Demographics and the Capitalist Meme

There is a crazy, night-and-day difference between Dubai and Mumbai. We were staying in the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, the most notable target of terrorist attacks this time last year. Much to their delight, the mastermind of those bombings – Hafiz Mohammad Saeed – was released to house arrest this morning after an odd trial in Pakistan.

What strikes me first is demographics. Dubai’s indigenous culture is small and practically invisible to the casual tourist. In Dubai, the ambient noise you hear is construction equipment. Almost no smells stand out. Everything is modern, new and arid.

In India, there are people everywhere…living everywhere…sidewalks, riverbanks, parks, monuments. There are shanties built on any available spot. You hear the sound of people…the murmur of voices, bicycles, car horns. Even today, when the weather is a beautiful 30 or so and the breeze steady, the air is tropical, dank and full of all manner of indescribable odors.

Soon after we arrived at the Taj, a sarapi-wrapped young lady delivered Chris and I personalized letters. Each informed us that due to state elections being held, it would be illegal for the hotel to serve us alcohol of any kind beginning at 5 PM on that day, ending 48 hours later. We found out later too that if our partners here in India were to keep the office open for work on Election Day, they risked being arrested, fined and possibly put in jail.

“Can a democracy be a dictatorship at the same time?” an op-ed asked in this morning’s Times Of India in response to the draconian efforts the Maharashtra state had taken to boost voter turnout. The idea simply: if people weren’t allowed to work and didn’t have the option to spend the day drinking… they might turn out and vote. Right.

In Mumbai, voter turn out was just over 40% – respectable by some US standards – but down a bit from the last election in 2004. “Worth 2 days without the hooch?” might have been our op ed title, had we been asked to submit one.

When we asked one of our colleagues here if he voted or not, he said ‘no’ and laughed. “Maybe if there were a category that gave me the option to choose ‘none of the above’, I would do so. But there isn’t.”

Bureaucracy and corruption, are the two words we’ve heard most this week when asking what’s holding India back. In one example, a national auction for oil and drilling rights held on Monday closed with only half of the contracts even receiving bids. A conflict between the Oil and Energy Minister and his brother have left many would be suitors for the rights contracts unsure who’s calling the shots. This week, no one wants to put their own money down in fear of losing it unceremoniously.

Upon entering one of the security firms we visited we faced a door, but no walls. It looked every bit as if an architect had gotten carried away with “form” and completely forgotten “function”… Or a cubicle concept plan for “open space” office design gone horribly awry. Later we learned they’d planned to install glass walls several years ago during a renovation, but had never received permits to erect walls higher than 7 feet in their own office space. Huh?

“If we were willing to bribe the local building authority,” our host suggested, “the walls could go up this afternoon.”

Bribes, corruption and bureaucracy are part of the culture. But it’s also part of what makes Mumbai work. “This is a ‘make do’ city,” our travel compatriot Chris Mayer observed while we were driving around the city shooting video for a documentary short we hope to produce on the opportunities in the Indian market. We’d stopped in front of the state Police Headquarters for Maharashtra. It’s a formidable colonial era building. But apparently they don’t like you taking pictures… or stopping at all… in front of the building. An angry police officer began yelling at our driver in Hindi. Several officers carrying impressive weapons were standing behind him.

“Uh, maybe they don’t like us shooting here?”

The driver got out and disappeared around the corner behind a truck followed by two of the police officers. One stood watching us in the back of the car. A few minutes later the driver returned.

“It’s okay,” he said and we carried on about our business.

Later we learned a quick 100-rupee note had saved us from a trip inside the police headquarters, rather than just gawking at its façade.

With 16 million residents here, many whom live below the poverty line, the roles defined over the millennia help ensure every mouth gets fed. The only part of the city that gets consistent electricity and water is Southern Bombay. The other parts of the city, and everywhere else in the country, go through regular interruptions in basic power.

Traffic is really a sight. Harsh, a twenty-two year old graduate of Northwestern in Chicago, explained that the population has been trained by years of scarcity to try to push their way to the front of the line. It used to be because they didn’t have rice, bread or food; but now, they’ve been doing it for so long, it’s a cultural thing. So, for example, when a train pulls up to the station everyone tries to get on at once. That’s the way they drive, too.

“Harsh represents the future of India,” his father Jayesh told us proudly. Jayesh and his family have been stockbrokers since 1954 when his grandfather founded KC equities “For years Indians have felt like second class citizens of the world. But not these guys. They grew up with the Internet. They’re highly educated, motivated, confident. Rather than striving to stay in the United States after university, they’re coming back to India to participate in the development of the economy, the markets here.”

Having been to Dubai and meeting Moe, we were struck that a trend seems to be underway. In 1976, Richard Dawkins authored a book called The Selfish Gene, in which he identified a cultural unit – called a meme – that evolves and transforms as it gets passed from one human being to another.

Today, the “capitalist meme” is still actively cultivated here in the US. But because of access and speed of modern communications…coupled with the crisis in markets and entitlement programs in the West… that meme is being carried by young, intelligent, educated, active and motivated youth to the far corners of the earth. Indeed, in today’s Wall Street Journal’s op ed pages, Susan Hockfield, the president of MIT, laments that the current immigration policy in the US is actively aiding and abetting the return of science and engineering students to their home countries.

But more so, opportunities in Dubai, Mumbai… Shanghai… are inviting students back home in droves as well. At dinner one night, Jayesh made this suggestion to his son: make a list of all the things you take for granted in the US and start businesses to provide them to the Indian market. Refrigeration, for example, or electricity and roads. India is the world’s second largest producer of fruits and vegetables, but it loses 30-40% of them because lack of refrigeration.

Indeed, the small cap companies we looked at while working with our partners at included:

  • India’s largest financier of trucks and construction equipment
  • The company leading the introduction of RFID and AIDC technology into retail purveyors
  • The leading LED displays and light bulb maker in India
  • The world’s second largest steelmaker
  • Largest producer of roses in the world

Foreign direct investment into the Indian stock market is still restricted and won’t be available until the rupee and dollar become fully convertible. And that won’t likely happen for several years. India is a net importer of grains etc. If the rupee were to float openly on the world’s forex exchanges speculation alone could cause major disruptions in India’s ability to feed itself.

For now, there are several companies available on the NYSE via ADR. And People of Indian Origin (PIOs) can invest in special accounts directly in the Indians markets. Likewise, Indians are now able to invest $250,000 a year outside the US. But progress in opening the flow of capital between India and the West remains a question for the future.

Bureaucracy, corruption and regulation are indeed impediments to short term growth. And reforms in a democratic society may come slowly… but the long-term opportunities are abundant. We intend to be there when they break.


Addison Wiggin
for The Daily Reckoning

P.S. We left the Taj at 2 AM to catch a flight at 5 AM. Our flight passed through Doha, Qtar and reached New York by 3 in the afternoon.

“We will know we’re really making progress,” our friend Ajit quipped as we enjoyed a final glass of wine on Friday evening, “when we can set the flight times of our own airlines heading to the West.”

The Daily Reckoning