Tuesday, July 7, 2009

View from Bangalore

As I had alluded in the past, the severe cost escalation in pretty much everything in Alberta strongly dissuaded us from expanding our business in Alberta. Even after 20 to 25 per cent fall in housing and real estate prices and significant jump in unemployment, the Alberta advantage has not yet been restored. That is, Alberta advantage for companies that are not dependent on their physical presence in this province. Just 5 years ago, Dell had chosen Edmonton as one of its favored low cost locations. And just 3 years hence, it closed its operations.

So I’ve been visiting India for the last several weeks trying to establish our back office here. Despite all the bullish talk of the Indian economy’s miracles and the sustained 7 to 8% growth for decades to come, the mood here is somber. There is massive overcapacity in pretty much everything. The commercial real estate is massively over built, all in the anticipation of thousands of companies that would want to setup their back office operations here. Not that many companies have not done so or won’t do in the future- it’s just that the actual demand has been way less than the projections. Not unlike the real estate in the US, Spain, UK, China or dare I say, Alberta. The loose credit policies of central banks worldwide have transformed normal economic booms into massive manias. First the technology boom, which was a genuine economic phenomenon was masqueraded as the beginning of a new golden age. It was indeed golden age, but for those who were early to cash out their stock options and for the investment bankers who fooled the public by underwriting crap IPOs. Similarly, the genuine investments in Alberta’ oil sands and energy industry should have resulted in some uptick in the real estate. Instead, the massive credit bubble worldwide created party times for somewhat different constituency this time- home owners, flippers, mortgage brokers and of course the investment bankers.

Back to Bangalore. This place seems over populated, with roughly a quarter of the Canadian population in an area less than a fifth of the GTA. Everything should be in demand here, especially housing. Except for the fact that the current inventory of housing stock is unaffordable to majority of residents, even with generous financing. Software engineers, who were once princes and princesses of the ‘silicon valley of India are no longer the most desirable matches in the ‘marriage market.’ Not that the firms here don’t employ hundreds of thousands of such professionals, it’s just that the way too many of these professionals have been trained than there is real work. Once again, over capacity.

We found space in a world class business center at 40% of the rate that was given to customers last year. The reason- a major financial institutions fired its 150 employees who used to work in that office space. The business center is now desperate for any customers, and little fish like us have finally found the ‘value’ we had been seeking all this time.

On the employment front, a few ads on the popular job posting sites have yielded hundreds of resumes. Initial interviews have been fairly positive. If we are successful in hiring good candidates, we’ll be able to get 5 good people at the cost of 1 good equivalent Canadian resource.

We’d have loved to do this in our home province but alas, the Alberta economy has been severely disadvantaged to anything that is non-Energy based. Our competitors have all moved to lower cost locations and if we want to survive, we have no option but to do something similar. We figure that rather than closing down our operations entirely, it's better to remain incorporated in Canada and at least contribute something to the economy here in the form of taxes.

Before the reckless oil sands developments severely impacted all other non-dependent industries in Alberta, the province had a good shot at competing in so many industries. Housing was cheap, labour was skilled, high quality and affordable. A single wage earner making $50k could live a decent life since everything was so cheap. But all that is long gone. Once the inevitable end to resource driven boom occurs (just look at the UK), what will our economy be like? But who has the time to think about 10 or 20 years down the road when the priority for everyone is to milk the current setup for their own benefit? The recent rerun of the housing mania in Alberta and rest of Canada proves that unless it hits people directly, they won't learn anything from it. And that too, if they are really intelligent and observant.

We tried our best to not relocate our business out of the province. But the choice was simple-relocate or perish. Thousands of more businesses in this country will face similar choices in the coming months and years. The answers won’t be very healthy for the long term prosperity of our country. But who has time to think about all this when you can get rich just by buying and selling homes to each other?

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