Singapore: Hedge fund manager Jim Rogers, who moved to Singapore in 2007 because he thought the centre of the world is shifting to Asia, says India is set to miss out on the Asian century. The chairman of Rogers Holdings says that if there is one country an individual must visit, it has to be India for its “spectacular sensory feast, beautiful, food, colour and religions”, but it is also the worst country to do business in. Rogers also slammed the Indian government’s recent curbs on gold imports, saying Indian citizens had no choice but to buy the metal because they had very little faith in investing in other sectors of its economy. In an interview, Rogers spoke about the financial crisis and his bets for the future and defended his decision to be extremely negative about India in his just-released book Street Smarts: Adventures on the Road and in the Markets. Edited excerpts:
What lessons have you learnt from the financial crisis that started five years ago and how has your investment mantra changed since then? Can you tell us how your portfolio has changed over the course of this crisis?
Governments and central banks have reacted to the crisis in what they view is the correct manner, but, in my view, it is an artificial manner, and they are only making the crisis worse. The reason it is stretching out as a problem is that they never let the problem cure itself.
For instance, in 2001 and 2002, there were economic problems in the world and they hurt, but they were not that bad. The next one came in 2007-08 and it was much worse because the debt had risen by then. Central banks, especially the American central bank, started printing money and everything felt better for a while. Then the problem came again and central banks led by the Americans, and governments led by the Americans, again ran up even more debt and continue to do so. Many of us feel better, especially the ones getting the money, but, overall, it is worse now and the situation continues to deteriorate because the debt is so much higher now. The next time we have a slowdown, it is going to be a lot worse. In America, the debt quadrupled and a lot of it is garbage—we are floating on an artificial sea of liquidity, and it is wonderful if you are in the right boat.
Problems always come no matter what governments say and we have always had slowdowns in America after every six or seven years even in good times. Be very worried because the next time around, things are going to be much worse, especially in countries where the debt is much higher. In the 1920s and 1930s, the centre of the world moved from the UK to the US, primarily due to financial problems and mistakes made by the politicians. The same thing is happening now, and the centre of the world is moving from the US to Asia, exasperated due to the financial crisis and mistakes made by politicians. In the 1930s, US was a creditor nation, but it suffered badly, but not as badly as some of the European nations. Asia will suffer the next time around, but the West will suffer even more. I would rather be with the creditors than with the countries (that) have huge debts.
Any new reasons why you are shorting India? Have you ever invested in India?
I used to own tourist companies in India at a time. India should have had the greatest tourist companies in the world. If you can only visit one country in your life, my goodness, it should be India—it is an astonishingly spectacular place to visit. There is no place that has the depth of culture that India has. Yes, I have new reasons to short India—just read its newspapers everyday and you will see why.
The government goes from one mistake to another—no matter what the controls are, no matter how much the debt keeps rising, Indian politicians are only looking for scapegoats. Look at the latest thing with gold—Indian politicians want to blame the problems of their economy on someone else, and now it is gold. Gold is not causing India problems, but it is quite the contrary. Exchange controls in India are absurd, the regulations that India puts in place result in foreigners going through 70 loops before they can invest in India. Foreigners cannot invest in commodities in India.
India should have been among the world’s greatest agriculture nations—you have the soil, the people, the weather, but it is astonishing that you have not become one—it is because Indian politicians, in their wisdom, have made it illegal for farmers to own more than five hectares of land. What the hell—can a farmer with just five hectares compete with someone in Australia or Canada? Even if you put together the land in all your family, it is still not possible to compete. Much as I love India, I am not a fan of its government. Every one year, they (Indian government) come up with more reasons for me to be less optimistic about that country.
Do you think India’s democracy is a problem to its success?
I can only make some observations. Japan, Korea, Singapore, China were all one-party states and, in some cases, were very vicious one-party states, but, as they became more prosperous, their people wanted more, demanded more and got more democratic, and they say this is the Asian way.
Greek philosopher Plato in The Republic, says that societies develop from dictatorship to oligarchy to democracy to chaos and then back to dictatorship. Chaos develops out of democracy. This seems to be what is happening in some of the Asian countries.
In the Soviet Union, they did the opposite—they said we will open up and let all people complain and they did. The people there were poor and they complained about being poor and hated the government. When South Korea opened up, the people were rich and they decided to get rid of the government without ruining the place. Taiwan did the same. Democracy being a problem may have credence in some Asian countries. But, I am not sure if India has been really a democracy in the true terms—from 1947 onwards, the opposition has had just one full term at the centre. The first five decades of its democracy, the centre has only seen a government led by a single party.
Power corrupts. Singapore was lucky. There has been plenty of criticism of Singapore’s (founding father) Lee Kuan Yew, and some of them are probably valid, but look at the results. Congo had a dictatorship for a long time, but has nothing to show for it. Singapore had a strong central government and look around you—I did not move to Congo, but I moved to Singapore. So it can go both ways.
In 1947, India was one of the most successful countries in the world relative to others. Even as recently as 1980, India was more successful than China, but then you know how that story turned. It was more successful than South Korea, more successful than most places in Asia—but, for me, it is unfortunate that you have failed to take advantage of some of your most valuable assets. India has some of the smartest people in the world, but it does not have an education system to support it. Infrastructure is equally poor. So, I don’t know if India would have been better without a democracy, and some of the greatest periods in history have been without democracy. But these are just my observations, and it is the Indians who must decide what they want.
What do you think should change in India for it to attract investments? There are several multinationals that have been successful in India despite all its policy and regulatory uncertainties. They have adapted and changed their business practices to suit India.
Yes, but on the other hand, there are not many successful Indian companies, outside those that are associated with the government. Look around in Singapore and you don’t see many Indian products, except for some restaurants. There are very few Indian brands that you would recognize outside India.
In India, many of its companies are successful because of their links with the government. Apart from a couple of software companies, I literally cannot think of Indian firms who have made it big in the international scene. But there are many Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese companies that are very big globally. All Indian companies that are successful there are because of their relationship to the government.
If I were an Indian politician, I would make the country’s currency convertible tomorrow and stop deficit spending this afternoon. I would take a chainsaw to government spending as you continue to run up debts, I would free up the economy, especially agriculture, to make India the greatest competitor in this sector. You know, to open a retail outlet in India, even for Indians it is so tough—but for foreigners, it will take years in the current system. You keep companies out of India citing national security—just go to China and there are foreign companies everywhere.
There are millions of entrepreneurial, driven and smart Indians, but most of them want to be abroad because they know that unless they are involved with the right people in India, they are not going to be successful. Fewer than 50% of Indians stay in school till their 12th grade . How many universities are there in India—nothing when compared to the population! There are very good Indian universities, but they are nothing compared to the qualified Indians who need good education. One reason you see so many Indians going abroad is to compete or to get education. It would be such an exciting country to do business, if it were opened up. Historically, it has been an economic power and I would try and restore it to that position. Oxford and Cambridge can fill up all their seats with Indians who would pay their own way.
In your latest book, you have been critical of the numbers put out by the Indian government. I’ll quote from your book: “All growth rate figures are unreliable. It is stupefying to me that India could claim to have a clue to what is going on even in India, much less in China or in the US” or “When it comes to growth rate, Indians base their numbers on what China is reporting, making sure that theirs are better than, or at least in line with, China’s”. But, institutions in India are pretty strong and the numbers, be it GDP or any other put out by the Indian government, are considered to be largely reliable.
All government numbers are suspect. Last week, the US government revised its economic statistics and added a whole economy bigger than the Swedish economy—so America just went up a level in a week because they revised the numbers. I don’t trust what any government says. The Soviet Union used to have great numbers, but they were all made up in offices in Moscow.
I was not just picking on India, but using it as an indicator. If you go back over the last few years, you will see the Indian economy, as per the numbers its government has put out—some of the numbers its government has projected—are comparable with those of China. Then you go see both countries and you’ll realize something is wrong. If India’s growth over the last couple of years was comparable to that of China, where are the schools, the highways, the infrastructure, the housing, where has it all gone?
I was using this to state that we should be very careful about what governments tell us. In one of my books, I’ve come down hard on Germany—the Germans who were supposed to be hardworking and disciplined were also found to be making up some of the numbers they had been reporting related to job creation.
Where is gold headed? When is the good time to buy it? Of late, India has taken a slew of measures to curb its import. Many say that if India were to steeply reduce its import of gold, it will be able to alleviate its current account deficit, which, in turn, would help its economy get back on track?
It is a great question because I too am fascinated with gold and I do own gold. Gold went up 12 years in a row, which is extremely unusual, and there has been no asset in history that has seen something like this. The anomaly in the gold market is how strong it has been—it has never happened ever—technically, gold was overdue for a big correction. But the correction should be different from most corrections because the rise was so different from most rises. I was expecting it to decline and it has.
In my view, the main reason for the correction, other than the fact that it needed it, was on account of Indian politicians who suddenly blamed their problems on gold. The three largest imports to India are crude oil, gold and cooking oil. Since they can’t do anything about crude and vegetable oil, the politicians said India’s problems were because of gold, which, in my view, is totally outrageous.
But like all politicians across the world, the Indians too needed a scapegoat. Is this the reason why gold started correcting? I don’t know. But, India is the largest importer of gold, and whenever the largest buyer cuts back, there will be a correction, whatever is the commodity. The correction may continue for several more weeks, months or even a year or two. A 50% correction is common for commodities, but if gold were to correct 50% before it made its final bottom, that would be between $900-1,000.
In my view, gold is in the process of making a complicated bottom that will last a while. I hope that I am smart enough to buy more near the bottom because gold will go much higher over the next decade, because as I had said earlier, governments across the globe are making mistakes of printing money. When gold went to $1,200, I did buy more. But don’t sell your gold. I am not selling my gold.
If India curbs its gold imports, will its economy be back on track? There is no question that if you have money, it is better to invest it than put it into a stagnant asset—according to this argument, women should not buy dresses or shoes, or we should not be buying houses...the one billion Indians are smarter than the market and also the government. If they see that they are better off putting their money in gold, that is what they will do—the solution is not a ban on gold (import), but to make the economy exciting enough to make people want to put their money into other things. That will be better for the economy, but this is putting the chicken before the egg or the cart before the horse.
In the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) countries, the rising middle class appears to be angry with their respective governments and have been demanding changes, reforms and better living standards. Governments of most BRICS countries—including India and Brazil—are confronted with the youth taking to the streets in protests. Do you think this can derail the emerging markets story?
It could derail, or it could open-up these countries further. If the billion plus people in India demand more and say the current system that is going on since 1947 is absurd, then it might make India a whole lot better. Compared to many of the countries globally, India was on top in 1947, but relatively India has only declined since then. Remember that you move from dictatorship to oligarchy to democracy to chaos—may be they will throw out these absurd oligarchs who rule India and then it may have a vibrant democracy and regain its proper place, its historic place in the globe.