What’s the Real Story Behind High Petrol and Diesel Prices?

Vivek Kaul and Chintan Patel

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Between 2014-15 and now, taxes imposed by the central government on petrol and diesel have increased by 217% and 607%, respectively. The central government tax on diesel has gone up from Rs 4.50 per litre in 2014-15 to Rs 31.80 per litre currently. This is the real story. 

Petrol and diesel prices are at an all-time high across the country. When it comes to petrol, prices have crossed the 100-rupee-per-litre mark, in many states. As expected, the central government is being questioned on this price rise.

On July 2, the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that no discussions were underway to arrest the rising price of petrol and diesel. Her response to a question on rising prices of petrol and diesel was: “When the international price of crude oil is higher, we have to increase the prices and when the international price is lower, we have to decrease the prices here too. This is a market mechanism which is followed by oil marketing companies. We have given them the freedom.”

Citing the financial burden of the central government’s efforts on vaccine procurement, health infrastructure, and free food to the poor, she added that “state governments can give relief by reducing taxes or levies on petrol.”

In fact, a couple of months ago, she had referred to the taxation of fuels as a “dharamsankat”.  So, what is this dharamsankat that Sitharaman bemoans?

Also, a lot of WhatsApp forwards have been going around explaining why it is impossible for the Narendra Modi government to cut petrol and diesel prices. One reason being offered is that the government needs to repay oil bonds issued by the previous UPA government. As we had explained on an earlier occasion this isn’t true. It’s just propaganda, albeit excellently run.

In this piece, we take the story forward with the hope that it can tackle some of the WhatsApp propaganda around petrol and diesel prices that is currently on.

Price breakdown

In most situations in business, a product is sold at a price which includes the cost of manufacturing the product, the taxes that the company has paid in the process of manufacturing it and the profit margin that the company hopes to earn. Of course, the taxes aren’t a major portion of the overall price.

That’s not true for petrol and diesel in India. Taxes, as we shall see, form a significant part of the overall retail price. The retail price or the price we pay for petrol and diesel at the pump, is made up of four components – a) The price at which the dealer buys petrol and diesel from the oil marketing companies like Indian Oil, Bharat Petroleum or one of the private companies. This price includes the cost of producing petrol and diesel and getting it to the pump where it is sold. It also includes the profit margin of these companies. b) The central government tax. c) The state government tax. d) Dealer commission.

Of the four components, the price at which the dealer buys petrol and diesel from the oil marketing company, is the biggest variable. It is tied to the price of international crude oil. If the price of oil goes up, as it has since April 2020, the price of petrol and diesel also go up. In April 2020, the average price of the Indian basket of crude oil had fallen to $19.9 per barrel.

In June 2021, it averaged at $71.98 per barrel. As of July 13, it had risen to $74.97 per barrel. This, as Sitharaman said, is the main reason for the increase in petrol and diesel prices in the recent past. We would like to say that this is not the reason, but a reason. We will explain the details as we go along.

India produces very little oil of its own. In fact, the overall import dependency in April and May this year was at 85.4%. We are heavily dependent on oil imports. Hence, if price of oil goes up internationally, the price of petrol and diesel also go up within the country.

Now getting back to the components of the retail price of petrol and diesel. The second component is the central government tax, which is the central excise duty. This is fixed and only changes when the government decides so. (The central excise duty has further components, but we won’t get into that in this piece).

Then comes the state government tax on petrol and diesel. Some states refer to it as sales tax and in some other states it is called the value added tax. This tax is over and above the central excise duty and varies from state to state.

The pumps through which petrol and diesel are retailed also need to make some money. They earn a dealer commission, which is also a part of the per litre retail price . Having said that, the dealer commission is a small fraction of the total price, and mostly inconsequential in affecting the final retail prices of petrol and diesel.

Let’s look at the retail price breakdown of petrol and diesel in Delhi as of  July 1, 2021. The following table shows us that.

 Table 1. Price breakdown of petrol and diesel
(in Rs per litre): July 1, 2021 (Delhi)

Source : https://hindustanpetroleum.com/documents/pdf/pb/petrol.pdf

Let’s consider the price of petrol and try and understand this structure in detail. The price charged to the dealer is Rs 39.33 per litre. On this the central government charges an excise duty of Rs 32.90 per litre. Then there is a dealer commission of Rs 3.82 per litre.

These three entries add up to Rs 76.05 per litre. On this price, the Delhi government charges a value added tax of 30%, which works out to Rs 22.82 per litre. This is added to Rs 76.05 per litre and it adds up to a retail selling price of Rs 98.87 per litre of petrol.

It is interesting to note, the value added tax of the state government is charged on Rs 76.05 per litre, which also includes a central excise duty of Rs 32.90 per litre. This means that when you and I buy petrol we are paying a tax on a tax.  This is true across the length and breadth of India and not just in Delhi.

Also, it is worth mentioning that the value added tax or the sales tax of the state governments is ad valorem, which means it is a certain proportion of the sum of the dealer price, central excise duty and dealer commission.

So, if the dealer price goes up or the central government decides to increase the excise duty, the state governments earn a higher tax per litre of petrol sold. What is true for petrol is also true for diesel, though the numbers change and so does the calculation accordingly.

Now let’s look at what proportion of the retail sales price do each of the four components form. Figure 1 and Figure 2 show that for petrol and diesel, respectively. The data is as of July 1.

Figure 1


Source : https://hindustanpetroleum.com/documents/pdf/pb/petrol.pdf

Figure 2

Source: https://hindustanpetroleum.com/documents/pdf/pb/petrol.pdf

Figure 1 and Figure 2 make for a very interesting reading. In case of petrol, the dealer price forms 39.8% of the retail price of petrol. The rest are largely taxes, imposed both by the central government and the state government. The taxes added up to 56.4% of the retail selling price of per litre of petrol in Delhi as of July 1.

Along similar lines, the dealer price makes for 46.8% of the retail price of diesel. The rest are largely taxes. Taxes amount to 141.7% of the dealer price for petrol and 107.3% of the dealer price for diesel. So, taxes form a significant portion of the price of petrol and diesel.

The interesting thing is that the central excise duty on petrol and diesel has been raised over the years. Up until early May 2020, the excise duty on petrol was Rs 22.98 per litre. It was raised to Rs 32.98 per litre. When it comes to diesel, the excise duty was raised by Rs 13 per litre, from Rs 18.83 per litre to Rs 31.83 per litre.

From February 2, 2021, the total excise duty on petrol and diesel has stood at Rs 32.90 per litre and Rs 31.80 per litre, respectively. Clearly, a significant proportion the increase in price of petrol and diesel over the last one year has been due to an increase in the excise duty charged by the central government. Hence, it’s not just about global oil prices going up, as Sitharaman would like us to believe.

In fact, in May last year, India had the distinction of being the highest taxer of auto fuels in the world, a whopping 69%.  Since then, the portion of petrol and diesel prices that goes towards taxes, to both the central government and the state governments, has come closer to 50%, although the retail price at the pump has increased. Irrespective of whether it is 69% or 50%, taxes on petrol and diesel in India are high. Has it always been like that, or is it a recent development?

Let’s examine. Figure 3 plots the breakdown of the retail price of petrol over the years in Delhi (We are not obsessed with Delhi. But regular data in the public domain is only available for Delhi, hence, limiting our choice). For the sake of avoiding visual clutter, we have considered only the price in the month of May every year. In fact, petrol prices change frequently, sometimes several times a month due to fluctuations in crude oil prices.

Also, the central excise duty has been hiked more than once during some years. Thus, the chart below does not capture every price point over the last eight years but is still a good representative of the overall trend.

Figure 3

Source: Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell

Now let’s try and understand this in detail. A look at the above chart tells us very clearly, the central government taxes on petrol have gone up over the years, from Rs 10.39 per litre in May 2014 to Rs 32.90 per litre in May 2021. This is a jump of around 217%. The state government value added tax in Delhi has also gone up from Rs 11.90 per litre to Rs 21.81 per litre, a jump of around 83%.

Clearly, taxes on petrol, more at the central government level than the level of state governments, have gone up over the years, and this has pushed up the retail selling price. Take a look at Figure 4 and Figure 5. They plot the proportion of each component in the retail selling price of petrol and diesel in May 2014 and May 2021, respectively.

Figure 4


Source: Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell

Figure 5


Source: Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell

As can be seen from Figure 4 and Figure 5, the price charged to the dealer, which was 66% of the retail selling price of Rs 71.41 per litre in May 2014, has since fallen to around 38% of the retail selling price of Rs 94.49 per litre in May 2021.

The central excise duty as a part of the retail selling price of petrol has jumped from 14.5% to 34.8%. This shows again that the increase in central excise duty has been a major reason for the increase in the price of petrol over the years. The increase in state government taxes have also played their role.

In fact, the dealer price of petrol in May 2014 was Rs 47.12 per litre in comparison to Rs 35.99 per litre in May 2021. Despite this, the retail selling price of petrol in May 2014 was at Rs 71.41 per litre, which was significantly lower than Rs 94.49 per litre in May 2021.

All that is true for petrol is also true for diesel. Figure 6 plots the price breakdown for diesel over the years. As can be clearly seen, the central government tax has gone up from Rs 4.50 per litre in May 2014 to Rs 31.80 per litre in May 2021, a jump of around 607%.

Meanwhile, the state government tax has almost doubled from Rs 6.61 per litre to Rs 12.50 per litre. When it comes to the dealer price for diesel, it was at Rs 44.98 per litre in May 2014 and at Rs 38.49 per litre in May 2021. Despite this, the retail selling price of diesel in May 2014 was at Rs 57.28 per litre, which was significantly lower than Rs 85.38 per litre in May 2021.

Figure 6


Source: Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell

Let’s take a look at some interesting insights that emerge from the data above:

1) The price paid to the dealer was the highest in 2014. Since then, the dealer prices have come down, although not in a linear fashion. This is primarily because the average price of the Indian basket of crude oil in May 2014 stood at $106.85 per barrel. The oil price has seen a largely downward trend since then.

2) There have been some ups and downs when it comes to the dealer price, with the lowest prices for both petrol and diesel recorded in 2020, when they were around half of the price in 2014. This was on account of the price of the Indian basket for crude falling to $30.61 per barrel during May 2020, the lowest in any May since May 2014. Compared to the lows of 2020, dealer prices have risen by over 60% which explains the recent price surge at the pump. As explained earlier, retail prices have also gone up due to a massive increase in the central excise duty on petrol and diesel by Rs 10 per litre and Rs 13 per litre, respectively, in early May 2020.

3) From 2014 to 2021, taxes imposed by the central government have increased by around 217% on petrol and around 607% on diesel. The bulk of these increases were over two periods – from 2014 to 2015, and from 2019 to 2020, either by co-incidence or by design, both these periods were immediately following Narendra Modi’s election victories.

4) The first round of hikes in central excise duty in 2014 was effectively done to capture the gains from the drop in crude oil prices. The average price of the Indian basket of crude oil in May 2014, the month in which Modi was elected the prime minister, had stood at $106.85 per barrel. By January 2016, it was down to $28.08 per barrel. Instead of passing on lower prices to the consumer, the government decided to bolster tax revenues when global oil prices fell. Thus, the end consumer did not see a price decrease from the fall in crude oil prices.

5) After that, from 2015 to 2019, the central government tinkered with the central excise duty with marginal increases or decreases to keep the retail price somewhat bounded. In fact, in October 2017 and October 2018, the excise rate on both petrol and diesel was cut by Rs 2/litre and Rs 1.50/litre, respectively, to counter the increasing oil prices. The 2019 general elections also likely influenced these cuts.

6) The next big hike in central excise was in early May 2020, again around the same time when global oil prices plummeted in the aftermath of the covid pandemic, when the duty on petrol was increased by Rs 10/litre and that on diesel by Rs 13/litre. The price of the Indian basket of crude averaged at $19.9 per barrel in April 2020. It has since risen to more than $70 per barrel. But with a rise in oil prices in 2021, the excise tax has not been reduced. Hence, a higher oil price and a higher excise duty have both contributed to the rise in pump prices of petrol and diesel.

7) The charts above are for Delhi. As explained earlier, each state has a different value added tax or sales tax when it comes to petrol and diesel and a slightly different trend over the last eight years. A detailed analysis of every state is outside the scope of this piece. Nevertheless, the broader point stays the same. A major reason for the increase in the retail selling price of petrol and diesel, and the fact that petrol is selling at more than Rs 100 per litre in many states, is because the central excise duty on petrol and diesel, has been increased majorly over the years. The increase in state government taxes have also had a small role to play.

Officials in both the central government and state governments know that the current petrol and diesel prices are placing a high burden on the end consumer. Both sense discontent brewing on this issue, which can ultimately cost at the ballots. So, both stand to gain, if taxes are cut and prices fall.

Crucially, both have the ability to reduce the retail price, by lowering their portion of the tax. But the way things are currently it seems that the state governments would prefer the central government reducing excise duty, and the central government would prefer the state governments reducing the sales tax or the value added tax.

Given that both sides are standing firm, the consumer has ended up teary-eyed. Also, as we have seen, the central government taxes on petrol and diesel have gone up significantly more than the state taxes. Clearly, the ball is in the central government’s court.

To add more intrigue to the petrol and diesel tax saga, there is one other thing to consider. A part of the central excise duty is shared with the states. This part is referred to as the divisible pool. Much of the increase in central excise since May 2014 has been in the form of surcharge and cess, which are not shared with the states. We have discussed this in detail in an earlier piece.

As of 2021, only Rs 1.40 of Rs 32.90 collected through the central excise duty on per litre of petrol, and only Rs 1.80 of the Rs 31.80 collected through the central excise on per litre of diesel, goes to the divisible pool.

Since the states get 42% of the revenue from the divisible pool, they end up getting 59 paisa per litre which is a mere 1.8% of excise duty collected by the central government on per litre of petrol.  For diesel, the states’ share comes to 76 paisa per litre amounting to 2.4% of the central excise duty per litre of diesel.

Given that the central government has employed such a strategy of actively undercutting states’ revenue from the central excise duty collections on petrol and diesel, it is a tad optimistic to expect the state governments to be enthusiastic about a coordinated approach, where both the central government and the state governments reduce the taxes they collect on sale of petrol and diesel at the same time.

Central government dependence   

In the last couple of years, the central government has become overly dependent on the central excise duty that it earns on the sale of petroleum products (primarily petrol and diesel). In 2014-15, the central government had earned Rs 99,068 crore from this. This jumped to Rs 2.23 lakh crore in 2019-20. It jumped to an all-time high of Rs 3.72 lakh crore in 2020-21.

This compensates for the massive fall in corporate tax or the income tax paid on corporate profit. This had stood at Rs 6.64 lakh crore in 2018-19. In 2020-21, it fell to Rs 4.57 lakh crore, a drop of about a third. This happened because in September 2019, the government reduced the base rate of corporate tax to 22%, from the earlier 30%. Hence, the collections of corporate taxes fell in 2020-21, despite the massive increase in profits of listed corporates during the year.

Over and above this, a badly designed and run Goods and Services Tax has not brought in the amount of taxes it was expected to. As the Fifteenth Finance Commission Report put it: “In terms of government finances, [GST] was expected to improve the overall tax-GDP ratio in the medium term and lead to higher Union [central government] transfers to States.” But that hasn’t happened. This can clearly be seen in Figure 7.

Figure 7


Source: Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

There is no free lunch in economics. The costs of a fall in corporate tax collections and weaker than expected GST collections, are being borne by everyone who buys petrol and diesel in a direct way. In an indirect way, we are paying for it in the form of higher inflation.

This is why the central government cannot reduce excise duty on petrol and diesel. Their finances have become too reliant on the revenue generated by the excise duty on petrol and diesel.

The economy was already on weak footing when Covid hit. The pandemic triggered a massive reduction of economic activity – one that is still on going, which has reduced tax inflow from other sources. The fact that corporate income tax was cut hasn’t helped either.

Additionally, there are more financial demands on the government than the past. The government needs money to finance pandemic-induced expenses like vaccine procurement and improving healthcare delivery. All this could have been easily done if corporate income tax rates hadn’t been cut or GST had been launched and run properly.

In such an environment of decreased income, the government is unable to wean itself off  taxes it earns from the sale of petrol and diesel. In many ways this dilemma is self-imposed since this government’s original sin was its economic mismanagement before the pandemic hit. You construct a house poorly and a storm hits. Now you are drenched due to a leaking roof. Is the storm the only one to blame?

Good policy, bad policy

As a thought experiment, say the central government reduces the central excise duty on petrol and diesel by Rs 10/litre. The immediate knock-on effect will be one of the following three scenarios. One, the government will have to scale back spending to make up for the loss in revenue. Two, the government will increase a different tax (as we said earlier there is no free lunch). Three, the government takes on a higher fiscal deficit (the difference between its annual expenditure and revenue).

Given this, the government has decided to continue with the high central excise duty on petrol and diesel. But is that the best option available?

High prices of petrol and diesel cause misgivings in a large section of the electorate, especially the middle class and the poor. That the Modi government is willing to risk this public sentiment speaks to their confidence in assuaging voters through other avenues. While it’s for the government to figure out its politics on this issue, the economics of the decision though, can be debated.

As always, the economic argument on general topic of taxation of petrol and diesel is nuanced.  An increase in taxes on petrol and diesel (such as the central excise) has two negative economic impacts.

One, this leads to a higher inflation. Most goods need to be transported from where they are produced to where they are consumed, and the primary mode of transport of goods in India are trucks that run on diesel. So, when diesel prices go up, due to higher taxes or otherwise, price of most goods also increase. Inflation has its impact on consumption and that in turn slows down economic growth.

Two, a higher tax on petrol and diesel, is the opposite of a consumer stimulus i.e., it takes money out of people’s pockets. Higher fuel costs mean lesser disposable funds for other purchases, which then depresses demand for goods and services.  

One criticism of India’s economic response to the covid pandemic has been that most of the government actions have been directed towards suppliers and firms, instead of the consumers. Most developed nations have put money directly in the hands of citizens  to revive consumer demand.

Whether India’s fiscal situation allows for a meaningful stimulus is debatable, but surely a negative stimulus (which is what the higher central excise duty on petrol and diesel works out to), cannot help with the economic revival.

Given that the government has been addicted to taxes it earns from petrol and diesel, for more than a few years now, it has gone slow on disinvestment of its stakes in public sector companies as well as the land owned by them. The revenue that could potentially come in from here, could reduce the dependence on taxes coming in from the retail sale of petrol and diesel. But that hasn’t happened.

On the flip side, there is an argument in favour of higher taxes on petrol and diesel, related to environmental impact. Given the negative impact of fossil fuels on carbon emissions and global warming, higher taxes on petrol and diesel could/should in theory dampen their demand. However, in India, this line of reasoning is not very convincing.

Figure 8 shows the annual consumption of demand of petrol and diesel.

Figure 8

Source: Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell

Other than 2020-21 which was affected by lockdowns and curfews, the demand for petrol and diesel has increased each year, despite changing prices. Moreover, diesel makes up for most of the fuel consumption, and it is particularly insensitive to price fluctuations since it is used for commercial transport and so the cost is passed on to the end consumer.

As RS Sharma, former chairman of ONGC said in 2018: “Demand for diesel is typically inelastic as most of the rise in price is borne by the end consumer and can be seen to directly impact inflation.”

Of course, one can’t rule out the possibility that if petrol and diesel prices had not increased due to a higher central excise duty, the demand would have grown even more. One cannot even quantify how the increased prices may incentivise adoption of alternative sources of energy, electric vehicles and such.

The trade-off between economic development and environmental stewardship is the ultimate dharamsankat of our times and taxes on petrol and diesel do lie in that realm. But we doubt that is on Sitharaman’s mind.

PS: This article can become the WhatsApp forward to beat all WhatsApp forwards. So, what are you waiting for? Press the share button.

Of Government Taxes, Bitcoin and the Fiction of Money

Anything can be money if individuals on both sides of the economic transaction are ready to accept it as money. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind: “Money is anything that people are willing to use in order to represent systematically the value of other things for the purpose of exchanging goods and services.” Of course, for something to emerge as a form of money at a societal level, it needs to be widely accepted.

This is the hope that the believers in bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have been peddling for a while to make them look like attractive investments. That one day when enough number of people across the world are tired with the government backed fiat money or paper money as it more popularly known, cryptos will take over.

Of course, you can’t wait for that to happen, and you need to buy bitcoin now. This is one of the ways in which the fear of missing out or FOMO, is created.

So how logical is this argument? How much should we trust it? These are questions well worth asking.

If you look at the history of money, different things have been money at different points of time. In the prisoner-of-war camps of the Second World War, cigarettes emerged as a form of money. They are a great example of the fact that anything can be money if both the sides of the economic transaction are willing to accept so. Also, any system where conventional money is not around, like in a prison, does not continue to stay in a vacuum, and newer forms of money emerge.

Different agriculture commodities including tobacco have been money at different points of time. So have been different metals, everything from iron and bronze to silver and gold.

Hence, different things have been money at different points of time, during the course of human history. What this tells us is that as long as enough people accept something as a form of money, it can continue functioning as money, until it doesn’t.

This means that bitcoin and cryptocurrencies can also become a form of money, over a period of time. Nevertheless, if we leave it at just this, it will be lazy reasoning at best. Also, this is where things get a tad complicated.

Allow me to explain.

Pure paper money or fiat money or money not backed by any commodity (gold, silver, tobacco, iron, copper etc.) has been around for many centuries, nevertheless, it has flourished and been widely accepted only in the last hundred years.

Why is that the case? Why do people happily and readily accept money not backed by any commodity as a form of payment, on most days?

As L Randall Wray writes in Modern Money Theory:

“The typical answer provided in textbooks is that you will accept your national currency because you know others will accept it. In other words, it is accepted because it is accepted. The typical explanation thus relies on an “infinite regress”: John accepts it because he thinks Mary will accept it, and she accepts it because she thinks Walmart will probably take it.”

To put it a tad simplistically, paper money is accepted because paper money is accepted. Are we saying there is a mass delusion at work? Is fiat money fiction?

As Jacob Goldstein writes in Money – The True Story of a Made-Up Thing:

“Money is a made-up thing, a shared fiction. Money is fundamentally, unalterably unalterably social. The social part of money—the “shared” in “shared fiction”—is exactly what makes it money. Otherwise, it’s just a chunk of metal, or a piece of paper, or, in the case of most money today, just a number stored on a bank’s computers.”

Now that maybe true, but that’s not important. What is important is to understand what keeps this shared fiction, this mass delusion, this myth, or whatever else you might want to call it, going. And this is where the government, which issues fiat money and controls the fiat money system, comes in.

For the government, it is important that its citizens continue to believe in the shared fiction of fiat money and continue accepting it as a form of payment. What keeps it going? Before answering this question, it is important to understand that there are three things that make a government a government: a) The right to tax. b) The right to legal violence. c) The right to create money out of thin air.

Two out of three rights are important to the context of bitcoin and cryptocurrencies. The right to tax and the right to create money out of thin air. In the past, I have talked extensively about the fact that any government letting bitcoin and cryptocurrencies operate smoothly is essentially giving away its right to create money out of thin air. And they aren’t exactly waiting to do it. (You can read about this here, here and here).

So, what about the right to tax that any government has?

As Wray writes:

“One of the most important powers claimed by sovereign government is the authority to levy and collect taxes (and other payments made to government, including fees and fines). Tax obligations are levied in the  national money of account: Dollars in the United States, Canada, and Australia; Yen in Japan; Yuan in China; and Pesos in Mexico. Further, the sovereign government also determines what can be delivered to satisfy the tax obligation. In most developed nations, it is the government’s own currency that is accepted in payment of taxes.”

And not just in developed nations, even in lesser developed ones, the governments accept tax payments in the fiat money of the country. This is what keeps the fiat money system going. As Wray writes: “It is because anyone with tax obligations can use currency to eliminate these liabilities that government currency is in demand, and thus can be used in purchases or in payment of private obligations. The government cannot easily force others to use its currency in private payments, or to hoard it in piggybanks, but government can force use of currency to meet the tax obligations that it imposes.”

In simple terms, government taxes can only be paid in fiat money and that creates demand for fiat money or paper money not backed by anything, and keeps the system going.

A counter argument to this might be that while this might be true in countries where taxes form a significant part of the economy, but how does it work in countries where taxes are not a significant part of the economy. Why does the paper money system still hold?

The answer lies in the overall structure. Companies which operate in a country need to pay taxes to the government in fiat money. So, they carry out their business in fiat money; accept and make payments in it. This means their employees, suppliers (their employees), contractors (their employees), distributors (their employees) and so on, everyone gets paid in or must pay in paper money as well.

When people who are a part of the overall business system, which needs to pay different kinds of taxes, get paid in paper money, they go out and spend that paper money. Hence, individuals and institutions who sell to these people, must then accept paper money. So, the cycle keeps going. And there is demand for paper money or fiat money.

Also, it is worth mentioning here that taxes form a significant part of the economy in any developed country in the world. For any monetary revolution to happen, the governments in these countries need to buy the idea of bitcoin and other cryptos, and also actively promote them. El Salvador classifying bitcoin in a legal tender isn’t going to help that cause. Or the fact that Nigerians have taken on to bitcoin like no one else. These are exceptions to the rule.

The larger point here is that the structure of fiat money being needed to pay government taxes, keeps the paper money system going and will continue to keep it going in the time to come. The demand for fiat money will remain. As long as that is the case, bitcoin and other cryptos will be a sideshow at best, keeping the believers interested, at least for a while.  

Also, governments are not going to give up on their right to create money out of thin air. This explains why money central banks are now in the process of planning and/or launching their respective central bank digital currencies.

Of course, people who do not like to pay their fair share of taxes also do not like the idea of being a part of the formal financial system (which is what fiat money system on its whole is at the end of the day). Therefore, people who are a part of the black economy like to convert their profits on which they haven’t paid cash, into other assets like real estate (held benami), gold (easy to store), precious stones (easy to move around) etc. It also explains why people operating in the black illegal economy love bitcoin and other new forms of crypto.

On the flip side, those who run the fiat money system have been abusing it post 2008, when the financial crisis broke out, and post late 2019, when the world was hit by the Covid pandemic.

A lot of fiat money has been created out of thin air, to get economic activity and economic growth going again. This is offered as a major reason by crypto believers, as to why the world should be shunning paper money and buying bitcoin and other cryptos. There is a lot of paper money being created out of thin air, but only 21 million bitcoin are only ever going to be mined.

Hence, the cryptosystem is built around the concept of scarcity whereas with more and more paper money being created, high inflation can become the order of the day and wealth stored in fiat money can lose value at a very fast pace.

The trouble with this argument is that while more bitcoin cannot be created, anyone and everyone, who understands these things, can create a new cryptocurrency. Which is why there are thousands of cryptos going around. As renowned investor Ray Dalio put it in a note on bitcoin: “Competition will, play a role in determining bitcoin and other cryptocurrency prices. In fact, I assume that better ones will come along and displace this one because that is the way the evolution of everything works.” Given this, in the years to come, gold will still be around, about bitcoin, we really don’t know.

So, the point is you don’t know which crypto is going to be around in the days to come. And given that, how do can you ensure that the value of your wealth remains the same, by investing in crypto. Plus, at the risk of sounding cliched, the price volatility of cryptos continues to remain a huge risk.

Something which falls by 50% in a matter of months, cannot even aim to be an asset class, forget being a form of money. The crypto believers now offer the example of stablecoins, which are basically cryptos pegged to paper or fiat money. They have price stability. But their stability comes from being linked to fiat money in the first place. 

As Mark Carney writes in Value(s) — Building a Better World For All: “The highest-profile examples of stablecoins… are best thought of as payments systems rather than money per se since they derive their moneyness from the underlying sovereign currencies.”

To conclude, a small story. Before the crypto crash happened, a gentleman on Twitter very confidently told me that he would rather buy dogecoin, which was launched as a joke on bitcoin, than the US dollar. This is because the dogecoin wasn’t being created out of thin air (which is not true, given that the amount of dogecoin goes up every year, but we will ignore that here) and the dollar was.

His point was that the US dollar was not backed by anything. The US dollar is not backed by anything in the physical sense of the term, but it is backed by the US sovereign, the biggest economy in the world, perhaps the most innovative economy in the world and the biggest empire the world has ever seen. Also, the dollar has an exorbitant privilege. While other countries need to earn it, the US can simply print it. Which explains why the demand of for the dollar continues to remain solid, despite its abuse.

Yes, to that extent, it is not backed by anything and bitcoin and other cryptos are backed by everything.

What I can’t get my head around is that if you can’t trust the government (and there are reasons not to), how can you trust a few random guys launching their own crypto in their own backyard. Something which can be moved up and down by a few tweets. How is this fiction better than the government’s fiction? I really don’t have an answer for that.

On WhatsApp University

Around fifteen days back, a friend of mine from school asked, whether repayment of oil bonds issued during the Congress-UPA regime was responsible for higher petrol and diesel prices. Given that, these bonds had to be repaid, the government had no option, but to charge higher taxes on petrol and diesel.

I said no. He then asked, why are forwards going around on WhatsApp saying so. I wrote a piece explaining why there was no link between repayment of oil bonds and the high prices of petrol and diesel.

This set me thinking and led to the question. Why do people believe things sent on WhatsApp so easily? And here are a few answers that I could come up with.

1) Social media, cyberspace, WhatsApp or whatever else one might want to call it, in a way is an extension of the old village square or simply the park in the housing complex you live in or the little space in front of your building, where you meet your neighbours and friends, and talk and gossip with them. Like was the case earlier, WhatsApp is also a space where people meet, talk, discuss and have views on things they don’t understand, like was and is the case, when they meet physically.

The discussions that happened (or still happen) in a village square kind of space were not recorded anywhere. A version of the discussion existed only in the minds of people who happened to be there. No one remembers their past exactly. We all remember a version of it. And as days went by people forgot about what they had discussed at the village square and moved on.

This is not true about WhatsApp or other forms of social media. If a wrong explanation about a particular issue is offered there is an evidence that it exists. Of course, unlike a village square or a park in the housing complex, WhatsApp is not a physical space. But it is still a space where people meet and interact. So, to that extent things haven’t really changed.

Hence, what was happening earlier is also happening now. Even in the pre-WhatsApp/social media era, people believed in conspiracy theories or offered explanations on topics they had very little idea of and believed in many things without doing some basic research. It’s just that there was no record of such things happening.

But in a digital space, some sort of record of the discussion having happened, remains. Hence, this phenomenon is more obvious now than it was in the past. And to that extent, the fact that most people in general are ignorant about most things, comes out much more clearly now. Of course, their ignorance continues to be directly proportional to their confidence.

2) When I use the word ignorant here, I am not being judgmental, I am only trying to state the obvious. Most of us have extremely limited expertise in extremely limited areas (I suggest that you read another piece titled On Advice that I wrote a while back).

This is primarily because most of us are busy in our own little worlds, trying to make the best of what we have. So, unless something really matters to us, we don’t want to spend time understanding it. This explains why people spend so much time planning holidays but have next to no idea about what the gross domestic product (GDP) of a country really means.

As Thomas Sowell writes in Knowledge and Decisions: 

“To exhort the individual citizen to make investments in knowledge comparable to those of lobbyists and political crusaders (both of whom have much lower costs per unit of personal benefit) is to urge him to behaviour that is irrational, if not physically impossible in a twenty-four hour day.”

Nevertheless, this doesn’t stop us from having views on things that we don’t understand.

This is a weakness, which people with an agenda make use of. Take the case of the high petrol and diesel prices. They are high primarily because corporate tax collections have fallen since September 2019, when the government decided to cut the peak corporate rate from 30% to 22%. In order to make up for this deficit, the central government is charging higher taxes on every litre of petrol and diesel sold, than they did in the past.

This is a politically suicidal explanation when it comes to explaining why petrol prices in many parts of the country have crossed Rs 100 per litre. How can the common man pay more, when the corporates are not paying their fair share of taxes?

Hence, the politicians and many others have come with the story of oil bonds issued by the previous government having to be repaid, as an explanation for high petrol and diesel prices. Of course, a basic Google search can negate this explanation. But once people have read this on WhatsApp their minds are satiated, as an anomaly has been explained away in a way that sounds reasonably true.

Given the fact that people are learning what they are from WhatsApp, it’s even referred to as WhatsApp University in zest. 

3) The question is, why all this possible now, and wasn’t possible earlier. The answer lies in the fact that in the earlier era any large propaganda had to be carried out openly either through newspapers, magazines, TV or radio, for that matter. And given that it came with its own set of limitations.

One, there was a price attached to it. Two, most propaganda came with a face.

So, let’s say petrol prices had crossed Rs 100 per litre in the early 2000s, when smart phones were not around. Anyone writing a piece in a newspaper offering a reason for it, had to do it in his own name. In that situation, it would be very difficult to offer the wrong reasons in the hope of people buying it and the writer getting away with it. Once a piece had been published, others could easily call out the writer’s bluff leaving his or her reputation in tatters.

In today’s era, with a significant proportion of the population owning smartphones and the availability of cheap internet leading to the rise of social media like WhatsApp, such problems no longer exist. Producing fake news is cheap. All it requires is a literate person, who has a mobile phone with an internet connection. This has made things significantly easy for people who want to spread propaganda or run an agenda or just want to have some fun.

Take the case of vaccine deniers. Social media has made their life very easy. They can propagate any nonsense that they want to. This is not to say that this did not happen earlier. It did. It’s just that now it can be done anonymously and probably at a much faster pace. Anyone can author a post and just send it across. And after it has been forwarded a few times, no one has any idea of who has written it. The anonymity that the social media provides is a big reason why fake news is created in the first place.  

4) Also, given that the social media is more or less free, it comes with the capacity of endless repetition. This is what political parties all over the world try to make use of, by feeding content that their supporters like to believe in and creating hatred towards a class or a community or a caste or a religion.

Or simply offering nonsensical reasons for an economic trend like petrol and diesel prices are high because oil bonds need to be repaid. As Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo write in Good Economics for Hard Times: “The problem with echo chambers is not just that we are only exposed to ideas we like; we are also exposed to them again and again and again, endlessly.” So, every time petrol and diesel prices rise, the oil bond angle is whipped out all over again, because there is no cost attached to it. Also, as Sowell writes: “sober analysis seldom has the appeal of ringing rhetoric.”

In fact, the production of fake news is impacting the traditional mainstream media which wants to do good journalism. As Banerjee and Duflo write: 

“Circulation of news on social media is killing the production of reliable news and analysis. Producing fake news is of course very cheap and very rewarding economically since, unconstrained by reality, it is easy to serve to your readership exactly what they want to read. But if you don’t want to make things up, you can also just copy it from elsewhere.”

The larger point here, as Banerjee and Duflo put it, is ‘the economic model that sustained journalism as a location for “public space” (and correct information) is collapsing’. In this scenario, ‘without access to proper facts, it is easier to indulge in nonsense’.

Of course, this is not to say that the mainstream media is all kosher. It is not. But that is another topic for another day.

5) The major issue at play here is, whether you support the current government or not. This has led to a situation where there is a great need among many people to support the government on everything and anything. What George Orwell called groupthink is at work here.

As Christopher Booker writes in Groupthink—A Study in Self Delusion: “A group of people comes to be fixated on some belief or view of the world which seems hugely important to them.” In this case, the view is that the current Narendra Modi government can do no wrong. Hence, if petrol prices are more than Rs 100 per litre in many parts of the country and diesel prices are very high, there must be a genuine reason for it, for which the current government is not responsible.

And this is where the fake story of oil bonds comes in and satiates the minds of such individuals. Social media like WhatsApp just helps achieve this at a fast pace and an almost costless sort of way.

Also, once such people have a reason, they go out of their way to defend it. As Booker writes: “They are convinced that their opinion is so self-evidently right that no sensible person could disagree with it. Most telling of all, this leads them to treat all those who differ from their beliefs with a peculiar kind of contemptuous hostility.”

This explains why many family WhatsApp groups where people used to share good morning and happy birthday messages, have turned into virtual battlefields. But the trouble is, such individuals are not doing their own thinking. They are just believing in whatever they have been told.

As Booker writes: 

“They have not looked seriously at the facts or the evidence. They have simply taken their opinions or beliefs on trust, ready-made, from others. But the very fact that their opinions are not based on any real understanding of why they believe what they do only allows them to believe even more insistently and intolerantly that their views are right.”

They have become victims of groupthink and are likely to continue to be so.

To conclude, as Alan Rusbridger, writes in Breaking News – The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now: “ Bad information [is] everywhere: good information [is] increasingly for smaller elites. It [is] harder for good information to compete on equal terms with bad.”

Bad news is driving out good news. And WhatsApp, as a medium, is at the heart of it. 

Of Suckers, Mutual Funds and the Old Rs 10 Per Unit Trick

There is a sucker born every minute. I was reminded of this earlier in the day today, when late in the afternoon, that time of the day when I snooze after having had my lunch, I got a random call. For some reason, truecaller didn’t pick up the name of the incoming caller, and I took the call.

The call was from a financial planner’s office and a female was talking at the other end. She said a new fund offer (the technical term for a new mutual fund scheme) from a mutual fund was being currently sold, and that I should invest in it. (Why in the world would I invest in a new scheme and not in something tried and tested, is a question that I didn’t bother to ask).

She started with the usual bull about the long-term returns on the mutual fund expected to be very good (Again, I didn’t bother to ask, if she knew the future, why is she making a living making calls. That would have been very mean).

I replied like I usually do when I am not interested, with a polite hmmm, which doesn’t mean anything.

And then she let it slip, very casually: “Sir, units are available for just Rs 10 per unit.” That caught my attention. It had been years since I had heard that.

The oldest mutual fund misseling trick, something I had made my career writing on during the days I used to write on personal finance, ten to fifteen years back.

It took me back to 2004 to 2007, when stocks were rallying big time and new equity mutual fund schemes were launched dime a dozen. I was reminded of one scheme which had a theme of investing in stocks depending on where the head office or the registered office of the company was (some such thing). Those were the days my friend. Anything sold.

Hoardings on bus stands across Mumbai were plastered with the advertisements of new mutual fund schemes, with the Rs 10 price at which you could buy a single unit of the scheme, being prominently displayed. Even the mutual fund was trying to anchor the prospective investors to the price of Rs 10 per unit.  

As Jason Zweig writes in Your Money and Your Brain in the context of anchoring:

“That’s why real estate agents will usually show you the most expensive house on the market first, so the others will seem cheap by comparison and why mutual fund companies nearly always launch new funds at $10.00 per share, enticing new investors with a “cheap” price at the beginning. In the financial world, anchoring is everywhere, and you can’t be fully on guard against it.”

The stupid me had assumed that all these misseling tricks would have been replaced by newer ones by now. But I guess with every bull run a new set of suckers are produced and India is a big country.

Anyway, I told the caller, madam no money. She then made some polite noises about this being a good opportunity and I should invest in it, and that was that.

For people who don’t know about this misselling trick this is how it works.  When a new mutual fund scheme is launched, the price is set at Rs 10 per unit. Investors buy these units. If the mandate of the scheme is to invest in stocks, the mutual fund collects the money and invests it in stocks.

The price of a unit at the launch is set at Rs 10 per unit. This creates a perception of a cheap price in the mind of the investor. The older schemes, given that they have been around for a while, have higher prices.

Let’s say an older scheme which has been around for a while has a price of Rs 100. This higher value is because the scheme was launched many years back and the stocks that the scheme invested in over the years have gone up in value. In the process, the price of the scheme has also gone up.

Now let’s say you invest Rs 1 lakh in the scheme with a price of Rs 100. Assuming no expenses for the sake of simplicity, you will get 1,000 units (Rs 1 lakh divided by Rs 100) of the scheme. Now let’s say instead of investing in the old scheme, you end up investing in the new scheme at Rs 10 per unit.

You end up with 10,000 units (Rs 1 lakh divided by Rs 10) in the new scheme. 10,000 units is ten times 1,000 units. This creates the perception of a cheap price in the mind of the investor, thus misleading the investor into buying the new scheme and not the old scheme.

But does it really matter? Let’s say the new scheme invests in exactly the same set of stocks as the old one. The price of these stocks goes up 10%. Thus, the price of a single unit of the old scheme goes up to Rs 110 and that of a single unit of a new scheme to Rs 11. But the value of the overall investment in both the cases is Rs 1.1 lakh (Rs 1 lakh plus 10% return on Rs 1 lakh).

Let me explain this in even simpler way. Let’s say you have Rs 10,000 cash lying with you. You can have it in five notes of Rs 2,000, 20 notes of Rs 500, 50 notes of Rs 200, 100 notes of Rs 100, 200 notes of Rs 50, 500 notes and/or coins of Rs 20, 1,000 notes and/or coins of Rs 10, 2,000 coins of Rs 5, 5,000 coins of Rs 2, 10,000 coins of Re 1 or in different combinations of these notes and/or coins. 

But at the end of the day, the total amount of money would still be Rs 10,000. It wouldn’t matter what denominations of notes and coins you have that money in. In the same way, the number of units you own in a mutual fund doesn’t really matter. What matters is how well the money you have invested in the mutual fund scheme, is invested further, and at what rate it grows (or falls for that matter).

Which is why, it makes little sense in investing in new schemes. But it makes absolute sense in sticking to old schemes which have had a good track record. Of course, for the mutual funds it makes sense to rely on these subtle misseling tricks because more the money invested with them, more the money they make. 

Anyway, I didn’t think I would need to write this in 2021. But as the old French saying goes (and I don’t know how many times I have ended a piece with this), “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Of course, whether you want to be a sucker  or an informed investor, the choice is clearly yours. As the old Delhi Police ad went, marzi hai aapki aakhir sir hai aapka.

PS: An added bonus the legendary Baba Sehgal’s all time classic, mere paas hai mutual fund

Through the Looking Glass – A Book Review

I have never reviewed a book on my website, so this is a first.

Recently, I read Akhilesh Tilotia’s Through the Looking Glass. Tilotia is a management graduate who has worked both in the private sector and in the government. He was an officer on special duty to the minister of state for civil aviation, Jayant Sinha, for a period of three years, in the first term of the Narendra Modi government. (On a separate note, an apology to the Lewis Carrol fans who might have been conned into clicking on this link).

In this book, Tilotia offers a clear perspective on what it is like to work for the government as an outsider, why the government does not achieve what it normally sets out to do and what can be done about it.

There are two things I immensely liked about the book. First that it is written in simple English, something that many people who write on public policy and economics cannot seem to do, and second that Tilotia tackles the very tricky issue of how politics impacts public policy in India or why the government operates the way it does.

Running for an election, even at the corporator level, is very expensive. It needs a lot of money. To fight a Member of Parliament election, the expenditure allowed is up to Rs 70 lakh. And on paper that’s what the candidates spend. Of course, the real spending is much more. The question is where does this money comes from.

As Tilotia writes:

“The sources of funds are rarely disclosed or discussed in detail. Local, regional, national or even global entities may have an interest in a particular candidate or a party winning or losing. Who the candidate may be beholden to for his election is not obvious at the time of, or post the election.”

This works at both the state level and the national level. State level politics in India tends to be funded by builders in many cases. Hence, there is always a quid pro quo.

There is a very limited culture of making political donations in India. Corporates don’t like the idea of their employees being politically active. And those who are politically active, either need to hide their affiliation or face its consequences.

In this scenario, the politician is perpetually worried and unsure about where the money to fight the next elections is going to come from. As Tilotia writes: “The politician is ever on the look-out for funding commitments over the course of his political journey, whether as challenger, candidate or elected representative.”

Clearly, the incentives here are misaligned, and politicians, like other human beings, respond to incentives and don’t do the things they should be doing. If this problem can be solved, then politicians in India will be in a much better place to focus on the future than the political funding, Tilotia believes.

Due to this, what we call the system fails to deliver, leading to people who can opt out of the system, doing so at the first possible opportunity. This exit is visible in people cocooning themselves in gated communities, making sure that there are diesel generators which ensure the availability of electricity even when there is a power cut, sending their kids to private schools, buying vehicles to move around because the public transport is not up to the mark and so on.

Tilotia calls this the private cost of India’s public failure. And it just doesn’t lead to exits. It is detrimental on two other counts. First, as Tilotia writes: “The cost being high forces the spending of a large part of India’s wallet on basic necessities keeping Indians tethered on a low quality of life.” And second “public failure hits the poor and the vulnerable the hardest.”

The private cost of public failure has clearly been visible in the last 15 months as the Covid pandemic has spread. The out of pocket health expenses for many families who have had to spend money on treating the disease have gone through the roof.

This is primarily because the health system in many parts of the country is broken and/or virtually non-existent. Of course, this has led to a slowdown in economic activity, given that many families have run out of money, some others have ended up in debt and others having seen what has happened around them, are saving for future Covid waves. In this way, the private cost of India’s public failure, has turned into a public one.

Tilotia’s book is also an excellent ready reckoner for those looking to work for the government in mid to senior level positions and hoping to get some taste of how it is likely to be.

On the flip side, the book barely has any masala in it, though I found the callout feature of comparing the state of Jharkhand with Infosys, very interesting. And so was the small bit about the uncanny resemblance about the accounts of the state of Himachal Pradesh and Air India.

In that sense, the book is not something like Sanjaya Baru’s The Accidental Prime Minister.  Personally, I understand why the writer stuck to saying what he wanted to say in a straightforward accessible manner, but some masala would just have made a good book even better. For starters, Tilotia could have told us about how good the food in the Parliament’s canteen is. Are we really missing out on something?