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.

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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.

 

13 Reasons RBI Shouldn’t Allow Large Corporates/Industrial Houses to Own Banks

Apna hi ghar phoonk rahe hain kaisa inquilab hai.

— Hasrat Jaipuri, Mohammed Rafi, Mukhesh, Ravindra Jain and Naresh Kumar, in Do Jasoos.

Should large corporates/industrial groups be allowed to own banks? An internal working group (IWG) of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), thinks so. I had dwelled on this issue sometime last week, but that was a very basic piece. In this piece I try and get into some detail.

The basic point on why large corporates/industrial groups should be allowed into banking is that India has a low credit to gross domestic product (GDP) ratio, which means that given the size of the Indian economy, the Indian banks haven’t given out enough loans. Hence, if we allow corporates to own and run banks, there will be more competition and in the process higher lending. QED.

Let’s take a look at the following chart, it plots the overall bank lending to GDP ratio, over the years.


Source: Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

The above chart makes for a very interesting read. The bank lending grew from 2000-01 onwards. It peaked at 53.36% of the Indian GDP in 2013-2014. In 2019-20 it stood at 50.99% of the GDP, more or less similar to where it was in 2009-10, a decade back, at 50.97% of the GDP. Hence, the argument that lending by Indian banks has been stagnant over the years is true.

But will more banks lead to more lending? Since 2013, two new universal banks, seven new payment banks and ten new small finance banks have been opened up. But as the above chart shows, the total bank loans to GDP ratio has actually come down.

Clearly, the logic that more banks lead to more lending is on shaky ground. There are too many other factors at work, from whether banks are in a position and the mood to lend, to whether people and businesses are in the mood to borrow. Also, the bad loans situation of banks matters quite a lot.

In fact, even if we were to buy this argument, it means that the Indian economy needs more banks and not necessarily banks owned by large corporates/industrial houses, who have other business interests going around.

Also, the banks haven’t done a good job of lending this money out. As of March 2018, the bad loans of Indian banks, or loans which had been defaulted on for a period of 90 days or more, had stood at 11.6%. So, close to Rs 12 of every Rs 100 of loans lent out by Indian banks had been defaulted on. In case of government owned public sector banks, the bad loans rate had stood at 15.6%. Further, when it came to loans to industry, the bad loans rate of banks had stood at 22.8%.

Clearly, banks had made a mess of their lending. The situation has slightly improved since March 2018. The bad loans rate of Indian banks as of March 2020 came down to 8.5%. The bad loans rate of public sector banks had fallen to 11.3%.

The major reason for this lies in the fact that once a bad loan has been on the books of a bank for a period of four years, 100% of this loan has been provisioned for. This means that  the bank has set aside an amount of money equal to the defaulted loan amount, which is adequate to face the losses arising out of the default. Such loans can then be dropped out of the balance sheet of the banks. This is the main reason behind why bad loans have come down and not a major increase in recoveries.

This is a point that needs to be kept in mind before the argument that large corporates/industrial houses should be given a bank license, is made.

There are many other reasons why large corporates/industrial houses should not be given bank licenses. Let’s take a look at them one by one.

1) The IWG constituted by the RBI spoke to many experts. These included four former deputy governors of the RBI, Shyamala Gopinath, Usha Thorat, Anand Sinha and N. S. Vishwanathan. It also spoke to Bahram Vakil (Partner, AZB & Partners), Abizer Diwanji (Partner and National Leader – Financial Services EY India),  Sanjay Nayar (CEO, KKR India), Uday Kotak (MD & CEO, Kotak Mahindra Bank.), Chandra Shekhar Ghosh (MD & CEO, Bandhan Bank) and PN Vasudevan (MD & CEO, Equitas Small Finance Bank).

Of these experts only one suggested that large corporates/industrial houses should be allowed to set up banks. The main reason behind this was “the corporate houses may either provide undue credit to their own businesses or may favour lending to their close business associates”. This is one of the big risks of allowing a large corporate/industrial house to run a bank.

2) As the Report of the Committee on Financial Sector Reforms (2009) had clearly said:

“The selling of banks to industrial houses has been problematic across the world from the perspective of financial stability because of the propensity of the houses to milk banks for ‘self-loans’ [emphasis added]. Without a substantial improvement in the ability of the Indian system to curb related party transactions, and to close down failing banks, this could be a recipe for financial disaster.”

While, the above report is a decade old, nothing has changed at the ground level to question the logic being offered. Combining banking and big businesses remains a bad idea.

3) Let’s do a small thought experiment here. One of the reasons why the government owned public sector banks have ended up with a lot of bad loans is because of crony capitalism. When a politician or a bureaucrat or someone higher up in the bank hierarchy, pushes a banker to give a loan to a favoured corporate, the banker isn’t really in a position to say no, without having to face extremely negative consequences for the same.

Along similar lines, if a banker working for a bank owned by a large corporate or an industrial house, gets a call from someone higher up in the hierarchy to give out a loan to a friend of a maalik  or to a company owned by the maalik, will he really be in a position to say no? His incentive won’t be very different from that of a public sector banker.

4) As Raghuram Rajan and Viral Acharya point out in a note critiquing the entire idea of large corporates/industrial houses owning banks: “Easy access to financing via an in-house bank will further exacerbate the concentration of economic power in certain business houses.” This is something that India has had to face before.

As the RBI Report of Currency and Finance 2006-08 points out:

“The issue of combining banking and commerce in the banking sector needs to be viewed in the historical perspective as also in the light of crosscountry experiences. India’s experience with banks before nationalisation of banks in 1969 as well as the experiences of several other countries suggest that several risk arise in combining banking and commerce. In fact, one of the main reasons for nationalisation of  banks in 1969 and 1980 was that banks controlled by industrial houses led to diversion of public deposits as loans to their own companies and not to the public, leading to concentration of wealth in the hands of the promoters. Many other countries also had similar experiences with the banks operated by industrial houses.”

This risk is even more significant now given that many industrial houses are down in the dumps thanks to over borrowing and not being able to repay bank loans. Hence, the concentration of economic power will be higher given that few industrial houses have their financial side in order, and they are the ones who will be lining up to start banks.

5) Another argument offered here has been that the RBI will regulate bank loans and hence, self-loans won’t happen. Again, this is an assumption that can easily be questioned. As the RBI Report of Currency and Finance 2006-08 points out: “The regulators temper the risk taking incentives of banks by monitoring and through formal examinations, this supervisory task is rendered more difficult when banking and commerce are combined.”

This is the RBI itself saying that keeping track of what banks are up to is never easy and it will be even more difficult in case of a bank owned by a big business.

6) The ability of Indian entrepreneurs to move money through a web of companies is legendary. In this scenario, the chances are that the RBI will find out about self-loans only after they have been made. And in that scenario there is nothing much it will be able to do, given that corporates have political connections and that will mean that the RBI will have to look the other way.

7) There are other accounting shenanigans which can happen as well. As the RBI Report of Currency and Finance cited earlier points out:

“Bank can also channel cheaper funds from the central bank to the commercial firm. On the other hand, bad assets from the commercial affiliate could be shifted to the bank either by buying assets of the firms at inflated price or lending money at below-market rates in order to effect capital infusion.”

Basically, the financial troubles of a large corporate/industrial house owning a bank can be moved to the books of the bank that it owns.

8) If we look at the past performance of the RBI, there wasn’t much it could do to stop banks from bad lending and from accumulating bad loans.  This is very clear from the way the RBI acted between 2008 and 2015. Public sector banks went about giving out many industrial loans, which they shouldn’t have, between 2008 and 2011. The RBI couldn’t stop them from giving out these loans. It could only force them to recognise these bad loans as bad loans, post mid-2015 onwards, and stop them from kicking the bad loans can down the road. So, the entire argument that the RBI will prevent a bank owned by a large corporate/industrial house from giving out self-loans, is on shaky ground.

9) Also, it is worth remembering that the RBI cannot let a bank fail. This creates a huge moral hazard when it comes to a bank owned by a large corporate/industrial house. What does this really mean? Before we understand this, let’s first try and understand what a moral hazard means.

As Alan S Blinder, a former vice-chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States, writes in After the Music Stopped: “The central idea behind moral hazard is that people who are well insured against some risk are less likely to take pains ( and incur costs) to avoid it. Here are some common non financial examples: …people who are well insured against fire may not install expensive sprinkler systems; people driving cars with more safety devices may drive less carefully.”

In the case of a large corporate/industrial house owned bank, the bank knows that the RBI cannot let a bank fail. This gives such a bank an incentive to take on greater risks, which isn’t good for the stability of the financial system.

As the Currency Report points out:

“The greatest source of risk from combining banking and commerce arises from the threat to the safety net provided under the deposit insurance and ‘too-big-to-fail’ institutions whose depositors are provided total insurance and the mis-channeling of resources through the subsidised central bank lending to banks. Because of the safety net provided, the firms affiliated with banks could take more risk with depositors’ money, which could be all the more for large institutions on which there is an implicit guarantee [emphasis added] from the authorities.”

Other than incentivising the other firms owned by the same large corporates/industrial houses to take on more risk in its activities, it also means that now the RBI other than keeping track of banks, will also need to keep track of the economic activities of these other firms. Does the RBI have the capacity and the capability to do so? 

10) Another argument offered in favour of large corporates/industrial houses owning banks is that they already own large NBFCs. So, what is the problem with them owning banks? The problem lies in the fact that banks have access to a safety net which the NBFCs don’t. RBI will not let a bank fail and will act quickly to solve the problem. And that is the basic difference between a large corporate/industrial house owning a bank and owning an NBFC. Also, the arguments that apply to large corporates/industrial houses owning a bank are equally valid in case of them owning NBFCs, irrespective of the fact that large corporates already own NBFCs. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

11) We also need to take into account the fact many countries including the United States, which has much better corporate governance than India, don’t allow the mixing of commerce and business. As the Report of the Committee on Financial Sector Reforms (2009) had pointed out: “This prohibition on the ‘banking and commerce’ combine still exists in the United States today, and is certainly necessary in India till private governance and regulatory capacity improve.”

The interesting thing is that in the United States, the separation between banking and commerce has been followed since 1787.

As the Currency Report points out:

“Banks have frequently tried to engage in commercial activities, and commercial firms have often attempted to gain control of banks. However, federal and state legislators have repeatedly passed laws to separate banking and commerce, whenever it appeared that either (i) the involvement of banks in commercial activities threatened their safety and soundness; or (ii) commercial firms were acquiring a large numbers of banks.”

Also, anyone who has studied the South East Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s would know that one of the reasons behind the crisis was allowing large corporates to own banks.

12) This is a slightly technical point but still needs to be made. Banks by their very definition are highly leveraged, which basically means the banking business involves borrowing a lot of money against a very small amount of capital/equity invested in the business. The leverage can be even more than 10:1, meaning that the banks can end up borrowing more than Rs 100 to go about their business, against an invested capital of Rs 10.

On the flip side, the large corporates/industrial houses have concentrated business interests or business interests which are not very well-diversified. Hence, trouble in the main business of a large corporate can easily spill over to their bank, given the lack of diversification and high leverage. This is another reason on why they should not be allowed to run banks.

13) As Raghuram Rajan and Viral Acharya wrote in their recent note: “One possibility is that the government wants to expand the set of bidders when it finally sets to privatizing some of our public sector banks.”

This makes sense especially if one takes into account the fact that in recent past the government has been promoting the narrative of atmanirbharta.

In this environment they definitely wouldn’t want to sell the public sector banks to foreign banks, who are actually in a position to pay top dollar. Hence, the need for banks owned by large corporates/industrial houses looking to expand quickly and willing to pay good money for a bank already in existence.

Given this, the government wants banks owned by large corporates/industrial houses in the banking space, so that it is able to sell out several dud public sector banks at a good price. But then this as explained comes with its own set of risks.

 

To conclude, the conspiracy theory is that all this is being done to favour certain corporates close to the current political dispensation. And once they are given the license, this window will be closed again. Is that the case? On that your guess is as good as mine. Nevertheless, if this is pushed through, someone somewhere will have to bear the cost of this decision.

As I often say, there is no free lunch in economics, just that sometimes the person paying for the lunch doesn’t know about it.

Aa gaya aa gaya halwa waala aa gaya, aa gaya aa gaya halwa waala aa gaya
— Anjaan, Vijay Benedict, Sarika Kapoor, Uttara Kelkar, Bappi Lahiri and B Subhash (better known as Babbar Subhash), in Dance Dance.

Why Large Economies Are In a Technical Recession

Almost all large economies in the world, other than China, are in the midst of a technical recession, with their gross domestic product (GDP) having contracted for two or more quarters. On Friday, India became the latest large economy to enter this list. The spread of the covid pandemic and a big fear of a possible second wave, have led to consumers and businesses being very careful in the way they spend their money and saving for a possible rainy day.

What is a technical recession?

When the GDP of any economy contracts for two consecutive quarters, economists refer to the situation as a technical recession. GDP is a measure of economic activity and size of a country. Let’s take the case of the United States. The GDP contracted by 9% between April and June 2020 in comparison with the same period in 2019. It contracted again by 2.9% between July and September 2020. So, as of end September, the American economy was in a technical recession.

If we consider the United Kingdom, the economy has contracted in each of the periods between January to March, April to June and July to September, by 2.1%, 21.5% and 9.6%, respectively. Hence, the country has been in a technical recession since the end of June. The only exception to this has been China, which has grown by 3.2% and 4.9%, respectively, between April and June and July and September.

How is a technical recession different from a recession?

An economic scenario where the economy of a country has been contracting for a long period of time, is referred to as a recession. The trouble is there is no standard definition for how long is long. The National Bureau of Economic Research in the United States defines a recession as “a significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and lasts more than a few months”.

Hence, if the current decline in economic activity across countries continues in the months to come, then we can safely say that we are in the midst of a recession. The spread of covid has led to economic activity slowing down. Businesses in order to continue to exist have slashed salaries and/or fired people. Even those who haven’t been fired live with the fear of getting fired. All this has led to a slowdown in people and businesses spending money.

When was the last time the world was in a recession?

Lehman Brothers, the fourth biggest investment bank on Wall Street, went bust in mid-September 2008. Many other financial institutions came under huge financial stress and had to be rescued by the governments and the central banks of the United States and Europe. The trouble spilled from Wall Street to Main Street and a recession hit the Western economies.

The central banks in the Western world printed a huge amount of money to drive down interest rates, in the hope that people will borrow and spend, and businesses will borrow and expand. A lot of this money found its way into stock markets all across the world. The interesting thing is that even in 2020 the central banks are using the same formula. They have printed a lot of money to revive economies. The Federal Reserve of the United States has printed more than $3 trillion between end of February and now.

When did India enter a technical recession?

The Indian economy had contracted by 23.9% during the period April to July. This was the largest contraction among all large economies of the world. It contracted again by 7.5%, between July to September, thus entering a technical recession. Hence, as of end September the Indian economy has been in the midst of a technical recession.

Why has this happened? Private consumption, or the stuff that people buy, and which forms more than half of the Indian GDP, has completely collapsed. Between April and June, it contracted by 26.7%. It contracted by 11.3%, between July and September. As mentioned earlier, this is primarily because of people saving more for a rainy day. This can be gauged from the fact that deposits in the Indian banking system have gone up 6% or Rs 8.1 trillion between end of March, when covid first started to spread in the country, and now.

How can the world get out of this economic mess?

The British economist John Maynard Keynes had a term for a situation like this – the paradox of thrift. When a society as a whole saves substantially more, it hurts the economy, simply because one man’s spending is another man’s income. Hence, in recessionary times, when individuals and businesses are spending less money, the government needs to chip in and spend more money than it usually would have.

This spending puts more money in hands of people. And if they go out there and spend it, it helps in economic revival. The trouble is that thanks to a recessionary environment, tax collections have collapsed. Some governments have resorted to printing more money to finance extra expenditure and hoping to create growth. But not every country has this option because money printing can lead to higher prices or inflation, as a greater amount of money chases the same set of goods and services.

This piece originally appeared in the Khaleej Times on November 30, 2020.

What a Mumbai Real Estate Agent Can Tell You About Indian Economy Contracting

Koi yahan aaha naache naache,
Koi wahan aahe naache naache.

— Usha Uthup, Faruk Kaiser, Bappi Lahiri and Babbar Subhash (better known as B Subhash), in the Disco Dancer

The gross domestic product (GDP) figures for the period July to September 2020 were published yesterday. The GDP is a measure of the economic size of a country during a particular period. The Indian GDP or the economic size of the country during the period contracted by 7.54%  against the same period last year.

This looks very good in comparison to the contraction of 23.92% that the economy had seen during the period April to June 2020 and has led to the uncorking of the bubbly among a certain set of politicians, economists, analysts, journalists, stock market wallahs and Twitter warriors.

Of course, there is no denying that a contraction of 7.54% is a lot better than a contraction of 23.92%, one would be a fool to deny that. But has the time to uncork the bubbly come? Or, if you are not the drinking type, should we be high-fiving on this one?

Let’s take a look at this pointwise.

1) For much of the period between April to June, the economy was under a lockdown. Once the economy was opened up, things were bound to improve. Hence, a better performance in July to September should not come as a surprise. Second, the period benefitted because of a lot of pent up demand. People who could not buy the stuff they wanted to during April to June, ended up buying it between July to September. These points need to be kept in mind.

2) The economists were expecting a contraction of 8.5-9% during the quarter. Against that a contraction of 7.54% looks just about a little better. Having said that, India has a large unorganised sector. Measuring the value added by the unorganised sector is never easy. Hence, when releasing GDP data for a period of three months for the first time, the National Statistical Office (NSO) essentially proxies the value added by the informal sector using formal sector data. This is set right as data streams in over a period of time.

Over and above this, we are in midst of a pandemic and hence, collection of data isn’t easy. As the NSO points in its release: “Some other data sources such as GST, interactions with professional bodies etc. were also referred to for corroborative evidence and these were clearly limited.”

What this means is that the GDP data presents a picture which is rosier than the actual picture.

3) There is another important point that needs to be made here. India has been publishing quarterly GDP for close to 24 years now. This is only the second time in all these years that the GDP during a particular period of three months has contracted. Only twice in 94 quarters has the economy contracted. And given that GDP has contracted in two consecutive quarters, India is in a midst of what economists call a technical recession. If the economy continues to contract in the months to come, it will enter a recession. That’s the difference between a recession and a technical recession.

Source: Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

4) In the period April to June with a contraction of 23.92%, India was the worst performing economy among the major economies in the world. From the data that is currently available on the OECD website, India is no longer the worst performing economy in the world, nonetheless, it continues to be among the worst performing economies in the world.

Source:  https://stats.oecd.org/index.aspx?queryid=350

5) A major surprise in the GDP data has been the recovery of the manufacturing sector. The sector grew by 0.62%, after contracting (or degrowing as analysts like to say) by 39.30% between April to June. While this is good news, it goes against the fact that index of industrial production contracted by 6.09% during July to September. If the production has contracted how has the growth come about? The growth has come primarily from the fact that companies in the listed space have been able to increase their profit margins primarily because of controlling costs, this includes firing employees and slashing their salaries.
As economist Mahesh Vyas recently wrote in a column: “In the September 2020 quarter, while sales fell again by 9.7 per cent, profits sprang a surprise by scaling up by a handsome 17.8 per cent. Yet, wages declined by one per cent. Evidently, companies do not apportion resources to labour in any proportion of profits.”

6) Sectors like construction, mining as well as services continued to remain weak, though better than they were during April to June. These sectors are high employment sectors. This remains a worry given that what seems to be happening currently is a recovery which isn’t creating enough jobs. In fact, financial services, real estate and professional services (bundled together for some reason in the GDP data) contracted by 8.09% during July to September. It had contracted by 5.33% during April to June. And that can’t possibly be a good thing. This can also be seen under NREGA data where demand for jobs this year remains astonishingly higher than last year. It can also be seen in the labour participation rate contracting with people stopping to look for jobs because they are unable to find one, and hence, dropping out of the workforce.

It also needs to be said here if there is a second round of covid, as is being feared, the services sector will continue to remain weak, in particular services like restaurants, hotels, tourism, cinema halls, malls etc.

7) If we look at GDP from the expenditure side, the private consumption expenditure contracted by 11.32% against a contraction of 26.68% between April to June. Clearly, there has been improvement on this front. Nevertheless, private consumption expenditure forms more than half of the Indian economy, and as long as it continues to remain weak, the economy will continue to remain weak. Also, we need to remember that the contraction of 11.32% happened despite pent up demand and festivals in the Western and Southern part of the country. Further, the fact that private consumption has continued to contract, brings into question the growth in the manufacturing sector. Are actual sales happening at the consumer level or is this simply a case of a  build-up of inventory, as has been the case in the auto industry?

8) This is a slightly technical point but still needs to be made. On the expenditure side, the GDP is calculated as a sum of private consumption expenditure, investment, government expenditure and net exports. Net exports is exports minus imports. In the Indian case, this is a negative entry into the GDP figure, given that exports are usually less than imports. During July to September, net exports is a positive number, given that imports are lower than exports, having fallen by a much higher rate. This is primarily because of a collapse in consumer demand, which is not a good thing. When it comes to the goods part of imports, the non-oil non-gold non-silver part of imports collapsed by 23.82% during July to September. This helped push up the GDP number.

9) The GDP has contracted by 15.67% during the first six months of the year. If the economy contracts by 3-5% during the second half of the year, we still are looking at 9-10% contraction this year. This was largely the consensus forecast made for this year. Even if there is no contraction in the second half of the year, the economy will still contract 7.66%, which will make India one of the worst performing economies in 2020-21. Also, we need to remember that the GDP of 2019-20 is likely to be crossed now only in late 2021-22 or 2022-23. So this pushes the Indian economy back by at least two years. Of course a lot of it is because of covid, but let’s not forget, the Indian economy had been slowing down even before the pandemic struck.

10) Let me close this piece with a little story. Sometime in April 2006, I first started to look for a flat to rent, in Mumbai. Of course, one had to go through agents. Pretty soon, I realised that the agents were trying a psychological trick on me. They first showed me a flat which was in a very bad state. They would then show me something which was slightly better. Nevertheless, the difference in rent between the flat was much more than the difference in their quality, with the rent of the second flat being much more than the first one. I caught on to this because I had read this book called Freakonomics sometime in 2005. The book had an extended chapter on the contrast effect.

We all tend to compare things before making a decision. Given this, the attraction of an option can be increased significantly by comparing it to a similar, but worse alternative. This is known as the ‘contrast effect’.

How does this apply in the present context? It’s simple. The fact that the Indian economy contracted by a massive 23.92% during April to June, it makes a contraction of 7.54% during July to September, much better. But there are many nuances, as explained above, that need to be taken into account.

PS: My writing has been highly irregular over the last few weeks. I was busy with a project I had taken on. Now that I am done with it, will write more regularly.

Why Large Corporates/Industrial Houses Owning Banks is a Bad Idea

 

An internal working group (IWG) of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has suggested that large corporate/industrial houses may be allowed to promote banks. Does this huge leap of faith being made by the Indian central bank, given their current extremely cautious and conservative approach, make sense? Let’s try and understand.

Why should large corporates be allowed into banking?

The IWG feels that allowing large corporates to promote banks can be an important source of capital. In a capital starved country like India this makes sense. Further, these corporates can bring “experience, management expertise, and strategic direction to banking”.

The group also noted that internationally “there are very few jurisdictions which explicitly disallow large corporate houses”. All these reasons make sense, but there are major reasons as to why the RBI in the last five decades hasn’t let large corporates enter the banking sector in India. At the heart of all this is the conflict of interest it would create.

Why have large corporates not been allowed into banking?

The IWG spoke to experts on the issue: “All the experts except one [said] that large corporate/industrial houses should not be allowed to promote a bank.”  The corporate governance in Indian companies isn’t up to international standards and “it will be difficult to ring fence the non-financial activities of the promoters.”

There will be a risk of promoters giving loans to themselves. Before bank nationalisation in 1969, some of the private banks were owned by large corporates. As Professor Amol Agrawal of Ahmedabad University puts it: “Since the private banks were run by big industrialists, they gave loans to themselves.”

What does history have to say in this regard?

As Pai Panandikar, an Advisor in the Finance Ministry, wrote in August 1967, regarding these banks : “Internal procedures… vest large discretionary powers in the Boards of Directors who have often acted as sources of patronage in deciding credit matters.”

A survey showed that 188 individuals served as directors on boards of 20 leading banks and held 1452 directorships of other companies. These individuals had directorships in 1100 companies.

What did these large discretionary powers lead to?

In an October 1967 report commissioned by politician Chandrashekhar, then the Secretary of the Congress Party, it was found that of the total bank loans of Rs 2,432 crore in 1966, Rs 292 crores was the debt due from the bank directors and their companies.

In fact, if indirect loans and advances were included, the actual debt-linked to directors was Rs 600-700 crore. There is a danger of something similar happening even now given the weak corporate governance structures.

*As of March 31, 2018.
Source: Rajya Sabha Unstarred Question No: 1492, Answered on 18 July 2018.

What does this mean in the current scheme of things?

As of March 2018, the domestic bad loans of Indian banks peaked at Rs 9.62 lakh crore. Of this, around 73.2% or Rs 7.04 lakh crore, were defaults made by industry.

The corporates have been responsible for a bulk of the mess in the Indian banking sector. Given that, handing over banking licenses to them is not a sensible idea, especially when the ability of banks to recover bad loans is limited.