Of Subbarao, inflation, gold and Saradha scam

Central bank governors rarely indulge in any plain speak. You have to always read between the lines to understand what they are really saying. They never say what they mean. And they never mean what they say.
But D Subbrarao, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India, indulged in some plain speaking on Wednesday and questioned the logic of the Mamata Banerjee government in West Bengal setting up a Rs 500 crore relief fund to compensate the losses of those people who had invested in deposits raised by the Saradha Group in West Bengal.
A part of this relief fund will be funded by a 10% tax on cigarettes and the rest of the money will be raised through other sources. “If you go back to the West Bengal Saradha scheme, the Chief Minister said ‘I will levy additional taxes on cigarettes and some other things to compensate the people who have lost money’ … Is it fair?” Subbarao asked.
Why should people who smoke fund those whose money has gone up in smoke, is a reasonable question to ask. It is like robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Subbarao also dwelled into why Ponzi schemes like Saradha have become fairly popular. “The reason it (the Ponzi schemes) is happening because ordinary people… the low income people are not sufficiently aware of where they can put their money. They don’t have enough avenues to put their money. They can’t get into the banks like we all do. They face both formal and informal barriers…So they fall prey to these fraudulent schemes,” Subbarao explained.
This is an explanation similar to the one his deputy
K C Chakrabarty had come up with a few days back when he said: “The need of the hour is to ensure that our unbanked population gains access to formal sources of finance, their reliance on informal channels and on the shadow banking system subsides and, in the process, consumer exploitation is curbed.”
This is a very one-dimensional explanation of why Ponzi schemes have become so popular in India in the last few years. Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment scheme where the money being brought in by newer investors is used to pay off older investors. The scheme offers high returns and it keeps running till the money being brought in by the newer investors is greater than the money needed to pay off the older investors whose investment is up for redemption. The moment this breaks, the scheme collapses.
This writer has explained in the past that lack of a bank in their neighbourhood is not a reason good enough to explain why people invest money in Ponzi schemes. Many of the Ponzi schemes over the last few years have been very popular in urban as well as semi-urban areas, where there are enough number of banks going around. At the same time some of the Ponzi schemes have even needed bank accounts to ensure participate. So saying that people invest in Ponzi schemes because there are not enough banks going around, is not good enough. There are other bigger factors at work.
Ponzi schemes have become a big menace in India over the last few years. There numbers have gone up many times over. While there is no hard data to support the claim, but there is enough anecdotal evidence going around. Be it Speak Asia or Stock Guru or MMM India or Emu Ponzi schemes etc, there has been endless list of Ponzi schemes hitting the market.
This has also been a period of high inflation where interest offered on fixed deposits and postal savings deposits, has been very low or even negative once it is adjusted for inflation. There are other reasons as well why people find fixed deposits and postal savings deposits unattractive.
As Ila Patnaik wrote in a recent column in The Indian Express “Even those who have access often find it unattractive. Interest rates paid to depositors have been pushed down through years of policies of administered interest rates and lack of competition in banking. Regulatory requirements for priority sector lending and holding of government bonds have further resulted in lower returns. The result is low or negative real interest rates for depositors.”
It has been an era where bank fixed deposits have offered around 9% interest before tax when the inflation has been at 10% or more. The returns from post office savings deposits have been even lower than bank fixed deposits. Hence, in the strictest sense of the term, money deposited in banks or post office, has essentially been a losing proposition, given the high inflationary scenario that has prevailed.
And not surprisingly in this situation people have been looking at other investment avenues where there is a prospect of making higher returns. Gold has been one such investment avenue. As the
Economic Survey released by the government in late February this year pointed out “Gold imports are positively correlated with inflation. High inflation reduces the return on other financial instruments… This observation, in line with global trends, is easily explained by the declining real returns on the gamut of financial instruments available to the investor and soaring ones on gold (23.7 per cent annual average return between April 2007 – March 2012 versus 7.3 per cent return on Nifty and 8.2 per cent on savings deposits).”
So money came into gold because there was a prospect of earning a high real return instead of bank and post office deposits where the individual would have actually lost money after adjusting for high inflation.
A similar explanation can be offered for people investing their hard earned money in Ponzi schemes like Saradha. They were looking for a higher return which helped them at least beat the rate of inflation. And this is where Ponzi schemes like Saradha came in. These schemes offered deposits which promised higher returns than bank or post office deposits.
As an article in the Business Standard pointed out “Sen(in reference to Sudipta Sen who ran Saradha) offered fixed deposits, recurring deposits and monthly income schemes. The returns promised were handsome. In fixed deposits, for instance, Sen promised to multiply the principal 1.5 times in two-and-a-half years, 2.5 times in 5 years and 4 times in 7 years. High-value depositors were told they would get a free trip to “Singapur”.”
In case of Saradha, the credibility it had built through its media empire as well as being seen closely aligned to the ruling Trinamool Congress, also helped. The deposits being raised may have even been seen as very safe, by those investing.

The other thing that has happened over the last few years is that household savings have come down. In 2009-2010 (i.e. the period between April 1, 2009 and March 31, 2010), savings stood at 25.2% of the gross domestic product (GDP). In 2011-2012 (i.e. the period between April 1, 2011 and March 31, 2012) the savings had fallen by nearly three percentage points to 22.3% of the GDP.
This has primarily happened because of high inflation which has pushed up expenditure as a proportion of total income. But incomes haven’t gone up at the same pace. And this has led to a fall in savings.
Given that savings of people have come down, there might be a temptation to invest them in avenues where they thought a higher return could be earned so as to ensure that investment goals continue to be on track, even with a lesser amount of savings being invested. This might have increased people’s appetite for taking on investment risk.
Hence, high inflation may have had a big role to play in people investing their money in Ponzi schemes. And we all know who is to be blamed for that.
Inflation has had Subbarao worried for a while now. “There is an important constituency in the country that is hurt by inflation. Their voice also needs to be heard. It is the responsibility of public policy institutions like the Reserve Bank to go out of our way and listen to silent voices,” the RBI governor said on Wednesday.
To conclude, it is very easy to argue that more Ponzi schemes spread because people people lack access to basic banking. But the reality is a little more complicated than that. As they say, truth is often stranger than fiction.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on May 9,2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)