Bitcoin is a bubble, a way to speculate and not the future of money

The actual writing of this piece took around six hours, though I have been thinking on this issue for at least the past nine years since I started writing my Easy Money book. I have been told that the backlash from the bitcoins believers will be huge. All feedback is welcome, as long as you don’t abuse. And if you choose to abuse at least read the piece first. You will be able to abuse better.

 Bulbulon ko abhi intezar karne do. (Let the bubbles wait for now).
— Gulzar, Vishal Bhardwaj, Usha Uthup and Rekha Bhardwaj in 7 Khoon Maaf.

Let’s start this one with a small story.

Salvador Dalí was a famous painter who lived through much of the twentieth century. He was a pioneering figure in what is known as Surrealism.

Other than being a fantastic painter, Dalí was also a sharp businessman. The story goes that once Dalí had treated some friends at an expensive New York restaurant. When the time to pay for the meal came, Dalí instead of paying in dollars, like anyone else would have, decided to carry out a small experiment.

On the back of the cheque Dalí had signed to pay for the expensive meal, he drew a sketch in his inimitable style. He signed it and handed it to the waiter. The waiter passed it on to the manager.

The manager realised the value of what Dalí had given him and decided to frame the cheque and hang it on the wall, making sure that anyone who came to the restaurant saw it.

Of course, this meant that Dalí’s cheque wasn’t encashed and he didn’t really have to pay in dollars for the expensive meal he had taken his friends out for.

This trick worked for Dalí. He was delighted and he used the same trick at different New York restaurants to pay for meals. The managers of all these different restaurants framed the cheque and hung it on one of the walls in their restaurants, so that everybody who came to the restaurant could see and realise that the famous painter Salvador Dalí had dined at the same place as they were.

This interesting story is recounted by Mauro F Guillén in his book 2030—How Today’s Biggest Trends Will Collide and Reshape the Future of Everything: “

Now what was happening here? If I can state this in simple English, Salvador Dalí, had turned his art into money. As Guillén writes:

“The money offered to pay for the meals was never deposited, as the cheques were transformed into artworks and took on a separate life. For Dalí, this maneuver was a stroke of genius. He could print his own money (his drawings had value), and people were willing to accept it as a form of payment.”

The trouble was Dalí went overboard and paid for one too many meals using this trick. In the end, the restaurant managers wised up and Dalí probably had to start paying real dollars for the expensive meals he took his friends out for.

What’s the moral of this story? Anyone can create his or her own money as long as others are willing to accept it, though one thing needs to be kept in mind. As Guillén writes: “As with national currencies, any money can be felled by the laws of supply and demand, as an excessive supply depreciates its worth and reduces people’s willingness to use it.”

What Dalí ended up doing in a very small way, governments have done over and over again, over the centuries. They have gone overboard with printing money and spending it, created high inflation, as too much has chased the same set of goods and services, and in the process destroyed the prevailing form of money. (If you are interested in details, I would suggest that you read my Easy Money trilogy).

Dear Reader, you must be wondering by now why am I recounting this story in a piece which is headlined to be about the bitcoin bubble. Have some patience, everything will become clear very soon. Read on.

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Bitcoin is a digital currency that does not use banks or any third party as a medium or at least that is how it is conventionally defined. It is governed by a string of cryptographical codes, which are believed to be military grade and very tough to break.

The price of a bitcoin has rallied big-time over the last few months. It rose from a little over $10,000 per bitcoin in early September to more than $40,000 per bitcoin in early January. As of January 8, 2021, the price of bitcoin touched an all-time high of $40,599.

One of the core selling points of bitcoins as well as its raison d’être is that unlike paper money they cannot be created out of thin air. The number of bitcoins is finite and the code behind it is so written that they cannot go beyond a limit of 21 million tokens.

Interestingly, mining, or the generation of a bitcoin, happens when a computer solves a complex algorithm. Anyone can try to mine bitcoins, but with a finite number being generated at regular intervals and with an increase in the number of people joining the mining race, it has become increasingly difficult to solve the algorithm and generate bitcoins.

As of January 11, 2021, the number of bitcoins in circulation stood at 18.6 million units. The rate at which bitcoins are being created has slowed down over the years and the last fraction of the 21 millionth bitcoin will be created only in 2140.

The larger point here is that unlike the paper money system (or to put it slightly more technically the fiat money system) which can be manipulated by central banks and the governments, the bitcoin system can’t.

Hence, there is an overall limit to the number of bitcoins that can be created. This is the main logic offered in support of buying and owning bitcoins. Unlike central banks or governments or Salvador Dalí (in case you are still wondering why I started with that story), money in the form of bitcoin cannot be created out of thin air and beyond a certain limit.

In fact, this core idea/message at the heart of the bitcoin was built into the first fifty coins, now known as the genesis block, created by Satoshi Nakamoto, the mysterious inventor behind it. The beauty of bitcoin is that even not knowing who really Nakamoto is, doesn’t impact the way the system he created, works.

The genesis block contained a headline from The Times newspaper published in London dated January 3, 2009. The headline was: “Chancellor on brink of second bail-out for banks”. The headline and the date are permanently embedded into the bitcoin data.

As Nakamoto wrote on a message board in February 2009: “The root problem with conventional currency is all the trust that’s required to make it work… The central bank must be trusted not to debase the currency, but the history of fiat currencies is full of breaches of that trust. Banks must be trusted to hold our money and transfer it electronically, but they lend it out in waves of credit bubbles with barely a fraction in reserve. We have to trust them with our privacy, trust them not to let identity thieves drain our accounts.”

Bitcoin was supposed to be this grand idea meant to save the world from the way the central banks and governments manipulate the paper money system. As William Quinn and John D Turner write in Boom and Bust—A Global History of Financial Bubbles: “To its advocates, bitcoin was the money of the future: it could not be devalued through inflation by a central bank, you could spend it on anything without having to worry about government interference or taxes, and it cut out the middleman, namely commercial banks.”

The question is, in these times of easy money, has bitcoin reached anywhere near its original goal or is it just another way of pure speculation.

Let’s look at this pointwise.

1) Here is a chart of the price of bitcoin in dollars since July 18, 2010 (I couldn’t find the price of bitcoin before this in the public domain, hence, the random date).


Source: https://in.investing.com/crypto/bitcoin/historical-data

It doesn’t take rocket science to understand that if you have been a long-term investor in bitcoin, you would have made shitloads of money by now. But the fundamental question is, is bitcoin money or even the future of money, as it is made out to be, by those who are in love with it, or is it simply another form of speculation.

One of the key characteristics of money is that it is a store of value. The recent rally in bitcoin has led to many bitcoin believers telling us that bitcoin is a store of value. This comes from a very shaky understanding of what the term store of value actually means.

A store of value basically means that something has a stable value over time. As Jacob Goldstein writes in Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing: “If $100 buys your family a week’s worth of groceries today, there is a very good chance it will buy approximately a week’s worth of groceries a year from now. The dollar is a good store of value (it tends to lose about 2 percent of its value every year).”

Let’s look at what has happened to bitcoin over the last few months. It rose from a little over $10,000 per bitcoin in early September 2020 to more than $40,000 per bitcoin in early January 2021.

As of January 8, 2021, the price of bitcoin touched an all-time high of $40,599. As I write this early in the morning on January 14, 2021, the price of a bitcoin is around $37,329. The price has fallen by 8% in a little over five days’ time. So, where is the stability of value? And this isn’t a one-off event. Bitcoin has moved rapidly up and down on many occasions.

But this is a very simple point. Here’s the more complicated point . The price of a bitcoin as of September 5, 2020, was $ 10,092. On January 8, 2021, it reached $40,599, a rise of 302% in a matter of a little over four months.

If bitcoin really was money, using which we could make and receive payments and borrow and lend, the recent rally would have created a havoc in the economy.

What does the rise in the value of any form of money really mean? It means that the price of everything that money can buy is falling. And in this case prices would have fallen big-time. As Goldstein puts it: “This rise in the value of bitcoin would have caused a deflation far worse than the one in the Great Depression.” Deflation is the scenario of falling prices and is deemed to be dangerous because people keep postponing their consumption in the hope of getting a lower price. This hurts businesses and the overall economy.

Now take a look at the following chart which plots the price of a bitcoin in dollars between December 2017 and December 2018.

Source: https://in.investing.com/crypto/bitcoin/historical-data

The price of a bitcoin as on December 16, 2017, was $19,345. A year later on December 15, 2018, it had fallen by 83% to around $3,229. What would this have meant if bitcoin really was money? It would mean that the price of money has fallen and hence, the price of other things has gone up. In this case, it would mean very high inflation, even hyperinflation.

In its current form, bitcoin is no store of value. If it was to be used as money, the world would hyperventilate between deflation and inflation.

2) Another key characteristic of money is that it is a medium of exchange or to put it in simple English, it can be used to buy things (like Dalí bought meals at expensive restaurants).

According to financial services company Fundera 2,352 American businesses, accept bitcoins as a payment. The United States is the mecca of bitcoin believers. As per the US Census Bureau there were around 7.7 million companies in the US with at least one paid employee. This statistic doesn’t inspire much confidence. Barely anyone takes payments in bitcoins even in the United States.

Of course, it takes time for any new form of money to be adopted, but for something that has been around for 12 years, the rate of adoption seems quite poor.

Personally, I don’t know of any business that accepts bitcoin as a payment in India. Maybe, there is some coffee shop in Bengaluru that does. Dear reader, if you know of it, do let me know.

3) The bitcoin believers like to compare it with gold. The reason gold has acted as a hedge against the proclivity of the governments and central banks to create paper money out of thin air, is that it cannot be created out of thin air. While alchemists, which included Isaac Newton as well, have tried this over the centuries, no one has been successful in developing a chemical formula that converts other metals into gold. Bitcoin works because of a similar dynamic, the believers tell us. There is a limit to the number of bitcoins that can be created and as time passes by it becomes more and more difficult to mine bitcoins. That’s how the code behind bitcoin is written.

But the thing is that the code behind bitcoin is freely available. Anyone can take it and tweak it and come up with a new kind of money. Over the years this has happened and many of these new forms of money have ended up as shitcoins.

As Quinn and Turner write:

“In August 2016, one bitcoin was trading at $555; in the next 16 months its price rose by almost 3,400 per cent to a peak of $19,783.3 This was accompanied by a promotion boom, as a mix of cryptocurrency enthusiasts and opportunistic charlatans issued their own virtual currencies in the form of initial coin offerings, or ICOs. These coins had, on the face of it, no intrinsic value – to entitle their holders to future cash flows would have violated laws against issuing unregistered securities – but they nevertheless attracted $6.2 billion of money from investors in 2017 and a further $7.9 billion in 2018.”

A lot of this money never came back to the investors. There is no way to make sure that this won’t happen in the future.

Also, at a broader level, a free market in money is a bad idea. The United States went through this situation sometime in the nineteenth century (Something I discuss in detail in the first volume of Easy Money). It was very easy to get a banking license and banks could print their own money.

As Goldstein writes: “Not all banks were shady. Not even most banks were shady. But the notes printed by the shady banks looked as legit as the notes printed by the honest banks. And there were a lot of notes—at one point, the Chicago Tribune reported that the country had 8,370 different kinds of paper money in circulation.” Imagine the confusion this would have created.

It was also easy for counterfeiters to manufacture their own paper money. In this scenario, a guide called Leonori’s New York Bank Note List, Counterfeit Detector, and Wholesale Prices Current was published once a month. An issue of this guide, dated 18 November 1854, shows that 1,276 such banks were in operation in various states and 825 different kinds of forged notes were in circulation. The financial system was in a total anarchy.

While it is easy to make a case for a non-government decentralised money system, what may lie in store isn’t something we may want in the first place. The sad part is very little thinking has happened on this front. Saying, let the best money win is a very insensitive way to go about it.

4) The bitcoin code which limits their number to 21 million units is written in C++. As Sean Williams writes on Fool.com: “Last I checked, code can always be erased and rewritten. While it’s unlikely that a community consensus would be reached to increase the circulating supply of bitcoin, the possibility of this happening isn’t zero.” Anyway this possibility isn’t going to arise until 2140, when the last fraction of the bitcoin will be mined, and by then you and I, won’t be around. So, it doesn’t really matter.


5)
Let’s talk a little more about paper money. Why do others accept it as money? Because they know that the government bank/central bank deems it to be money and hence, still others will accept it as money as well.

As L Randall Wray writes in Modern Money Theory – A Primer on Macroeconomics for Sovereign Monetary Systems:
The typical answer provided in textbooks is that you will accept your national currency because you know that 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 take it.”

While this sounds correct there is a slightly more nuanced answer to the question.

There are three main powers that any government has: 1) The right to “legal” violence. 2) The right to tax. 3) The right to create money out of thin air by printing it.

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.”

What does this mean?

As Wray puts it:

“Ultimately, 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… It is the tax liability (or other obligatory payments) that stands behind the curtain.”

Hence, the government creates demand for paper/fiat money by accepting taxes in it. This has ensured that the paper money system has kept going despite its weaknesses.

What this also means is that for bitcoin to become popular and move beyond the nerds, it needs a use case as solid as paying taxes in what government deems to be money, is.

It is worth remembering here what Wray writes: “For the past 4,000 years (“at least”, as Keynes put it), our monetary system has been a “state money system”. To simplify, that is one in which the state chooses the money of account, imposes obligations (taxes, tribute, tithes, fines, and fees), denominated in that money unit, and issues a currency accepted in payment of those obligations.”

This is not to say that governments haven’t destroyed money systems in the past. The history of money is littered with examples of kings, queens, rulers, dictators, general secretaries and politicians, representing governments in different eras, having destroyed different money systems at different points of time. But the government has always comeback and controlled the money system the way it has wanted to.

And unless governments and central banks start taking a liking to bitcoin, there is no way its usage is going to spread to a level where it can hope to challenge the prevailing paper money system. It is worth remembering that if governments start taking interest in bitcoin, it in a way beats the entire purpose behind its creation.

Also, every government will want to protect its right to create money out of thin air. Right now bitcoin is too small in the overall scheme of things for governments to be bothered about it and hence, they have largely humoured it (not in India though).

The market capitalisation of bitcoins (number of coins multiplied by the dollar price) as of January 8, peaked at around $759 billion. The global GDP in 2019 was around $88 trillion. So the price of bitcoin even at its peak was lower than 1% of the global GDP.

Hence, the bitcoin story is like that of a rich Indian father basically allowing his son to play around, until he thinks that the son now needs to grow up.

6) There is another point that needs to be made here regarding the paper money system. This is something I realised while writing the third volume of Easy Money  and it makes me sceptical of anyone who wants to write off the paper money system in a hurry. (Before you jump on me for being a blanket supporter of the paper money system, I am not, but then that doesn’t mean I don’t see logical arguments when they are offered).

Many years back, in one of my first freelancing assignments, I happened to interview the financial historian Russel Napier. He explained to me the link between paper money and democracy. As he told me on that occasion:

“The history of the paper currency system, or the fiat currency system is really the history of democracy … Within the metal currency, there was very limited ability for elected governments to manipulate that currency. And I know this is why people with savings and people with money like the gold standard. They like it because it reduces the ability of politicians to play around with the quantity of money. But we have to remember that most people don’t have savings. They don’t have capital. And that’s why we got the paper currency in the first place. It was to allow the democracies. Democracy will always turn towards paper currency and unless you see the destruction of democracy in the developed world, and I do not see that, we will stay with paper currencies and not return to metallic currencies or metallic-based currencies.”

Back then bitcoin wasn’t really on the radar. The reason people with savings liked gold back then, is why many of them like bitcoins now.

The twentieth century saw the rise of both paper money and democracy. Pure paper money started coming into being after the First World War. The reason for this is very straightforward. In a democracy whenever there is a crisis, the politicians and the technocrats advising them need to be seen to be doing something.

As an ex-RBI Governor once told me, do nothing cannot be a strategy. And this need to be seen to be doing something, can most easily be fulfilled by manipulating the paper money system that prevails in a democracy. It gives central bankers the option of printing money and driving down interest rates in the hope that people will borrow and spend more and businesses will borrow and expand.

Of course, this has its own problems (as I keep highlighting in my pieces over and over again). But then, the prevailing system does really allow politicians to show that they are trying. Any other system would take this option away from politicians. Hence, the paper money system is not going to be replaced in a hurry. No government is going to let go of this privilege.

7) This is a slightly technical point, but I think it needs to be made. As I have mentioned through this piece, over the years it has become more and more difficult to mine bitcoins. Now bitcoin farms with giant racks of mining computers, are needed to mine bitcoins. The days when bitcoins could be mined using the processing power of a PC are long gone.

The bitcoin farms, as they are known as, need a lot of electricity. Hence, mining operations have moved to countries where electricity is cheap. They have moved to countries like Iceland, Mongolia and primarily, China.

This has created another problem. As Goldstein writes: “By the beginning of 2020, Chinese miners had grown so large that they controlled most of the processing power on the bitcoin network. And the way the code for bitcoin was written gave them control over the system.”

While, bitcoin might be a decentralised democratic system running on code, but it’s people who ultimately control the mining of bitcoins and hence, can direct its future.

So, will the future of bitcoin be driven by China? And if that turns out to be the case, what does this do to its chances of spreading as actual money, used in the selling and buying of things? There are no easy answers to these questions.

8) One of the key points of bitcoins was that it was a non-government decentralised money system which promised freedom from the middlemen. But that hasn’t really happened. As Quinn and Turner write: “[Bitcoin] had promised freedom from middlemen, but trading it without a third party was cumbersome unless the user was expert in cybersecurity.”

If you are using a broker to trade bitcoin it beats the entire idea of freedom from middlemen. Also, the moment you convert your money into fiat money and the money comes into your bank account, the entire idea of remaining unknown and the government not knowing what you are doing goes for a toss. Hence, you may have your reasons to buy bitcoins, but basically you are speculating.

9) You might want to ask why you haven’t heard all this in the mainstream media. The reason for that lies in the fact that the incentives of the media are misaligned these days. Most investment related news is presented as a money-making opportunity. Hence, in this case the bitcoin believers have gotten more space and screen time in the media.

Many of the bitcoin believers are like the original investors in a Ponzi scheme. They have an incentive to talk up bitcoin, get more investors into it, drive up its price and make more money in the process. (In fact, these are precisely the kind of stock market investors that you get to see on TV and read in the media most of the time, but that is another topic for another day).

Also, given the extremely short attention spans that people have these days, the written word doesn’t find much of an audience. As Quinn and Turner put it: “More fundamentally, the move away from the written word to television financial news, docusoaps and social media may corrode the ability of investors to think clearly and understand the complexities of the financial system.”

You cannot understand economic history and the complexities of the financial system by watching TV or watching stuff over the internet or even listening to extremely detailed podcasts (podcasts can just give you a flavour of things and a feeling that you are actually learning a lot). The only way to understand complex issues is to read, read and read more.

In an era of short attention spans, bitcoins are just the right asset to speculate on. Their price goes up or falls even before you can say Virat Kohli. (This is another reason to support my writing).

10) We live in an era of easy money. Central banks have printed trillions of dollars during the course of 2020 to drive down interest rates in the hope of encouraging people to borrow and spend and businesses to borrow and expand. Interest rates are in negative territory in some of the European nations.

In this scenario of very low interest rates, investors are desperate to earn returns. Hence, a lot of money has been invested into stock markets all over the world, driving them to levels not justified by earnings that companies are expected to earn in the years to come.

Some money has also found its way into bitcoins. As The Economist puts it: “The current surge seems to have been spurred by interest from the financial establishment, most of which had long scorned it.” In simple English, hedge funds are buying bitcoins. Given that bitcoins are thinly traded, this has driven up prices by astonishing levels. Hence, like stock markets, bitcoin is also in bubble territory.

And as we have seen over the past few decades, hedge fund money can be quite mercurial. They can drive down prices faster than they drove them up.

To conclude, the fact that the price of bitcoin is so volatile tells us that most people investing in it aren’t really bothered about the long-term story of bitcoin as money, the bitcoin believers try selling all the time. If they did believe in this story they would have bought bitcoin and held on to it. But as the crash of 2018 showed that is clearly not the case.

As Saifedean Ammous writes in The Bitcoin Standard, the bible of the bitcoin believers:

“Buying a Bitcoin token today can be considered an investment in the fast growth of the network and currency as a store of value, because it is still very small and able to grow many multiples of its size and value very quickly. Should Bitcoin’s share of the global money supply and international settlement transactions become a majority share of the global market, the level of demand for it will become far more predictable and stable, leading to a stabilization in the value of the currency.”

(Ha ha, this is to show that I also read stuff I don’t really agree with).

I am not clairvoyant. This may happen. This may not happen. My reading of economic history tells me it won’t. But then I might turn out to be wrong. What do they say about history not repeating itself but rhyming? But what if it doesn’t rhyme as well?

There are no guarantees when it comes to economics. The trouble is that while you are waiting for all this to happen, the price of a bitcoin is at the level of a very very very very expensive large cap stock and its volatility is that of a small cap penny stock.

So, if you do invest in bitcoin, do understand that you are taking a punt, you are speculating, you are hoping that the price goes up and does not fall. Also, don’t go looking for fundamental reasons for investing in it.

Given that investing in bitcoin is equal to taking a punt, please don’t bet your life on it. As the old cliché goes, don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

PS: This doesn’t mean I don’t believe in digital money. I do. But I also believe that it will be controlled by large corporations and the governments.

Indian Banks Will Have Rs 17-18 Lakh Crore Bad Loans By September

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) publishes the Financial Stability Report (FSR) twice a year, in June and in December. This year the report wasn’t published in December but only yesterday (January 11, 2021).

Media reports suggest that the report was delayed because the government wanted to consult the RBI on the stance of the report. For a government so obsessed with controlling the narrative this doesn’t sound surprising at all.

Let’s take a look at the important points that the FSR makes on the bad loans of banks and what does that really mean. Bad loans are largely loans which haven’t been repaid for a period of 90 days or more.

1) The bad loans of banks are expected to touch 13.5% of the total advances in a baseline scenario. Under a severe stress scenario they are expected to touch 14.8%. These are big numbers given that the total bad loans as of September 2020 stood at 7.5% of the total advances. Hence, the RBI is talking of a scenario where bad loans are expected to more or less double from where they are currently.

2) Under the severe stress scenario, the bad loans of public sector banks and private banks are expected to touch 17.6% and 8.8%, respectively. This means that public sector banks are in major trouble again.

3) In the past, the RBI has done a very bad job of predicting the bad loans rate under the baseline scenario, when the bad loans of the banking system were going up.

Source: Financial Stability Reports of the RBI.
*The actual forecast of the baseline scenario was between 4-4.1%

If we look at the above chart, between March 2014 and March 2018, the actual bad loans rate turned out to be much higher than the one predicted by the RBI under the baseline scenario. This was an era when the bad loans of the banking system were going up year on year and the RBI constantly underestimated them.

4) How has the actual bad loans rate turned out in comparison to the bad loans under severe stress scenario predicted by the RBI?

Source: Financial Stability Reports of the RBI.
*The actual forecast of the baseline scenario was between 4-4.1%

In four out of the five cases between March 31, 2014 and March 31, 2018, the actual bad loans rate turned out higher than the one predicted by the RBI under a severe stress scenario. As Arvind Subramanian, the former chief economic advisor to the ministry of finance, writes in Of Counsel:

“In March 2015, the RBI was forecasting that even under a “severe stress” scenario— where to put it colourfully, all hell breaks loose, with growth collapsing and interest rates shooting up—NPAs [bad loans] would at most reach about Rs 4.5 lakh crore.”

By March 2018, the total NPAs of banks had stood at Rs 10.36 lakh crore.

One possible reason can be offered in the RBI’s defence. Let’s assume that the central bank in March 2015 had some inkling of the bad loans of banks ending up at around Rs 10 lakh crore. Would it have made sense for it, as the country’s banking regulator, to put out such a huge number? Putting out numbers like that could have spooked the banking system in the country. It could even have possibly led to bank runs, something that the RBI wouldn’t want.

In this scenario, it perhaps made sense for the regulator to gradually up the bad loans rate prediction as the situation worsened, than predict it in just one go. Of course, I have no insider information on this and am offering this logic just to give the country’s banking regulator the benefit of doubt.

5) So, if the past is anything to go by, the actual bad loans of banks when they are going up, turn out to be much more than that forecast by the RBI even under a severe stress scenario. Hence, it is safe to say that by September 2021, the bad loans of banks will be close to 15% of advances, a little more than actually estimated under a severe stress scenario.

This will be double from 7.5% as of September 2020. Let’s try and quantify this number for the simple reason that a 15% figure doesn’t tell us about the gravity of the problem. The total advances of Indian banks as of March 2020 had stood at around Rs 109.2 lakh crore.

If this grows by 10% over a period of 18 months up to September 2021, the total advances of Indian banks will stand at around Rs 120 lakh crore. If bad loans amount to 15% of this we are looking at bad loans of Rs 18 lakh crore. The total bad loans as of March 2020 stood at around Rs 9 lakh crore, so, the chances are that bad loans will double even in absolute terms. If the total advances grow by 5% to around Rs 114.7 lakh crore, then we are looking at bad loans of around Rs 17.2 lakh crore.

6) The question is if this is the level of pain that lies up ahead for the banking system, why hasn’t it started to show as yet in the balance sheet of banks. As of March 2021, the RBI expects the bad loans of banks to touch 12.5% under a baseline scenario and 14.2% under a severe stress scenario. But this stress is yet to show up in the banking system.

This is primarily because the bad loans of banks are currently frozen as of August 31, 2020. The Supreme Court, in an interim order dated September 3, 2020, had directed the banks that loan accounts which hadn’t been declared as a bad loan as of August 31, shall not be declared as one, until further orders.

As the FSR points out:

“In view of the regulatory forbearances such as the moratorium, the standstill on asset classification and restructuring allowed in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the data on fresh loan impairments reported by banks may not be reflective of the true underlying state of banks’ portfolios.”

The Supreme Court clearly needs to hurry up on this and not keep this hanging.

7) Delayed recognition of bad loans is a problem that the country has been dealing with over the last decade. The bad loans which banks accumulated due to the frenzied lending between 2004 and 2011, were not recognised as bad loans quickly enough and the recognition started only in mid 2015, when the RBI launched an asset quality review.

This led to a slowdown in lending in particular by public sector banks and negatively impacted the economy. Hence, it is important that the problem be handled quickly this time around to limit the negative impact on the economy.

8) Public sector banks are again at the heart of the problem. Under the severe stress scenario their bad loans are expected to touch 17.6% of their advances. The sooner these bad loans are recognised as bad loans, accompanied with an adequate recapitalisation of these banks and adequate loan recovery efforts, the better it will be for an Indian economy.

9) At an individual level, it makes sense to have accounts in three to four banks to diversify savings, so that even if there is trouble at one bank, a bulk of the savings remain accessible. Of course, at the risk of repetition, please stay away from banks with a bad loans rate of 10% or more.

To conclude, from the looks of it, the process of kicking the bad loans can down the road seems to have started. There is already a lot of talk about the definition of bad loans being changed and loans which have been in default for 120 days or more, being categorised as bad loans, against the current 90 days.

And nothing works better in the Indian system like a bad idea whose time has come. This is bad idea whose time has come.

 

All You Wanted to Know About India’s Economic Contraction This Year

The National Statistical Office (NSO) published the first advance estimates of the gross domestic product (GDP) for 2020-21, the current financial year, yesterday.

The NSO expects the Indian GDP to contract by 7.7% to Rs 134.4 lakh crore during the year. The GDP is a measure of the economic size of a country and thus, GDP growth/contraction is a measure of economic growth/contraction. Data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) shows that this is the worst performance of the Indian economy since 1951-52.

Let’s take a look at this pointwise.

1) This is the fifth time the Indian economy will contract during the course of a financial year. The last time the Indian economy contracted was in 1979-80, when it contracted by 5.2%, due to the second oil shock.

Before 1979-80, the Indian economy had contracted on three occasions during the course of a year. This was in 1957-58, 1966-67 and 1972-73, with the economy contracting by 0.4%, 0.1% and 0.6%, respectively.


Source: Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

Hence, in the years after independence, the Indian economy has seen two serious economic contractions, the current financial year is the second one.

2) One way the GDP of any country is estimated is by summing the private consumption expenditure, investment, government expenditure and net exports (exports minus imports), during the year.

The government expenditure has always been a small part of the Indian economy. It was at 5.6% of the GDP in 1950-51. It has gradually been going up since then. In 2020-21, it formed 13% of the GDP, the highest it has ever been. This tells you the times that we are living in. The government expenditure as a part of the GDP has been going up since 2013-14, when it was at 10% of the GDP. Hence, the government has had to spend more and more money to keep the growth going over the last five to six years.

Given this, while the spread of the covid-pandemic has created a massive economic mess this year, the Indian economy has been slowing down for a while now. This is the broader message that we shouldn’t miss out on, in all the song and dance around the economic recovery.

3) If we leave out the government expenditure from the overall GDP figure, what we are left with is the non-government GDP. This is expected to contract by 9.5% during this year, the worst since 1951-52. What this also tells us is that the non-government part of the economy which will form 87% of the economy in 2020-21, is in a bigger mess than the overall economy.

4) This isn’t surprising given that investment in the economy is expected to contract by 14.5% during the year. What does this mean? It first means that for all the positivity that  the corporates like to maintain in the public domain about the so-called India growth story, they clearly aren’t betting much money on it.

As the new twist to the old proverb goes, the proof is in the pudding. During the period October to December, the new investment projects announced, by value, fell by 88%, and the investment projects completed, by value, fell by 72%. This is a period when corporates were talking up the economic recovery big time.

5) It is investments into the economy that create jobs. When the investments are contracting there is clearly a problem on that front. It also leads to the question of what happens to India’s so-called demographic dividend. One fallout of a lack of jobs has been the falling labour force participation rate, especially among women, which in December 2020 stood at just 9.28%. This is a trend that has been prevalent for five years now and Covid has only accelerated it. More and more women are opting out of the workforce.

6) Getting back to corporates. The profitability of Indian corporates went through the roof between July and September. This when the broader economy was contracting. How did this happen? The corporates managed to push up profits by driving down costs, in particular employee cost and raw material cost. While this is corporates acting rationally, it hurts the overall economy.

This means that incomes of those working for corporates and those dealing with them (their suppliers/contractors etc.) have come down. Net net this will hurt the overall economy and will eventually hurt the corporates as well, because there is only so much cost-cutting you can do. Ultimately, only higher sales can drive higher profits and for that the incomes of people need to grow.

7) It is hardly surprising that investments are expected to contract during the year, given that private consumption expenditure, the biggest part of the Indian economy, is expected to contract by 9.5% during the year. Ultimately, corporate investment leads to production of goods and services that people buy and consume, and things on the whole don’t look too good on this front.

In fact, even in 2019-20, the last financial year, the private consumption expenditure had grown by just 5.3%, the worst in close to a decade. This again tells us that while covid has been terrible for the economy, things weren’t exactly hunky dory before that.

8) The final entry into the GDP number is net exports. Typically, this tends to be negative in the Indian case, simply because our imports are much more than our exports. But this year that is not the case with net exports being in positive territory, the first time in four decades. This has added to the overall GDP. But is this a good thing? The exports this year are expected to contract by 8.3% to Rs 25.8 lakh crore. In comparison, the imports are expected to contract much more by 20.5% to Rs 24.8 lakh crore.

What does this tell us? It tells us that the demand for Indian goods in foreign countries has fallen because of covid. At the same time, the contraction of Indian imports shows a massive collapse of demand in India. Non-oil, non-gold, non-silver goods imports, are a very good indicator of consumer demand and these are down 25.3% between April and November this year, though the situation has been improving month on month.

9) There is another way of measuring the GDP and that is by looking at the value added by various sectors. If we were to consider this, agriculture growth during the year remains sturdy at 3.4%. While, this is good news on the whole, it doesn’t do anything to change the fact that close to 43-44% of the workforce is employed in agriculture and contributes just 15% of the economic output.

Come what may, people need to move away from agriculture into professions which add more value to the economy. This hasn’t been happening at the pace it should.

10) The non-agriculture part of the economy, which will form around 85% of the economy this year, is expected to contract by 9.4%, This clearly isn’t good news.

11) Industry is expected to contract by 9.6%. Within industry, manufacturing and construction are expected to contract by 9.4% and 12.6%, respectively. The construction sector is a big creator of jobs, especially jobs which can get people to move away from agriculture. With the sector contracting, the importance of agriculture in the economy has gone up.

12) The services sector is expected to contract by 8.8%. Within this, trade, hotels, transport, storage and communication (all lumped into one, don’t ask me why) is expected to contract by 21.4%. This isn’t surprising given that people continue to avoid hotels and travelling, thanks to the fear of the covid pandemic.

13) The GDP during 2020-21 is expected to be at Rs 134.4 lakh crore.  The GDP during 2019-20 was at Rs 145.6 lakh crore. Given this, when it comes to the GDP growth during 2021-22, the next financial year, the low base effect will be at play. Even if the GDP in 2021-22 touches the GDP in 2019-20, we will see a growth of 8.4%. Nevertheless, even with that sort of growth we will be just getting back to where we were two years ago. In that sense, the covid pandemic along with the slow growth seen before that, has put India’s economy back by at least two years.

To conclude, the economy will do much better in the second half of this financial year than the first half. In fact, it already is.

The question is whether this is because of pent up demand or covid induced buying or is a genuine economic recovery already taking place. I guess, there is a little bit of everything happening.

But how strong the economic recovery is, will only become clear in the months to come, as the covid induced buying, and buying because of pent up demand, start to dry out.

Watch this space!

 

On Advice

I don’t know why I am writing this. I guess, I need to get it out of my system. So, at the end of it if you are still wondering why, apologies in advance.

In the last eight to nine months, there has been a massive increase in the number of people writing to me, seeking advice on different issues.

Recently, someone wrote to me, wanting to know, if doing a five-year integrated MBA from one of the IIMs, was a good option, if one did not get admission into an IIT that is. My answer was, I don’t know.

He persisted and asked, if spending Rs 30 lakh on an integrated five-year MBA from one of the IIMs, was really worth it? My answer was, I don’t know.

He persisted and asked, if getting a degree in business or economics made a difference if one wanted to become an entrepreneur. My answer again was, I don’t know.

He then thanked me for my suggestions.

Another gentleman had a degree in science and wanted to know if there was any course/internship/job that would help him learn finance. My answer was, I don’t know.

Over the months, I have got many such questions where people seek career advice from me. And honestly, I don’t know why they do this. I am not a career counsellor. My corporate career lasted all of five weeks.

And before that I more or less made a mess out of my education. My formal education is a BSc in Maths and Computer Science followed by an MBA in Information Systems. I lost interest in the MBA around half way through it, but didn’t have the guts to drop out, thinking of all the money that had been spent and the problems it would create for my parents.

So, I persisted and ended up getting a degree which has been largely useless since then. The only thing that I learnt in my MBA and which I still put to good use is how to calculate the internal rate of return on any investment. But one didn’t have to do an MBA just to learn that.

I have spent nearly two decades in trying to make up for this mistake, by making myself learn economics, personal finance and some part of the Income Tax Act, bit by bit, in an extremely unstructured way. (This also explains why I find it very difficult to answer questions like, which are the books I should read to learn economics).

All this unstructured learning could also happen because I lead a slightly unconventional life. I am single. I stay in a studio apartment. And I don’t spend much money on travelling.

Hence, I have been able to dedicate a lot of time to unstructured learning. This is not a formula that would work for most people, especially those who have EMIs to pay, and given that I don’t recommend it to anyone.

Also, the larger point here is, that I have a good understanding of things over a fairly limited area. I understand some fifth standard Maths and some part of India’s economy. I can tell you how to manage your money, on most days, but there are a few limitations to that as well. And that’s about it.

Beyond this, my knowledge is generally useless. I know a few things about Hindi cinema and its music, especially from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s. Like this morning I was discussing with someone, on how a famous Hindi film song of the mid 1970s composed by Laxmikant-Pyarelal, has a tune similar to a famous Sabri Brothers qawwali. But then I really don’t know who copied whom.

I can also give you a lot of gyan on modern crime fiction, especially Scandinavian crime fiction and in particular, the genre of the police procedural. Like I can tell you why the last book in Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series just didn’t make much sense and it was written by a writer who was extremely bored by then. But then what use will this be to you?

Of course, I have written five books in the last decade and these books have sold reasonably well and put me in the public domain. I have appeared on TV (I don’t know why but this is equated to being successful in India. The day I first appeared on TV, one of my aunts just went over the moon. This was after nearly eight years of writing almost every day, first for a newspaper and then freelancing for websites, newspapers and magazines). I have lectured all across India. I have spoken across India’s best business schools.

So, there has been some limited success in my life. But then that does not mean that I have answers to all the questions. Let me give you an example.

A few years back a cousin who wanted to a PhD wanted me to tell her if she should do major in marketing or in economics. Now given that I have no experience of doing a PhD from an American university, I was in no position to answer the question. And I told her so. But she persisted and so I answered.

I told her that she should do a PhD in economics, given that if she had to spend five years on studying something, it rather be something important. Coming from me that should have been hardly surprising. The logic being, what was the point in studying marketing for five years and learning how to sell more things to more people.

Now this is not to say that marketing is just that, it clearly isn’t. It is a very important subject, which can make a lot of difference across various facets of life and it’s not just about selling more things to more people. But then that is the way I was thinking at that point of time, in trying to answer a question, I wasn’t qualified enough to do.

Thankfully, she did not listen to me, and chose to do a PhD in marketing.

The point being it is very important in life who you seek advice from. Wrong advice can prove to be very costly.

There is another dimension to advice, it is a very individual thing.

Around a decade back, an uncle of mine was after me to buy a house in Delhi. Delhi home prices in 2010 were at their peak and anything half decent in the city would have cost Rs 1.5-2 crore. I clearly did not have the capacity to take on a home loan that could have funded a home at that price and I told him so.

He persisted. If not Delhi, look at something in Greater Noida. I didn’t, for the simple reason, I had no plans of living in and around Delhi at that point of time (nor do I currently).

Now ten years later was this a good decision? Yes, if you consider the fact that so many projects in Greater Noida were never completed. The builders took the money and disappeared. Also, I continue living in Mumbai.

And no, if you consider the fact, that I still don’t own a home to live in.

At the end of the day, what advice one seeks and one takes, is a very individual thing.

Anyway, that was the rant. Now let me give you some advice on advice.

1)  If you have to ask, ask pointed questions. Don’t ask stuff like, how do I learn finance? First figure out what does the word finance mean to you.

2) I think, the first point needs to be stated again. Ask pointed questions. Don’t ask stuff like, should I invest in bitcoins? The answer from my end will always be, I don’t know. Simply because I don’t know how you perceive risk, what kind of money you are in a position to lose and what is your current understanding of bitcoins (or any other investment avenue for that matter).

This is not to say that if you were to ask a question like this, people won’t give you an answer. Many people will. But come what may that would be wrong advice.

3) Before asking a question, please think, whether the person you are putting the question to, has the capability to answer that question. Just because he has seen some success in some aspect of life, doesn’t mean he has the answers to everything. Like a few months back, someone asked me, which laptop should I buy. I mean, thoda to dimag lagao yaar.

4) Don’t ask philosophical questions related to your career. You might get an answer but that answer will be wrong. This reminds me of a question someone asked me around a year back. How do I make decisions in my 20s that I don’t regret in my 40s? I almost fell laughing from the chair I was sitting on. Almost all decisions I made in my 20s, I regret in my 40s, expect for the fact that I started reading seriously only in my mid 20s and which is why there is a lot to catch up on.

5) Just because you and I have been brought up writing exams where every question has an answer, doesn’t mean life operates like that. Every question doesn’t have an answer, even though most people will happily give you one. If you are the kind who believes in the fact that every question has an answer then please seek out LinkedIn influencers, you are made for each other.

6) Oh, and finally, please Google. You will be surprised!

Bonus point: Don’t expect me to make a decision for you, simply because you are asking a question.

The Rs 20 Lakh Crore Bad Loans Problem of Indian Banks Hasn’t Gone Away

On December 29, 2020, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) released the Report on Trend and Progress of Banking in India.

Like every year, the report is a treasure trove of information, especially for people like me who like to closely track the aggregate banking scene in India.

Sadly, most of this important information barely made it to the mainstream media, this, despite the fact that the health of the country’s banking sector impacts almost all of us. (This is one reason why I need your continued support).

Among other things, the report discusses the issue of the bad loans of banks in great detail. Bad loans are largely loans which haven’t been repaid for a period of 90 days or more. They are also referred to as non-performing assets or NPAs.

Let’s take a look at this issue pointwise.

1) The total bad loans of banks (public sector banks, private banks, foreign banks and small finance banks) as of March 31, 2020 stood at around Rs 8,99,802 crore. This is the lowest since 2017-18. The following chart plots the bad loans of banks over the years.

Source: Reserve Bank of India.

Despite this fall, the Indian banking sector on a whole continues to remain in a mess. We shall look at the reasons in this piece.

2) The total amount of loans written off by banks has steadily been going up over the years. In 2019-20 it peaked at Rs 2,37,876 crore. The following chart lists out the loans written off by banks over the years.

Source: Reserve Bank of India.

Basically, loans which have been bad loans for four years (that is, for one year as a ‘substandard asset’ and for three years as a ‘doubtful asset’) can be dropped from the balance sheet of banks by way of a write-off. In that sense, a write-off is an accounting practise.

Of course, before doing this, a 100 per cent provision needs to be made for a bad loan which is being written-off. This means a bank needs to set aside enough money over four years in order to meet the losses on account of a bad loan.

Also, this does not mean that a bank has to wait for four years before it can write-off a loan. If it feels that a particular loan is unrecoverable, it can be written off before four years.

So, does that mean that once a loan is written off it’s gone forever and is no longer recoverable? In India things work a little differently. In fact, almost all the bad loans written off are technical write-offs.

The RBI defines technical write-offs as bad loans which have been written off at the head office level of the bank, but remain as bad loans on the books of branches and, hence, recovery efforts continue at the branch level. If a bad loan which was technically written off is partly or fully recovered, the amount is declared as the other income of the bank. Having said that, the rate of recovery of loans written-off over the years, has been abysmal at best.

Now getting back to the issue at hand. The bad loans of banks as of March 31, 2020, have come down to some extent due to write-offs. As the Report on Trend and Progress of Banking in India points out: “The reduction in NPAs during the year was largely driven by write-offs.” Interestingly, the RBI offers the same reason for bad loans coming down in the years before 2019-20 as well.

Let’s try examining the above logic in a little more detail. The bad loans or NPAs of banks as of April 1, 2019, stood at Rs 9,15,355 crore. During the course of 2019-20, banks wrote off loans worth Rs 2,37,876 crore. Nevertheless, as of March 31, 2020, the bad loans of banks had come down to Rs 8,99,803 crore.

If we subtract the loans written off during 2019-20 from the overall bad loans of banks as of April 1, 2019, the bad loans as of March 31, 2020, should have stood at Rs 6,77,479 crore (Rs 9,15,355 crore minus Rs 2,37,876 crore). But as we see they are actually at Rs 8,99,802 crore.

What has happened here? What accounts for the significant difference? Banks have accumulated fresh bad loans during the course of the year. The net fresh bad loans (fresh bad loans accumulated during the year minus reduction in bad loans) during 2019-20 stood at Rs 2,22,323 crore. Once this added to Rs 6,77,479 crore, we get Rs 8,99,802 crore, or the bad loans as of March 31, 2020.

The point to be noted here is that banks on the whole have accumulated fresh bad loans of more than Rs 2 lakh crore during 2019-20. This is a reason to worry. It tells us that the bad loans problem of Indian banks hasn’t really gone anywhere. It is alive and kicking, unlike what many bankers, economists, India equity strategists and journalists, have been trying to tell us. Many borrowers continue to default on their loans.

The net fresh bad loans accumulated in 2018-19 had stood at Rs 1,34,738 crore. This tells us that there was a huge jump in the accumulation of fresh bad loans in 2019-20. The current financial year will see a further accumulation of bad loans due to the covid-pandemic.

3) In a February 2017 interview to Dinesh Unnikrishnan of Firstpost, Dr KC Chakrabarty, a former deputy governor of the RBI and a veteran public sector banker, had put the bad loans number of Indian banks at Rs 20 lakh crore.

As he had said:

“I’ll put the figure around Rs 20 lakh crore…One should include all troubled loans including reported bad loans, restructured assets, written off loans and bad loans that are not yet recognised.”

The trouble was not many people took Chakrabarty seriously at that point of time. Nevertheless, the Rs 20 lakh crore number doesn’t seem far-fetched at all. As mentioned earlier, the bad loans number as of March 31, 2020, stood at Rs 8,99,802 crore.

Between 2014-15 and 2019-20, the total bad loans written off by banks was Rs 8,77,856 crore. We are taking this particular time period simply because in mid 2015 the RBI launched an asset quality review and forced banks to recognise bad loans as bad loans. Up until then the banks had been using various tricks to kick the bad loans can down the road.

If we add, the bad loans as of March 2020 to bad loans written off between 2014-15 and 2019-20, we get Rs 17,77,658 crore. What does this number represent? It represents the total bad loans, the Indian banks have managed to accumulate between 2014-15 and 2019-20. And it is very close to the Rs 20 lakh crore number suggested by Chakrabarty.

Of course, this calculation does not take into account the loans which are bad loans but have not yet been recognised as bad loans. Former RBI Governor Urjit Patel in his book Overdraft—Saving the Indian Saver writes:

“In February 2020, ‘living dead’ borrowers in the commercial real-estate sector – under a familiar guise (‘a ghost from the past’, if you will) viz., ad hoc ‘restructuring’ – have been given a lifeline. It is estimated that over one-third of loans to builders are under moratorium.”

Professor Ananth Narayan of the S. P. Jain Institute of Management and Research, writing in the Mint in June 2020, said: “Banking NPA recognition remains incomplete… For a while now, RBI has allowed banks to postpone NPA recognition for some of the over Rs 8 lakh crore of MSME, MUDRA and commercial real estate loans.” The situation could only have worsened post the spread of the covid-pandemic.

If we take this into account, the bad loans of Indian banks over the last five years have amounted to much more than Rs 20 lakh crore. In that sense, Dr Chakrabarty has had the last laugh. As Chakrabarty had said in the Firstpost interview: “Unless this portion is recognised first, there will be no solution to the bad loan problem.”

Or to put it simply, how do you solve a problem without recognising that it exists.