The monetary policy review of the Reserve Bank of India(RBI) is scheduled for March 19,2013 i.e. tomorrow. Every time the top brass of the RBI is supposed to meet, calls for an interest rate cut are made. In fact, there seems to be a formula that has evolved to create pressure on the RBI to cut the repo rate. The repo rate is the interest rate at which RBI lends to banks.
The formula includes the finance minister P Chidambaram giving statements in the media about there being enough room for the RBI to cut interest rates. “There is a case for the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) to cut policy rates, and the central bank should take comfort from the government’s efforts to cut the fiscal deficit,” Chidambaram told the Bloomberg television channel today.
Other than Chidambram, an economist close to the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also gives out similar statements. “The budget has also gone a long way in containing the fiscal deficit, both in the current year and in the following year, and played its role in containing demand pressures in the system. Therefore, in some sense there is greater space for monetary policy now to act in the direction of stimulating growth,” C Rangarajan, former RBI governor, who now heads the prime minister’s economic advisory council, told The Economic Times. What Rangarajan meant in simple English was that conditions were ideal for the RBI to cut interest rates.
And then there are bankers (most those running public sector banks) perpetually egging the RBI to cut interest rates. As an NDTV storypoints out “A majority of bankers polled by NDTV expect the Reserve Bank to cut interest rates in the policy review due on Tuesday. 85 per cent bankers polled by NDTV said the central bank is likely to cut repo rates.”
Corporates always want lower interest rates and they say that clearly. As a recent Business Standard story pointed out “An interest rate cut, at a time when demand was not showing any sign of revival, would boost sentiments, especially for interest-rate sensitives like the car and real estate sectors, which had been showing negative growth, a majority of the 15 CEOs polled by Business Standard said.”
So everyone wants lower interest rates. The finance minister. The prime minister. The banks. And the corporates.
Lower interest rates will create economic growth is the simple logic. Once the RBI cuts the repo rate, the banks will also pass on the cut to their borrowers. At lower interest rates people will borrow more. They will buy more homes, cars, two wheelers, consumer durables and so on. This will help the companies which sell these things. Car sales were down by more than 25% in the month of February. Lower interest rates will improve car sales. All this borrowing and spending will revive the economic growth and the economy will grow at higher rate instead of the 4.5% it grew at between October and December, 2012.
And that’s the formula. Those who believe in the formula also like to believe that everything else is in place. The only thing that is missing is lower interest rates. And that can only come about once the RBI starts cutting interest rates.
So the question is will the RBI governor D Subbarao oblige? He may. He may not. But the real answer to the question is, it doesn’t really matter.
Repo rate at best is a signal from the RBI to banks. When it cuts the repo rate it is sending out a signal to the banks that it expects interest rates to come down in the days to come. Now it is up to the banks whether they want to take that signal or not.
When everyone talks about lower interest rates, they basically talk about lower interest rates on loans that banks give out. Now banks can give out loans at lower interest rates only when they can raise deposits at lower interest rates. Banks can raise deposits at lower interest rates when there is enough liquidity in the system i.e. people have enough money going around and they are willing to save that money as deposits with banks.
Lets look at some numbers. In the six month period between August 24, 2012 and February 22, 2013 (the latest data which is available from the RBI) banks raised deposits worth Rs 2,69,350 crore. During the same period they gave out loans worth Rs 3,94,090 crore. This means the incremental credit-deposit ratio in the last six months for banks has been 146%.
So for every Rs 100 that banks have borrowed as a deposit they have given out Rs 146 as a loan in the last six months. If we look at things over the last one year period, things are a little better. For every Rs 100 that banks have borrowed as a deposit, they have given out Rs 93 as a loan.
What this clearly tells us is that banks have not been able to raise enough deposits to fund their loans. For every Rs 100 that banks borrow, they need to maintain a statutory liquidity ratio of 23%. This means that for every Rs 100 that banks borrow at least Rs 23 has to be invested in government securities. These securities are issued by the government to finance its fiscal deficit. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what the government earns and what it spends.
Other than this a cash reserve ratio of 4% also needs to be maintained. This means that for every Rs 100 that is borrowed Rs 4 needs to be maintained as a reserve with the RBI. So for every Rs 100 that is borrowed by the banks, Rs 27 (Rs 23 + Rs 4) is taken out of the equation immediately. Hence only the remaining Rs 73 (Rs 100 – Rs 27) can be lent. This means that in an ideal scenario the credit deposit ratio of a bank cannot be more than 73%. But over the last six months its been double of that at 146% i.e. banks have loaned out Rs 146 for every Rs 100 that they have raised as a deposit.
So how have banks been financing these loans? This has been done through the extra investments (greater than the required 23%) that banks have had in government securities. Banks are selling these government securities and using that money to finance loans beyond deposits.
The broader point is that banks haven’t been able to raise enough deposits to keep financing the loans they have been giving out. And in that scenario you can’t expect them to cut interest rates on their deposits. If they can’t cut interest rates on their deposits, how will they cut interest rates on their loans?
The other point that both Chidambaram and Rangarajan harped on was the government’s effort to cut/control the fiscal deficit. The fiscal deficit for the current financial year (i.e. the period between April 1, 2012 and March 31,2013) had been targeted at Rs 5,13,590 crore. The final number is expected to come at Rs 5,20,925 crore. So where is the cut/control that Chidambaram and Rangarajan seem to be talking about? Yes, the situation could have been much worse. But simply because the situation did not turn out to be much worse doesn’t mean that it has improved.
The fiscal deficit target for the next financial year (i.e. the period between April 1, 2013 and March 31, 2014) is at Rs 5,42,499 crore. Again, this is higher than the number last year.
When the government borrows more it “crowds out” and leaves a lower amount of savings for the banks and other financial institutions to borrow from. This leads to higher interest rates on deposits.
What does not help the situation is the fact that household savings in India have been falling over the last few years. In the year 2009-2010 (i.e. the period between April 1, 2009 and March 31, 2010) the household savings stood at 25.2% of the GDP. In the year 2011-2012 (i.e. the period between April 1, 2011 and March 31, 2012) the household savings had fallen to 22.3% of the GDP. Even within household savings, the amount of money coming into financial savings has also been falling. As the Economic Survey that came out before the budget pointed out “Within households, the share of financial savings vis-à-vis physical savings has been declining in recent years. Financial savings take the form of bank deposits, life insurance funds, pension and provident funds, shares and debentures, etc. Financial savings accounted for around 55 per cent of total household savings during the 1990s. Their share declined to 47 per cent in the 2000-10 decade and it was 36 per cent in 2011-12. In fact, household financial savings were lower by nearly Rs 90,000 crore in 2011-12 vis-à-vis 2010-11.”
While the household savings number for the current year is not available, the broader trend in savings has been downward. In this scenario interest rates on fixed deposits cannot go down. And given that interest rate on loans cannot go down either.
Of course bankers understand this but they still make calls for the RBI cutting interest rates. In case of public sector bankers the only explanation is that they are trying to toe the government line of wanting lower interest rates.
So whatever the RBI does tomorrow, it doesn’t really matter. If it cuts the repo rate, then public sector banks will be forced to announce token cuts in their interest rates as well. Like on January 29,2013, the RBI cut its repo rate by 0.25% to 7.75%. The State Bank of India, the nation’s largest bank, followed it up with a base rate cut of 0.05% to 9.7% the very next day. Base rate is the minimum interest rate that the bank is allowed to charge its customers.
A 0.05% cut in interest rate would have probably been somebody’s idea of a joke. The irony is that the joke might be about to be repeated in a few day’s time.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on March 18,2013.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)