Risk Hai Toh Ishq Hai: 20 Things You Can Learn About 1990s By Watching Scam 1992

Over the last weekend I saw Scam 1992—The Harshad Mehta Story. The OTT series is based on a book titled The Scam—From Harshad Mehta to Ketan Parekh written by Debashis Basu and Sucheta Dalal.

The 10-episode series is set around the Harshad Mehta scam where Mehta used banking funds illegally to drive up stock prices. Dalal, a journalist with The Times of India broke the story about Mehta’s shenanigans.

Basu who used to work for Business Today magazine at that point of time (not mentioned in the series) is shown to be helping her all along. The story is told from the point of view both Mehta’s and Dalal’s characters.

I enjoyed watching the series immensely and even tweeted saying that the brief Indian OTT era now needs to be divided into before and after Scam 1992.

Watching the series has also inspired me to write this fun piece where I highlight stuff which was very different in the 1990s vis a vis how things are now.

There might be some spoilers here as well (though very few). So, if you haven’t watched the series and plan to watch it, it’s best you stop reading this piece now. You have been warned 

Let’s take a look at this pointwise.

1) The word scam itself wasn’t very popular with the Indian media until Dalal broke the Harshad Mehta scam and weaved the word into the story she wrote for The Times of India (as shown in the series). The phrase used before this was the rather dull financial fraud.

2) A major part of the series is set in 1992, which was a pre-mobile phone era. Hence, all the action happens through landline phones (thankfully pushbutton landline phones had made an appearance by then and so had big cordless phones).

3) It was also the pre-internet era. You had to remember facts or have access to libraries or research departments. This also meant that if you had to verify a company’s address you had to go there physically and do it and couldn’t simply log onto the internet and do so.

4) Cable TV had just started making an appearance in late 1991. Hence, the government owned Doordarshan was the dominant TV channel. It was also the major source of news, which wasn’t a 24/7 business at that point of time. The newspapers came in the morning. All India Radio had news bulletins at fixed points of time during the day. Doordarshan had news in the evenings (and later even in the mornings).

5) You could just walk into the Bombay Stock Exchange, unlike now where you have to go through multiple levels of security and tell the security guys exactly who you are going to meet. So, for journalists to meet sources was easy. Also, unlike today, the sources could be more easily protected simply because there were no electronic /digital footprints being left anywhere.

6) The Bombay Stock Exchange had a trading ring where jobbers representing stockbrokers made the market by actually buying and selling stocks. This matching of the seller and the buyer happens electronically now. The circular trading ring still exists and is used as a hall for hire for events. The events of BSE as the Bombay Stock Exchange is now known as, also happen in what used to be the trading ring.

7) Unlike now, if you wanted to buy or sell a stock you had to call up your broker and ask him to buy or sell on your behalf. You couldn’t just simply login into your demat account and buy or sell whatever you wanted to.

8) India had 23 stock exchanges at that point of time. Bombay and Kolkata were the most important exchanges. Even Patna had one.

9) The drink offered to everyone visiting the Bombay Stock Exchange was masala tea and not machine coffee, as it is now.

10) The Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi), the stock market regulator, did exist, but it did not have statutory powers. Hence, even if they knew that financial shenanigans were happening, they weren’t in a position to do anything. That only happened once the Sebi Act came into being in April 1992.

11) The media newsrooms did not have many computers. The stories were still typed on a typewriter, which meant that one had to have the entire story written in one’s mind before one started typing it out on a typewriter. The way a story can be rewritten now on a computer was rather difficult at that point of time.

12) You could smoke inside a media office. (How journalists would love this).

13) You could smoke on an airplane.

14) You could smoke in restaurants and cafes.

15) The RBI Governor leaked news to the media directly.

16) Even short sellers were popular investors at that point of time. The short-seller Manu Manek was called the Black Cobra of the stock market. (In my two decades of following the stock market, I am yet to come across a short seller the market loves). Interestingly, the stock market’s current darling was also a short seller at that point of time. Short selling involves borrowing and selling stocks in the hope that the price will fall and the stock can then be bought later at a lower price, returned to whom it had been borrowed from, and a profit can be made in the process.

17) The BSE was controlled totally by the brokers in the 1990s. It could even open at midnight to change prices at which trades had happened to help certain brokers.

18) The cars on the road were primarily Premier Padmini, Ambassador and the Maruti. India hadn’t seen an explosion in a choice in car models.

19) Levis Jeans hadn’t made an appearance in India until then, though Debashis’s character is shown wearing them in the series. It was launched in India in 1995.

20) There is a scene in the second episode of the Scam 1992, 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). The reference was to the financial year 1986-87.

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.”

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

But the point here being that back then, the government monetised the fiscal deficit. It simply asked the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) to print money and hand it over to the government to spend. This was stopped in 1997.

To conclude, the key dialogue in the series, which keeps getting made over and over again is, risk hai to ishq hai. The inference being only if you take high risk in the stock market do you earn a high return. The trouble, as was the case in 1992 and as is now, just because you take high risk in the stock market (or anywhere else in life) doesn’t mean you will end up with a high return. Investors who hero worshipped Mehta in the 1990s learnt that the hard way.

Investors still continue to learn this basic principle of the stock market, the hard way.

Not everything has changed.

Lower Interest Rates Good for Govt, Banks and Corporates, Not for Average Indian

The new monetary policy committee which met for the first time over the last two days has decided to keep the repo rate unmoved at 4%. Monetary policy committee is a committee which decides on the repo rate of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). Repo rate is the interest rate at which RBI lends to banks and is expected to set the broad direction for interest rates in the overall economy.

The RBI has been trying to drive down the interest rates in the economy since January 2019. In January 2019, the repo rate was at 6.5%. Since then it has been cut by 250 basis points and is now at 4%. One basis point is one hundredth of a percentage.
This has had some impact in driving down fixed deposit interest rates of banks. Take a look at the following chart.

The Crash


Source: ICICI Securities, October 3, 2020.

From the peak they achieved between March and June 2019, fixed deposit interest rates have fallen by 170 to 220 basis points.
This in an environment where the inflation has been going up. In March 2019, inflation as measured by the consumer price index was at 2.9%. It had jumped slightly to 3.2% by June 2019. In August 2020, the latest data available for inflation as measured by the consumer price index, had jumped to 6.6%. Meanwhile, fixed deposit rates which were around 7-8%, are largely in the range of 4-6% now (of course, there are outliers to this).

Hence, inflation is greater than interest rates on fixed deposits, meaning the purchasing power of the money invested in fixed deposits is actually coming down.

In fact, interest rate on savings bank accounts, which in some cases was as high as 6-7%, has also come down. Take a look at the following chart.

Another crash


Source: ICICI Securities, October 3, 2020.

Savings bank accounts now offer anywhere between 2.5-3%.

The fall in interest rates is not just because of the RBI cutting the repo rate. A bulk of this fall has happened post the covid breakout. Banks haven’t lent money post covid.

Between March 27 and September 25, the outstanding non-food credit of banks has fallen by 1.1% or Rs 1.1 lakh crore to Rs 102 lakh crore. This means that people and firms have been repaying their loans and net-net in the first six months of this financial year, banks haven’t given a single rupee of a fresh loan.

Banks give loans to Food Corporation of India and other state procurement agencies to buy rice and wheat directly from the farmers. Once these loans are subtracted from overall lending by banks, what remains is non-food credit.

During the same period, the deposits of banks have risen by 5.1% or Rs 6.97 lakh crore to Rs 142.6 lakh crore. With people saving more, it clearly shows that the psychology of a recession is in place.

Banks have not been lending while their deposit base has been expanding at a rapid pace. The point being that banks are able to pay an interest on their deposits because they give out loans and charge a higher rate of interest on the loans than they pay on their deposits.

When this mechanism breaks down to some extent, as it has currently, banks need to cut interest rates on their deposits, given that they are not earning much on the newer deposits. This is bound to happen and accordingly, interest rates on fixed deposits have fallen.

While the supply of deposits has gone up, the demand for them in the form of loans, hasn’t. This has led to the price of deposits, which is the interest paid on them, falling.

But there is one more reason why interest rates have fallen. There is excess money floating around in the financial system. The RBI has printed money and pumped it into the financial system by buying bonds from financial institutions.

This excess money has also helped in driving down interest rates. While banks haven’t been able to lend at all in the first six months of the year, the government borrowing has gone through the roof. As the debt manager of the government, the RBI has printed and pumped money into the financial system to drive down the returns on government bond, in the process allowing the government to borrow at lower interest rates. Take a look at the following chart, which plots the returns (or yields) on 10-year bonds of the Indian government.

Going down

Source: Investing.com

The yield on a government bond is the return an investor can earn if he continues to own the bond until maturity. The above chart clearly shows that as the government has borrowed more and more through the year, the interest rate at which it has been able to borrow money has come down, thanks to the RBI and its money printing.

Of course, with banks not lending on the whole, they are happy lending to the government. In fact, in his speech today, the RBI governor Shaktikanta Das said that the central bank planned to print and pump another Rs 1 lakh crore into the financial system in the days to come.

With more money expected to enter the financial system the 10-year government bond yield fell from 6.02% yesterday (October 8) to 5.94% today (October 9), a fall of 8 basis points during the course of the day.

The monetary policy committee also decided to keep the “accommodative stance as long as necessary”, with only one member opposing it. In simple English this means that the RBI will keep driving down interest rates as long as necessary “at least during the current financial year and into the next financial year – to revive growth on a durable basis and mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on the economy.”

The assumption here is that as interest rates fall people will borrow and spend more and corporations will borrow and expand more. This will help the economy grow, jobs will be created and incomes will grow. While, this sounds good in theory, it doesn’t really play out exactly like that, at least not in an Indian context.

Let’s take a look at this pointwise.

1) A bulk of deposits in Indian banks are deposited by individuals. In 2017-18, the latest data for which a breakdown is available, individuals held around 55% of deposits in banks by value. This had stood at 45% in 2009-10 and has been constantly rising. Hence, it is safe to say that in 2020-21, the proportion of bank deposits held by individuals will clearly be more than 55%.

When interest rates on deposits (both savings and fixed deposits) go down individuals get hurt the most. There are senior citizens whose regular expenditure is met through interest on these deposits. When a deposit paying 8% matures and has to be reinvested at 5.5%, it creates a problem. Either the family has to cut down on consumption or start spending some of their capital (the money invested in the fixed deposit).

This also disturbs many people who use fixed deposits as a form of long-term saving. The vagaries of the stock market are not meant for everyone. Also, in the last decade returns from investing in stocks haven’t really been great.

2) When interest rates go down, the families referred to above cut down on consumption and do not increase it, as is expected with lower interest rates. This may not sound right to many people who are just used to economists, analysts, bureaucrats, corporates and fund managers, mouthing, lower interest rates leading to an increase in consumption all the time. But there is a significant section of people whose consumption does get hurt by lower interest rates.

3) It’s not just about bank interest rates going down. Returns on provident fund/pension funds which hold government bonds for long time periods until maturity and post office schemes (despite being higher than banks), also come down in the process.

4) Also, no corporate is going to invest just because interest rates are low right now. Corporates invest and expand when they see a future consumption potential. This is currently missing. Also, banks lending to industry peaked at 22.43% of the GDP in 2012-13. It fell to 14.28% of the GDP in 2019-20. During the period, interest rates have gone up and down, but corporate lending as a proportion of the GDP has continued to fall. So clearly increased borrowing by corporates is not just about interest rates.

But corporates love to constantly talk about high interest rates as a reason not to invest. This is just a way of driving down interest on their current debt.

As former RBI governor Urjit Patel writes in Overdraft:

“Sowing disorder by confusing issues is a tried-and-trusted, distressingly often successful routine by which stakeholders, official and private, plant the seeds of policy/regulation reversal in India.”

One can understand interest rates going down in an environment like the current one, but there is a flip side to it as well, which one doesn’t hear the experts talk about at all. Also, anyone has barely mentioned the excess liquidity in the financial system, which currently stands at Rs 3.9 lakh crore. Why is that? Let’s look at this pointwise.

1)  The equity fund managers love it because with interest rates going down further, many investors will end up investing money in stocks despite very high price to earnings ratio that currently prevails. The price to earnings ratio of the Nifty 50 index currently is at 34.7. This is a kind of level that has never been seen before.

But with post tax real returns from fixed deposits (after adjusting for inflation) in negative territory, many investors continue to bet on stocks, despite the lack of earnings growth.

2) The debt fund managers love it because interest rates and bond prices are negatively related. When interest rates come down, bond yields come down and this leads to bond prices going up. This means that the debt funds managed by these fund managers see capital gains and their overall returns go up. Hence, debt fund managers love lower interest rates.

3) Banks invest a large proportion of the deposits they gather into government bonds. When bond yields fall, bond prices go up. This leads to a higher profit for banks. This in an environment where banks aren’t lending. Hence, bankers love lower interest rates.

4) Corporates love lower interest rates at all points of time, irrespective of whether they want to borrow or not. I don’t think this needs to be explained.

5) The government loves low interest rates because it can borrow at lower rates. Second, with the stock market going up, it can sell a positive narrative. If the economy is doing so badly, why is the stock market doing well?

6) This leaves economists. Economists love lower interest rates because the textbooks they read, said so.

The question is do lower interest rates or interest rates make a difference when it comes to borrowing by an average Indian? Let’s take a look at non-housing retail borrowing from banks over the years. In 2007-08 it stood at 5.34% of the gross domestic product (GDP). In 2019-2020, it stood at an all-time high of 5.97% of GDP.

In a period of 12 years, non-housing retail borrowing from banks, has barely moved. What it tells us to some extent is that the idea of taking on a loan to buy something (other than a house), is still alien to many Indians.

So, the idea that interest rates falling leading to increased retail borrowing is a little shaky in the Indian context.

To conclude, today the RBI governor Shaktikanta Das gave a speech which was more than 4,000 words long. In this speech, the phrase fixed deposit interest rate did not appear even once.

A whole generation of savers is getting screwed (for the lack of a better word) and the RBI Governor doesn’t even bother mentioning it in his speech. The RBI seems to be constantly worried about the interest rate at which the government borrows.

A central bank which only bats for the government, corporates and bond market investors, is always and anywhere a bad idea.

Shaktikanta Das’ RBI is at the top of this bad idea.

 

A Primer on Bank Interest Rates for Real Estate Companies, Lawyers, Judges, Government and Everyone Else

The Supreme Court is currently hearing the loan moratorium case. Arguments have been made from different sides, on whether banks should charge an interest on loans during the moratorium and if an interest should be then charged on that interest.

I wanted to discuss a few arguments being offered by lawyers who are representing borrowers of different kinds in the Supreme Court. Either their understanding of interest rates is weak, or even if they do understand, they are just ignoring that understanding in order to make a powerful argument before the Supreme Court.

Let’s look at the issue pointwise. Also, this piece is for anyone who really wants to understand how interest rates really work. Alternatively, I could have headlined this piece, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Interest Rates But were Afraid to Ask.

1) Appearing for the real estate sector, Senior Advocate C A Sundaram told a bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, R S Reddy and M R Shah: “Even if the interest is not waived, then it must be reduced to the rate at which banks are paying interest on deposits.”

What does this mean? Let’s say a real estate company has taken a loan of Rs 100 crore from a bank. On this it pays an interest of 10% per year. For the period of the moratorium the company doesn’t pay the interest on the loan. At the end of six months, the interest outstanding on the loan is Rs 5 crore (10% of Rs 100 crore for a period of six months). In the normal scheme of things this outstanding interest needs to be added to Rs 100 crore and the loan the builder now needs to repay Rs 105 crore. Of course, in the process of repaying this loan amount, the company will end up paying an interest on interest. If it wants to avoid doing that it simply needs to pay the outstanding interest of Rs 5 crore once the moratorium ends and continue repaying the original loan.

What Advocate Sundaram told the Supreme Court is that even if the interest on the loan during the moratorium is not waived, the interest rate charged on it should be lower and should be equal to the interest rate that banks are paying on their deposits.

The question of not charging an interest rate on loans during moratorium is totally out of question. Banks raise deposits by paying a rate of interest on it. It is these deposits they give out as loans. If they don’t charge an interest on their loans, how will they pay interest on their deposits?

Bank deposits remain the most popular form of saving for individuals. Imagine the social and financial disruption something like this would create.

Even the point about banks charging an interest rate during the moratorium which is equal to the interest rate they are paying on their deposits, is problematic. Other than paying an interest rate on deposits, banks have all kinds of other expenditures. They need to pay salaries to employees and off-role staff, rents for the offices and branches they operate out of, bear the cost of insuring deposits and also take into account, the loan defaults that are happening.

If the banks charge an interest rate on loans equal to the interest rate they pay on deposits, how are they supposed to pay for all the costs highlighted above?

2) More than this, I think there is a bigger problem with Senior Advocate Sundaram’s argument. Allow me to explain. Interest on money is basically the price of money. When a bank pays an interest to a deposit holder, he is basically compensating the deposit holder for not spending the money immediately and saving it. This saving is then lent out to anyone who needs the money. This is how the financial intermediation business works.

If real estate companies could today ask the courts to decide on the bank’s price of money, the banks could do something similar tomorrow. They could approach the courts with the argument that real estate companies need to reduce home prices, in the effort to sell more units, so that they are able to repay all the money they have borrowed from banks.

If courts can decide on how banks should carry out their pricing, they can also decide on how real estate companies should carry out their pricing. This is something that needs to be kept in mind.

3) This is a slightly different point, which might seem to have nothing to do with interest rates, but it does. The real estate industry is in dire straits and hence, wants the government, Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and the Supreme Court, to help. (I am going beyond what Advocate Sundaram told the Court).

In fact, banks and non-banking finance companies, have already been allowed to restructure builder loans. Former RBI governor Urjit Patel refers to the commercial real-estate-sector as the living dead borrowers in his book Overdraft.

The real estate sector had a great time between 2002 and 2013, for more than a decade, when they really raked in the moolah.

While they did this, they obviously kept the after-tax profits with themselves and they didn’t share it with anyone else. So, why should they be supported now? Why should their losses be socialised? And if losses of real estate sector are socialised, where does the system stop? This is a question well worth asking.

If these losses are socialised, the banks will try making up for it through other ways. This would mean lower interest rates on deposits than would otherwise have been the case. This would also mean higher interest rates on loans than would otherwise have been the case. There is no free lunch in economics.

4) Senior Advocate Rajiv Datta said that banks should not take the moratorium as a default period to charge interest on interest to individual borrowers, including those repaying home loans. As he said: “Profiteering at the cost of individual borrowers during a pandemic is like Shylock seeking his pound of flesh. Individual borrowers were not defaulting.”

While I have no love-lost for bankers, but generations of bankers have had to suffer thanks to the way the William Shakespeare portrayed a Jewish money lender in his play The Merchant of Venice.

The question is why is everyone so concerned only about the borrowers. What about the savers? The average fixed deposit rate is now down to 6%. This, when the rate of inflation is close to 7%. The savers are already losing out. Why should they lose more?

5) Another argument was put forward by Senior Advocate Sanjay Hegde, where he said that banks never passed the benefit of lower repo rate to consumers in the whole of 2019 to garner bigger profits. “When there is a pandemic, they should not think of profiteering and pass on the benefits granted by the RBI to borrowers by lowering the interest rate on loans,” he said.

This is a fundamental mistake that many people make where they assume a one to one relationship between the repo rate and loan interest rates. Repo rate is the interest rate at which the RBI lends money to banks. The idea in the heads of people and often portrayed in the media is that the repo rate is coming down and so, should loan interest rates, at the same pace.

In December 2018, the repo rate was at 6.5%. Since then it has been reduced to 4%. There has been a cut of 250 basis points. One basis point is one hundredth of a percentage. During the same period, the weighted average lending rate on outstanding loans has fallen from 10.35% to 9.71%, a fall of a mere 64 basis points.

So is Senior Advocate Hegde right in the argument he is making? Not at all. As I said earlier, the link between the repo rate and the lending rate is not one to one. The reason for that is very simple. Banks raise deposits and lend that money out as loans. For lending interest rates to fall, the deposit interest rates need to fall.

The weighted average deposit interest rates since December 2018 have fallen from 6.87% to 5.96% or a fall of 91 basis points. We see that even the deposit interest rates do not share a one to one relationship with the repo rate.

Why is that the case? If a depositor invested in a deposit at 8% interest three years back, he continues to be paid that 8% interest, even when the repo rate is falling. Further, even though banks reduce the interest rate they pay on new fixed deposits, they cannot do so on the older fixed deposits. The fixed deposit interest rates are fixed and that is why they are called fixed deposits.

If the repo rate and the fixed deposit interest rates need to have a one to one relationship, meaning a 25 basis points cut in the repo rate leads to a 25 basis points cut in deposit rates, which translates into a 25 basis points cut into lending rates, then banks need to offer variable interest rate deposits and not fixed deposits. Again, that is a recipe for a social disruption.

If we look at fresh loans given by banks, the interest charged on them has fallen from 9.79% in December 2018 to around 8.52%, a fall of 127 basis points, which is much higher than the overall fall of just 64 basis points. This is primarily because the interest rate on fresh fixed deposits has fallen faster than the interest rates on fixed deposits as a whole.

This still leaves the question why has the overall lending rate fallen by 64 basis points when the overall deposit rate has fallen by 91 basis points. One reason lies in the fact that banks have a massive amount of bad loans and they are just trying to increase the spread between the interest they charge on their loans and the interest that they pay on their deposits, by not cutting the lending rate as fast as the deposit rate.

This will mean a higher profit, which can compensate for bad loans to some extent. Over and above this, there is some profiteering as well. But the situation is nowhere as bad as the lawyers are making out to be.

The reason for that is simple. There is a lot of competition in banking and if a particular bank tries to earn excessive profits, a competitor can easily challenge those profits by charging a slightly lower rate of interest and getting some of the business.

To conclude, allowing banks to set their own interest rates is at the heart of a successful banking business. And no one should be allowed to mess around with that. Also, for the umpteenth time, interest rates are not just about the repo rate.

Why is the stock market going up when the economy is going down?

The total collections of the goods and services tax (GST) between March and July stood at Rs 2.73 lakh crore. This is 34.5% lower than what the government earned during the same period in 2019.

The stock market index Nifty 50 has rallied by 53% to 11,648 points between March 23 and August 28. It had touched this year’s low of 7,610 points on March 23.

So, what’s the point in comparing the Nifty 50 with GST collections? The GST is basically a tax on consumption. If the GST collections are down by more than a third, what that basically means is that private consumption is down majorly.

When consumption is down, the company earnings are bound to take a beating. Take the case of two-wheelers and cars. When people don’t buy as many of them as they used to, their production takes a beating. When that happens, it has an impact right down the value chain. It means lower production of steel, steering, glass, tyres, etc. A lower production of tyres means a lower demand for rubber.

A lower production on the whole means lower demand for power. Industrial power largely subsidises farm power and home power (where power is stolen). If industrial power consumption goes down, the losses of state electricity boards go up. When this happens, their ability to keep paying power generation companies goes down. When these companies don’t get paid, they are in no position to repay loans they have taken from banks. So, the cycle works.

Many people buy two-wheelers and cars on loans from banks and non-banking finance companies. When the buying falls, the total amount of loans given by banks also comes down. When banks don’t get enough loans, they need to cut the interest rate on their fixed deposits.

When this happens, people who are saving towards a goal, need to save more. This means they need to cut down on their consumption. Further, people who are largely dependent on interest from bank deposits will see their incomes fall. This means they need to cut down on their consumption as well.

This cycle will also lead to a fall company earnings. A Business Standard results tracker for 1,946 companies reveals that the sales of these companies for April to June 2020 were down 23.1% in comparison to the same period in 2019. The net profit for these companies was down 60.8%.

The stock market does not wait for things to happen. It discounted for this possibility and the Nifty fell by 32.1% between end February and March 23. The market was adjusting for an era of falling company earnings. But it didn’t stay at those low levels and has rallied by more than 50% since then.

The trouble now is that the valuations are way off the chart. The price to earnings ratio of the Nifty 50 index, as of August 28, stood at 32.92. This means that investors are ready to pay close to Rs 33 for every rupee of earning for stocks that make up the Nifty 50 index. Such a level has never been seen before. Not during the dotcom bubble era and not even during early 2008 when the stock market rallied to its then highest level.

Why has the stock market jumped as much as it has? Does this mean that the company earnings will jump big time in the near future? Not at all. The covid-induced recession is not going to go anytime quickly. Also, the pandemic is now gradually making its way into rural India.

So, why is the stock market rallying? The Western central banks led by the Federal Reserve of the United States, the American central bank, have printed a lot of money post February, in order to drive down interest rates and get people and businesses to borrow and spend. The Federal Reserve has printed more than $2.8 trillion between February 26 and August 5. Some of this money has made it into India.

During this financial year, the foreign institutional investors have net invested a total of Rs 83,682 crore into Indian stocks, after going easy on investing in India over the last few years. This is clearly an impact of the easy money policies being run in much of the Western world.

Further, the participation of the retail investors in the stock market has increased during the course of this year. Between December 2019 and June 2020, the number of demat accounts has gone up by 39 lakhs or 10% to 4.32 crore accounts. In fact, between March end, after a physical lockdown to tackle covid was introduced, and up to June, the number of demat accounts has gone up by 24 lakhs.

The latest monthly bulletin of Securities and Exchange Board of India, the stock market regulator, points out: “We have seen a huge surge in participation of retail investors in the equity market in the last few months. The fact that there is also a surge in opening up of demat accounts suggests that many of these retail investors are perhaps first time investors in the stock market.”

With after tax return on bank fixed deposits down to 4-5% when inflation is close to 7%, these investors are coming to the stock market, in search of higher returns.

The question is, with the stock market at all time high valuations, will their good times continue? Or once the dust has settled, is another generation of investors ready to equate stock market investing to gambling? On that your guess is as good as mine.

This article originally appeared in the Deccan Herald on August 30, 2020.

The ‘GULZAR’ Principle of Investing for Regular Income and Safe Returns

Summary: There is no real way of earning a regular and a safe income that is enough to meet the monthly expenses.

The headline was a clickbait. But now that I have your attention, let me explain the logic behind it.

The title song of the 1979 Hindi film Gol Maal was written by the lyricist Gulzar (Honestly, calling him just a lyricist is doing his talent a great disservice. Other than being a lyricist, he has written screenplays and dialogues for a huge number of Hindi films. He is a poet and a short story writer. He is also a translator of repute. Oh, and he has also directed a whole host of Hindi movies as well as a few TV serials along the way. Also, for the millennials, Hrishikesh Mukherjee made Gol Maal, much before Rohit Shetty started using the title for everything he could possibly think of).

Now getting back to the point I was trying to make. In the title song of Gol Maal there is a line which goes: “paisa kamane ke liye bhi paisa chahiye,” essentially meaning, in order to earn money, you first need money. And that is what I am going to write about today.

In the twenty months, as the economy has gone downhill, people have been getting in touch with me on email and the social media, with a very basic financial query. The numbers were small first but post-covid this has turned into a deluge. The question being asked is how a reasonable monthly income can be generated from savings, without taking any risk, in a safe way.

The answer to this question has become very important as people have lost their jobs or seen their salaries being slashed and incomes falling. What does not help is the fact that the post-tax return from bank fixed deposits are now largely in the range of 4-5%. The inflation as measured by the consumer price index is close to 7%.

Before I try answering this question, it is important to understand why interest rates on bank fixed deposits have fallen. The simple answer to this lies in the fact that there is too much money floating around in the financial system, with the banks not knowing possibly what to do with it.

Between March 27 and July 31, a period of little over four months, the non-food credit given by banks has contracted by Rs 1.32 lakh crore or around 1.3%. The banks give loans to the Food Corporation of India (FCI) and other state procurement agencies to primarily buy rice and wheat directly from the farmers at the minimum support price declared by the government. Once these loans are deducted from the overall loans given by banks, what remains is non-food credit.

What does non-food credit contracting tells us? It tells us on the whole borrowers have been repaying loans and at the same time not taking on enough new loans. It also tells us that banks are reluctant to lend. Further, as we shall see, there has been a huge surge in fixed deposits with banks, as people have increased their savings in the aftermath of the spread of the covid-19 pandemic. Banks will take time to lend all this money out.

Between March 27 and July 31, the total deposits of banks have gone up by Rs 5.95 lakh crore or 4.4%. In an environment, where the non-food credit of banks has contracted whereas deposits have jumped big-time, it is but natural that interest rates on fixed deposits have fallen. In fact, the weighted average term deposit interest rate or simply put average fixed deposit interest rate has fallen from 6.45% in February to 6% in June, the latest data available. Now that we are in August, the interest rates may have possibly fallen even more.

In fact, there is nothing new about interest rates on fixed deposits falling, this has been going on for close to eight years now. Having said that, interest rates shouldn’t be looked at in isolation, it is important to compare them with the prevailing rate of inflation. Take a look at the following chart. It plots the average interest rate on fixed deposits during the course of a year, along with inflation as measured by the consumer price index. The difference between the two is referred to as the real rate of return on fixed deposits.

Interest v/s Inflation


Source: Reserve Bank of India.

What does the above chart tell us? Between 2014-15 and 2018-19, there was a healthy difference between the average interest paid on fixed deposits and inflation. (Of course, this is without taking tax on fixed deposit interest into account, else, the difference would have been lower).

These were the years when first Dr Raghuram Rajan and then Dr Urjit Patel were at the helm at the Reserve Bank of India. In 2019-20, the real return on fixed deposits narrowed to 1.6%. Shaktikanta Das took over as RBI Governor in December 2018.

Let’s take a look at the real return on fixed deposits month wise since December 2018, the month when Das took over as RBI Governor. The real return on fixed deposits as explained earlier is the average interest rate on fixed deposits minus the prevailing rate of inflation.

Crash in real returns


Source: Author calculations on data from the Reserve Bank of India.

This chart is as clear as anything can get. The real rate of return on fixed deposits has simply collapsed since end of 2018. This has happened as the interest rate on fixed deposits has fallen and inflation has gone up.

The interest rate on fixed deposits has fallen primarily because the rate of loan growth for banks has crashed over this period. This we can see from the following chart.

Loan growth crash


Source: Reserve Bank of India.

The above chart clearly tells us that the loan growth of banks has crashed since December 2018. In fact, for the week ended July 31, it stood at just 5.4%. Given this, the Indian economy was slowing down even before covid-19 pandemic struck.

Hence, as economic growth has slowed down, the loan growth of banks has slowed down and this has led to fixed deposit interest rates coming down as well. The point being that in economics everything is linked.

Of course, there is more to this than just the economy slowing down. Since February,  like the rest of the central banks, the RBI has printed and pumped money into the financial system to drive down interest rates, in the hope of getting businesses and people to borrow more.

Also, with collapse in tax revenues, the government will have to borrow more this year, in order to keep its expenditure going. Hence, it likes the idea of borrowing more at lower interest rates. The RBI goes along with this because among other things it also acts as the debt manager of the government.

The problem is that India’s economic crisis has grown worse since the covid pandemic hit the world, leading to a lot of individuals losing their jobs or facing salary cuts. Small businesses have been majorly hit and incomes have come down dramatically.

In this environment, people are now looking to generate some sort of a regular income from their savings. Of course, most them want to do this in a risk free way. As one gentleman recently asked me: “I am currently not employed after having worked in the corporate sector for 10 years. My request to you is to honestly guide me on how and where to invest to earn steady income especially when the fixed deposit interest rates have fallen so low.”

The first thing I can clearly say is that the gentleman believes that there is a solution to his problem. He believes that it is possible to generate a good steady income despite fixed deposit interest rates having fallen.

I see this belief among many people. My guess is, it stems from the fact that way too many personal finance publications believe in offering solutions to everything. I mean, why will a reader read you, if at the end of it you say something like there aren’t really any solutions to this problem that you might have. At least, that’s how their thinking operates. Also, they need advertisers. And advertisers love solutions to everything, even when none really exist.

In June 2020, the average rate of interest on a fixed deposit was 6%. Once we take income tax into account, the rate of return would be much lower. Of course, there are banks out there which are offering a rate of interest of 7% or more. Nevertheless, these banks are perceived to be among the riskier ones. So, the question is are you willing to take on more risk, for a 1-1.5% higher return? If yes, then these investments are for you.

While, we live in an era where no bank is going to go bust, they can and have been put under a moratorium or periods under which only a limited amount of money can be withdrawn from them. And money that can’t be spent when it is needed, is essentially useless. Hence, if you do end up putting money in a bank which offers a 1-1.5% higher return, do remember not to put all your money into it.

There are corporate fixed deposits which offer a slightly higher return but again they don’t have the same safety as a bank does.

If you are senior citizen, you can look at the Senior Citizens Savings Scheme. But that comes with the pain of dealing with the post office.

Debt mutual funds as many people have found out over the last one year, come with their own share of risks. They were marketed to be as safe as fixed deposits, but they weren’t anywhere close. Also, irrespective of what financial planners and wealth managers might say, debt mutual funds are fairly complicated products, which I am sure most people selling them don’t understand. And that’s why they are able to sell them in the first place.

A lot of individuals in the last few months have turned towards investing in stocks. The logic is that the stock market has rallied from its March low. On March 23, the BSE Sensex, India’s premier stock market index was at 25,981 points. Yesterday, August 26, it closed at 39,074 points, a jump of over 50% in a period of a little over five months. This rally has been driven by a few stocks and if you had invested in the right stocks, you would have ended up with good gains by now.

While, one can’t question this logic, but what one needs to remember is that on January 12, the Sensex was at 41,965 points. From there to March 23, it fell by 38% in a little over two months. The point being the stock market can fall as fast or even faster than it can rise. Also, do remember this basic point that a 50% fall can wipe off a 100% gain. (A 38% fall would have written off a 61% gain).

Hence, the larger point here as I mentioned in this piece I wrote a few days back is, just because an investor takes a higher risk by investing in stocks, it doesn’t mean he will always end up with higher returns, precisely the reason the word ‘risk’ is used in the first place. And by the way, the 10-year return on stocks (including dividends) is less than 9% per year.

So, the question is what should a person looking for a regular and safe income, actually do? As helpless as it might sound, there aren’t many options going around beyond the humble fixed deposit, especially for people who aren’t senior citizens. The trouble is the fixed deposit interest rates are at very low levels.

If you need to generate a monthly income of Rs 20,000 at 6% per year, this needs an investment of Rs 40 lakh.

The moral of the story here being that if you want to generate a regular safe income which is enough to meet your monthly needs, you need to invest more money. Or as Gulzar wrote in Gol Maal: “paisa kamane ke liye bhi paisa chahiye.” I would like to call this the Gulzar principle of investing for a regular income and safe returns.

Also, there are corollaries to this. These are very difficult times. Hence, there is a good chance of individuals ending up in a situation where they might have to spend their savings (rather than just the return on savings) to keep meeting expenditure.

Let’s take the example of a middle-class household with monthly expenses of Rs 50,000. In order to generate this income through a fixed deposit, an investment of Rs 1 crore is needed. Of course, the chances of a middle-class household with expenses of Rs 50,000 per month having savings of a crore, are rather minimal. In this scenario, they will have to resort to spending their savings. Given this, as I keep saying, the return of capital is much more important now than the return on capital.

In the short run, the only way to generate a good regular and safe income is find a job or any other source of income by selling the skills that one has (Like I write. I can do that for a media house or do it individually). In the long run, the next time you see interest rates of 8-9% available on fixed deposits or any other safe investment, invest in these assets and lock in the high returns for as long as possible.

While, this might not sound much like a solution but that is the long and the short of it.