(This piece appeared in the Financial Express on November 26, 2011.)
The debate on allowing more foreign investment in retail reminds me of an incandescent bulb: producing more heat than light. With a variety of agendas at play, the heat has been generated by both sides, for and against foreign investment in retail. Conflicting views have emerged not just outside but from within the government and the civil services as well.
Much time has been spent, multiple studies and consultations carried out, even as behind-the-scenes negotiations have gone on.
We can now all let out our collective breaths. The Indian Cabinet has, with some caveats, approved foreign investment up to 100% in single-brand retail operations and up to 51% in multi-brand businesses.
However, the Cabinet “yes” to 51% foreign investment in multibrand retail and 100% in single brand retail doesn’t quite mean an all-clear to accelerated development of modern retail in the country. The debate is not really over—how can it be when it remains still alive and kicking in some of the most consolidated markets in the West? The states retain the power to allow or disallow foreign-owned retail businesses from operating within their boundaries, and local and regional political parties would certainly have an impact on retailers’ expansion strategies. It also remains to be seen whether this will only affect new stores, or affect investment into existing businesses, too.
Opposition to the expansion of Big Retail is not unique to India. There are enough places within the US where the American giant Walmart has faced opposition, not just in small towns but including large cities such as Boston. Similarly, Tesco has been opposed in several locations within the UK. In fact, there was a huge uproar in the UK in the late-1990s when Walmart entered the country with its acquisition of Asda. The details of such opposition vary from location to location, but the canvas of fears is similar: predatory pricing by large retailers, depressed wages, net loss of jobs in the medium to long term with closure of local businesses, as well as low sensitivity to local social issues when operational and financial decisions are driven from distant headquarters.
Though India is labelled a slow-coach when compared to China, it is worth remembering that China took over 12 years to liberalise its FDI regime, and in stages with reversals as well. It first allowed foreign direct investment in retail in 1992 at 26%, took another 10 years to raise the limit to 49%, and allowed full foreign ownership in 2004, but only in certain cities. It even revoked some previously granted approvals, to reduce the foreign retailers’ footprint.
Anyway, the “policy flywheel” in India has finally moved and is now rolling. Certainly there will be winners and losers in its path.
The losers will include simple intermediaries and low-value wholesalers who have a diminishing role in a better-connected economy. Large suppliers, including multinationals, will gradually find power slipping from their hands. However, the fact is that most of them would anyway be losing in absolute or relative terms to the large Indian retailers over the course of the next few years; it would be naive, even dishonest, to suggest otherwise. And I suspect also that landlords who may be rejoicing the FDI decision could be tearing their hair out when they sit down to negotiate rents with the big boys.
In the other corner, the beneficiaries obviously include the foreign retailers themselves. With a direct relationship to the consumer, retail operations are the most economically valuable link in a supply chain. Foreign retailers can now have access to this with a controlling stake in one of the fastest growing markets.
The second set of winners is the large Indian retailers. In a capital-hungry business, large Indian retailers can use foreign equity and cheaper foreign debt to reduce high-interest domestic debt, and infuse more funds into growing the store footprint. For some, this also allows a potential exit from the business, whether immediate (for instance from the current 51:49 single-brand ventures) or in the future.
There would be winners among suppliers as well, including packaged and processed foods for which modern retail is a great platform to reach the “income-rich, time-poor” urban consumers, technology companies and service providers including the larger logistics companies, as well as foreign suppliers who would benefit from the trust that they enjoy with the international retailers in other markets.
The government can certainly benefit in terms of indirect and direct tax collection, from these more structured, “on-the-books” businesses.
And the consumer would be at the receiving end of a much better product choice and better shopping environments.
Where India as a whole can potentially derive the biggest benefit from foreign retailers is in developing agricultural practices and supply chains that comply with global requirements. If channelled well, this can create tremendous export possibilities (‘agricultural produce outsourcing’), and help to propel rural incomes upwards, creating a wider economic impact.
However, I think the critical things that have been debated most hotly will also be the slowest to be impacted: foreign retailers contributing to bringing prices down, and on the other hand, potentially damaging local competitors.
If the efficiency is simply a matter of scale, and if building up scale is simply a function of having deeper pockets from which to invest, it is obvious that the largest global retailers will squeeze their smaller Indian counterparts out of business, one way or the other. However, retail is not a global business or even a ‘national’ business: it is an intensely local business. Sheer financial muscle can be used to bulldoze competitors, but the consumer chooses to shop at a particular retailer for several reasons, many of which are not influenced by the size of the retailer’s balance sheet. So, local retailers have more than a fighting chance. Walmart, Carrefour and Tesco are the only three foreign retailers in China’s top-10, although two of them have been there for more than 15 years.
The growth of modern retail is an outcome of the development of the economy and a better supply chain, and a working population that is seeking food in more convenient and safe forms; it doesn’t necessarily drive supply chain improvements itself. Indeed, in India, during the last decade, modern retailers have deployed money and management more on opening stores in a drive to capture market share, than actually in supply chain improvements and operational efficiencies.
However, without investments in the supply chain, neither can the quality of products be significantly improved nor their cost significantly reduced. The new FDI policy partly addresses this issue, as it requires a minimum investment of $50 million in the ‘back-end, which cannot include land, rentals or front-end storage. While the final notification should be clearer on the exact implications, for now one can assume that this investment is envisioned in the storage, processing and transportation infrastructure. However, the impact this can have on a $450 billion retail market will be too small to be immediately meaningful.
Clearly, FDI in retail is not a panacea for growth and efficiency. There is much the government itself still needs to do.
The modernisation of retail doesn’t just lead to consolidation of sales turnover, but also enormous concentration of economic power. Therefore, a tilt towards modern retail must be accompanied by the government taking on the active role of a competition oversight body that can maintain an environment of fair competition. So far, the government has played this role mainly in consolidated industries; retail will require it to play this role in a fragmented market as well, and between buyers and suppliers also rather than only between direct competitors.
We also cannot run 21st century supply chains on dirt roads, with unpowered storage and a poorly educated workforce. The benefits of FDI in retail will remain largely unrealised for the nation overall if there is no simultaneous investment by the government in three key areas: transport infrastructure, electricity and education. The Indian government must be a ‘co-investor’ and active partner in developing and maintaining these aspects much more aggressively.
Lastly, several other regulatory changes are needed to unfetter domestic businesses, too. These include, among others, land and real estate reforms so that we are not constantly living with a mindset of scarcity and ridiculous real estate prices, rationalisation of tax structures, and simplifying the certifications and approvals needed to run business on a day-to-day basis.
Unless these aspects of governance are managed actively and consciously, Indian businesses — small or large — will not be completely free to grow and to complete effectively, and FDI could well turn out to be a Faustian bargain for India.