Market insights from my travels – India

As promised in my last post, I’m finally back! And pretty timely too, as I’ve started to feel pretty worn out from all the travelling and really needed the rest over the past week. Looking forward to all the rest I can get over the holidays.

I’ve said in the past that by making investing a way of life (where you get investing ideas from your personal experience), you can make investing fun and interactive. In a 2 part series, I’ll illustrate these principles by writing about my observations from 2 of the places I visited for work – India and Zhongshan – starting with India in part 1.

Doing business in India

As you may know, doing business in India is notoriously complicated. The business and regulatory environment can be very volatile. The population is diverse and unique, with over 20 major languages spoken and unique dietary requirements (a significant portion of the population are vegetarians and do not take beef). Prime Minister Modi has been trying to reform the business environment and tax system since assuming power but the problems facing India are deep and resistance to change is strong.

To illustrate this difficulty, here’s are a hilarious example I experienced firsthand.

Highway alcohol ban

TLDR Background

  • India’s Supreme Court issues a court order to prohibit the sale of alcohol within 500m of State and National highways on 31 Dec 2016 to tackle the drink driving problem in India
  • Enforcement began on 1 Apr 2017
  • The short timeframe to prepare led to widespread confusion and scrambling to clarify / circumvent / comply with the court order.
  • Many creative solutions were developed to circumvent the order.
  • This article summarises the issue pretty succinctly.

I first experienced this when I commuted from my hotel to my company’s office in New Delhi. Everyday, I would see my cab driver drive past my company’s office building, take the next highway exit, drive back toward the building, take a roundabout before finally reaching the building.

Hotel commute

Excellent image editing skills, I know

When I asked my India-based colleagues about this, I was told that the highway exit closest to the building had been sealed to force drivers to take the next exit to lengthen the travel distance from the highway to the building. What’s more, apparently it was still less than 500 m, so the building management actually went out and built a roundabout to extend the distance further. This was so that restaurants in the compound could sell alcohol.

That’s right, apparently the 500 m rule was Travel Distance and not Linear Distance from the highway.

🤦

Therein lies the basic loophole that led to many of the creative solutions. You had buildings intentionally sealing off entrances that were closest to the highway, highways closing exits and my personal favourite solution, a bar building a maze around their establishment, just to circumvent the rule

Bar maze.jpg

I’m pretty sure drunk people will never be able to leave the bar

You also had State Governments re-designating highways as to avoid the “state and national highway” definition.

What does this indicate?
All jokes aside, this is an example of regulation, while well-intentioned, was poorly thought out and implemented. The worst part is that it can have a real impact of your business. Imagine owning a bar / hotel and suddenly you are given only 3 months to comply with a bulls#@t ruling or face the threat of closing your business.

On the flip side, the way the State governments got involved to circumvent the order also shows the difficulty facing the Federal government in enforcing their own reform.

Singapore companies in India

During my trips overseas, I’m always on the lookout for Singapore companies that operate in overseas markets. So here’s some examples I came across during my visits.

SATS

If you didn’t know, SATS has a Joint Venture with Air India to manage ground services for 5 airports in India, one of which is Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, which I naturally visited as part of my trip to New Delhi.

AirIndiaSATSDelhiairport
The airport had a ok design that reminded me of Changi Airport’s older terminals – T1 or T2.

Funnily, the thing that reminded me the most of Changi Airport were the signs in the airport.

Airport signs

Exactly the same font and icons

So SATS investors, remember your exposure to the India market when determining your company’s prospects.

Singapore Airlines

Other than SIA’s direct flights to India’s major cities, SIA also has a Joint Venture with the Tata group in India to operate domestic flights under the brand Air Vistara.

IMG_1249.JPG

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to fly Air Vistara on any of my domestic transfers so I can’t comment on service quality. A colleague who flew Air Vistara for a short trip didn’t have any complaints about the airline.

SingTel

I’m pretty sure all SingTel shareholders like myself know about their Indian associate Bharti Airtel and their continued struggles amid an all out price war in the India telecom industry.

I took the chance to quiz my Indian colleagues about this and was amazed at how cheap the price plans were by the major competitor Reliance Jio.

Struggling to keep your data usage below the 2 GB limit for SingTel Combo 2? Well Reliance Jio offers 25 GB a month postpaid plan for INR 199 (Approx. $4) a month.

Jio Postpaid Pogchamp

Ridiculously cheap.

As a result, most Indians have 2 phones, 1 for their old line, 1 for their Reliance Jio line to stream videos on. They swear it is even faster and smoother than their home internet connection.

They also said that Reliance’s business strategy tends to be to use their deep pockets to engage in price wars in the respective industries they enter to kill off the weaker players and consolidate the industry. This is something very much evident here.

So SingTel investors will need to buckle up and be prepared for continued headwinds in the India market.

The Last Word

Your personal experiences can help define your investment insights. As seen from my overseas experience, you can educate yourself on the market dynamics from something as simple as a daily commute to office or conversations with colleagues.

Stay tuned for part 2 about Zhongshan! 🙂

Happy Hunting,
KK

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