George Soros calls him a “policy entrepreneur”. As managing director of policy think tank Re-Define and CEO of boutique consultancy Court Jesters Consulting, 42-year-old Sony Kapoor has advised the UN, the International Monetary Fund, the EU, the British government, and several large investors to redeploy trillions of dollars in productive investments such as clean energy and infrastructure in India and sub-Saharan Africa. A graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, and the London School of Economics, Kapoor divides his time between Berlin, Oslo, Washington, and London. He spoke to Fortune India about the impact of Brexit, the need for economies to have “climate stress tests”, and the shift from fossil fuels. Edited excerpts:
India’s job crisis is growing. Manufacturing isn’t generating the number of jobs once expected, but domestic demand is soaring. Can it sustain growth at the 7% level and push it up to 9%?
India is the first large emerging economy which will have to chart its unique course. So far, Japan, South Korea, China, and other economies which have “emerged” have done so through the tried and tested export-led model that creates prosperity by employing millions in manufacturing and increasing productivity as a country moves up the value chain in exports. This option isn’t available to India at that scale because it has arrived to the scene too late and doesn’t have the institutions to deliver such a development strategy. So, its growth will have to be domestically driven. Generating employment for the more than 10 million Indians who come of age every year and the millions who are under-employed will be a huge challenge. Every engine of growth will have to contribute. India’s positive demographics and technological capability mean that its potential growth rate is higher than the one at which China grew for decades. I hope we are able to live up to this potential.
Instability is growing in West and South Asia and the Korean peninsula, but the markets there keep soaring.
Instability is nothing new. These are not potential flashpoints and threats to regional or global security. In terms of active conflicts, the world has seldom looked more peaceful. The belief that economic considerations and self-interest will trump any desire by countries such as China to foment military conflict is now well entrenched. The possibility of a nuclear conflagration involving North Korea, which would have serious economic consequences, remains remote despite the rhetoric. Threats from entities such as ISIS are low level. Most of the active conflicts are now in areas such as Yemen and Syria, far away from the locus of economic activity. These involve intolerable and unconscionable human suffering, but their impact on the global economy is limited.
Although Britain accounts for only 2% of world trade, will Brexit have an impact on the global economy?
Britain has committed economic hara-kiri with Brexit. It may not even survive as a single country. The delusional and aggressive stance taken by Prime Minister Theresa May is driving it to the edge of the cliff, from which its fall from an important, albeit second-tier, global power into economic and diplomatic oblivion looks more certain by the day. The populism that Brexit, Trump, and Marine Le Pen represent will harm global security and the global economy, but Brexit in itself is inconsequential in its global impact.
Can the Macron presidency stabilise France, and in turn the EU, especially since 34% abstained from voting—the highest ever—and nearly the same number voted for Le Pen?
Despite media coverage that suggests otherwise, France is not a country facing an imminent economic crisis. Its infrastructure, health and education systems, quality of life, and productivity per worker per hour remain world class. However, the economy has lost its mojo and dynamism, and the national mood has soured as unemployment, particularly for the young, remains stubbornly high. President Macron was the Obama-like hope-and-change candidate as opposed to the Trump-like Le Pen. France needs a course correction, but several past presidents have failed to deliver this. Macron, who represents a break with the past, is the best hope to bring change, but he will undoubtedly fail to achieve the goal in its full scale and scope. His election has been critical in turning the sentiment in Europe away from the instincts that Brexit represents, towards a more positive agenda.
Do you believe that the EU will survive?
The EU is far from perfect, but despite the Eurocrisis it remains history’s most successful peace-and-prosperity project. It’s an experiment in pooling sovereignty of the kind necessary in an interdependent world. We will continue to see increasing level of regional integration modelled on the EU, followed by a strengthening of governance. The EU, a bold experiment ahead of its times, was bound to have teething problems, but it is a template for a peaceful and prosperous world.
Do you believe that the pushback against globalisation has been contained? Or are there darker days ahead and the French and Dutch polls are only stalling worse times?
Sadly, support for globalisation has now shifted away from rich OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) economies such as the U.S., Britain, the Netherlands, and France, which drove it after the Second World War, towards emerging economies such as India, Brazil, China, and Indonesia. This is unlikely to change. Seventy percent of OECD workers who have seen their real wages stagnate or decline in the past decade mostly, but incorrectly, blame globalisation and the EU for it. The rise in protectionism and the backlash against globalisation seen in rich OECD economies are unlikely to go away in the foreseeable future but they should be contained. Globalisation and technological progress do cause dislocation, but the benefits they deliver far outweigh the cost they impose.
By when do you think most of the world will start using renewable energy?
That depends on the choices countries make. The turning point may come unexpectedly soon—as early as 2030, since technological progress in clean energy and the benefits from scale are grossly underestimated. In the end, bad economics will doom fossil fuels. Policymakers can help that day arrive sooner.
How calamitous can climate change be for the global economy?
Unnoticed by markets, climate change is already leading to conflicts, migration, shifting patterns of livelihoods, and increasing economic and financial risks. A “climate stress test” of economies and financial systems reveals huge vulnerabilities, particularly in developing countries such as India, which can least afford to have such weaknesses. A climate-led economic and financial shock will come [because] the economic trajectory is completely unsustainable.
What is the most underrated threat to the global economy?
Global financial systems are not fit. Investors are buying trillions of dollars worth of OECD government bonds yielding zero or even negative returns, instead of putting their money into productivity-enhancing investments such as Indian infrastructure. The world has never seen such a large-scale misallocation of capital, where investors lend cash-rich firms such as Apple and Google billions of dollars at close to zero rates to help facilitate tax arbitrage, even as profitable firms in sub-Saharan Africa face unaffordable capital costs of more than 20%. If financial systems function properly, global GDP growth could rise by up to 2% every year.