The economics of cow ownership: If the average return on a cow is -64% once you factor in the cost of labour, why do households buy them?

The economics of cow ownership

Udder people’s money

Cattle may be a terrible investment but a decent savings vehicle

Oct 5th 2013 |From the print edition

IN INDIA there are about 280m cows. They produce valuable things—milk, dung and calves. But cattle are expensive to keep. The biggest outlay is food—the average cow consumes fodder worth about 10,000 rupees ($160) a year. Veterinary costs also add up. These expenses are so high that cows are often a poor investment. According to a new and splendidly titled NBER paper, which looks at cow and buffalo ownership in rural areas of northern India, the average return on a cow is -64% once you factor in the cost of labour. If returns on cattle are so bad, why do households buy them? People may not be thinking about economics, of course. Hindus may derive spiritual fulfilment from cow ownership. Households may prefer to produce high-quality milk at home, even if doing so costs more.But the authors suggest that there may also be sound economic reasoning behind cow ownership. According to ICRIER, a think-tank, only 7% of Indian villages have a bank branch. That means people lack a formal savings mechanism for their spare cash. And although there are informal ways to save—joining a local savings club, for example, or simply stuffing money under the mattress—owning a cow may be a better option.

That is because most people find spending easier than saving. Immediate pleasures are easier to grasp than future joys—and so people make spending decisions that they later regret. Economists refer to this as “myopia”. Cows force people not to be myopic. Compared with money held in savings accounts, cattle are illiquid assets. Taking cash from a cow is harder than taking money from an account. As a result, temptation spending is trickier.

The paper has implications for poverty-alleviation strategies and for financial services in developing countries. Aid programmes that try to reduce poverty by distributing livestock may be ineffective at raising incomes, if the returns from owning them are so poor. If cows are used as a means of saving, the spread of mobile banking in places like India will provide another, better option. Even then the problem of temptation spending arises. Dean Karlan, one of the authors, is interested in the idea of “commitment savings accounts”, whereby people forgo their right to withdraw funds until they reach a specified level.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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