Saturday, November 29, 2008

Terror Attacks Stagger the New Mumbai

Terror Attacks Stagger the New Mumbai

Meet the targets of the Mumbai terrorist attacks: CEOs meeting their boards, millionaires looking to buy yachts, financiers prepping for a private equity conference, a prominent family and friends gathered for a wedding.

Until Wednesday night, Nov. 26, when armed gunmen sneaked in from the Arabian Sea and plunged this city into a three-day nightmare, these were the people who made up the new Mumbai; staunchly cosmopolitan, ferociously competitive on the global stage, and luminous markers of India's soaring aspirations.

Now, after three nights of gun battles and explosions that left at least 150 dead—more than a dozen of them foreigners—Mumbai may have taken a hit to its most precious asset: its reputation. "You can't keep having these events and not affect the image of the city," says Aninda Mitra, an analyst at Moody's (MCO). "But if you can't [improve things fast] the government will find itself not just worrying about the image, but the reality."

Amid an Economy Losing Steam

In recent years, Mumbai has been transformed from a city known for textiles and kitschy cinema to a financial powerhouse that serves as a gateway to India. It's the brightest beacon of the country's economic miracle, though there's still an overabundance of poverty—and no shortage of the secular strife that often threatens to rip India apart. In July 2006, 187 people were killed as coordinated bombs ripped through commuter trains in the crowded city. Three years before that, 60 people were killed by car bombs. And a decade before that, in 1992 and 1993, Hindu-Muslim riots claimed another 1,000.

Yet through it all, Mumbai has thrived, positioning itself proudly as an alternative to Hong Kong or Tokyo as the capital of Asian finance. Its stock exchange is among the world's busiest, its banking community the envy of South Asia, and its restaurants and nightlife closing in on those of any global cultural capital. "This sort of thing has happened before, and it can't stop Mumbai," says Omkar Goswami, the founder of the Corporate & Economic Research Group, and once the chief economist for India's biggest industry lobby. "Nothing has stopped our economy, nothing has changed Mumbai."

Indeed, on Friday, the Bombay Stock Exchange opened just a short distance from where terrorists still held hostages. The markets flared up in patriotic defiance, with the benchmark Sensex index closing up 66 points on a day when most expected it to drop. But India's economy has already lost steam, with GDP growth slowing to 7.6% and foreign institutional investors withdrawing more than $13 billion from its equity markets, leaving the Sensex at less than half where it stood a year ago. "The important question to ask is, what will the Indian state do now?" says Goswami. "The police, the intelligence gathering, how do you beef them up? These are the decisions which will decide what the impact of these terrorist attacks are."

Without doubt, Mumbai's economy, which contributes as much as 5% of India's $1 trillion GDP and nearly a third of its direct taxes, will take a while to limp back to normal. For three days now, trains have run empty, schools and offices have remained closed, and Mumbai residents, heeding a call from the government, have stayed indoors. On Friday afternoon, when a few people started trickling out of their homes, a false alarm about more armed gunmen at train stations sent them scrambling back. "There will be fewer board meetings, fewer deals being made, fewer people doing business," says Mitra, of Moody's. "But this won't last long." After all, says A.M. Naik, chairman of Indian engineering giant Larsen & Toubro, "Despite these issues, the world is not going to miss participating in an economy growing between 7 to 8%."

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