India's Market Reincarnation

The Hindus were probably wondering what took Joseph Schumpeter so long. By the time the German economist had popularized the term “creative destruction” in the early 1940s, Shiva – sometimes referred to as naṭarāja (literally “Lord of Dance”) – had been performing a kind of cosmological two-step for an eternity. Hindus believe Shiva maintains the delicate balance of the universe through simultaneous acts of creation and destruction. Today, the bustling subcontinent seems only to grow stronger under assault from the destructive forces rained down upon her. All the while, we in the west stifle our own progress with mindless acts of uncreative construction. Worse still, we surrender our freedoms to the government in the expectation that it will perform the dubious task of economic devolution on our behalf.

In an editorial pre-incarnation, your wayfaring author once found himself roaming the hot, sweaty crucible of economic chaos on the Indian Subcontinent in search of story and adventure. Mumbai squirms and pulses under the weight of three times the population density of New York City. It is both the commercial and entertainment centre of India, generating 5% of the country’s GDP and accounting for 25% of industrial output, 40% of maritime trade, and 70% of the nation’s capital transactions. Mumbai, sometimes still referred to as “Bombay,” is also a land of arresting dichotomy. For one, it is home to the world’s largest movie production industry…but just a short, bumpy ride from the glitz of Bollywood lays Dharavi, the largest slum in all of Asia. The latter area is a heaving mass of one million souls crammed into less than one square mile of unimaginable filth and grinding poverty. Needless to say, our visit to Mumbai’s underbelly was one of the most inspiring days of the whole trip.

“The slum actually boasts an annual GDP of $660 million,” we wrote, awestruck after our short visit there, in The Rude Awakening. “The area, nestled between two railroad tracks, is bisected by an open-air sewage drain; commercial district on one side; residential on the other.

“On the commercial side, factories buzz around the clock, recycling the mass of waste spewed forth from around greater Mumbai. By day, ‘rag-pickers’ from the slum troll the city, collecting plastics, metals, bottles and all manner of other reusable matter. These materials are then melted down or repurposed in Dharavi before being sold back to metropolises all over India and, in some cases, across the region. Incredibly, all the machines are made on site. The men and women work 12 hours per day and each shift cooks a welcome meal for the incoming workers.

“Bound by the common oppression of multi-generational poverty, the people of Dharavi live and toil side by side, breaking their backs in the slum’s commercial district. Muslim people carve household Hindu temples, which then sell in the city’s markets, while the religious rift between the two groups rages on in the ‘outside world.’ Christian women watch over Muslim children, youngsters from different castes play together in the yards and Indian boys and girls learn in the slum’s schools alongside their classmates from all over Asia.”

The Rude Awakening has since escaped to newsletter nirvana, but our experience in India remains inked indelibly on our mind.

Interestingly enough, there are some who believe Schumpeter was indirectly inspired by the Hindu philosophy. Schumpeter’s fellow countryman, Werner Sombart, the sociologist who first introduced the term “creative destruction,” was quite the admirer of one Friedrich Nietzsche, who in turn was influenced by Eastern mysticism, specifically the image of the Hindu god Shiva. Whatever the connection, it has been six decades since the concept first entered the western economic vernacular. Witnessing the despicable crony bailouts of Wall Street’s darlings at the beginning of the Great Correction, however, it is clear we in the west are slow learners. As DC dolled out hundreds of billions of dollars to rotting financial institutions and moribund insurers, refusing to let the process of creative destruction run its course, India was busy laying the foundations of a future economic powerhouse. More inspiring still, they were doing so during a time of unrelenting social and natural unrest and upheaval.

Few nations on earth have been so constantly plagued by strife as India has over the past few decades. The moment one crisis recedes another comes crashing down upon her shores. In a recent video report from the bustling heart of Mumbai, Bill Bonner described how the nation’s stock market dealt with two presidential assassinations, mass social unrest, the Asian currency crisis, the Kashmir War, cataclysmic weather patterns, the dotcom bust, Maoist insurgencies and terrorist attacks. The results are astounding.

“If the Great Recession can’t stop [India’s economy], what can?” relayed Bill. “The economy is so big and the middle class is growing so fast that many of these businesses you see on the street are making a lot of money…and they’re growing their sales by 30% per year. You can see that, if you can do that for a while, you can really make some money over the long run.”

Despite its unfortunate succession of calamities, the Bombay Stock Market has managed to return a staggering 17,400% since its inception, back in 1979. In the last decade alone, the Bombay Stock Exchange – BSE Sensex – climbed 248%. By contrast, the coddled members of Wall Street’s major indices managed only to lose money for American investors (DJIA -6.7%). Even the darlings of the American financial newspapers struggle to keep pace with India’s incessant growth.

Indeed, as Eric Fry mentioned earlier this week, “During the thirteen years since your editor dared to admire Indian stocks in public, the India Fund has delivered a dazzling return of nearly 800%, compared to a gain of only 44% for Intel. In other words, the India Fund has delivered a whopping 18% annualized return over the last thirteen-years-and counting, compared to Intel’s paltry 3% annualized return.”

The nearby graph, also provided by Mr. Fry, illustrates our story…

Indian Stock Market

Even now, as the west debates new methods to squander its surplus of unearned (borrowed) wealth, India is busy engineering a kind of “reverse imperialism,” as Forbes Magazine calls it. Once the jewel in the British Crown, India is beginning to stake considerable claims in some of her former master’s spiffiest corporate outfits. Tata Teas now own the iconic British brand, Tetley, for instance, and Ol’ Blighty’s favorite automobiles, Jaguar and Land Rover, are now under the stewardship of Tata Motors.

The world’s largest democracy has averaged a 6.2% annual rate of economic growth since 1980…despite (or, perhaps, because of?) nine different governments during that period. This is no accident. India is no flash in the pan success story. Such a voracious growth rate is all the more impressive when one considers that India’s best days may indeed lie ahead, demographically speaking. She is the “youngest” of the so-called BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) economies. Approximately 500 million Indians are below the age of 25. Around 30% of the entire population is under 15 years of age. These people are already wheeling and dealing. They are answering your customer service calls, building your computers and designing your software. The Subcontinent’s immense human capital potential will come to light in the years ahead. You can bet on it. By contrast, the US, Western Europe and Japan are mired in an inexorable demographic decline, with fewer and fewer workers entering the taxpaying bracket, supporting a swelling population increasingly dependent on socialized benefits – Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc.

All this is not to say that India is without her fair share of problems; only that, historically, she has forged ahead despite these setbacks. The country is possessed of an uncanny ability for weaving prosperity from poverty, human solidarity from social discord and opportunity from crisis. Like the cab ride from Bollywood to Dharavi, the journey from impoverished mass to economic superpower promises to be a bumpy one. For those who can stomach it, India’s ride promises to be a rewarding one, from destruction to creation and beyond…

Joel Bowman
for The Daily Reckoning