Journalist's snapshots of economic trends

Mr Vikram Khanna's book, Headwinds And Hazards: Economic Snapshots In An Age Of Populism, covers a wide range of topics, including interviews with economists and billionaires, insights into Budget deficits and trade wars, as well as book reviews.
Mr Vikram Khanna's book, Headwinds And Hazards: Economic Snapshots In An Age Of Populism, covers a wide range of topics, including interviews with economists and billionaires, insights into Budget deficits and trade wars, as well as book reviews.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
Mr Vikram Khanna's book, Headwinds And Hazards: Economic Snapshots In An Age Of Populism, covers a wide range of topics, including interviews with economists and billionaires, insights into Budget deficits and trade wars, as well as book reviews.
Mr Vikram Khanna's book, Headwinds And Hazards: Economic Snapshots In An Age Of Populism, covers a wide range of topics, including interviews with economists and billionaires, insights into Budget deficits and trade wars, as well as book reviews.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

ST associate editor points to certain trends which have not only endured, but also gained more traction over the years

Newspaper articles have a built-in expiry date. But some themes are evergreen.

Mr Vikram Khanna, 63, an associate editor with The Straits Times, has collated more than 50 such articles, culled from his work in the newsroom, in a new book.

Headwinds And Hazards: Economic Snapshots In An Age Of Populism covers a wide range of topics, including interviews with Nobel prize-winning economists and billionaires, insights into Budget deficits and trade wars, as well as book reviews.

Mr Khanna will be discussing his new book at the monthly event of The Straits Times Book Club at the Central Public Library on Wednesday. This is his first solo book.

He co-authored another book last year with academic John Powers, The Future Of The Economy, based on a conference on the topic organised by Singapore University of Technology and Design.

While acknowledging the perishability of newspaper articles, the long-time observer of economic affairs points to certain trends which have not only endured, but also gained more traction over the years.

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He says: "For example, there is the problem of economic inequality, which has been festering since the 1980s, and then became aggravated after the global economic crisis in 2008. It's now a global issue, with huge economic and political ramifications that will be around for a while yet."

The India-born, Cambridge-educated author was working at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the early 1990s when he joined The Business Times here in 1993 for what was supposed to be a two-year stint. He recalls that the region was booming, which piqued his interest in covering its economic affairs. Then the Asian financial crisis hit in 1997, he adds: "For a financial journalist, it was a blockbuster story and I was in the thick of it. I just had to see it through. So I decided to quit the IMF and stay on. I've been here since and it's been a great experience, including witnessing the transformation of Singapore, which has been amazing."

1 . Would you say you are a maths geek? There is a piece in the book about how everyone gets into predicting World Cup winners and economics is often associated with statistics and figures.

I'm not a maths geek at all, though I recognise that some mathematical methods can be useful in economics. I'm not an economics geek either. Economics is too important to be left only to economists.

Understanding economic pheno-mena in the real world needs an appreciation of history, social trends, human psychology, finance, a bit of law and politics, among other things.

But I am fascinated by how economic forecasters try to use economic analysis and quantitative methods to forecast non-economic phenomena such as football results. It was interesting to find that, in the end, these expert predictions were not much better than what my lunch buddies came up with.

2. What do you think can be done to convince the man in the street about the necessity of immigration and migrant workers? It seems to be quite a trigger for anger and emotion, not just in Singapore, but worldwide.

I agree with Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat when he said that while people can rationalise the economic necessity of more open immigration policies, there is an emotional barrier, even among highly educated Singaporeans.

But I think over time, people will adapt to change, will come to accept a more diverse and cosmopolitan society. This has happened in many cities in the world, despite initial resistance.

3. What are some of the biggest misconceptions people have about economics? A chapter in your book, Don't Be Afraid Of US Deficits, has the rather counter-intuitive argument that government Budget deficits are not necessarily an evil, which is probably why a lot of people find macroeconomics rather mystifying.

Macroeconomics can be mystifying even to economists. One of the most common misconceptions is to draw parallels between the way a household manages its finances and a country manages its economy. Households are urged to "live within their means", so people are easily persuaded that countries should do likewise.

But during a recession, such austerity policies can be disastrous as history has repeatedly showed, from the Great Depression of the 1930s to the Eurozone crisis. At such times, it's essential for governments to run deficits so that public spending can replace the decline in private spending. When good times return, the deficits will get reduced.

4 .You have talked to some very interesting self-made tycoons such as Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia and hedge-fund billionaire Ray Dalio. Is there a common thread in their characters or approach to life that we can learn from?

They're all very different. But what many of them have in common is clarity of vision, persistence, personal discipline and a huge self-belief. They're also very clear communicators. What Dalio and Gebbia have in common is that they both innovated to fill critical gaps in their respective fields.

5. Is the world heading towards more trade wars and protectionism?

I'd say tensions will endure because the superpower rivalry between the US and China will persist, regardless of the shape of future US administrations, and the world will have to adapt. But ultimately, multilateralism will win out because there is really no other way to come up with win-win arrangements - zero-sum solutions will not be workable.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 22, 2019, with the headline 'Journalist's snapshots of economic trends'. Print Edition | Subscribe