Money. Money. Money. It’s so funny. It’s a rich man’s world.
Or so sang the Swedish band Abba, many many years back. Rich man or poor man, money essentially functions on trust.
And the trust in Indian money has been destroyed repeatedly since November 2016, when demonetisation was unleashed on the hapless people of this country.
As we explained last week, demonetisation, the need of the Modi government to portray it as a success, and the lack of currency replacement at the pace it should have been replaced, has been responsible for the current currency shortage in large parts of the country.
Let’s look at Table 1, which basically lists the cash withdrawals made at ATMs using debit cards.
Table 1:Source: State Bank of India
What does Table 1 tell us? It tells us that more cash is withdrawn from ATMs in the second half of the financial year (i.e. the period between October to March) than in the first half.
There are several reasons for it. The big festivals (Dusshera, Diwali, Christmas, Holi etc.) all fall in the second half of the year. So, does the procurement season for agriculture. This automatically means that the country on the whole withdraws more cash from ATMs in the second half of the year than it does in the first.
Now look at Table 1 carefully. The rate of increase in cash withdrawals has slowed down post 2012-2013. One possible reason for this has been the increase in digital transactions, which have gone up, but are still not big enough.
In 2016-2017, cash withdrawals in the second half of the year fell by 22.1%. This happened because in the aftermath of demonetisation there simply wasn’t enough cash going around in the system.
In 2017-2018, cash withdrawals in the second half of the year, are likely to be 12.2% more than the first half. (We use the term likely because the figure for cash withdrawals for March 2018, is an estimate).
This 12.2% growth is on a much larger base, than 2012-13. The cash withdrawals in the first half of 2012-2013 were around half of the cash withdrawals in 2017-2018.
Why have the cash withdrawals in 2017-2018 been much more? A major reason for this lies around the proposed Financial Resolution and Deposit Insurance Bill. At the core of this Bill, lies the suggestion that the deposits can be used to a rescue a bank or financial firm in trouble. But the truth is a little more complicated than that, as I had explained in a December 2017 piece.
The timing of this Bill coming after demonetisation was all wrong and created suspicions in the minds of people. And after that the university of WhatsApp struck, and many forwards started going around. These forwards wrongly suggested that the government had plans of seizing the money in banks.
But as is wont these days, people tend to believe what they read on their phones than logical and nuanced arguments offered elsewhere.
This fear of the government seizing deposits has to some extent led to people withdrawing more cash from ATMs than they otherwise would. In the four talks that we have given since November 2017 (in Greater Noida, Chennai, Mumbai and Hyderabad), the number one question that we got asked was, will the government seize our money?
This column originally appeared on Equitymaster on April 23, 2018.
This fear has been quite palpable, and the Modi government needs to address it.
The paper money that we use these days has no value of its own. It’s not like the money of yore, like gold or silver or tobacco or many other commodities, which had an inherent value of their own.
When it comes to paper money, it has value because the government of the day says so and people believe in it. It works purely on trust between the government and the citizens.
As Yuval Noah Harari writes in Sapiens—A Brief History of Humankind: “Money isn’t a material reality—it’s a psychological construct… Money is accordingly a system of mutual trust, and not just any system of mutual trust: money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.”
And it is this trust that makes money go around. As Harari writes: “Because my neighbours believe in them. And my neighbours believe in them because I believe in them. And we all believe in them because our king believes in them and demands them in taxes, and because our priest believes in them and demands them in tithes.”
This trust in money was first destroyed during demonetisation, when the government set a last date (December 30, 2016) beyond which it wouldn’t accept Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes (For the record, the Bundesbank, the German central bank, still converts deutschemark, the German currency before euro became the currency of the Eurozone, into euros).
This trust continues to be destroyed with all the rumours around the FRDI Bill continuing to go around. These rumours need to be addressed, which they haven’t been.
Ultimately, any form of paper money works on trust. And if this trust is destroyed, nothing really is left because ultimately the only difference between a Rs 10 note and a Rs 2,000 note, is the quantity of paper and the ink, used in making these two notes, look different.