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December 2010

Man of the year 2010

Like every year, there were many contenders.
Normally, I look around every part of earth for possible contenders. This time I had to search beneath it a lot. The world cheered when 33 Chilean miners came back to earth after remaining trapped for 69 days. If Haiti reminded us the helplessness of mankind against the furies of nature, rescue of miners in Chile was the triumph of human ingenuity, a victory of hope over despair. India’s government raised a bountiful of money by selling stake in companies owning Coal, Iron ore and Manganese. While engineers of British Petroleum tried hard to fix a cap on their leaking oil wells, investors poured money in Petro Bras of Brazil to dig deeper oil wells far offshore. The world is getting worried about the control of rare earth materials by China where prices have gone up manifold. Australia proposed a tax on super profits made by miners while India is finally looking into the environmental aspect. Crude oil is boiling again while the debate on oil sands is a long one to be discussed here. Gold, silver and copper were some of the strongest contenders for the crown. Their buyers know a simple fact; there is only a finite quantity to be mined while money that can buy these materials is being printed in infinite quantity.

Humanity has to take note of not only what lies beneath the earth but also what we grow out of it. With soil degradation, depletion of water reservoir and other sins committed to environment; food crises are becoming structural than cyclical. Tea parties may have caused lot of storm in the US politics but should not be blamed for spiraling price of tea. In fact, Cocoa or sugar would beat it hands down as they were among those several agri-commodities whose prices shot through the roof. It may be a deliciously attractive recipe for investors but we should never take our attention away from the plight of billions affected by rising cost of food.

No wonder, there is rush to buy fertile land in Africa. In fact, a strong contender this time was South Africa. Just a decade and half back, who would have bet that this country marred by apartheid and political turmoil would make the whole world dancing to its tunes, ‘Waka Waka, this time for Africa’. A continent of a billion young people blessed with natural resources is the next big frontier of growth. The sound of the Vuvuzela is too loud; businesses should ignore it at their peril.

While markets may be shunning the Euro and cheering to the samba of Brazilian Real, currency of choice on the ground of Football was different. We would not pick Kaka, Messi, Ronaldo, Klose or Sneidjer but the collaborative effort and team spirit of Spain. In football, PIIGS can fly. I was pleased to see Roger Federer beating Rafael Nadal in ATP tour. It is always a treat to watch these two tigers facing each other. In fact, this time we may crown rise of India’s sporting talent which showed commendable performance this year. We love Sachin, but sports in India no longer equals cricket. I salute legends like Saina Nehwal and Vishwanathan Anand.

While our sports stars made us proud, some ‘not so sporty’ interests were concerned about their ‘wealth’ and pledged the ‘common’ interest of the nation. Common wealth games showcased the games politicians play in our country.

Few politicians and officials may have got caught and tapes of talks between the powers and power brokers may have created a sensation in the Indian media, but the menace of corruption is taller, deeper and wider than skyscrapers, mines and airwaves they allocated to their kins. In fact, we don’t need an Indian wiki-leaks (by the way, Julian Assange could have been a strong contender) to know the inside of dirty world of deal making. Ghost of 2G (actually that’s Greed square) will continue to hound our castle of ‘Adarsh’ (ideals). All these guys were the biggest newsmakers but can’t be worthy of our “Men of the year”. Never forget, like Caesars wife, a true ‘Raja’ (king) has to be above all suspicion.

In India’s ‘Khichdi’ ‘Rajneeti’, where likes of ‘Badmash Company’ commit all kinds of ‘Golmaal’, a ‘Dabaang’ Nitish Kumar rises like a ‘Kite.’ So when he does an ‘Action replay’ to come back with a ‘Houseful’ in Bihar Assembly, we say, ‘well done Abba’. He is Rajnikanth, do we say more. Incidentally, he used a simple 2G formula for winning hearts and that is, Good Governance and Growth. India’s institutions like Supreme Court, Election commission and Reserve bank were strong contenders.

Against all odds and ‘In spite of Gods’, the great Indian juggernaut continues. Angels in the form of Foreign Institutional Investors (FII) searching ‘oasis of growth’ had a pilgrimage here and allowed us to live beyond our means. I thought of crowning BSE Sensex for conquering 20K. Bond Street had a rough time with liquidity seen in the eyes of traders only. Bankers may not accept a bitter truth that both borrowers and lenders continued to ‘tease’ them while Micro financiers (MFIs) witnessed a big mess at Macro level. While economy and markets doing well are reasons to cheer, index of morality and wisdom going downhill is a matter of grave concern. Global economy and society are paying a heavy price of living on ‘incentive based system’ and should be looking towards our ideal of ‘duty over desire’ preached and practiced here since time immemorial. Hence, I deeply mourn the loss of value system in our society at a time when a leadership deficient world should have looked up to us. Upholding value structure is equally if not more important than building physical and social infrastructure for sustainable growth of India. I remain optimistic on both. Have faith in the might of a billion souls.

Another place facing a leadership crisis is Europe. Things are getting shaky in peripheral Europe, putting question marks on the future of Euro. These economies are burdened with stretched public finances, limited maneuverability on monetary side and lack of natural growth drivers. Europe needs much more than a victory in football. Rescue funds can temporarily resolve the liquidity crisis, but the solvency issue requires structural solutions. Europe lacks a charismatic leadership which can enhance the threshold of pain tolerance of its people. The genesis of financial crisis last time was in US subprime but the next one could be brewing in Europe.

Palm islands or the tallest building Burj Khalifa may be the most awesome man-made structures, never forget, you can’t reach the top of the world by building a castle on sands of leverage. That’s the lesson from this crisis. My last year’s Man of the year was Sir JM Keynes whose disciples have steered us through the crisis, but we shouldn’t lose sight from extra ordinarily stretched sovereign balance sheets and their long term consequences. Ignore ‘Fault lines’ at your peril, ‘this time is different’. Really.

The award may be given to Ben Bernanke for printing helicopters load of dollars. If ‘green-shoots’ was the buzzword of 2009, the award for 2010 will go to Quantitative Easing or QE. While rest of the country has disenchantment with the Obama administration; Fed is still chanting, Yes, We Can (print our way out)! Raining ‘greenbacks’ may keep the environment of financial markets quite benign for sometime but has the potential to cause lot of collateral damage in times to come. Countries like Brazil, Thailand and Korea are already pulling out raincoats to weather against risks of overheating from this unwanted flood. This easy money chased all risk assets. Among currencies, Dollar and Yen had a tie for the crown. Few years later, when we look back, we would be discussing about great bubbles in government bonds, precious metals, some of the emerging and frontier markets and Japanese Yen. Policy of ‘beggar thy neighbor” followed so unanimously while shunning the long term global interests would have been another contender. Currency war could take a nasty turn, I fear. G-20, IMF and UN must take note; this is as big a risk as hot spots in Korean peninsula or Middle East.

Corporate chieftains in developed world could be awarded for being prudent and building a war chest of cash while US consumers for sheer brevity and optimism in continuing the spending binge. Incidentally, ‘Toy story’ was the biggest hit of the year.

Other strong contenders were Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, not for the exemplary philanthropic act but also for leading the mission of “giving pledge’ and inspiring neo rich like Mark Zuckerberg to donate generously. ‘Spirit of giving’ and ‘spirit of remaining connected’ were among my top choices this year. I also think we are on the cusp of something revolutionary in science and technology and ‘heightened connectivity’ will play a pivotal role in that.

“These two fundamental ideas instilled by my grandfather shaped my life, first, if you are given a job to do, do it really well. You must consistently ask yourself, have I done to the best of my ability. Second, be a lifelong student, don’t ever think that you have arrived and remember that what you don’t know is so much more than what you do.” So said Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo. These words capture the spirit of my ‘Man of the year 2010’. I am also impressed by Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, an outstanding example of leading a non violent struggle for democracy and civil rights. It is more than a co-incidence that India’s head of state, president of ruling party, speaker of the Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) and leader of opposition are women. But the award is not for outstanding achievers among women. It is not about Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Anna Huffington, Nancy Pelosy, Angela Merkel or Oprah Winfrey. It is not about Sheila Dikshit, Mayawati, the famous ‘women brigade of ICICI’ or Vineeta Bali. It is about a tidal wave coming from planet Venus. They are rising everywhere; in politics, in business, in society. Don’t get me wrong, it is not about establishing superiority or inferiority of a particular gender or trying to paint every one with a single brush. We must acknowledge, biologically, women think differently and are better at multi-tasking. As the world is dealing with increasing complexities and uncertainties, women have a greater role to play in society than assigned so far. As someone said, “whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.” Any statistics like child mortality, literacy levels, employment or leadership count or any anecdotal evidence will confirm this super-mega trend; however, this is a silent revolution and a transformation of an orbital scale that can’t be felt from a narrow vision. Businesses better start learning now, “what do women want”. At no point in time in history, a force more powerful than this has shaped humanity. If a decade or few later, one would analyze the reasons behind a more Prosperous, Peaceful, Pragmatic, Progressive and Purer world despite enormous challenges that can be visualized today, I am sure it would be “Rise of Women Power.” It is not my ‘Man of the year’ but rather ‘Man of this decade’. And this Millennium.

Wish you a great year ahead.

Navneet Munot