India: Buy or Sell?

Of all the crazy events in 2008, seeing the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in flames on TV is one I’ll remember for a long time. Last year, when I traveled throughout India, my first stop was Mumbai (or Bombay, as people still call it). I stayed at the Taj Mahal Palace. I remember what an oasis of calm that hotel was after spending a day in bustling Bombay. I remember its onyx columns and archways and domes, its hand-woven carpets and crystal chandeliers, its exceedingly polite staff and impressive Sikh doormen.

Built in 1903 by a Tata, the Taj was a place of grace and old-world charm. From the hotel, you got a panoramic view of the bay, where the fabled Elephanta Island is a short boat ride away. And the hotel was within sight of the historic Gateway of India, where the last of the British troops departed in 1947.

Poor India, the old stomping grounds of the great Hindu kings, the playground of the Mughal Empire, had a rough year in 2008. India has had such a good run – five years of nearly 9% economic growth and a booming stock market – that it had reason to feel it was Fate’s spoiled darling. But in a long and checkered life, a good many things come unstuck. And so India has.

In 2008, it stock market lost 60% of its value. The rupee lost 20% against the dollar. Foreign investors pulled out in record numbers. India’s best companies struggle. The global economic freeze walloped India hard.

So the question is should you buy India or forget it?

India is a place of staggering contradictions. On the one hand, there is “the Indian miracle.” There are the booming companies and spotless IT campuses. The many millionaires minted daily. Yet there is also awful poverty. The World Bank estimates some 420 million people live below the poverty line. That statistic doesn’t capture the awfulness of it at all.

I’ll never forget the train station in Agra. The mass of poor people lying on the ground in blankets, the beggars and human misery in that place. Yet it has been this way for eons. Mark Twain wrote about the squatters in Following the Equator (1897), about the crowds with their “humble bundles and baskets and small household gear.” Twain would probably still recognize the place.

In India, you’ll see a man in a suit chatting away on a cell phone and on the ground next to him a snake charmer. You’ll see elephants pottering down roads in Rajasthan alongside buses and scooters and hand-pulled carts. You’ll see beautiful buildings right next to absolute squalor.

In Paul Theroux’s new book Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, he retraces a route he took 33 years ago, when he was 33 years old. Part of that trip goes through India. And so Theroux, now 67, is in a good position to judge the changes in India. He is mostly unimpressed. “We drove through the streets of Mumbai, past the slums, the sidewalk sleepers, the lame and the halt. Was the miracle, I wonder, just an illusion?”

Theroux writes about the constant presence of the poor. “Unlike the poor in Europe or America or even China, the poor in India are a constant presence. Where else do people put up with plastic huts on the sidewalk of a main road – not one or two, but an entire subdivision of humpies and pup tents? They inhabit train stations, sleep in doorways, crouch under bridges and railway trestles.”

The biggest slum in all of Asia, Dharavi, lies right in the heart of India’s Manhattan, Bombay. Over some 520 acres live 600,000 people, with one public toilet per 800 people. It is a place of unbelievable filth.

Yet many people in India seem to ignore such slums. I remember sitting in a presentation in which some official from Bangalore showed us slides of new buildings and smooth, functioning roads – a modern city – as he talked up the investment potential of his rapidly changing city. Yet right outside was a completely contrary view: dusty, uneven roads; derelict buildings; and extreme poverty.

Yet there is a lot of good in India. These episodes recount how much more there is to do.

It doesn’t neglect all the progress. And the promise of India, even now, is still enormous.

Consider that even as growth forecasts come down from 9% to 5%, India is still one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Its people are young and hungry for a better life, unlikely to unbutton the old waistcoat and put their feet up. Half of India’s population is under 25 years old. There are many English speakers. The savings rate is near China’s lofty levels. “The crowning reason for optimism,” opines The Economist “is the savings rate.” Unlike the U.S., India is a nation of savers.

And there are many needs and opportunities. India’s road network is the world’s second largest, but in need of further upgrades. Power outages are common in Indian cities, too. India plans to spend nearly $500 billion on infrastructure over the next five years. Power generation alone should increase 14% annually over that span.

On a more micro level, there are good companies here available on the cheap. The economic deepfreeze won’t last forever. If you can sit on Indian investments for a few years, my guess is you will be amply rewarded.