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 Mis-selling By Banks ‘May’ Have Gone Up Post-Covid

The basic idea for almost everything I write emanates from some data point that tells me something. But this piece is slightly different and comes from the experiences of people around me and what I have been seeing on the social media.

I think with this limited anecdotal evidence and some data that I shall share later in the piece, it might be safe to say that mis-selling by banks post-covid may have gone up. Mis-selling can be defined as a situation where an individual goes to a bank wanting to do one thing, and ends up doing something else, thanks to the relationship/wealth manager’s advice.

The simplest and the most common example of this phenomenon is an individual going to a bank with the intention of putting his money in a fixed deposit and ends up buying some sort of an insurance policy or a pension plan.

Let me offer some evidence in favour of why I think the tendency to mis-sell post covid may have gone up.

1) Between March 27, around the time when the seriousness of the covid pandemic was first recognized in India, and October 9, the latest data available, the deposits of Indian banks have gone up by Rs 7.36 lakh crore or 5.4%.

Clearly, there has been a huge jump in bank deposits this year. To give a sense of proportion, the deposits between October 2016 and December 2016, when demonetisation happened, went up by Rs 6.37 lakh crore or 6.4%.

The increase in deposits post covid has been similar to the increase post demonetisation. Of course, the post-covid time frame has been longer.

What does this tell us? It tells us that people haven’t been spending. This is due to multiple reasons.

The spread of covid has prevented people from stepping out and there is only so much money that can be spent sitting at home (even with all the ecommerce). This has led to an accumulation of deposits. Further, people have lost jobs and seen their incomes crash. This has prevented spending or led to a cutdown. And most importantly, many people have seen their friends and family lose jobs. This has automatically led them to curtail their spending. All this has led to an increase in bank deposits.

2) Why do banks raise deposits? They raise deposits in order to be able to give them out as loans. Between March 27 and October 9, the total non-food credit given by banks contracted by Rs 38,552 crore or 0.4%. Banks give loans to the Food Corporation of India and other state procurement agencies to help them primarily buy rice and wheat directly from farmers. Once this lending is subtracted from the overall lending of banks what remains is the non-food credit.

What does this contraction in lending mean? It means that people and firms have been repaying their loans and not taking on fresh loans. On the whole, between March end and early October, banks haven’t given a single rupee of a new loan. This explains why interest rates on deposits have come down dramatically. Interest rates have also come down because of the Reserve Bank of India printing and pumping money into the financial system to drive down interest rates.

3) Using these data points, we can come to the conclusion that banks currently have an incentive to mis-sell more than in the past. Why? Banks currently have enough deposits. They don’t need more deposits, simply because on the whole, people and firms are not in the mood to borrow.

All this money that is not lent ends up getting invested primarily in government securities, where the returns aren’t very high. As of October 9, around 31.2% of total deposits were invested in government securities. This is the highest since July 2018.

The trouble is that banks cannot stop taking deposits even though they are unable to currently lend them. They can only disincentivise people through lower interest rates.

Or they can set the targets of relationship managers/wealth managers in a way where they need to channelise savings into products other than fixed deposits.

While banks have to pay an interest on fixed deposits, irrespective of whether they are able to lend them or not, they earn a commission on the sale of products like unit linked insurance plans, pension plans, mutual funds, portfolio management services, etc. This commission directly adds to the other income of the banks.

Basically, the way this incentive plays out explains why mis-seling by banks may have gone up post covid. Also, the risk of repaying a fixed deposit lies with the bank. The same is not true about the other products where the bank is just a seller and the risk is passed on.

What to do?

So, what should individuals do in a situation like this, is a question well worth asking? Let’s say you go to a bank to invest your money in a fixed deposit. As explained above, the bank really does not want your money in fixed deposit form.

The wealth managers/relationship managers will resort to the contrast effect while trying to persuade you to not put your money in fixed deposits. The interest rates on fixed deposits are very low currently. An average fixed deposit pays an interest of 5-5.5%. Clearly, once we take inflation and taxes on the interest on these deposits into account, the returns are in negative territory.

The relationship/wealth manager will contrast these low/negative returns with the possible returns from other products. His or her pitch will be that the returns will be higher in other cases. In the pitch, he or she will tell you that the returns from the other products are as good as guaranteed. A tax saving angle might also be sneaked in (for insurance products). (Of course, he or she will not present this in such a dull way. Typically, relationship/wealth managers tend to be MBAs, who can phaff at the speed of thought and leave you totally impressed despite their lack of understanding of things).

What’s the trouble with this? The returns in these other products are not fixed. In case of a fixed deposit the interest rate is fixed (which is why the word fixed is used in the first place). Now you might end up with a higher return on other products, but there is no guarantee to that. Also, sometimes the aim of investment is different. If you are putting your money in a fixed deposit, the aim might simply be return of capital than return on capital.

Further, the investment in these other products might be locked in for a long period of time, while you can break a fixed deposit at any point of time (of course you end up with lower returns). This is especially true for a tax saving investment.

To conclude, the next time you go to a bank, stick to what you want to do with your money and don’t fall prey to what the wealth/relationship manager wants you to do. Clearly, his and your incentives are not aligned. Also, if you can use internet banking to manage your money, that is do fixed deposits online, that’s the best way to go about it.

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.