Not to further bludgeon readers with information about my trip to India, but those who are inclined to hop on a plane after reading last week’s enthusiastic column may want to think twice after reading this update on highway fatality statistics sent to me by a reader. The death toll on Indian highways in 2013 was 238 per 100,000 (that must include pedestrians) and the US equivalent was 13 per 100,000. As a tourist wearing a seatbelt in a large bus or van, one’s odds are better than the average Indian walking on a road or riding on a motorcycle, so that may offer some consolation to anyone contemplating the trip.
Meanwhile, searching for any distraction while I was a passenger on Indian highways, I managed to plow through all 700 pages of “Hamilton” by Ron Chernow --- the book about Alexander Hamilton. He’s the founding father who stars in the Broadway musical hit and gets most of the credit for establishing our first central bank. With one of our political candidates talking about doing away with the Federal Reserve and returning to the gold standard, it’s interesting to read about how torturous it was to invent and adopt this financial instrument in the first place back when the country needed it desperately.
In 1791, Congress approved the charter for the Bank of the United States which was the first of several stops and starts on the path leading to the Federal Reserve we have today --- a central bank we have to thank for the fact that we had a system to replace the liquidity that disappeared with the implosion of the financial markets. President Andrew Jackson did away with Hamilton’s brain child, but Woodrow Wilson brought back our current version in 1903, so, like “Oofty Goofty,” it popped back up with a push from Hamilton’s “hand out of the grave.”
Banking is hard enough to understand when we see the effect of alchemy (and havoc) the industry can create today, but reading “Hamilton” and seeing how and why the bank was created out of whole cloth helps to understand why something comparable is essential in this day and age. Politicians who talk about “doing away with the Fed” beg the question, “And then what?”
But back to India which, thanks in part to their central bank, enjoys the fastest growing economy of the major emerging market countries. It is growing at a rate of about 7% which is a full percent faster than China right now, and it is the third largest economy in the world. The interesting aspect of India’s GDP is that 60 percent of it is created by the underground economy of street vendors and small shops that pay no taxes except bribes to local officials. Corruption is said to be a big problem in the country at all levels, but in spite of this drawback, the country succeeds in spite of itself. Being there in person would lead anyone to assume that a trickle-down effect exists as the surging above-ground economy seeps down into the lower rungs of the rest of the population. It’s encouraging to read that over a billion dollars in venture capital from Silicon Valley is earmarked for Indian start-ups this year.
As for investing in India, the country’s returns measured in its own currency would have generated slightly over 10 percent per year over the past three years, but measured in dollars against a dollar that strengthened against the Indian rupee, the net average annual return was slightly below 5 percent.
If it seems a little odd to be reading about Alexander Hamilton and India’s economy in the same column, it makes sense to me when I recall a scene I witnessed. Women in a field were cutting wheat with foot-long hand sickles and tying the straw into sheaves which were then piled on a cart pulled by two water buffaloes. The exact same scene would have been taking place in this country back in the 1700’s and one wonders how long it would have persisted without the genius of people like Hamilton --- and citizens with the sense enough to listen to him.