Commonwealth Games: Best and worst of times for India to attract foreign capital

India's private sector is strong, but the public sector's mismanagement of the Commonwealth Games may have tarnished the image of India as an investment opportunity, say economic analysts.

By , Staff writer

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    Competitors run against the India Gate in the women's marathon durng the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, India, Thursday, Oct. 14.
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The successful start to the largest international sporting event India has ever hosted renewed optimism among government officials in India that the Commonwealth Games will bring in more foreign investment.

"It will have a multiplier effect on [the] Indian economy. It will help India further attract foreign direct investment," said Anand Sharma, India's minister for commerce and industry.

While the opening ceremonies did project a triumphant vision of India, the preparations beforehand were a high-profile fiasco, marked by missed deadlines, shoddy construction, and allegations of corruption.

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Mixed signals

Experts say this mixed signal will, if anything, dampen foreign investment into India because investors won't be convinced that India's government has grown more business-friendly. When a country hosts such an event, it can be an important signal of how well the government in a particular country is working, and that can have an impact on investors, says Eswar Prasad, a professor of economics at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. The signal from this year's Commonwealth Games? "India has a dynamic private sector and a fairly inept and sometimes corrupt government."

The debate among business analysts hinges on how surprising that signal will be to investors outside India. Dr. Prasad argues that serious international investors already knew this about India, so while the games won't help the country attract more dollars, little harm was done.

Still, Harish Bijoor, a brand consultant based in Bangalore, worries that the public sector's mismanagement of the games may have tarnished the image of India as an investment opportunity.

"People outside this country will not know how discrete these two [sectors] are," says Mr. Bijoor.

Matt Robinson, an economist based in Australia for Moody's Analytics, has voiced similar concerns in his reports: "The negative publicity could deter foreign investment and give multinational businesses considering expanding in India reason to think twice."

These are the best of times and the worst of times for India's ability to attract foreign capital.

Stock is up, but foreign direct investment is down

On the one hand, Mumbai's (Bombay's) SENSEX stock exchange is reaching all-time highs as a flood of cheap money from developed nations seeks out the high growth rates of developing economies like India.

But foreign direct investment – or the opening of factories and other business ventures on Indian soil – is down by nearly a quarter to $12.6 billion in the first seven months of 2010. The decline cannot be blamed entirely on the global economy: China's FDI jumped 21 percent to $58.4 billion over the same period.

Why the schizophrenia? Prasad points to the poor reputation of India's government versus the attractiveness of its private sector.

To open a factory anywhere requires a lot of interaction with the government: securing land rights, acquiring permits, and paying taxes. In India, that means dealing with a country ranked 133 out of 181 by the World Bank for ease of doing business.

That prospect terrifies investors, who decide instead to buy stock in Indian firms in order to tap into the country's red-hot 8.5 percent growth. The games may only reinforce this.

"One likely effect of the Commonwealth Games is not a shift in the volume of [foreign investment] inflows, but in the composition of the inflows: away from FDI and toward equity flows," says Prasad.

FDI is preferable because it brings with it technology transfer and a longer-term commitment to see through projects than fickle equity investment often provides.

India needs FDI to help upgrade its inadequate infrastructure. A report in April from the McKinsey Global Institute found that the country needs to spend $1.2 trillion on its cities over the next 20 years in order to handle rapid urbanization. Despite the massive needs, business experts at an investment summit last month said foreign investment would play a secondary role in bridging the infrastructure gap due to the difficulty of pulling off projects in India.

Research by Andrew Rose, a professor of international business at the University of California in Berkeley, has found a permanent "Olympic trade effect."

Countries that host – or seriously bid for – Olympics and other major international events can see a large boost down the road in import and export volumes, he says. But it's not known yet if investment also jumps.

"Because these bids are commonly followed by moves towards [economic] liberalization, it seems logical that the action of attempting to become a mega event host sends a signal that a country wishes to liberalize trade," write Dr. Rose and coauthor Mark Spiegel.

Rose suspects India will not see significant gains from the games because the country has already undergone significant trade liberalization.

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