which explores the logic and the evaluation criteria that Yahoo used to choose PHP (via algorhythm).

I don't see this as part of a broader trend of larger enterprises adopting open source. Open source does have a great deal more credibility than it did a few years back. But Yahoo has always been an early adopter of open source and in that it is different from other Bay area technology companies.

Large scale adoption of open source in large companies, specially non-IT fortune 500s, is probably a long way away. This is partly because of the conservative nature of large businesses, partly becuase of the ingrained belief of their advisers that 'commercial software is better supported and is more stable' (as an entity). Those mainframes are not going to go away easily.

But I do see this as part of a broader trend by larger companies to cut cost by whatever means possible. As recession continues and the IT budgets stay frozen across the country, layoffs have reached saturation points in most places. Companies are now showing innovation and smart thinking in their IT planning. Many are sending a great deal of work offshore. There was an excellent article in McKinsey Quarterly sometime back on offshore development which I wish I could link to here. Unfortunately, they have now made the online version priced.

Posted by Kaushik at 02:54 PM
October 11, 2002
On software development horror stories

Anil Dash has an interesting commentary about software project cost and time overrun in the context of this New Architect story.

My take:

1. A certain amount of responsibility on how to buy software products and how to manage software projects do lie with the buyer. The kind of enterprise software referred to by 'The New Architect' Magazine is usually bought by medium to large enterprises.

For the last 5-6 years, there had been a huge gulf in the the salaries of the developers engaged in Internet and enterprise software development and in the salaries of developers engaged in government, fortune 500 et al. I am not trying to insinuate here that the later type of enterprises did not get bright people. But anecdotal evidence do suggest that the majority of sharp kids working in the OO / current generation of enterprise software / emerging technology areas worked for start ups / product companies. There had been (and probably still are) unequal distribution of talent in these areas. Many a times, enterprises taking software purchase / implementation decisions did not get quality advise from their IT departments.

2. Consulting companies chosen to advise enterprises have more often evaluated products based on self interest rather than on client interest. What I said on January 25 (my links are acting funny, so I have quoted from there) about technology consulting companies while on the subject of corruption in Anderson is still valid:

"Technology consulting companies are ..... badly compromised by their alliance partnerships. There are very few consulting companies that doesnt pitch (subtly or directly) products in which they have a vested interest to their clients. It has now come to a stage where many good product company will not look to ally itself with a technology consulting company if it does not bring in business to the product company. In many case, it would need to commit sizeable revenue to the product company to be accepted as a partner. As a result, most consulting companies today are becoming more hustler than consultants. Most of the clients who went for the big-buck e-business roduct implementations in the last few years simply did not need to go into that kind of expenses to achieve what they needed. They allowed themselves to be steered them towards the big ticket items by the consultants. The chicken is now coming home to roost."

3.Because of the exponential growth in tech sector there simply wasn't enough competent resources available to do all complext project justice. A well known practice among some consulting companies was of pitching for a project with the best team and switching it with a less experienced team later. A less savvy client will not know how to handle practices like these.

4. Sometimes, the technical team would deliberately steer companies in directions in which they want to have exposure rather than directions which are most practical/beneficial for the organization. Many of the development efforts that were undertaken in the last few years even in smaller start ups were simply started because some people wanted to have exposure to sexy technology. I know of at least one CTO in a web based service provider company (doing well I might add) who feels many of the EJBs that were developed adn deployed earlier was unnecessary, badly designed and added significant performance overhead. He is now looking to slowly rearchitect/reengineer his platform.

All these factors also contributed to the current mess in the IT sector

Posted by Kaushik at 01:11 PM
September 21, 2002


This is a worthwhile cause. It is awesome that some people are actually trying to do something about the Verisign rip-offs. Please help spread the word.

Posted by Kaushik at 10:30 PM
September 16, 2002
Jack Welch's current travails

In the context of the sad saga of Jack Welch, Rakesh Khurana's op-ed in New York Times makes interesting reading. Here is another incredibly talented person with feet of clay. Deja` vu?

Posted by Kaushik at 09:46 PM
August 27, 2002
What fosters Innovation

The current issue of Harvard Business Review (unfortunately unavailable online) has a great series of articles on innovation, what fosters innovation and how to harness it. Theodore Levitt went against the tide and said in an article that innovation in the workplace is not necessarily a great thing. It has some good articles. If you have access to it, take a look.

Posted by Kaushik at 07:53 PM
June 12, 2002
.Net and free BSD II

Anil says:

"The Common Language Infrastructure component of Microsoft's .NET framework. (which is what runs .NET code that's been written) has been written for, and already compiles on, FreeBSD for x86. ....What it means is, Mac developers should be able to download the framework and port it in relatively short order, given OS X's BSD underpinnings. "

This kind of segues into what I posted on 7th June about Microsoft thinking about making .Net available on Apple.

My permalinks don't appear to be working. I just found out when I tried to link to my own post!. This is rather ironic since I was sniggering after reading about Andrew Sullivan's permalink troubles in Lakefx. Hopefully, I'll fix it tomorrow.

Posted by Kaushik at 05:06 AM
June 07, 2002
Only in Sanfrancisco

This, I have to share.

Last month, one of my colleagues and I went to a tech event in a reasonably cool venue in San Francisco. It was followed by a reception. After giving me a sermon on how very important it is to network with the right people, he decided to lead by example. He attached himself to a foursome of rather old and worn looking people and started talking to a lady who looked like the leader of the group. After a while, it was apparent that he was not making much headway. This is the relevant part of the conversation as described by him.

So, What kind of knowledge management initiatives do you guys have?
Ah all kinds...
Anything interesting that you are doing?
I distribute leaflets for the UCSC (University of California, San Francisco)
Silence while my friend tries to recover.
Your friends too?
No, they just came for the food. Where is the food?
Umm...there is no food today. Only booze.

This week, I was to another expo in San Jose (for those who don?t know; its about 50 miles South from San Francisco). And the same lady was there. Gently sipping white wine and nibbling at some cheese. She had different companions this time.

I am glad that someone has finally gotten the better of the PR companies.

Posted by Kaushik at 03:05 PM
June 06, 2002
Top technology innovators under 35

MIT Technology Review has profiled 100 top technology innovators under the age of thirtyfive. Its a fairly eclectic list. Made me wonder, what am I doing!

Posted by Kaushik at 05:38 PM
April 20, 2002
Kenichi Ohmae on China

Kenichi Ohmae has written a terrific article on China's economic juggernaut, 'Profits and Perils in China, Inc.' (registration required), in the current issue of strategy + business. I dont like his implied advise to the Western governments to ignore the human rights situation in China. But as reportage, its a great read.

As an Indian, I am sad that India has not been able to achieve what China is poised to. As a strong believer in free market economy and human rights, I am slightly alarmed by the conclusions drawn by Ohmae. But his description of what he calls Chung-hua Inc. (Chung-hua, or Zhong Hua, as it is spelled in Beijing, translates into English as ?China,? and actually means ?the prosperous center of the universe.?) sounds right.

Russia is finding the going much tougher. Esther Dyson is probably the only person who seems really positive about Russia's economic outlook. In the current issue of Wired (not yet available online) she had forecast that in the next few decades Russia will be ahead of Uniter States in software development. But software development expertise alone, unless it is followed by infrastructural development in other spheres, won't be able to bootstrap the entire country's economy. It would, however, create a large cosmopolitan middle class that would become a catalyst for all sorts of interesting social changes. We know that one in India.

Posted by Kaushik at 10:45 PM
April 10, 2002
The ongoing tech recession

Whoever started the buzz that the IT sector is recovering deserves to be hung. If anything, in the last one week it has gone back into hibernation. I had been to the campuses of two of the Bay area tech behemoths in the last one week. It wouldnt be an exaggeration to say that fear stalks the hallways in both places. I know brilliant developers who have been finding it very hard to get decent jobs or any jobs for that matter. Most of the companies in the valley that I know of, are investing only in absolutely business critical projects (and the pet projects of the senior executives in some cases!). I know it is ridiculous to draw one's conclusions on anecdotal evidence. But I think the recovery is going to take longer and is going to be far more incremantal than many would like to believe. I hope and pray for a recovery. But let's not kid ourselves! Just venting off some steam ....

On a far more pleasant note: Sathish reviewed my weblog for the Acutecut p2p project and put it up on his weblog. On a suddent burst of enthusiasm, I had enrolled the p2p project sometime back and due to some database quirks or other got 'Wamp.blogspot.com' to review only a few days back.. I narrowly made the deadline the night before!

Posted by Kaushik at 12:33 PM
April 06, 2002
Accounting abuses in North America

A BusinessWeek reader wrote "Our research on approximately 200 cases of financial-statement fraud between 1987 and 1997 indicated that criminal charges were filed only 15% of the time, and we found evidence of only 27 individuals serving jail time. Even if SEC Chairman Harvey Pitt's "CEO misbehavior" plan is implemented, the penalties for committing fraud still pale in comparison to the enormous damage inflicted on the investors, employees, and other stakeholders." The justice department needs to go after the wrongdoers rather than the organizations. More importantly, it needs to put checks in place.

It is now quite clear that the accounting abuses in Enron was not an isolated case. It is simply the most well-publicized one. e.g. The scandal brewing at Qwest has the potential to bring out a lot of skeletons from the cupboards too. To quote from the same article:

    "SEC is examining is Qwest's sales of capacity on its network. Qwest, like many telecoms, sold slices of capacity on its network ....(IRUs)--to other phone companies while buying IRUs from other service providers. ....If two companies, for example, sell each other IRUs valued at $100 million, both companies can book revenues of $100 million today, but they spread the cost of the $100 million purchase over the life of the contract, typically 20 or 25 years. The result is that a company's financial statements look good today, although no net cash has changed hands. ...What the SEC is investigating is whether Qwest, Global Crossing Ltd., and others sold each other network capacity to inflate their financial statements, without any real business purpose. In the first six months of 2001, Qwest sold $857 million (and) ...bought $450 million in (network) capacity from some of those same companies. The sales helped Qwest's revenues rise 12%, to $10.3 billion, for that time period. Without those transactions Qwest's revenues would have grown only 7.5%, to $9.4 billion."
    "Qwest's top execs were selling stock at the time its critics allege accounting improprieties may have occurred at the company. CEO Joseph P. Nacchio sold 2 million shares of Qwest stock in the first half of last year, realizing $74.6 million. That was slightly more shares than he sold in all of 2000. And on May 2, 2001, Qwest founder Philip F. Anschutz sold roughly 10 million shares for $408 million, according to SEC filings....The timing of the sales may be critical because they occurred just before Qwest's stock nosedived. "

Essentially, SEC needs to take a long hard look at how accounting is practiced today's world and what needs to change to accomodate the changing business and technology and consulting landscape. That doesnt seem likely for two reasons:

1. There seems to be very little appetite for structural reforms in Washington.

2. Harvey Pitt. He seems to have an almost religious belief in the ability of the market to regulate itself and isnt likely to push for additional regulations.

Its a pity. Because if there were ever a time when this could fly. It is now.

Posted by Kaushik at 07:48 PM
FDA ruling on biochips

I think its a cause for concern that FDA has ruled that biochips containing personal data doesnt need to be regulated . VeriChip seems to be an interesting idea. Implantion of computer ID chips beneath people's skins would probably help paramedics quickly look up the medical history of people who have life threatening illnesses. But there is scope for potential abuse of the system. And the idea that no one is regulating the medical safety aspect of it, is slightly frightening.

'They Want Their ID Chips Now' is a slightly weird story that Wired published on the subject sometime back.

(via GMSV)

Posted by Kaushik at 02:21 PM
March 20, 2002
Ala Arthur Anderson

Google has been sending a fair amount of traffic to my Jan 25's post on Anderson Consulting's role in the Enron affair. I kinda feel I owe them an update of sorts.

NYT has by far the best coverage on the subject. Its yesterday's story on why the government chose to indict Anderson makes interesting reading. While I relate to the employee indignation inside Anderson, I think the accounting firms had it coming for some time. I feel it would be really unfortunate if the indictment puts AC out of business. What is really called for is far reaching structural reforms. Of course, thats' one beast no one probably wants to touch. Mr. Harvey Pitt's (the current SEC chair) clientale (via mefi) and choice of cases before he joined SEC leaves one with the feeling that structural reform of accounting industry may not be his highest priority.

Incidentally, NYT today outlined the measures that Volcker proposed and what AC is doing about it. They are not very different from Levitt has been trying to do industrywide when he was running SEC.

Posted by Kaushik at 03:37 AM
January 26, 2002
My take on Enron

My take on Enron:

Scandal of course would be an understatement in describing Enron. While the corruption in Enron itself is bad enough, I have been more fascinated by Anderson's failure to raise the alarm. To my mind, the complicity of the accounting firm is symptomatic of a systems failure that was waiting to happen.

'Lynn E. Turner, former chief accountant for the SEC and now a professor at Colorado State University, calculates that in the past half-dozen years investors have lost close to $200 billion in earnings restatements and lost market capitalization following audit failures. And the pace seems to be accelerating. Between 1997 and 2000, the number of restatements doubled, from 116 to 233.'

(Business Week in 'Accounting in Crisis')

The same article goes on to say:

That accountants have become increasingly dependent on consulting is clear. In 1993, 31% of the industry's fees came from consulting. By 1999, that had jumped to 51%. In 2001, for example, PricewaterhouseCoopers earned only 40% of its worldwide fees from auditing, 29% coming from management consulting and most of the rest from tax and corporate finance work..... More telling, in a study of the first 563 companies to file financials after Feb. 5, 2001, the University of Illinois' Bailey found that on average, for every dollar of audit fees, clients paid their independent accountants $2.69 for nonaudit consulting. Puget Energy (PSD ), based in Bellevue, Wash., had the greatest imbalance, paying PricewaterhouseCoopers only $534,000 for its audit, but over $17 million in consulting fees. "That's 30 years of audit fees in one year for nonaudit," points out Bailey. Marriott International Inc. ...paid Andersen just over $1 million for its audit, but more than $30 million for information technology and other services.

I suspect organizations and people who are willing to be compromised would be compromised no matter what. And even if Anderson didn't make $27 million in consulting from Enron in 2000 (as opposed to $25 million in audit fees), the same thing might had happened. Since there is a regular procession of auditors who join their client companies, individual auditors may still be tempted to go out of their way to please clients. But without the temptation of consulting fees that encourages auditors to go out of their way to keep clients happy, organizational objectivity of auditing firms would probably not be as severely compromised. While the BW article also recommends limiting auditors move to client companies, I think that it is impractical. It is probably better to try to force a gap of 2-3 years before a consultant can move into a client company that he consulted for.

NYT in a front page story Jan 24th expressed reservation about Washington's ability and inclination in enforcing closer supervision of accounting firms. Arthur Levitt, the former SEC chairman battled very publicly and ultimately unsuccessfully in 2000 with the industry over his proposal to limit consulting by auditing firms.

Let us pray that the momentum of the Enron scandal ensures at least some much needed reforms.

While I am on the subject of consulting: I also feel that one of the reasons technology consulting companies are trusted so much less by their clients is because tech consulting is badly compromised by their alliance partnerships. There are very few consulting companies that doesnt pitch (subtly or directly) products in which they have a vested interest to their clients. It has now come to a stage where many good product company will not look to ally itself with a technology consulting company if it does not bring in business to the product company. In many case, it would need to commit sizeable revenue to the product company to be accepted as a partner. As a result, most consulting companies today are becoming more hustler than consultants. Most of the clients who went for the big-buck e-business roduct implementations in the last few years simply did not need to go into that kind of expenses to achieve what they needed. They allowed themselves to be steered them towards the big ticket items by the consultants. The chicken is now coming home to roost.

Posted by Kaushik at 01:53 AM
January 11, 2002
Absolute Powerpoint

Absolute Powerpoint has been making small waves on the Net for some time.It was originally published in New Yorker. I finally managed to find this copy. Great read. (Via Lightningfield).

Posted by Kaushik at 02:48 AM
RandomNotes is the placeholder for my links and thoughts on media, politics, economy, books, visual arts and pop culture in India and USA. It gets updated twice a week or so.

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