Santosh Anagol has been doing interesting research on several phenomena concerning the Indian economy. In a recent paper, he and his coauthors estimate that returns to owning a cow in India are negative and hence the continued existence of cows violates the central tenets of capitalism.
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson discuss these findings in their extremely interesting blog here. They argue that social embeddedness could help us understand why cows are still a part of a typical Indian farmer’s portfolio. I think that their arguments certainly makes sense, however, one might also look at new monetarist economics for an answer to this question. For example, Lagos and Rocheteau (2008) analyse an economy with money and capital as competing media of exchange and their model I think could explain this puzzle that Anagol et.al pose.
In their economy, agents over-accumulate capital in a non-monetary equilibrium because the capital asset performs the function of a productive asset as well as a liquid medium of exchange when needed. The introduction and use of money therefore allows the liquidity use to be separated from the productive use and corrects the inefficient over-accumulation of capital. Thus, fiat money plays a welfare enhancing role in this economy. However, that precisely does not seem to be happening in India and that is the puzzle that Anagol and his coauthors are referring to.
So why do Indian farmers seem to be preferring to invest in an asset that has negative returns, despite the availability of a liquid medium of exchange? Here, it is important understand what constitutes return on capital. Lagos and Rocheteau propose that return to capital in such an economy can be thought of being comprised of two parts: a liquidity return referring to capital’s role in exchange process and the intrinsic return associated with the productive use of cows. Anagol’s analysis seems to be capturing only the intrinsic return while cows continue to have a liquidity return (premium) in the minds of Indian farmers. Ideally, this perceived positive liquidity return for cows should not prevail if fiat money does provide the necessary insurance against uncertainty. The fact that it does implies that the insurance provided by access to fiat money is not enough.
Anagol and his coauthors do raise this point but dismiss it citing the proliferation of different forms of microfinance institutions in rural India increasing access to savings. However, research has shown that actual use of these institutions is quite uneven and tends to depend on factors that could be explained using the economics of networks. For example see Matt Jackson’s work here. I think the factors mentioned above still continue to influence the basic uncertainty that farmers face in a substantial way. I am not sure if microfinance would be able to provide enough insurance in case of a crop failure for example. Because provision of funds in such case may require access to a mechanism to transfer funds from non-affected areas to affected areas to meet the demand and microfinance in its current state most likely is not in a position to handle that.
I still think that social embeddedness plays an important role. On the one hand traditional socioeconomic relationships have broken down reducing the access to mechanisms that could serve as partial insurance mechanisms and on the other hand access to modern monetary economy is still hard to come by. Lack of roads, absent storage and refrigeration facilities, ineffective or absent land reforms, inadequate irrigation facilities keeping agricultural output sensitive to rainfall shocks, all imply that the benefits from participating in the market economy only add to the existing uncertainty that these farmers face. Till these issues are addressed Indian farmers will continue continue to hold cows despite their negative intrinsic return.