A Humble Request to the Modi Govt: Paper Money Works on Trust, Don’t Destroy It


Money. Money. Money. It’s so funny. It’s a rich man’s world.

Or so sang the Swedish band Abba, many many years back. Rich man or poor man, money essentially functions on trust.

And the trust in Indian money has been destroyed repeatedly since November 2016, when demonetisation was unleashed on the hapless people of this country.

As we explained last week, demonetisation, the need of the Modi government to portray it as a success, and the lack of currency replacement at the pace it should have been replaced, has been responsible for the current currency shortage in large parts of the country.

Let’s look at Table 1, which basically lists the cash withdrawals made at ATMs using debit cards.

Table 1:Source: State Bank of India 

What does Table 1 tell us? It tells us that more cash is withdrawn from ATMs in the second half of the financial year (i.e. the period between October to March) than in the first half.

There are several reasons for it. The big festivals (Dusshera, Diwali, Christmas, Holi etc.) all fall in the second half of the year. So, does the procurement season for agriculture. This automatically means that the country on the whole withdraws more cash from ATMs in the second half of the year than it does in the first.

Now look at Table 1 carefully. The rate of increase in cash withdrawals has slowed down post 2012-2013. One possible reason for this has been the increase in digital transactions, which have gone up, but are still not big enough.

In 2016-2017, cash withdrawals in the second half of the year fell by 22.1%. This happened because in the aftermath of demonetisation there simply wasn’t enough cash going around in the system.

In 2017-2018, cash withdrawals in the second half of the year, are likely to be 12.2% more than the first half. (We use the term likely because the figure for cash withdrawals for March 2018, is an estimate).

This 12.2% growth is on a much larger base, than 2012-13. The cash withdrawals in the first half of 2012-2013 were around half of the cash withdrawals in 2017-2018.

Why have the cash withdrawals in 2017-2018 been much more? A major reason for this lies around the proposed Financial Resolution and Deposit Insurance Bill. At the core of this Bill, lies the suggestion that the deposits can be used to a rescue a bank or financial firm in trouble. But the truth is a little more complicated than that, as I had explained in a December 2017 piece.

The timing of this Bill coming after demonetisation was all wrong and created suspicions in the minds of people. And after that the university of WhatsApp struck, and many forwards started going around. These forwards wrongly suggested that the government had plans of seizing the money in banks.

But as is wont these days, people tend to believe what they read on their phones than logical and nuanced arguments offered elsewhere.

This fear of the government seizing deposits has to some extent led to people withdrawing more cash from ATMs than they otherwise would. In the four talks that we have given since November 2017 (in Greater Noida, Chennai, Mumbai and Hyderabad), the number one question that we got asked was, will the government seize our money?

This column originally appeared on Equitymaster on April 23, 2018.

This fear has been quite palpable, and the Modi government needs to address it.


The paper money that we use these days has no value of its own. It’s not like the money of yore, like gold or silver or tobacco or many other commodities, which had an inherent value of their own.


When it comes to paper money, it has value because the government of the day says so and people believe in it. It works purely on trust between the government and the citizens.

As Yuval Noah Harari writes in Sapiens—A Brief History of Humankind: “Money isn’t a material reality—it’s a psychological construct… Money is accordingly a system of mutual trust, and not just any system of mutual trust: money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.


And it is this trust that makes money go around. As Harari writes: “Because my neighbours believe in them. And my neighbours believe in them because I believe in them. And we all believe in them because our king believes in them and demands them in taxes, and because our priest believes in them and demands them in tithes.”


This trust in money was first destroyed during demonetisation, when the government set a last date (December 30, 2016) beyond which it wouldn’t accept Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes (For the record, the Bundesbank, the German central bank, still converts deutschemark, the German currency before euro became the currency of the Eurozone, into euros).
This trust continues to be destroyed with all the rumours around the FRDI Bill continuing to go around. These rumours need to be addressed, which they haven’t been.


Ultimately, any form of paper money works on trust. And if this trust is destroyed, nothing really is left because ultimately the only difference between a Rs 10 note and a Rs 2,000 note, is the quantity of paper and the ink, used in making these two notes, look different.






Why the Nirav Modi fraud is much more than just a fraud

During the course of the last one week, the hottest news-story in India has been that of a jeweller named Nirav Modi, allegedly defrauding one of India’s largest government owned banks, the Punjab National Bank (PNB).

PNB is India’s second largest government owned bank (with assets of around Rs 7,203 billion ($111.7 billion, assuming $1 = Rs 64.5) as on March 31, 2017). The total amount of the fraud has been estimated to be at $1.8 billion (or around Rs 114 billion). News report suggest that Modi (no relation to the current prime minister of India Narendra Modi) fled the country in early January. His immediate family also left India, during the course of the month.

Nirav Modi is believed to be holed up in a luxury hotel in New York and was last seen in Davos, as a part of a business delegation which got a picture clicked with the prime minister Narendra Modi. Before Nirav Modi, Vijay Mallya, another businessman, who hasn’t repaid loans worth Rs 90 billion ($1.4 billion) due to Indian banks, fled the country.

The latest fraud basically involves PNB guaranteeing loans issued to Nirav Modi by issuing a letter of undertaking (LOU). Every time a loan became due, Nirav Modi got PNB to open another LOU equivalent to the loan amount plus the interest that was due on it. The money from the new LOU was used to pay off the loan and the interest due on the previous LOU. In the process, Modi never repaid the loan.

Currently, it is being suggested that he was helped in the process by two employees of PNB. That such a huge Ponzi scheme could be run without the top or the middle management of the bank knowing about it, is a little difficult to believe.

Thus, Modi managed to operate a Ponzi scheme, with money from the new LOU being used to pay off the previous one. Of course, like all Ponzi schemes, Nirav Modi’s scheme collapsed as well. And before the authorities came after him, he left the country, along with his family.

How does Nirav Modi’s fraud look in light of the other frauds that Indian banks face? In July 2017, the ministry of finance had shared some interesting data in this context.

Between the years 2012-2013 and 2016-2017, the banks in the country had seen a total number of 22,949 frauds, with total losses to banks amounting to Rs 698 billion ($10.8 billion). The average loss on a fraud thus amounted to Rs 30.4 million ($0.47 million). The interesting thing here is that of the 78 banks on the list, PNB faced the highest losses when it came to frauds. Over the five-year period, the bank faced 942 frauds with losses of Rs 90 billion ($1.4 billion). The losses amounted to around 12.9% of the total losses faced by the Indian banks due to frauds.

In fact, the average loss for PNB due to frauds stood at Rs 95.5 million ($1.48 million), which was three times the total average of Rs 30.4 million. Also, more than that, PNB faced more frauds than the State Bank of India, the country’s largest bank, with an asset base which is 4.6 times that of PNB.

What this tells us is that PNB’s control systems were in bad shape and hence, the bank got defrauded significantly more than the other banks did. Having said that, the average fraud at PNB between 2012-2013 and 2016-2017 had cost the bank Rs 95.5 million. In Nirav Modi’s case, the size of the fraud is around Rs 114 billion, which is much bigger than the size of the average fraud PNB has faced in the recent years.

What this tells us is that Nirav Modi’s case is more than a petty bank fraud. It is basically more along the lines of a large bank loan default; which many of India’s crony capitalists specialise in.

India’s government owned banks have been facing a huge pressure of corporate loan defaults over the last few years. As of September 2017, the bad loans ratio of these banks stood at 13.5%. This basically means that of every Rs 100 of loans given by these banks, Rs 13.5 had been defaulted on. A bad loan is a loan which hasn’t been repaid for a period of 90 days or more. The corporate default rate has been even higher.

Largely due to corporate loan defaults, the Indian banks have had to write off loans worth around Rs 2,500 billion ($38.8 billion) for the period of five years ending March 31, 2017. Nirav Modi’s bank fraud will only add to this.

To keep these banks going, the government of India has to regularly keep infusing capital in them. In fact, an estimate made by The Times of India suggests that the government has infused Rs 2,600 billion ($40.3 billion) in the banks that it owns, over the last 11 years. Every rupee that goes into these banks is taken away from more important areas like agriculture, education, health, defence etc.

The reason why many Indian businessmen blatantly default on loans is because they know that given India’s slow judicial system and their closeness to politicians, their chances of getting away with a loan default are very high. Nirav Modi is just a small part of this significant whole.

No wonder, former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Raghuram Rajan, in a November 2014 speech had said that, India was a “country where we have many sick companies but no “sick” promoters”.

A slightly different version of this column appeared on BBC.com on February 20, 2018.

Will a Keynesian Road Building Programme Put India On the Growth Path?


When in trouble, politicians and countries go back to the British economist John Maynard Keynes. Keynes in his magnum opus The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money suggested that the way out of a low-growth or recessionary economic environment was for someone to spend more. In such a situation, citizens and businesses were not willing to spend more, given the state of the economy. So, the only way out of this situation was for the government to spend more on public works and other programmes.

The Indian government has decided to do just that. On October 24, 2017, the finance minister Arun Jaitley, announced a Rs 6.92 trillion ($107 billion assuming one dollar equals Rs 64.7) road building programme for 83,677 km of roads, over the next five years.

Out of this, the Bharatmala Pariyojana is to be implemented with Rs 5.35 trillion being spent on it for building 34,800 kilometre of roads. Economist Mihir Swarup Sharma writes in a column on NDTV: “Bharat Mala” is basically a reworked and updated form of the National Highways Development Programme that is almost two decades old.” The programme has been in the works for a while now. In fact, in an answer to a question raised in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Indian Parliament, the government had said: “The Public Investment Board has cleared the proposal for BHARATMALA Pariyojana Phase-I in its meeting held on 16 June 2017.”

In fact, there is nothing new about this. The Narendra Modi government, in the past, has shown a tendency to portray old schemes as new ones.

Let’s leave that aside and concentrate on how this programme will be implemented. The government said that substantial delegation of powers has been provided to the National Highways Authority of India and other authorities and government departments.

Over and above the Bharatmala Pariyojana, roads of length 48,877 km will be built under other current with an outlay of Rs .57 lakhs crores.

This road building should help a significant portion of the one million youth entering the Indian workforce every month, find jobs. A large portion of this workforce is unskilled and semi-skilled and road building projects will help cater to this completive advantage of access to cheap labour, that India has. Just the Bharatmala Pariyojana is expected to create 14.2 crores mandays of jobs, according to the government.

The government plans to raise finance for these road projects through a variety of measures. For the Bharatmala Pariyojana, Rs 2.09 trillion will be raised as debt from the financial market. Rs 1.06 trillion will be mobilised as private investments through the public private partnership. The remaining Rs 2.2 trillion will be provided out of accruals to the central road fund, toll collections of National Highways Authority, etc.

For the other road projects Rs 0.97 trillion will come from the central road fund and Rs 0.59 million will come from the annual budget expenditures of the government in the years to come.

Hence, on paper this sounds like a fool proof idea. The government will build roads. It will employ many people in the process and pay them. This income when spent will spur the businesses as well as the economy and India will grow at a fast-economic growth rate. QED.

Only, if things were as simple as that.

The government plans to build a total of 83,677 km of roads over five years. This implies building 16,735.4 km of roads on an average in each of the five years. Is that possible? Let’s look at the record for the last three years.

In 2014-2015, the government built 4,410 km of roads in total. In 2015-2016, this jumped to 6,061 km in total. In 2016-2017 (up to December 2016), the government had built 4,699 km of roads. This data is from the annual report of the ministry of road transport and highways. A report in The Hindustan Times suggests that in 2016-2017, the government built 8,200 km of roads. If the government has to achieve the road building target that it has set for itself over the next five years, it has to more than double the speed at which built roads in the last financial year. And then maintain it for five years. This, seems like a tall order.

Over and above this, acquiring land to build roads will not be an easy task. Nitin Gadkari, the minister of Road Transport and Highways told the Press Trust of India in an interview that even though land acquisition is “tough and complicated“, “it is not a problem for the ministry as farmers and others were making a beeline to offer their land for the highway projects after enhanced compensation.”

But this is not going to anywhere as easy as the minister made it sound. Take the case of the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor which was announced almost a decade back. While work has started on it, most of the corridor is still plagued by land acquisition issues.

To conclude, building roads to drive economic growth is a very old idea. In fact, it was put in action even before Keynes wrote about it in an indirect sort of way in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.

While Keynes was expounding on his theory, it was al­ready being practiced by Adolf Hitler, who had deployed 100,000 workers for the construction of the Autobahn, a nationally coor­dinated motorway system in Germany which was supposed to have no speed limits.

Hitler first came to power in 1933. By 1936, the German economy was chugging along nicely, having recovered from a devastating slump and unemployment. Italy and Japan had also followed a similar strategy.

How well will things work out in the Indian context? It will all depend on how well the government is able to execute the building of roads. The good bit is that Nitin Gadkari, one of the better performing ministers in the Modi government, is in charge. The bad part is that good execution is not something India is known for.

The column originally appeared on BBC.com on October 28, 2017.

What ails the Indian economy?

indian flag

A blueprint on economic revival is to be submitted to the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, or so reports the Business Standard newspaper. This comes on the back of the slowest economic growth since Modi took over as the prime minister in May 2014.

For the period between April and June 2017, the Indian gross domestic product (GDP, a reflection of the size of the economy) grew by just 5.7 per cent. Between January and March 2016, the GDP had grown by 9.1 per cent. The last time the economy grew by less than 6 per cent (at 5.3 per cent) was between January and March 2014, when Manmohan Singh was the prime minister.

Also, the GDP growth of 5.7 per cent was achieved with the government spending more than what it usually does. The non-government part of the GDP, which forms roughly around 90 per cent of the economy, grew by a meagre 4.3 per cent.

The industry as a whole grew by 1.6 per cent, with manufacturing and construction growing by 1.2 per cent and 2 per cent, respectively.

We live in a world where any rate of economic growth greater than 2 per cent is considered to be good. But what is true for the West, isn’t really necessarily true for India. India needs to be growing rates of GDP growth faster than 7 per cent, if it has to continue to pull its millions out of poverty.

As Vijay Joshi, an economist at the University of Oxford, writes in India’s Long Road—The Search for Prosperity: “The ‘power of compound interest’ over long periods is such that even a small change in the growth rate of per capita income makes a big difference to eventual income per head.”

And how do things look for India? Where would it end by 2040 at different rates of economic growth? As Joshi writes: “At a growth rate of 3 per cent a year, income per head would double, and reach about the same level as China’s per capita income today. At a growth rate of 6 per cent a year, income per head would quadruple to a level around that enjoyed by Chile, Malaysia and Poland today. If income per head grew at 9 per cent a year, it would increase nearly eight-fold, and India would have a per capita income comparable to an average high-income country of today.”

This explains why high economic growth is so important for India. Another factor that needs to be kept in mind is that 12 million Indian youth are entering the workforce every year. This is India’s so called demographic dividend. But with construction and manufacturing growing at the rates they are, where will the jobs for the demographic dividend come from? The services sector growth continues to remain robust, but the support from industry is necessary, especially construction, given that most of these youth are low on jobs skills.

A major reason for the same comes from the lack of a good basic education. As per the Annual Status of Education Report 2016: “The proportion of children in Std III who are able to read at least Std I level text has gone up slightly, from 40.2% in 2014 to 42.5% in 2016.” Further, “in 2014, for the country 25.4% of Std III children could do a 2-digit subtraction. This number has risen slightly to 27.7% in 2016.” This has how the situation has been since 2010, after the introduction of the Right to Education.

Given this, a large portion of the youth entering the workforce are low on skills. Hence, they need low-skilled jobs which the construction and the real estate industry can provide. Both these sectors are going through a tough phase.

What hasn’t helped are India’s convoluted labour laws and the lack of ease of doing business. This has ensured that even industries like apparel manufacturing, which have the potential to create many jobs, continue to operate on a small scale. A recent report titled Ease of Doing Business—An Enterprise Survey of Indian States, published by the Niti Aayog, a government body, found that 85 per cent of the firms operating in the apparel sector employed less than eight workers. At a broader level, 85 per cent of Indian manufacturing firms are small and employ less than 50 employees.

The government feels that it has done enough to reform the labour laws, and it is the industry’s responsibility now to respond and set up labour-intensive enterprises. But that as the data suggests isn’t really happening.

Over and above this, agriculture which contributes around 15 per cent of the GDP, continues to employ half of the workforce. Exports during the first five months of this financial year (April to August 2017) are lower than where they were in 2013 and 2014.
All these factors have ensured that India has huge underemployment. Numbers from 2015-2016, suggest that only three out of five individuals who are looking for a job all through the year, are able to find one. The situation is worse in rural India, where only one in two individuals looking for a job all through the year are able to find one.

The negative effects of demonetisation have made things worse on the jobs front with many firms operating in the informal sector, which were the real job creators, having to shutdown. The botched-up launch of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which was supposed to be a good and simple tax and it isn’t, hasn’t helped things either.

The other big worry for India is the mess its largely government owned public sector banks continue to operate in. 17 out of the 21 public sector banks have a bad loans rate of 10 per cent or more ( as of March 31, 2017). This basically means that out of every Rs 100 of loans given by these banks, loans of Rs 10 or more have already been defaulted on. Bad loans are essentially loans in which the repayment from a borrower has been due for 90 days or more. One bank (the Indian Overseas Bank) has a bad loans rate of 25 per cent.

These bad loans have primarily accumulated on lending to industry (read crony capitalists) where the overall bad loans rate, stands at 22.3 per cent.

The government has pumped in close to Rs 1500 billion as capital since 2009 to keep these banks going. With the banks continuing to accumulate bad loans and the Basel III norms coming into force from 2019 onward, these banks are going to need billions of rupees as capital in the years to come, to continue to be in operation.

The government clearly does not have this money and they remain reluctant to privatise or even shutdown some of these banks. Also, a major impact of the bad loans has been that the public sector banks are now reluctant to lend to industry.

To conclude, there are way too many structural issues with the Indian economy as of now. If a long-term growth rate of 7-8 per cent per year has to be sustained, these issues need to be tackled on a war footing.

The column originally appeared on the BBC on Sep 26, 2017.

Viewpoint: Why Modi’s currency gamble was ‘epic failure’

narendra modi
The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi addressing the Nation on the occasion of 71st Independence Day from the ramparts of Red Fort, in Delhi on August 15, 2017.

The devil, as they say, is in the detail.

On Page 195 of the Reserve Bank of India’s latest annual report released on August 30, 2017, lies the answer to the question, a large part of India has been asking for close to ten months.

Has demonetisation been a success or a failure? As per the RBI data released in the annual report, it is safe to say that demonetisation has been a failure of epic proportions.

On November 8, last year, the Narendra Modi government decided to demonetise Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, which were worth Rs 15.44 trillion notes in total. The idea was to attack both fake currency as well as black money or unaccounted wealth. The prime minister said so in his address to the nation announcing the demonetisation decision.
This was backed up by the government press release accompanying the decision. Black money is essentially money that has been earned but on which taxes haven’t been paid.

From the midnight between November 8 and November 9, 2016, the Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, were not worth anything. The people holding these notes had to deposit them in their bank accounts. This money could later be withdrawn, though there were restrictions on the amount of the money that could be withdrawn immediately.

The hope was that black money held in the form of cash wouldn’t be deposited into banks, given that people holding this money wouldn’t want to be identified. In the process, a humongous amount of black money would be destroyed.

The RBI Annual Report on Page 195 says that demonetised notes worth Rs 15.28 trillion were deposited into banks, up to June 30, 2017. This basically means that almost 99 per cent of the demonetised money was deposited into banks. Hence, almost all the black money held in the form of cash, also made it back into the banks and wasn’t really destroyed, as had been hoped.

The conventional explanation for this is that most people who had black money found other people, who did not have black money, to deposit money into the banking system.

As far as detecting fake currency is concerned, nothing much seems to have happened on this front. Data from the RBI annual report tells us that the number of fake Rs 500 (old series) and Rs 1,000 notes detected between April 2016 to March 2017 was 5,73,891. The total number of demonetised notes stood at 24.02 billion. This basically means that as a proportion the fake notes identified between April 2016 to March 2017 stands close to 0 per cent of the demonetised notes.

The total number of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 fake notes detected between April 2015 and March 2016, stood at 4,04,794. And this happened without any demonetisation. Hence, demonetisation has failed on its two major objectives.

The funny thing is that there were no estimates of how much of black money was held in the form of cash. The government admitted to the same as well, after having made the decision to demonetise. The finance minister Arun Jaitley said so in a written reply to a question in the Lok Sabha (one of the Houses of the Indian Parliament) on December 16, 2016, where he said: “There is no official estimation of the amount of black money either before or after the Government’s decision of 8th November 2016 declaring that bank notes of denominations of the existing series of the value of five hundred rupees and one thousand rupees shall cease to be legal tender with effect from 9th November 2016.”

The search and seize operations carried out by the Income Tax Department (popularly referred to as Income Tax raids) suggested that people tend to hold around 5 per cent of their black money in the form of cash.

But even this lack of data in public, did not stop economists from coming up with their own set of numbers, trying to defend this decision of the Modi government. Leading this charge was Columbia University economist Jagdish Bhagwati (along with two co-authors), who in a column in the Mint newspaper on December 27, 2016,  wrote: “Suppose we accept the estimate that one-third of the approximately Rs15 trillion in demonetised notes is black money.” These economists did not bother to explain, what logic did they base their assumption on.

Demonetisation has badly hit India’s large cash economy. As per the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (the labour wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which currently governs the country): “As many as 2.5 lakh units in unorganised sector were closed and the real estate sector was badly affected where a large number of workers got unemployed.”

Agriculture trade, a sector which largely operates on cash, has been badly impacted as well, with farmers not getting adequate compensation primarily for vegetables and pulses, they had grown. This has led to farmers protests across the country, which has in turn led to several state governments waiving off farm loans.

Over and above this, demonetisation caused a huge cash shortage with people having to spend many days standing in ATM lines trying to withdraw their own money. Many people even died in the process.

As far as the Modi government is concerned they are unlikely to admit that demonetisation was a big mistake and will continue to put a positive spin around it, as they have from November 2016. Things will not change on that front.

To conclude, no relatively healthy economy in the past, has carried out demonetistaion. As the latest Economic Survey of the government of India points out: “India’s demonetisation is unprecedented in international economic history, in that it combined secrecy and suddenness amidst normal economic and political conditions. All other sudden demonetisations have occurred in the context of hyperinflation, wars, political upheavals, or other extreme circumstances.”

And the real costs of this unprecedented event are only just starting to come out.

A slightly shorter version of this column appeared on BBC.com.