Interest rates are also about savers, not just about borrowers


One of the points that I have made in the past is that interest rates are not just about borrowers; they are also about savers.

Raghuram Rajan, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India(RBI) explained this beautifully in a recent interview to NDTV. At a talk somewhere, one gentleman got up and told the governor that he should bring down the interest rates to 4%.

A point that most people fail to understand is that an RBI governor can decide only on the repo rate. Repo rate is the rate at which RBI lends to banks and acts as a sort of a benchmark to the interest rates that banks pay for their deposits and in turn charge on their loans.

The RBI governor does not decide on the interest rate that a bank charges on its loans. Neither does he decide the interest rate a bank pays on its deposits for that matter. That is a decision individual banks make.

Hence, Rajan cutting the repo rate is not enough. Banks need to pass on the cut to the end consumers. Since January 2015, Rajan has cut the repo rate by 150 basis points. Banks have passed on around half of that cut to the end consumers due to various reasons. The public sector banks have been accumulating a huge amount of bad loans and this has limited their ability to cut interest rates on their loans.

Rajan asked this gentleman that the rate of inflation was still 5.5% and if he brought down the interest rate to 4%, would he still deposit his money at the bank? The gentleman said no. So he was not willing to deposit his money at a low interest rate, but wanted banks to lower their lending rates.

To this Rajan said: “say a bank pays 6% on deposits and lends at 4%, who is going to make up for the difference”. “The idea is that somebody is going to pick up the tab. We are used to somebody picking up the tab. Who is going to pick up this tab?

The point here is very simple. A bank can only lend at a rate of interest which is higher than the rate at which it borrows. Further, it needs to offer a certain rate of interest on its deposits, so that people deposit money with it and do not invest it in other avenues which offer a higher rate of return. Currently, the rate of interest offered on small savings schemes are significantly higher than those of fixed deposits.

Rajan also said that it takes some time for depositors to get used to the fact that inflation has actually come down over the last few years. “The real interest rate they [i.e. depositors] are getting now is much higher than the real interest rate they were getting earlier,” Rajan said.

The real interest rate is essentially the nominal interest rate offered by a bank on its fixed deposit subtracted by the prevailing rate of inflation. “When inflation was 9% they [i.e. depositors] were getting 9%. This meant earning nothing in real terms and losing everything in inflation,” Rajan explained. “Today they are getting 7% on their deposits and inflation is 5.5%. They are earning 1.5%. It is a real difference,” he added.

This is something that will take time to sink in because money illusion is at work. What is money illusion? As Gary Belsky and Thomas Gilovich write in Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes: “[Money illusion] involves a confusion between ‘”nominal” changes in money and “real” changes that reflect inflation…Accounting for inflation requires the application of a little arithmetic, which…is often an annoyance and downright impossible for many people…Most people we know routinely fail to consider the effects of inflation in their finance decision making.”

So, the point is that even though people are earning a better real rate of interest they don’t realise it. What they see is that nominal rate of interest has fallen and given this they are not happy with banks offering a lower rate of interest on their fixed deposits.

As Rajan said in the NDTV interview: “Depositors are already complaining that they are not getting enough. That is why banks are reluctant to cut [deposit] rates.” And unless banks can cut deposit rates there is no way they can cut lending rates, irrespective of what the RBI chooses to do with the repo rate.

This is how bank interest rates work. As Rajan asked: “For somebody to say that I have a God given right to get a loan at low interest rate but I won’t deposit at that rate, where is the money going to come from them?” This basically means that banks lend money they essentially get as deposits. And without deposits there is going to be no lending.

One of the most difficult things in economics to understand is general equilibrium. You do one thing it has other effects as well,” Rajan said. If interest rate on lending is cut where is the money going to come for savings, Rajan asked.

This is something that people who keep demanding lower interest rate at a drop of a hat don’t seem to understand. There are two sides to bank interest rates. The interest rate banks charge on their loans and the interest rate they pay on their deposits. And if interest rates on deposits can’t fall beyond a point, then the interest rate on loans can’t fall as well.

This is a basic point that people don’t seem to understand. And it’s not rocket science.

The column was originally published in the Vivek Kaul Diary on June 10, 2016