Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Champion

Thank you to a few people who said I was not blogging at all since the past few months and should write more. The truth is, I was extremely busy (though I wonder how much of it was useful), though I would concede that I could have anyways found out 15 minutes to write a post. But another truth is, I didn't know how many people actually read it, so I chose to do possibly more constructive things that affected more than a few people (including myself of course). A lot has changed in the past few months, and a lot has changed in the past few days itself. I find myself contemplating on the future, and asking myself if devotion to perfection is possible in this human body, and if it is, then how do we go about doing it?

I didn't find out the answer, but I think I did find out the way. It is something similar to what I have experienced in my life itself, but these days I get frightened about talking about myself. So I would like to share something interesting I came across. It relates to cricket, the 2nd religion of India [I think it used to be.. For the generation of the 90s like I, who grew up watching and playing cricket.. Amazing that I am just 23 and am talking about generations :) ]

Today, I was just going through some sports news, when I came across this article.
It was as if I had been punched in the face by a professional boxer. Everyone has her/his [chivalry is it? Well, I am learning from companies coming in for placements.. Girls are always to be placed first irrespective of.. ahem ahem :) ] good and bad times, and I seem to think that every time you are down, you are surrounded by critics; while every time you do anything well, even if by pure fate, you are applauded for your talent. Sachin Tendulkar hasn't been anything less than a legend since the day he burst on the international cricketing arena. There have been ups and downs, and he is not the perfect batsman as some describe him. I feel he is a very intelligent cricketer who, over the years, has learnt to hide his weaknesses more than anything else. His game has changed over the years, the reflexes do not seem the same. Yes, that may prompt some to say that his age is showing and he should pass on the baton to the youngsters. Compare this: Sachin Tendulkar plays for five years more vs. a youngster plays for those five years instead of him. Does any modicum of imagination tell any of these critics that the youngster will have a better average, more number of centuries/half-centuries, man of the matches, runs, or even a single parameter out of any of these? The man has amassed more than 30K runs in international cricket. If I go and bowl for 5 years, I am quite sure I would claim to have perfected it. The guy has played 20 years in international cricket. Imagine the amount of practice that would have gone into that. Practice makes a man perfect? The man has become a living legend.

I am more surprised that people like Ian Chappel, who has played cricket himself, should talk this way about another cricketer. He, of all people, should know the ups and downs of a sportsman's life [if he has played sufficient amount of cricket for that :) ]. Today Henry is just a shadow of what he used to be for Arsenal in 2003-05. I know that Australia has a decent model of cricket which has produced the most recent 3 World Cups and has produced a team which is more consistent than any other team except the West Indies of the 70s and the 80s. Then why do I see him crying 2 years later in another article over the lack of masters Glen Mcgrath, Shane Warne and Adam Gilchrist.
Wouldn't India have faced similar troubles which Australia is facing now if the Yuvraajs and Gambhirs not been eased into the team owing to the backing up by the master?

I am not a big fan of Sachin Tendulkar due of his technique, probably Rahul Dravid is more solid technically. I am a big fan of Sachin Tendulkar due to his attitude. 2 years after that article, he single-handedly almost blasted away Australia out of the game with a masterly 175, which would have given India the victory if it were not for fate.
I believe in fate and believe that you do not get what is not written for you. Unfortunately, I can remember a lot of times when India would have got the victory but did not just because Tendulkar got out at the wrong times. Possibly, fate didn't hold that for him. But he has had a majestic run of late, and has proved that even at the age of 36, he is still the best. Of course, you don't get everything. But you keep trying. And trying. And blast your critics not through words but silence. Of course, fate does play a role, but it can't if you give up. Which Sachin Tendulkar will not.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Need For Religion

Confession: I am a very firm believer of God and everything I write might be biased. Agnoustics may consider the arguments only based on the logic presented.

The increasing proportion of agnoustics in our population seems to be a case of history repeating itself; only that in this case, it seems to be a case of American history repeating itself in India. Considering the influence that religion (or the lack of it) has on the lives of individuals, I sometimes wonder whether the times ahead will be better or worst compared to the present (or even the past). We have seen tumultous times in history, we are seeing a bizzarre underground (or in some cases, over the ground) movement terrorizing the citizens of particular countries in the name of a particular religion. Not that I favour any particular religion. I have as much contempt for the supposed religion I was born in as I have for other religions which spread inequality, contempt, and high-handedness. Not that I believe that the religions are inherently bad, but miscommunication throughout history seems to have produced the worst out of them.

Yet I do believe religion. I do believe that all the religions, the supposedly best and the supposedly worst, teach the same things. Probably marketing might not have worked as well as it is working now if one of the major principles that most religions have preached - consume only that much which you need - would have been taken to the heart. But the reason I wanted to write about religion is that I feel there is a God. Consider the human species. If we look all around, there is sorrow. Even the relatively happier person doesn't consider himself happy. A few days back, a friend I met in summers, who seemed so jovial and full of joy at that time took a quiz on Facebook which said she is hiding her tears from people. Just an example, but it can be said of most of us. We try to find peace in various activities, we try to keep ourselves busy to avoid loneliness, the most hit movies and soaps today are those which emphasize sorrow.

Now consider a situation: You are born Mowgli of Jungle Book. You do not know that a world exists where there are people who eat good food, who wear proper clothes, who live cleanly and healthily. Consider the situation of Mowgli when he joins such a society (here, I am assuming that the bonds that Mowgli develops with the people in the village are at least as strong as the bonds that he developed in the forest with animals). He would love the tasty food, the cleanliness and the pleasures of the village. He wouldn't like it as much if he goes back to the forest, because, at the back of his mind, he knows that the situation can be much better. It's the same as students deprecating the quality of food in a hostel mess, when the same food will taste like heaven to somebody who has never had food like that prepared in our homes. If you want to understand what heat is, you have to know cold.

We fight throughout our life, seeing relatively happier people and trying to become like them. Yet we are never happy in the true sense of the word - at peace with our mind, our surroundings. How many of us would want to wake up on a "khat" (a sort of a bed) in a farm surrounded by greenery, plants, the woods nearby, the orange skies with the sun rising - how idyllic! Ask somebody in Mumbai today and he might murder to get one such day. Intrinsically we know that the situation should be and could be better. But it can never be better in this world, where we survive by predating on living things. I may be a vegetarian, but I still believe that there is something wrong if I am predating a growing fruit on a plant. I might do with something the plant has discarded - like when a fruit on a tree becomes ripe. We can survive like that, but the entire population can't. It does seem wrong; I am cutting off a piece of a living being - be it a silent one like a plant.

So maybe somewhere we know that there is happiness, there is knowledge. After all, no one can say that all the knowledge that the scientists invented and discovered didn't pre-exist - they found out what existed. That they have this creative streak shows that the knowledge was there in their minds, just they found it out. Scientists help religion more than anybody else in the world - by discovering knowledge unknown. If it was already known, they would have learnt it. It just shows that the knowledge is there in all of us - we can't say that A could never have discovered what B did. Yes, it is suppressed, and only streaks of it is visible in those who concentrate towards a particular part of it.

So where does all this lead to? Well, just thinking about the basic facts of life tells us that there has to be some place where we have all been to, where happiness does exist and we know it. And probably, that's why we want to attain it again, through religion. God is just a way to take our mind of that issue, it is possible that there might be a lot of people who have attained that state in that place, as we see in the fable "Jonathan Livingstone Seagull". Just the means to attain happiness can generate so much ill-will in the world itself is something which I do not understand.

P. S. I do not know how beneficial this blog might have been from consumer behaviour point of view. Maybe it can be considered as a view of a consumer of religion. Also, some of the arguments I used above are not my own; but those arguments are there in my blood and I can't give a particular source.

P.P.S. This is not all of the argument, only a very very small part of it.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Missing poetry

When as a child, I wrote poetry,
An inspiration moved me forward,
Life showed me omens regularly,
My hand worked my mind laggard;
And stories I thought of wars,
Of a beautiful woman but a retard,
Nature and skies said in my ears,
It's your world, it's your boulevard.

I am asked why I don't write now,
Inspirations shown to me around,
Takes no time they say; the Will, how,
Is nowhere around, misery surround,
Love hidden somewhere, somehow,
It needs to be brought out; joys abound,
In the hearts of those, they show;
Love inspires the world to move round.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Sub-prime Crisis and Financial Innovation

Back after a long hiatus! This time with a topic of world interest these days: Finance and Economy. Let us try to understand what exactly was the role of investment banks and financial institutions (and, if possible, the government) in bringing about the current economic crisis.

Financial innovation is a process of introduction of new financial products, for investors and for people seeking debt capital. If used in an apposite manner, they bring about increased efficiency and options to their users - ATMs and internet banking for example. Some financial innovation is specifically adopted to avoid or circumvent regulation. In the case of MBS (Mortage-backed Securities... Yes.. You have heard this term before), possibly that might be the case.

Let us take an example to understand what an MBS is. Suppose Kolya clears his MBA in two years [:)], gets a good job in the USA [:))] and gets an amazing salary [:D] (Highly unlikely given the current economic scenario). He gets married to his beautiful girlfriend [:O] and wants to purchase a home. He goes to a Government sponsored enterprise (GSE) like the Federal Home Loan Bank Corporation (Freddie Mac.. A famous name that went bust in the crisis - though it got bailed out by the US government, and is currently placed in conservatorship of the US government: US taxpayers' money used to bail out a privately owned institution - yes, it is a GSE but it is a private institution after all), and asks for a loan. Now what is the process through which these loans are generated? The general public (let us call them investors) deposit their money with Freddie Mac, to diversify their portfolio of investments, since Freddie Mac is a GSE and considered to expose investors to some (albeit very little) credit risk. So let us suppose Tarantula deposits a sum of 1 million dollars in Freddie Mac and gets some securities called Mortgage-backed Securities (There are many such investors who buy such securities from Freddie Mac, considering that it is considered quite a low-risk enterprise). And Kolya wants a bank loan of 1 million dollars for his home. So Kolya will go to Freddie Mac, show that he is employed and is capable enough of paying his mortgage dues, and will get the home loan. His job goes on well for two years and he keeps his promise. Monthly installments go to the Freddie Mac, which takes some portion of it and passes on the rest of the money to Tarantula as the return on his investment. Say, the loan period is 10 years. If everything goes well, then Tarantula will get his returns by this method each month, while Kolya will get his home loan. Amazing concept.

But this is where the assumptions that go behind this scenario become important. Suppose Kolya goes berserk, and no one wants to give him a job now. He can't pay his monthly bills and can't be expected to pay off his mortgage. Obviously, Freddie Mac would have already considered this scenario and can take possession of the house he bought if necessary and get their loan's worth. There are always some bad loans and this is one such scenario. However, the overall portfolio of Freddie Mac is still well-diversified because most of the people who have taken loans from it are still paying their installments. So all is well and fine. But then, where does the problem lie?

The problem lies in the assumption that Freddie Mac will be able to recover their money from the 1 million dollar house. For that, either its value has to increase over time or it has to remain constant. And this is one assumption that can be considered as the single biggest factor of the entire crisis. Suppose real estate prices come down and the house can only be sold for 500000 dollars. Then what about the rest of the money that is still left? It goes down into the "bad loans" account in the books of Freddie Mac and that is it.

Obviously, in normal days also, such things might happen. But that includes only a limited portion of the loan-takers. In the "sub-prime" case, the people who took the loans did not necessarily have the ability to pay off the loans and the number of such people was very high. The real estate prices go down simultaneously (because of so many defaulters). So Freddie Mac is left with many houses and no money to pay off its investors. The result is obvious.

The question arises: Was it only the assumption of stable real estate prices that was responsible for this crisis? Certainly not. The role of the government is a big issue. At the turn of the millenium, US was growing at a decent pace. Unemployment was quite low and the government wanted to ensure that everybody has a home. A good intention. Hence, the Federal Reserve Bank ensured that there is a lot of money in the system which can be given on credit to the people in need of homes. However, the assumptions mentioned above were not taken care of and the world economy has been brought to the brink of a recession. Somebody rightly said about the crisis: Good intentions do not necessarily give out good results.

While we are at it, let us also consider the role of investment banks. The fixed-income securities (because they give a fixed return every month) that Freddie Mac issues are sold in the market by the investment banks to its clients. So the process goes like this: An investor invests in Freddie Mac, who provides the securities to investment banks in return for funds, which it gives for loans, while the investment banks sell those securities. Investment banks significantly affect demand for these securities. (Let us not consider Structured Investment Vehicles, etc. here... I would like to keep this as simple as possible.. You can read more at Investment banks, with their trading divisions, make bets using their own money too. Hence, eventually, investment banks also went down with the subprime crisis.

So what could have been done? Till now, everything was fact. What follows is personal opinion. The first thing that comes to my mind on reading everything above is the fact that if the amount of money supply in the market was limited, such that banks and financial institutions did not have as much money to invest as they had, possibly they would have shown a certain amount of restraint in giving money to people without pertinent checks on the ability of those people to repay the loans. This follows from a very fundamental behaviour principle: If I have too much of something, I would have a tendency of not caring too much. If I don't have as much of it, I would use it properly. That does not mean that the Federal Reserve Bank should have sucked all the excess liquidity in the system, but just that the amount of liquidity should have been limited.

The second thing is the role of investment banks and financial institutions. Because of lack of regulation on the activities of these financial insititutions, the money of general public is being played with. Loan providing institutions like banks did not check the credibility of people whom they gave loans to. The investment banks vehemently went on increasing the demand of the highly risk mortgage-backed securities without even looking at the risks involved. Even when a simple government bond is considered, a lot of risks are measured and then a decision on whether to invest or not is taken:
1. Interest rate risk: Effect of changes in prevailing market rate of interest
2. Yield curve risk: Risk according to the maturities of bonds
3. Call risk: Possibility of the application of call option when interest rates fall
4. Prepayment and reinvestment risk: When interest rates fall, prepayments increase which have to be reinvested at lower interest rates
5. Credit risk: Creditworthiness of the issuer
6. Liquidity risk: Whether sale is possible at fair price or not
7. Exchange rate risk: For overseas investors, the exchange rate is a factor
8. Inflation risk: When inflation is high, the returns in real terms might be lower
9. Volatility risk: For fixed-income securities with call/prepayment/put options
10. Event risk: Risk outside the risks of financial markets
11. Sovereign risk: Risk of governmental policies and attitudes towards repayment of debt

If this much is required to be thought of when considering the relatively low return and low risk government securities, it was the responsibility of the investment banks to be cautious about giving recommendations regarding such high-risk securities. Possibly, if there is sufficient regulation, these practices might give way to genuine research before recommending securities.

And last but not the least: Financial innovation. As I said earlier, financial innovation can be a boon by providing investors having different risk-taking aptitudes with different options. However, the effects of financial innovation can be extreme as we saw and hence, there should be a consideration of all scenarios that might result from a financial innovation before going forward with it. For that, possibly each financial institution might have a separate committee which does a scenario analysis and takes into account all complexities and assumptions before going forward with it (I don't know whether such committees exist but it is quite logical to have one). This is necessary because regulators might not have all the necessary information. It is necessary for the financial institutions to regulate themselves in the interest of the overall market and economy as well as in their own interests..

So that was all that comes to my mind about the sub-prime crisis.. It is late night and this is all that I can think of as of now... If there is something else that comes to my mind, I would edit this post.. Ciao..

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Children of Heaven: Soul-stirring

"Baby know all manner of wise words, 
Though few on earth can understand their meaning."

"I wish I could take a quiet corner in the heart of my baby's own world."

These two lines from two discrete Rabindranath Tagore poems (though they were written on babies, yet I am extending their understanding to children in general) aptly imply why he has written them, once you see the movie "Children of Heaven".

"Children of Heaven" is a 1997 Persian film. A parable of pronounced moral nature, it is a tale worth watching by anyone and everyone living on this earth, specially in these times when "selflessness" is an apparition of the allegories.

It is a story of two siblings, a brother and a sister, from a poor family, where the father works hard to feed the three children (the third one was just born) and the mother has problems in her spinal cord and could not do even the household chores for fear of making it worse, do most of the household work as well as go to school and study. The allegory starts with the loss of the girl's shoes. While purchasing some grocery, the boy, Ali kept the shoes that he had brought to the market to be fixed up, near the shop. Unfortunately, the garbage collector, thinking the polythene to be garbage, takes them away. Hence begins a story that revolves around those lost shoes, portraying all the virtues that we as children might have had, but have now probably forgotten. 

Because they knew that their father would not have the money to purchase another pair of shoes, they worked out a mechanism by which both of them could wear the same shoes to school, even though it required both of them to run all the way (the girl from the school to home and the boy from the home to school). At times, Ali was late, and gave various excuses to the principal, who would not see the boy coming late to school, but never once did he tell the principal the story of the lost sneakers, not telling him that it was because he was poor and his family could not afford the shoes that he has to come in late everyday, after his sister came home and returned the shoes. (Though MBAs here would make a case of operational inefficiency: The boy could have come to the school when his sister's classes ended. But then MBAs are MBAs.)

The cherubic innocence with which the boy gives various gifts to his sister, including a golden fountain pen that he got from his teacher on getting good grades, to prevent her from telling his father is a joy to watch. The viewer is left spellbounded by the unworldliness of the boy when he asks his father to buy shoes for his sister when his father found an alternative source of earning money, despite his father promising him different things. 

Not only the innocence of the boy but the maturity with which both children deal with the situation is hard to see in an adult. When the girl finds out that her shoes were with another girl in a lower grade, she takes Ali to the girl's house. But on finding that the girl's father was blind, both children quietly go away without bothering for the shoes. And when Ali cries in front of the teacher to get a chance to win sneakers as a third prize for a race (which was announced when he had not reached school in time), it takes your heart away. 

I would not like to spoil the plot by telling the entire story, but the way the story has been handled is majestic. Excellent performances, good direction and a fantabulous plot ensure that the viewer is glued to the story till the end. The story makes you believe that children are really from heaven. Probably, I could tell my Ethics teacher now that if not telling the truth is not ethical according to Kant, then let him watch this movie and then write his theory.

Watch this movie and relive your childhood. Probably the crowning glory would have been an Oscar in the foreign language category in 1998 for which it was one of the films nominated, but I am sure it would have been a very close second. 

Let me end by speaking a few words about childhood.
"Lord, if ye gave me place in your Kingdom,
Let me be a child forever, I plead.
The Lord replies: Ah, ye not need say that,
Only children reside in the Kingdom of Heaven."