Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The China of India is…

… the state of Gujarat. Steven Pearlstein explains:

The biggest obstacle to India’s industrialization remains the lack of infrastructure, and no state is tackling that more aggressively than Gujarat. The entire state has been turned into one large public works project, with billions of dollars in investment being poured into dams, canals, power plants, highways, gas pipelines, electric grids and ports. The state is even assembling the land to create industrial cities along the path of a high-speed rail freight line that the central government is planning between Delhi and Mumbai.

Gujarat’s notoriously efficient, autocratic and incorruptible chief minister, Narendra Modi, is a strong adherent to the Asian-style industrial policy who believes that if you build it, they will come. And they have, bringing oil refineries, shipbuilding facilities, steel and auto plants and LNG terminals. With 5 percent of India’s population, 15 percent of its industrial production, 17 percent of its capital investment and 22 percent of its exports, the joke is that Gujarat has become the China of India.

Rajan Shah started Harsha Engineers in Ahmedabad in 1972, back when textile mills were what passed for Gujarat’s manufacturing base. Harsha got its big break in 1997 when Timkin, the giant ball-bearing maker in Canton, Ohio, decided to stop making the metal cages that are used to hold its bearings and rely on Harsha instead, and the company has grown steadily ever since. Shah figures he still has a 10 to 15 percent cost advantage over global competitors, thanks in part to Gujarat’s low wages and the ready availability of good design and production engineers. But just in case, he’s opening a second plant — in China.

But economic hurdles remain in India:

Despite such successes, India has a long way to go to modernize an economy where 80 percent of economic activity takes place in the “informal” sector. Beyond the more obvious problems of corruption, poor infrastructure and a low-productivity workforce, too much of the formal economy is controlled by a handful of family-run conglomerates who are quick to use their political and financial muscle to move into any sector that shows promise. In a nation of naturally entrepreneurial people, this creates headwinds for independent companies trying to attract talent and capital. It contributes to the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of a business elite that by all accounts has grown increasingly disconnected from the rest of the country. And it has encouraged many of the best and the brightest either to leave the country or follow the golden path into real estate and finance rather than manufacturing or government.

It also has an effect on foreign investors, who are keenly aware of the dangers of trying to compete against the local oligarchs. Enron tried it and wound up losing $1 billion on an ill-fated energy project. And I found it telling that Wal-Mart, which for years has been pushing hard for the government to relax rules that prevent foreign firms from opening stores in India, may chose to continue its joint venture with the Bharti family rather than go it alone.

A somewhat closed financial system is also restraining growth. India’s central bank is most proud that its tight restrictions on the flow of borrowed money into the country minimized the impact of the recent global financial crisis on India. But business executives complain that those same restrictions also prevent the development of a corporate bond market that is badly needed as a source of infrastructure funding. They require banks to keep so much of their deposits on reserve, or directed to low-return loans to farmers, that the cost of borrowing for businesses and consumers is two percentage points higher than it needs to be. It also doesn’t help that Indians continue to put much of their savings into gold rather than into a financial system that would recycle it into the economy.