Why RBI’s Monetary Policy Has Been a Bigger Flop Than Bombay Velvet

Mere paas kothi hai na car sajni,
Kadka hai tera dildar sajni.
— Rajkavi Inderjeet Singh Tulsi, Ravindra Jain, Kishore Kumar, Asha Bhonsle and Ashok Roy, in Chor Machaye Shor.

Okay, I didn’t have to wait for the Reserve Bank of India’s monetary policy declared today, to write this piece. I could have written this piece yesterday or even a month back. But then the news cycle ultimately determines the number of people who end up reading what I write, and one can’t possibly ignore that.

A few hours back, the Monetary Policy Statement was published by the RBI, after the monetary policy committee (MPC) met on 2nd, 3rd and 4th December. The MPC of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has the responsibility to set the repo rate, among other things. The repo rate is the interest rate at which the RBI lends to banks, and which to some extent determines the interest rates set by commercial banks for the economy as a whole.

The MPC has been driving down the repo rate since January 2019, when the rate was at 6.5%. The rate had been cut to 5.15% by February 2020, around the time the covid pandemic struck.

By May 2020, the MPC had cut the repo rate further by 115 basis points to an all-time low of 4%. One basis point is one hundredth of a percentage. The idea behind the cut was two-fold.

In the aftermath of the covid pandemic as the economic activity crashed, the tax collections of the government crashed as well, leading to a situation where the government’s borrowing requirement jumped from Rs 7.8 lakh crore to Rs 12 lakh crore.

The massive repo rate cut would help the government to borrow more at lower interest rates. The yield or the return on a ten-year government of India bond in early February was at 6.64%. Since then it has fallen to around 5.89% as of December 4. The government of India borrows by selling bonds. The money that it raises helps finance its fiscal deficit or the difference between what it earns and what it spends.

The second idea was to encourage people to borrow and spend more and businesses to borrow and expand, at lower interest rates. Take a look at the following chart. It plots the average interest at which banks have given out fresh loans over the years.

Source: Reserve Bank of India.

The data on average interest at which banks have given out fresh loans is available for a period of a little over six years, starting from September 2014 and up to October 2020. It can be seen from the above chart that the interest rates in the recent months, have been the lowest in many years. But has that led to an increase in lending by banks, that’s the question that needs to be answered?

As of October 2020, the total outstanding non-food credit of banks by economic activity, had gone up by 5.6% in comparison to October 2019. Banks give loans to the Food Corporation of India and other state procurement agencies to buy rice, wheat and a few other agricultural products directly from farmers. Once we subtract these loans out from the overall loans given by banks that leaves us with non-food credit by economic activity.

Also, it needs to be mentioned here that this is how banking data is conventionally reported, in terms of the total outstanding loans of banks.

When you compare this with how other economic data is reported, it’s different. Let’s take the example of passenger cars.

When passenger car sales are reported, what is reported is the number of cars sold during a particular month and not the total number of cars running in India at that point of time. In case of banks, precisely the opposite thing happens.

What is conventionally reported is the total outstanding loans at any point of time and not the loans given incrementally during a particular period. So, the total outstanding non-food credit of Indian banks by economic activity, as of October end 2020 stood at Rs 92.13 lakh crore. This increased by 5.6% over October 2019.

The way this data is reported does not tell us the gravity of the situation that the banks are in. That comes out when we look at just incremental loans from one year back. The way to calculate this is to take total outstanding loans as of October 2020 and subtract that from outstanding loans of banks as of October 2019. The difference is incremental loans for October 2020. Similarly, the calculation can be done for other months as well.

Let’s take a look incremental loans data over the last three years.


As can be seen the above chart, the incremental loans every month in comparison to the same month last year, have been falling since late 2018, just a little before the RBI started cutting the repo rate. In October 2020, they stood at Rs 4.83 lakh crore, a three-year low.

What does this mean? It means that as the MPC of the RBI has gone about cutting the repo rate, the incremental loans given by banks have gone down as well. This is the exact opposite of what economists and central banks expect, that as interest rates fall, borrowing should go up.

And this has been happening from a time before the covid-pandemic struck. Covid has only accentuated this phenomenon. This also leads to the point I make often that for people to borrow more, just lower interest rates are not enough.

The main point that encourages people and businesses to borrow more is the confidence in their economic future. While the government will try and blame India’s currently economic problems totally on covid, it is worth mentioning here that India’s economic growth has seen a downward trend since March 2018. The economic growth for the period January to March 2018 had stood at 8.2% and has been falling since, leading to a lesser confidence in the economic future, both among individuals and corporates.

In fact, if we compare the situation between March 27, 2020, when covid first started spreading across India, and November 6, 2020, the total outstanding non-food credit of banks has grown by just Rs 2,221 crore (yes, you read that right, and this is not a calculation error).

During the same period, the total deposits of banks have grown by Rs 8.13 lakh crore or 6%. The incremental credit deposit ratio between March 27 and November 6, is just 0.27%. We can actually assume it be zero, given that it is so close to zero. Al these deposits have primarily been invested in government bonds.

Basically, on the whole, the banks have been unable to lend any of the deposits they have got from the beginning of this financial year. Only one part of banking is in operation. Banks are borrowing, they are not lending.

What does this tell us? It tells us that banking activity in the country has collapsed post covid, despite the RBI cutting the repo rate to an all-time low-level of 4%, where it’s 361 basis points lower than the latest rate of retail inflation of 7.61%. Other than cutting the repo rate, the RBI has also printed a lot of money and pumped it into the financial system, to drive down interest rates.

But despite that people and businesses are not borrowing. RBI’s monetary policy has been an even bigger flop than Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet, Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker and Satish Kaushik’s Roop ki Rani Choron ka Raja. (I name three different films so that readers of different generations all get the point I am trying to make here).

In the monetary policy statement released a few hours back, there is very little mention of this, other than:

“A noteworthy development is that non-food credit growth accelerated and moved into positive territory for the first time in November 2020 on a financial year basis .”

The governor’s statement has some general gyan like this:

“In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Reserve Bank has focused on resolution of stress among borrowers, and facilitating credit flow to the economy, while ensuring financial stability.”

No explanations have been offered on why the monetary policy has flopped. The current dispensation at India’s central bank is getting used to behaving like the current government.

It is important to understand here why monetary policy has been such a colossal flop this year. The answer lies in what the British economist John Maynard Keynes called the paradox of thrift. When a single individual saves more, it makes sense, as he prepares himself to face an emergency where he might need that money.

But when the society as a whole saves more, as it currently is, that causes a lot of damage because one’s man spending is another man’s income. As we have seen bank deposits during this financial year have gone up Rs 8.13 lakh crore or 6%. On the whole, people are cutting down on their spending and saving more for a rainy day.

The psychology of a recession at play and not just among those people who have been fired from their jobs or seen a fall in their income. It is obvious that such people are cutting down on their spending. But even those who haven’t faced any economic trouble are doing so.

They are doing so in the fear of seeing a fall in their income or losing their job and not being able to find a new one. When the individuals are cutting down on their spending, it doesn’t make much sense for businesses to borrow and expand. In fact, the overall bank lending to the industry sector has contracted by Rs 4,624 crore between October 2019 and October 2020.

Typically, in a situation like this, when the private sector is not in a position to spend, the government of the day steps in. The trouble is that the current government is not in a position to do so as tax revenues have collapsed this year. There other fears at play here as well.

In the midst of all this, Dinesh Khara, the chairman of the State Bank of India told the Business Standard, that bank lending rates “have actually bottomed”. Given that banks have barely lent anything this year, it makes me sincerely wonder what Mr Khara has been smoking. Clearly, it makes sense to avoid that.

To conclude, monetary policy should not get the kind of attention it gets in the business media, simply because, it is dead, and it has been dying for a while. The trouble is, there are one too many banking correspondents and even more central bank watchers, including me, who need to make a living.

And very few among us, are likely to ask the most basic question—why monetary policy is not working.

Le jayenge le jayenge dilwale dulhaniya le jayenge
— Rajkavi Inderjeet Singh Tulsi, Ravindra Jain, Kishore Kumar, Asha Bhonsle and Ashok Roy, in Chor Machaye Shor.