Should You Buy a Home This Festival Season?

In the last decade, afternoon naps have become a very important part of my life. In fact, it is safe to say that I live so that I can have the pleasure of taking afternoon naps and reading crime fiction. (Imagine all the economics I have to break my head on, for such simple pleasures in life).

After taking an afternoon nap yesterday I was trying to get my brain going again by drinking a cup of overboiled masala tea. At around 4.54 pm, a mail titled 10 Reasons to Buy a Home This Festive Season, hit my mailbox. The headline ensured that my brain was back to functioning at full strength.

In the economic environment that currently prevails, only someone closely associated with the real estate business could come up with a headline/title like this. Not surprisingly, this piece was written by someone working at a senior position for a real estate consultant, whose well-being depends on the sector doing well. His incentive is clearly misaligned with that of a prospective buyer looking to buy a home to live in.

Also, the festival season sales pick up is something that the real estate sector has been trying to sell for more than half a decade now. This tells you that bad ideas rarely go out of circulation.

This headline motivated me to write this piece titled should you buy a home this festival season, which you are currently reading.
Let’s take a look at this pointwise.

1) One of the reasons offered to buy a home in the mail I got, is the oldest cliché in the game, which goes like this: “Living in a rented house is a recurring financial drain without returns on investment”. This reasoning is bought by one too many people even though it is the rubbish of the highest order.

Let me explain through an example. I stay in central Mumbai, in what is euphemistically termed as a studio apartment. My monthly rental outgo is Rs 23,000. What sort of a home loan will I get if I am willing to pay the same amount as an EMI? At an interest rate of 7% per year on a home loan to be repaid over twenty years, I will get a home loan of around Rs 29.67 lakh. On this loan, the EMI works out to Rs 23,003.

Let’s say to this home loan I add my own savings of around Rs 10.33 lakh and I have a total of Rs 40 lakh, with which I can buy a flat. I will not get anything at this price around where I live unless I am willing to move into a shanty.

To get an apartment at this price I will have to move 35-40 km or even more from where I stay. And that will beat the entire idea because I like staying where I do and renting is the only way I can afford it. I am not looking to build an asset here. I just want to stay bang in the middle of the town.

2) Also, the rental yield typically tends to be 1.5-2% (annual rent divided by the market price of the house) or slightly higher. Even the cheapest home loan is 7%. Plus there are other costs associated with owning a home. When you a buy a house a stamp duty has to be paid to the state government. A property tax needs to be paid every year. Then there is the maintenance charge that needs to be paid to the housing society. On top of this there is the general risk of owning property in India.

3) Further, if I go and live 35-40km from where I am, I will end up paying for it in terms of the time I will have to spend to get anywhere. And time ultimately is money. So, yes one might end up building an asset but with almost no control over one’s time.

Hence, equating living in a rented house to a financial drain is top class rubbish which only someone working in the real estate industry can come up with and propagate  over and over again. This argument starts to make sense only when the rental yields and home loan interest rates are in a similar sort of territory. For that to happen, rental yields need to double and home loan interest rates need to halve (both will then be around 4%).

4) Another reason offered in the mail, to buy a house is: “Buying now equals buying at the lowest possible price.” Lowest possible price, vis a vis what? Entry level flats in the biggest cities, where the bulk of the demand is, cost at least Rs 40-50 lakh. Let’s consider a flat which costs Rs 40 lakh. A 20% downpayment works out to Rs 8 lakh. This means a home loan of Rs 32 lakh. The EMI on this works out to Rs 24,809 (7% interest, 20 years repayment period).

A bank typically assumes that around 35-40% of the after tax take home salary can go towards paying this EMI. If the assumption is that around 35% of the salary goes towards EMI, the total after-tax take home salary works out to around Rs 8.5 lakh. The pre-tax salary has to be even higher, more than Rs 10 lakh. How many people make that kind of money in a country where the per capita income is just over Rs  1.5 lakh, is a question well worth asking. This very conservative example explains why real estate in India remains beyond the level of most Indians.

5) There is another problem with the lowest possible price argument. Given the opaqueness surrounding the real estate sector in India, there is nothing like a market price at any given point of time. So how do you even know that the price offered to you is the lowest possible price? Do you just believe what the builder or his broker are saying? Do you have any idea what the price was last year or the year before that?

6) Also, we are told that “home loan interest rates are at 15-year low”. Hence, you should buy a house. The economy during the period April to June contracted by a nearly fourth. It is expected to contract by 10% this year, a level of contraction never seen since Indian independence. Just because home loan interest rates are low should you go out and buy a house? The more important question to answer as always is whether you are in a position to pay the EMI payable against the low interest rates. No wonder this very important point has been missed out on.

It is worth remembering that home loans are floating interest rate loans and interest rates can keep changing in the years to come. If you take on a 20-year home loan now, it doesn’t mean that interest rates will continue to remain low for the next 20 years.

7) And then there is this, my absolute favourite, which I have been hearing for years now: “The property market is poised on the cusp of a full-fledged revival. Once the revival kicks in, property prices will harden and asset appreciation begins in all seriousness.”

This statement reminds me of the different chairpersons that the State Bank of India has had in the last twelve years. Starting with 2009, each one of them has said at some point of time that when it comes to the banking sector in India, the worst is behind us. Well, it’s 2020, the banking sector still has official bad loans of close to Rs 9 lakh crore and they are expected to go up dramatically post-covid.

Every festival season for the last six years the real estate sector has been talking about an impending revival. This revival did not happen when the Indian economy was growing.  And now they expect the revival to happen in a year when the economy is contracting big time. The size that the Indian economy achieved in 2019-20, will now most likely be achieved again only in 2022-23. Jobs have been lost. Incomes have fallen. Small businesses have shut-down or are on the verge of shutting down and the real estate sector is talking about asset appreciation beginning in all seriousness.

I mean all selling involves some amount of fibbing but if you keep doing it all the time and it doesn’t turn out to be true, it loses its power. People start believing in the opposite narrative. As the old fable of the jackal shouting sher aaya sher aaya goes.

8) Here’s another reason the mail offered, to buy a house: “After a protracted period of financial upheaval, it has become necessary to revisit all expenses which represent undue pressure on personal finances. Living in a rented house is a recurring financial drain without returns on investment [emphasis added].”

The part italicised in the above paragraph I have already dealt with in the first point. Nevertheless, the above paragraph needs to be tackled on its own as well. What is the writer saying here? Given the tough economic conditions created by covid, it is time to revisit all expenses. Yes, that makes sense.

But then he goes on to say that renting doesn’t make any sense and you need to make an even bigger expenditure in buying a house and paying an EMI. Buying a house would involve running down savings to make a downpayment and paying a stamp duty. Then there would be moving charges.

At the same time an EMI would have to be paid on a home loan. The chances are that the EMI will be much more than the rental.

Why would anyone who is in financial trouble and trying to cut down on his expenses, be expected to take on higher expenses by buying a house? What’s the logic here? There is no logic to this except to confuse the prospective buyer.

Essentially you are being asked to be penny wise and pound foolish.

9) In the last couple of weeks, the real estate industry has been trying very hard to convince us that the buyers are back in the market and they are lining up to buy homes. Like the mail I got put it: “The best home options are being snapped up at a rapid pace.”

Similar stories have been seen in the media as well. Like the Mumbai edition of The Times of India points out today: “Unlocked MMR shines with 60% rise in home sales in Q2”. Only when you read the story carefully you realise that sales in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) during July and September were 60% higher than sales during April to June. And that’s hardly surprising. There were barely any sales in April and May, due to the lockdown. Hence, this was bound to happen.

The real question is how do things look in comparison to July to September 2019. This reveals the real story. Sales between July to September 2020 are 40% lower than the same period last year. Of course, the newspapers are trying to project a real estate revival story given that they are dependent on huge advertisements from real estate companies. Also, it is worth remembering that a lot of home sales that happened in July to September must be pent up demand from April to June, which has spilled over.

10) Another tactic being employed here is to project a lack of supply. As the mail I got puts it: “Developers have curtailed new supply”. Maybe they have. But the larger point here is that lakhs of apartments were bought as an investment in the decade leading to 2015. Many investors are still sitting on it, hoping for a better return. But now due to covid, there are bound to be quite a few distress sales going around. So, it’s a matter of hanging around and looking for one.

As I have said in the past, the real estate market right now is going through a weird low supply low demand situation. There is low demand for real estate (given the high price) and there is low supply as well (given that real estate companies and individual owners are unwilling to cut prices). I may want to buy a home but unless I have enough money and the ability to borrow to do so, I am really not adding to demand. Just wanting something, without having the money to finance it, doesn’t really add to demand.

This situation can only turnaround if the demand improves or if the supply improves. The demand will improve only when the economy turns around and India grows at 7-8% for a sustainable period of time, leading to increased incomes. The supply will improve if prices fall (which means more people are willing to sell the homes they own), of course, that will lead to an increase in demand as well.

Dear reader, you must be wondering by now, itna gyan de diya, now tell us if we should buy a home or not. First and foremost, what does buying a house have to with one year’s festival season or for that matter any other’s? You are not buying a mobile phone, which you buy almost every couple of years and wait for the best deal during the festival season. A home is only bought once or twice during a lifetime.

You should buy a house if you want to live in it, can afford to make the downpayment and most importantly, have a stable income which will allow you to keep paying the EMI on the home loan in the years to come. This also includes the idea of buying a bigger home to adjust to the new reality of working from home.

As mentioned earlier, the most important part here is stable income. If your job or business is on shaky ground, now is not the time to buy a house. If you want to continue living in the posher area of the city, but can only afford to pay a rent for it, then now is not the time to buy a house.

Remember, while you might be building an asset by not paying a rent but by paying an EMI, you are probably also making a compromise in terms of the time you have at your disposal to live the life you want to. If you are comfortable with the idea of a daily rat race then please go ahead and buy a house.

On the flip side, there are advantages to owning a home. One is the fact that you don’t have to change homes frequently, like you have to if you are living on rent. Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that this fear is oversold. The days when landlords used to be only landlords are gone (of course a lot of such people do survive).

Now there are many landlords who have full-fledged corporate careers and are more interested in a regular rental than changing people who they rent out their homes to, every 11 months. Remember it’s a pain for them as well. Also there is the risk of not finding a tenant on time and losing out on a month’s rent. And any sensible landlord will want to avoid that.

The biggest advantage to owning a home is that it tends to make your parents happy (in terms of getting settled in life). Also, the kids can have a slightly stabler life. But it all boils down to whether you can afford to buy a home. On this front, every individual’s situation is different and you need to figure that answer out for yourself. If you feel comfortable with buying a house right now then please go ahead and do that. Don’t wait.

As far as investing in real estate is concerned so that you can flip it later, that idea went out of style in 2013 or 2014 at best. If you still believe in it then either you deal in a lot of black money or probably don’t realise that the times have changed.

What’s the Logic Behind Govt’s मांडवली (compromise) on Interest on Interest with Supreme Court?

Three institutions, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), the Supreme Court and the Department of Financial Services, have spent more than a few weeks in deciding on waiving off the interest on interest on all retail loans and MSME loans of up to Rs 2 crore.

Resources at three systematically important institutions have been used to arrive at something which is basically largely useless for the economy as a whole, is bad for banks and sets a bad precedent which can lead to a major headache for both the government as well as the Supreme Court, in the time to come.

This is India’s Big Government at work, spending precious time on things which it really shouldn’t be. Let’s take a look at this issue pointwise.

1) By waiving off interest on interest on all retail loans and MSME loans of up to Rs 2 crore, for a period of six months between March and August 2020 when many loans were under a moratorium, the government is essentially fiddling around with the contract that banks entered with borrowers. A government interfering with contracts is never a good idea. If at all, negotiations for any waiver should have happened directly between banks and their borrowers, under the overall supervision of the RBI.

2) Some media houses have equated this waiver with a Diwali gift and an additional stimulus to the economy etc. This is rubbish of the highest order. The government estimates that this waiver of interest on interest applicable on loans given by banks as well as non-banking finance companies (NBFCs) is going to cost it Rs 6,500 crore. Other estimates made by financial institutions are higher than this. The rating agency Crisil estimates that this waiver is going to cost Rs 7,500 crore. Another estimate made by Kotak Institutional Equities put the cost of this waiver at Rs 8,500 crore.

Whatever be the cost, it is worth remembering here that the money that will go towards the waiver, is money that the government could have spent somewhere else. In that sense, unless the government increases its overall expenditure because of this waiver, it cannot be considered as a stimulus. Even if it does increase its overall expenditure, it will have to look at earning this money through some other route. The chances are, we will end up paying for it in the form of some higher tax (most likely a higher excise duty on petrol and diesel).

3) Also, the question that is bothering me the most on this issue, is a question that no one seems to be asking. Who is this move going to benefit? Let’s take an extreme example here to understand this. Let’s say an individual took a home loan of Rs 2 crore to be repaid over 20 years at an interest rate of 8%. He or she took a loan in early March and immediately put it up for moratorium once it was offered.

The moratorium lasted six months. The simple interest on the loan of Rs 2 crore for a period of six months amounts to Rs 8 lakh (8% of Rs 2 crore divided by 2).

This is not how banks operate. They calculate interest on a monthly basis. At 8% per year, the monthly interest works out to 0.67% (8% divided by 12). The interest for the first month works out to Rs 1.33 lakh (0.67% of Rs 2 crore).

Since the loan is under a moratorium and is not being repaid, this interest is added to the loan amount outstanding of Rs 2 crore.

Hence, the loan amount outstanding at the end of the first month is Rs 2.013 crore (Rs 2 crore + Rs 1.33 lakh). In the second month, the interest is calculated on this amount and it works out to Rs 1.34 lakh (0.67% of Rs 2.013 crore).

In this case, we calculate interest on the original outstanding amount of Rs 2 crore. We also calculate the interest on Rs 1.33 lakh, the interest outstanding at the point of the first month, which has become a part of the loan outstanding. This is interest on interest.

At the end of the second month, the loan amount outstanding is Rs 2.027 crore (Rs 2.013 crore + Rs 1.34 lakh). This is how things continue month on month, with interest being charged on interest.

At the end of six months, we end up with a loan outstanding of Rs 2.081 crore. This is Rs 8.134 lakh more than the initial loan outstanding of Rs 2 crore. As mentioned initially, the simple interest on Rs 2 crore at 8% for a period of six months works out to Rs 8 lakh.

Hence, the interest on interest works out to Rs 13,452 (Rs 8.134 lakh minus Rs 8 lakh).

Why did I consider this extreme example? I did so in order to show the futility of what is on. An individual who has taken a home loan of Rs 2 crore is not in a position to pay a total interest on interest of Rs 13,452, is a question well worth asking? Who are we trying to fool here? Given that the moratorium was for a period of six months, the average interest on interest works out to Rs 2,242 per month.

Even at a higher interest rate of 12% (let’s say for MSMEs), the average interest on interest works out to a little over Rs 2,500 per month. Are MSMEs not in a position to pay even this?

So, who are we doing this for? No one seems to have bothered asking and answering this most important question.

4) I guess it’s not fair to blame the government, at least for this mess. The petitioners wanted interest on loans for the period during the moratorium waived off. The Judges entertained them and the government had to find a way out so that the Judges could feel that they had done something at the end of the day and not feel embarrassed about the entire situation.

Crisil estimates that an interest rate waiver of retail and MSME loans of up to Rs 2 crore (including interest on interest) would have cost the government a whopping Rs 1,50,000 crore. Both the government and the RBI wanted to avoid this situation and ended up doing what in Mumbai is called a मांडवली or a compromise. Hence, clearly things could have been worse. Thankfully, they aren’t.

5) The case has dragged on for too long. Currently, banks are not allowed to mark any account which was a standard account as of August 31, as a default. The longer the case goes on, the longer it will take the banking system to recognise the gravity of the bad loans problem post-covid. Bad loans are loans which haven’t been repaid for a period of 90 days or more.

Also, this isn’t good news for banks which had provisioned (or set money aside) to quickly deal with the losses they would face due to the post-covid defaults.

Even at the best possible rate, the gravity of the problem facing banks will come out in the public domain only by the middle of next year now. And that’s just too long. Instead of the government, this time around, the Supreme Court has helped kick the bad loans can down the road.

Ideally, banks should have started recognising post-covid bad loans by now and also, started to plan what to do about it.

6) The banks will have to first pass on the waiver to the borrowers and will then get compensated by the government. As anyone who has ever dealt with the government when it comes to payments will assure you, it can be a real pain. Thankfully, the amount involved on the whole is not very large and the banks should be able to handle any delay on part of the government.

7) This is a point I have made before, but given the seriousness of the issue, it needs to be repeated. Interest is nothing but the price of money. By meddling with the price of money, the Supreme Court has opened a Pandora’s box for itself and the government. There is nothing that stops others from approaching the Courts now and asking for prices of other things, everything from real estate to medicines, to be reduced. Where will it stop?

To conclude, India’s Big Government only keeps getting bigger in its ambition to do much more than it can possibly do. The interest on interest issue is another excellent example of this.

Why No One is Worried About Savers

Economists are like sheep. They like to move in a herd.

If one of them says that the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and banks need to cut interest rates in order to revive the economy, largely everyone else follows.

This basically stems from the fact that the practitioners of economics like to think of the subject as a science, having built in all that maths into it over the decades.

In science, controlled experiments can be run and results can be arrived at. If these experiments are run again, the same results can be arrived at again.

The economists like to think of economics along similar lines. But then economics is not a science.

Take the case of the idea of a central bank and banks cutting interest rates when the economy of a country is not doing well. Why do economists offer this advise? The idea is that as banks cut interest rates, people will borrow and spend more.

At the same time corporates will borrow and expand, by setting up more factories and offices. This will create jobs. People will earn and spend more. Businesses will benefit. The economy will do better than it did in the past. And everyone will live happily ever after.

Okay, the economists don’t say the last line. I just added it for effect. But they do believe in everything else. Hence, they keep hammering the point of banks having to cut interest rates to get the economy going, over and over again. The corporates who pay these economists also like this point being made.

The trouble is that what the economists believe in doesn’t always turn out to be true. Or to put in a more nuanced way, there is a flip side to what they recommend. And I have seen very few professional economists talk about it till date. In fact, low interest rates hurt a large section of the population especially during an economic recession and contraction.

In India, a section of the population, is dependent on the level of interest rate on bank deposits (especially fixed deposits). Currently, the average interest rate on a fixed deposit is around 5.5% per year.

The inflation as measured by the consumer price index in September stood at 7.34%. Hence, the actual return on a fixed deposit is in negative territory. It has been in negative territory through much of this year. This doesn’t even take into account the fact that interest earned on fixed deposits is taxable at the marginal rate. After taking that into account the real return turns further negative.

This hurts people living off interest income, in particular senior citizens. Senior citizens whose fixed deposits have matured in the recent past have seen their interest income fall from around 8% per year to around 5.5% per year, in an environment where food inflation is higher than 10%.

The only way to keep going for them is to cut monthly expenses or start using their capital (or the money invested in fixed deposits) for regular expenses. It is worth remembering that India has very little social security and health facilities for senior citizens, as is common in developed nations.

Lower interest rates also impacts a large section of the population which saves for the future through bank fixed deposits. It is worth remembering that it is this section of the population which actually drives the private consumption in the country. When returns on their savings fall, the logical thing is to cut consumption and save more. If this is not done, then the future gets compromised on.

Lower interest rates hurt institutions like non-government organisations, charitable trusts etc., which save through the fixed deposit route.

The stock market wallahs love lower interest rates because a section of the population continues to bet on stocks despite the lack of company earnings. The price to earnings ratio of the stocks that constitute the Nifty 50, one of India’s premier stock market indices, is currently at more than 34.

Such high levels have never been seen before. It’s not the chances of future high earnings which have driven up stock prices but the current low interest rates, leading to more and more people trying to make a quick buck on the stock market. The government likes this because it feeds into their all is well narrative.

At the same time, given that the government is cash-starved this year, the stock market needs to continue to be at these levels for it to be able to sell its stakes in various public sector enterprises to raise cash.

Between March 27 and October 9, the deposits of banks (savings, current, fixed, recurring etc.) have increased by a whopping Rs 7.4 lakh crore or 5.4%. In the same time, the total loans of banks have shrunk by Rs 38,552 crore or 0.4%. This basically means people are repaying loans instead of taking on fresh ones, despite lower interest rates.

In this environment, with banks unable to lend out most of their fresh deposits, it is but natural that they will cut interest rates on their fixed deposits. You can’t hold that against them. That is how the system is adjusting to the new reality. But what has not helped is the fact that the RBI has been trying to drive down interest rates further by printing money and pumping it into the financial system.

Between early February and September end, the central bank has pumped more than Rs 11 lakh crore into the financial system.

Not all of it is freshly printed money, but a lot of it is. This has apparently been done to encourage corporates to borrow. The bank lending to industry peaked at 22.43% of the gross domestic product (GDP) in 2012-13. Since then it has been falling and in 2019-20, it stood at 14.28% of the GDP. Clearly, Indian industry hasn’t been in a mood to borrow and expand for a while. Hence, the so-called high interest rates, cannot be the only reason for it.

The real reason for the RBI pumping in money into the financial system and driving down interest rates has been to help the government borrow money at low interest rates. As tax collections have fallen the government needs to borrow significantly more this year than it did last year.

All this has hurt the saver. But clearly unlike the corporates and the government, the savers are not organised. Hence, almost no one is talking about them. In the latest monetary policy committee meeting, there was just one mention of them.

One of the members had this to say: “With retail fixed deposit rates currently ranging between 4.90-5.50 per cent for tenors of 1-year or more and the headline inflation prevailing above that for some months now, there has been a negative carry for savers.”

We already know that no economist talks about this phenomenon or more specifically the fact that low interest rates and high inflation should have led to a cut down in consumption. How big and significant is that cutdown? How is it hurting the Indian economy?

Is this cutdown in consumption more than the loans given by banks because of low interest rates?

These are questions that need answers. But the problem is that to a man with a hammer everything appears like a nail. For economists interest rates are precisely that hammer which they like using everywhere. This situation is no different.

The trouble is their hammer doesn’t necessarily work all the time.

A shorter version of this column appeared in the Deccan Chronicle on October 25, 2020.

Why Govt of India Isn’t Acting Like a Spender of the Last Resort

It’s 2019, and you are out watching an international cricket match.

You didn’t book tickets quickly enough and are sitting in one of the upper stands, pretty far away from where the action is.

Instead of sitting and watching the match, you stand up to get a better view. Of course, by doing this, you end up blocking the person behind you. He also has to get up to get a better view of the cricket.

When he does this, he ends up blocking the view of the person behind him. And so, it goes. Pretty soon, everyone in the rows behind you has also stood up to get a better view.

Economists have a term for a situation like this. They call it the fallacy of composition or the assumption that what’s good for a part (that’s you in this case) is good for the whole (the people sitting behind you) as well.

As economist Thomas Sowell writes in Basic Economics-A Common Sense Guide to the Economy: “In a sports stadium, any given individual can see the game better by standing up but if everybody stands up, everybody will not see better.”

So, why are we talking about cricket and sports here? What’s true about watching sports in a stadium is also true for the economy as a whole.

John Maynard Keynes, the most famous and influential economist of the twentieth century (and perhaps even the twenty first), came up with a concept called the paradox of thrift, where thrift refers to the entire idea of using money carefully.

Keynes studied the Great Depression of 1929. He concluded that during tough economic times, when the going is difficult, people become careful with spending money and try and save more of it. While this makes perfect sense at the individual level, it doesn’t make much sense at the societal level because ultimately one man’s spending is another man’s income.

If a substantial portion of the society starts saving, the paradox of thrift strikes, incomes fall, jobs are lost, businesses shutdown and the governments face a pressure on the tax front. The government also faces the pressure to do something about the prevailing economic situation.

This is precisely the situation playing out in India currently. The paradox of thrift is at work. Bank deposits between March 27 and September 25, the latest data that is available, have gone up by 5.1% or Rs 6.9 lakh crore to Rs 142.6 lakh crore. This is twice more than the increase that happened during the same period last year.

As far as loans are concerned, outstanding loans of banks have shrunk during this financial year. On the whole they haven’t given a single rupee of a new loan  (loans are again meant to be spent).

Keynes had suggested that during tough economic times, when the private sector, both individuals and corporations are not spending much money, the government needs to step in and act as the spender of the last resort. In fact, Keynes rhetorically even suggested that if nothing, the government should get workers to dig holes and fill them up, and pay them for it.

When the workers spend this money, it would start reviving the economy. Economists refer to the situation of the government spending money in order to get economic growth going again as a fiscal expansion or a fiscal stimulus.

Since the start of this financial year, everyone who is remotely connected to economics in India in anyway, be it journalists, economists, analysts, corporates, fund managers and even politicians, have been demanding a bigger fiscal stimulus from the government to get economic growth going again.

The government has responded in fits and starts. Last week the central government came up with a few more steps including the LTC cash voucher scheme, special festival advance scheme, loans to states for capital expenditure and an additional capital expenditure of Rs 25,000 crore.

The fact that one week later one’s not hearing much about these moves, tells us they have already fizzled out. They didn’t have much legs to stand on in the first place. Let’s look at these moves pointwise before we get into greater fiscal stimulus as a strategy, in detail.

1) The government announced last week that in lieu of leave travel concession (LTC) and leave encashment, the central government employees can opt for a cash payment. This money has to be used to take make purchases.

LTC is a part of the salaries of central government employees. Instead of traveling in these difficult times in order to avail the LTC, the employees can opt for a cash payment. But this cash payment comes with certain terms and conditions.

Employees who opt for an encashment need to buy goods/services which are worth thrice the fare and one time the leave encashment. Only the actual fare of travelling can be claimed as a tax exemption. Tax has to be paid on the money spent on other expenses during travelling, like hotel and restaurant bills.

This money will have to be spent on buying stuff which attract a minimum 12% goods and services tax (GST), by paying through the digital route to a GST-registered vendor. It is expected that the scheme will cost the government Rs 5,675 crore. Over and above this, it will cost the public sector banks and public sector units another Rs 1,900 crore. This works out to a total of Rs 7,575 crore.

The question is will people opt for this scheme or not, given that they need to spend money out of their own pocket (i.e. their savings) in order to get a tax deduction. It needs to be mentioned here that the increase in dearness allowance of central government employees has been postponed until July 1, 2021. This will act against the idea of spending. Also, there is paperwork involved here (always a bad idea if you want people to spend money).

2) Over and above this, all central government employees can get an interest-free advance of Rs 10,000, in the form of a prepaid RuPay Card, to be spent by March 31, 2021. This is expected to cost the central government Rs 4,000 crore. It’s not clear from the reading of the press release accompanying this announcement, whether it’s compulsory for central government employees to take this card, given that this money will have to ultimately be repaid.

Also, this is not fiscal expansion in the strictest sense of the term given that LTC is already a part of the employee pay and has been budgeted for. As far as the Rs 10,000 being given as an advance is concerned, it is an interest free advance. The government will bear the interest cost on this, which will be an extremely small amount. The employees will have to repay the advance.

3) The central government is also ready to give state governments Rs 12,000 crore for capital expenditure. These loans will be interest free and need to be repaid over a period of 50 years. This money needs to be spent by March 31, 2021. A state government will be given an amount of 50% of what it is eligible for first. The second half will be given after the first half has been spent.

One can’t really question the logic behind this move. But the question that arises here is, are state governments in a position to spend this money in the next five and a half months?

4) Finally, the government has decided to spend an additional Rs 25,000 crore (over and above Rs 4.12 lakh crore allocated in the budget) on roads, defence, water supply, urban development and domestically produced capital equipment. Again, one can’t question the basic idea but one does need to ask here whether this is yet another attempt to manage the narrative.

The total capital expenditure that the government has budgeted for this financial year is Rs 4,12,009 crore. In the first five months of the financial year (April to August 2020), the government has managed to spend Rs 1,34,447 crore or around a third of what it has budgeted for. Last year, in the first five months, the government had spent around 40.6% of what it had budgeted for.

In this scenario, it is more than likely that the government will not get around to spending the extra Rs 25,000 crore. The government systems can only do a certain amount of work in a given period of time, their scale cannot be suddenly increased.

If one doesn’t nit-pick with the four above points, it needs to be said that the amounts involved are too small to even make a dent into the economic contraction expected this year. The economy is expected to contract by 10% this financial year. This means destruction of Rs 20 lakh crore of economic value, given that the nominal GDP in 2019-20, not adjusted for inflation, was Rs 203.4 lakh crore.

The government expects the moves announced last week to boost the expenditure in the economy by Rs 1 lakh crore. The mathematics of this Rs 1 lakh crore is similar to the mathematics of the Rs 20 lakh crore stimulus package (which actually added up to Rs 20.97 lakh crore) earlier in the year. As we saw earlier, the chances that the government ending up spending the Rs 4.12 lakh crore originally allocated for capital expenditure is difficult. Hence, how will it end up spending the newly allocated Rs 25,000 crore?

The government also expects the private sector spending to avail of the LTC tax benefit to be at least Rs 28,000 crore. What no one has talked about here is the fact that while there is an income tax benefit available, one also needs to pay a GST. Net net, there isn’t much benefit left after this. For someone in the marginal bracket of 20% income tax, after paying a GST of 18% to make these purchases, there isn’t much of a saving. Also, to spend three times the amount to avail of tax benefits, isn’t the smartest personal finance idea going around.

In the recently released OTT series Scam 1992 – The Harshad Mehta Story, there is a scene in the second episode, in which a newsreader is seen saying that this year’s budget has a deficit of Rs 3,650 crore for which no arrangements have been made (or as the newsreader in the series said, jiske liye koi vyawastha nahi ki gayi hai).

Given that the makers of the series have stuck to details of that era as closely as possible, I was left wondering if the Rs 3,650 crore number was correct or made up. I went looking for the budget speech of 1986-87 made by the then finance minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh, and found it.

This is what Singh said on page 32 (and point 168) of the speech: “The proposed tax measures, taken together with reliefs, are estimated to yield net additional revenue of Rs 445 crores to the Centre. This will leave an uncovered deficit of Rs 3650 crores. In relation to the size of our economy and the stock of money, the deficit is reasonable and non-inflationary [emphasis added].”

The number used in the series is absolutely correct. Hence, the makers of the Scam 1992, have gone into this level of detailing.

Dear Reader, you must be wondering by now, why have I suddenly started talking about the budget speech of 1986-87. This random point in the OTT series made me realise something. At that point of time, the government could get the Reserve Bank of India to monetise away the fiscal deficit or the difference between what it earned and what it spent.

This meant that the RBI could simply print money and hand it over to the government to spend it. Of course, money printing could lead to a higher amount of money chasing a similar number of goods and services, and hence, higher inflation. This explains why Singh in his budget speech emphasises that the uncovered deficit of Rs 3,650 crore will be non-inflationary. Not that he knew this with any certainty, but there are somethings that need to be said as a politician and this was one of those things.

As a result of two agreements signed between the RBI and the government (in 1994 and 1997) and the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management (FRBM) Act, 2003, the automatic monetisation of government deficit was stopped.

The government funds its deficit by selling bonds to raise debt. The FRBM Act prevented the RBI from subscribing to primary issuances of government bonds from April 1, 2006. In simple terms, this meant that it couldn’t print money and hand it over directly to the government by buying government bonds.

Now why I have gone into great detail in explaining this will soon become clear.

As I wrote at the beginning of this piece, many journalists, economists, analysts, corporates, fund managers and even politicians, have been demanding a greater fiscal stimulus from the government. In short, they have been wanting the government to spend more money than it currently does.

The International Monetary Fund  recently said that India needs a greater fiscal stimulus. Former Chief Statistician of India Pronab Sen has gone on record to say that India needs a fiscal stimulus of Rs 10 lakh crore. Business lobbies have demanded stimulus along similar levels.

The question is why is the government not going in for a bigger stimulus? The answer lies in the fact it simply doesn’t have the money to do so. The gross tax revenue of the government has fallen by 23.9% this year. Hence, it doesn’t even have enough money to finance the expenditure it has budgeted for. So, where is the question of spending more?

Of course, people who have been recommending a larger fiscal stimulus understand this. They simply want the RBI to print money and finance the government expenditure. Well, the RBI has been indirectly doing so. Take a look at the following table.

RBI –The Rupee Machine.

Source: Monetary Policy Report, October 2020.

What does the table tell us? It tells us that between early February and end September, the RBI has pumped in Rs 11.1 lakh crore into the financial system. How has it done so? Simply, by printing money in most cases. This does not apply to the cash reserve ratio cut, which meant banks having to maintain a lower amount of money with the RBI and hence, leading to an increase in the money available in the financial system to be lent out.

Here is the thing. The RBI prints money and buys bonds to introduce money into the financial system. Of course, it does not buy these bonds directly from the government. Nevertheless, even this indirect buying ends up financing  the government  fiscal deficit.

How? Let’s say the government sells bonds to finance its fiscal deficit. The financial institutions (banks, insurance companies, provident funds, mutual funds etc.) buy these bonds directly from the government (actually through primary dealers, but let’s keep this simple because the concept is more important here).

When they do this, they have handed over money to the government and have that much lesser money to lend. By printing money and pumping it into the financial system, the RBI ensures that the money that banks have available for lending doesn’t really go down or doesn’t go down as much, because of lending to the government.

Hence, in that sense, the RBI is actually indirectly financing the government. (It’s just buying older bonds and not newer ones).

The point being that despite the 1994 and 1997 agreements and the FRBM Act of 2003, the RBI is already financing the government fiscal deficit, albeit in an indirect way.

Of course, this financing is only enough to meet the current budgeted expenditure of the government. The thing is that the journalists, economists, analysts, corporates, fund managers and even politicians, want the government to spend more.

In fact, people in favour of a larger fiscal stimulus are okay with the RBI financing the government directly instead of this roundabout way. It seems that might be possible as well. As Viral Acharya, a former deputy governor of the RBI, writes in Quest for Restoring Financial Stability in India, published in July earlier this year:

“A recent amendment of the RBI Act allows the central bank to re-enter the primary market for government debt under certain conditions, annulling the reform of 2003 and recreating investor expectations of deficit monetization.”

Hence, the RBI can directly finance the government fiscal stimulus by printing money, buying government bonds and giving the government the money required to spend.

The question is why has the government not gone down this route? The fear of an even higher inflation seems to  be the answer. If there is one thing in economics that the current government is bothered about, it is inflation, in particular food inflation. The food inflation in September 2020 stood at 10.7%. During this financial year, it has been at a very high level of 9.8%.

The money supply in the economy (as measured by M3) has gone up at a pace greater than 12% since June, thanks to the RBI printing and pumping money into the financial system. For fiscal expansion more money will have to be printed and pumped into the financial system, hence, there is the risk of inflation rising even further.

A few experts have said that in a situation like this growth is more important than inflation. Some others have said that inflation is not a real danger currently.

A government focussed on narrative and perception 24 x 7 would not want to take the risk of inflation at any point of time, especially when food inflation is already close to 11% and there is grave danger of it seeping into overall retail inflation (as measured by the consumer price index).

There are other risks to printing money directly and the country’s public debt going up. Foreign investors can leave India. The rating agencies can cut the ratings. (You can read about it here). This stems from the fact that investors are not as comfortable holding investment assets in a currency like the Indian rupee vis a vis a currency like the American dollar or the British pound or the currency of any other developed country.

As L Randall Wray writes in Modern Monetary Theory: “There is little doubt that US dollar-denominated assets are highly desirable around the globe… To a lesser degree, the financial assets denominated in UK pounds, Japanese yen, European euros, and Canadian and Australian dollars are also highly desired.” This allows these countries to print money in a way that India cannot even dream of.

Also, if the government wanted to go the fiscal stimulus route, it should have done so at the very beginning. But instead it chose monetary expansion, with the RBI printing money and pumping it into the financial system, cutting the repo rate or the interest rate at which it lends to banks and getting banks to lend to certain sectors.

All this, in particular money printing by the RBI to drive down interest rates, has already led to the money supply going up. A larger fiscal stimulus will lead to the money supply going up even further increasing the possibility of a higher inflation.

There is a new theory going around especially among the stock market wallahs who think they understand economics.

The foreign currency reserves with the RBI have gone up from $440 billion towards the end of March to around $509 billion as of October 9. What if a part of this can be converted into rupees and the money can be handed over to the government to spend, is the crux of the new theory going around.

Only someone who does not understand how these foreign currency reserves ended up with the RBI in the first place, would suggest something like this. The RBI buys foreign currency (particularly the American dollar) in order to intervene in the foreign exchange market.

Let’s say a lot of foreign money is coming into India. This increases the demand for the rupee and it leads to the appreciation of the rupee. The appreciation of the rupee makes imports more competitive, hurting domestic producers (not good for atmanirbharta). It also makes exports uncompetitive. In this scenario, the RBI intervenes. It sells rupees and buys dollars (Of course, these rupees have to be printed or rather created digitally these days).

The point being that the dollars end up on the balance sheet of the RBI, only after it has introduced rupees against them into the financial system. So, where is the question of printing and introducing more rupees against the same set of dollars?  (Which is why I keep saying that stock market wallahs should stick to earnings growth and not make a fool of themselves by coming up with such silly theories).

One way of raising money against these foreign exchange reserves is to borrow against them. But that would make India look very desperate and weak on the international as well as the domestic front. Do we really want to do that?


Does all this mean that the government can’t do anything? Not really. I had written about lots of solutions a few weeks back.

One thing that the government needs to pursue seriously is an asset monetisation programme. This involves selling its stake in public sector units which are in a position to be sold. Even public sector units that cannot be sold have a lot of land lying idle.

This land needs to be monetised. This will take time. Nevertheless, the thing is that the Indian economy will need massive government support even in 2022-23. And if the government starts the monetising process now, it will be prepared in 2022-23 to help the economy.

Is Bangladesh’s Per Capita Income “Really” Greater Than That of India?

For a story to go viral on the social media, it needs to be simple and straightforward. In fact, the story should be summarisable in a headline.

The story of Bangladesh’s per capita income overtaking that of India is precisely that kind of story. John Lanchester defines per capita income in his book How To Speak Money as: The total Gross Domestic Product(GDP) of a country divided by the number of people in the country…It is a measure of how rich the country’s citizens are on average.”

In simple terms what this story told us is that the average income of Bangladesh was more than that of India and hence, an average Bangladeshi was richer than an average Indian (Actually, it may not be so. You can understand why I say so here. But that’s what the conclusion drawn was).

No wonder the story got picked up and no wonder it has become viral.

Dear reader, you might be wondering by now if the story is that simple why am I writing about it? The answer will soon become clear.

Let’s first take a look at the following chart. It plots the per capita income of India and Bangladesh.

Bangladesh overtakes India?

Source: International Monetary Fund.

A few days back, the International Monetary Fund published the World Economic Outlook (WEO) for October 2020. It also released a lot of data along with it. The above chart is plotted using data from the database which accompanied the release of the WEO.

As per the above chart, India’s per capita income in 2020 will be $ 1,876.53. In comparison, the per capita income of Bangladesh during 2020 will be $1,887.97. This is around 0.6% more than the Indian per capita income. The difference is very small but there is a difference.

All the song and dance about India versus Bangladesh came from this data point. Everyone picked up this data point, the media, the economists, the analysts, the influencers and finally, the politicians as well.

But what no one bothered to elaborate on is that the WEO data also tells us that India’s per capita income will be higher than Bangladesh between 2021 and 2023, and in 2024,  Bangladesh will overtake India again.

The point is that there is a lot of nuance in this data, which the headline of Bangladesh per capita income overtaking India’s, doesn’t really summarise. But who was bothered. It made for a great story and people ran with it. As the old newspaper cliché goes, if it bleeds, it leads.

Nevertheless, there is one thing that I haven’t told you up until now. What is that? The per capita income in the above chart and what we have been discussing until now, is in nominal terms (or current prices). This basically means that it hasn’t been adjusted for inflation. The inflation in Bangladesh since 2014 has been higher than India. The following chart plots that.

Faster price rise in Bangladesh

Source: International Monetary Fund.

A higher inflation reduces the purchasing power of a currency and that needs to be adjusted for. The International Monetary Fund provides data after adjusting for inflation and purchasing power parity (that is how much does a currency really buy), as well.

Take a look at the following chart, it plots the per capita income of India and Bangladesh, adjusted for inflation, in constant terms.

India is ahead of Bangladesh

Source: International Monetary Fund. Purchasing power parity; 2017 international dollar.

Once we adjust for inflation and purchasing power, the Indian per capita income is higher than that of Bangladesh. The trouble is that by now this story has become too complicated to go viral.

It’s no longer as simple as Bangladesh’s per capita income overtaking India. And India’s per capita income continuing to be higher than that of Bangladesh is not much of a story. I mean after all we are competing with China and not with a puny Bangladesh. (I am saying all this to explain why a certain kind of story in economics tends to go viral on the social media. We all want simple binary explanations that do not tax our minds much).

The story doesn’t end here. There is more to come. While Bangladesh’s per capita income continues to be lower than that of India, it is rapidly catching up. Let’s take a look at the following chart. It plots the ratio of the Indian per capita income to the Bangladeshi per capita income, using data used in the previous chart which has been adjusted for inflation and purchasing power parity.

Bangladesh is catching up

Source: Author calculations on IMF data.

As per this chart, India’s per capita income was 43% more than that of Bangladesh in 2016. The difference has been falling ever since. In 2021, the difference will fall to 20%. This basically means that Bangladesh is rapidly catching up on India.

Bangladesh has been doing better than India on a whole host of non-income indicators.

1) As per the Human Development Index, India’s life expectancy at birth in 2018 was 69.4 years. That of Bangladesh was 72.3.

2) This is primarily because India has a higher mortality rate of children under 5 years. In the Indian case, the mortality rate is 39.4 per 1,000 live births. In Bangladesh it is at 32.4. This means that fewer children die in Bangladesh before achieving the age of five. This explains why average life expectancy in Bangladesh is higher.

3) The child malnutrition rate in Bangladesh (% of children under 5) in Bangladesh is 36.2%. In India it is at 37.9%. A greater proportion of Indian children under the age of 5 are malnourished. Of course, the absolute numbers are much much more in the Indian case.

4) Bangladesh has much higher immunisation rates for diseases like DPT and measles than India. The rate of malaria incidence is higher in India, with 7.7 per 1,000 people being at risk. In case of Bangladesh, 1.9 per 1,000 people are at risk. The rate of tuberculosis incidence is higher in Bangladesh.

5) Interestingly, the current health expenditure in case of Bangladesh is at 2.4% of its GDP. India spends 3.7% of its GDP. But clearly the money is being much better spent in Bangladesh.

6) Bangladesh also does a lot better on a whole host of work and employment indicators. The employment to population ratio in case of Bangladesh is 56.2%. In case of India it is 50.6%. Clearly a greater proportion of Bangladeshi population is employed.

7) This is reflected in the higher labour force participation rate (people of the age of 15 and above it, who are a part of the labour force) of 58.7% in case of Bangladesh. In case of India it is at 51.9%. More interestingly, the labour force participation rate in case of Bangladeshi women is at a much higher 36% against 23.6% in India.

8) 55.5% of the employment in Bangladesh can be categorised as vulnerable employment. In case of India it is at 76.7%. A higher proportion of Indian jobs are at the risk of being lost.

9) 33.4% of the statutory age pension population in Bangladesh gets pension. In India, it is at 25.2%. On the flip side, a higher proportion of non-agricultural employment in Bangladesh is informal (at 91.3% against India’s 74.8%).

10)  43.9% of India’s labour force is employed in agriculture against Bangladesh’s 40.2%. Clearly, Bangladesh has been able to move people away from agriculture into other ways of earning money faster than India. 39.4% of the country’s employment is in the services sector against India’s 31.5%.

11) The sex ratio in Bangladesh (male to female ratio) at 1.05 is better than India’s 1.10. In India there are 100 females per 110 males on an average. In Bangladesh there are 100 females per 105 males on an average.

12) 97.3% of the population in Bangladesh has mobile phone subscriptions. In India it is at 86.9%. Having said that, India’s internet penetration at 34.5% of the population is higher than Bangladesh’s 15%.

13) The Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality within a country, is lower in case of Bangladesh at 32.4 against India’s 35.7.

14) When it comes to schooling, the expected years of schooling in India stands at 12.3 years. In case of Bangladesh it is slightly lower at 11.2 years. Having said that, the rate of literacy among adults (15 years and older) in Bangladesh is at 72.9% against India’s 69.3%. This, despite the fact that the government expenditure on education in India amounts to 3.8% of the GDP, against Bangladesh’s 1.5% of the GDP. One possible explanation for this lies in the fact that India spends much more on higher education than Bangladesh.

15) The mean years of schooling for females in Bangladesh is at 5.3 years against India’s 4.7 years. On the flip side, the primary school dropout rate in Bangladesh is much higher at 33.8% against 12.3% in India’s case.

16) All the above data has been taken from the Human Development Index. With a score of 0.647 India ranks 129th on the index. Bangladesh on the other hand has a score of 0.614 and ranks 135th on the index. But there is a simple explanation for this. As Swati Narayan wrote in The Indian Express, in February this year: “While, technically, on the Human Development Index, Bangladesh scores marginally less, this is largely because the index merges income and non-income parameters.”

On many non-income indicators (as we have seen above) Bangladesh comes out better than India. Take the case of the Global Hunger Index. India ranked 94th among 107 countries. Bangladesh was at the 88th spot. Both countries have a level of hunger that is serious. But in case of Bangladesh, the situation is a little better. Even the World Happiness Report reported Bangladesh to be a much happier country than India.

17) India’s exports are much more than that of Bangladesh. But when it comes to exporting readymade garments (something that can create a huge number of jobs), Bangladesh has been doing much better than India for a while now. Take a look at the following chart, which compares India and Bangladesh’s garment exports.

Bangladesh beats India

Source: Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy and the Dhaka Tribune.

The reasons for this success are explained in this piece I wrote for Mint.

Not for a moment am I suggesting that India is doing worse than Bangladesh on all parameters. It is not. But over the last two decades Bangladesh has managed to narrow the gap on many parameters especially those on the social, health, gender and work front.

If this continues, in the years to come it won’t be difficult for Bangladesh to overtake India’s per capita income, especially if we continue with what has now become the all-encompassing nothing is wrong and all is well rhetoric.

Of course, meanwhile both sides will continue to spin data in ways that are useful to them. The chances that you will see spin with data are more these days than the chance of a ball spinning on a cricket pitch.