Why RBI’s Monetary Policy Has Been a Bigger Flop Than Bombay Velvet

Mere paas kothi hai na car sajni,
Kadka hai tera dildar sajni.
— Rajkavi Inderjeet Singh Tulsi, Ravindra Jain, Kishore Kumar, Asha Bhonsle and Ashok Roy, in Chor Machaye Shor.

Okay, I didn’t have to wait for the Reserve Bank of India’s monetary policy declared today, to write this piece. I could have written this piece yesterday or even a month back. But then the news cycle ultimately determines the number of people who end up reading what I write, and one can’t possibly ignore that.

A few hours back, the Monetary Policy Statement was published by the RBI, after the monetary policy committee (MPC) met on 2nd, 3rd and 4th December. The MPC of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has the responsibility to set the repo rate, among other things. The repo rate is the interest rate at which the RBI lends to banks, and which to some extent determines the interest rates set by commercial banks for the economy as a whole.

The MPC has been driving down the repo rate since January 2019, when the rate was at 6.5%. The rate had been cut to 5.15% by February 2020, around the time the covid pandemic struck.

By May 2020, the MPC had cut the repo rate further by 115 basis points to an all-time low of 4%. One basis point is one hundredth of a percentage. The idea behind the cut was two-fold.

In the aftermath of the covid pandemic as the economic activity crashed, the tax collections of the government crashed as well, leading to a situation where the government’s borrowing requirement jumped from Rs 7.8 lakh crore to Rs 12 lakh crore.

The massive repo rate cut would help the government to borrow more at lower interest rates. The yield or the return on a ten-year government of India bond in early February was at 6.64%. Since then it has fallen to around 5.89% as of December 4. The government of India borrows by selling bonds. The money that it raises helps finance its fiscal deficit or the difference between what it earns and what it spends.

The second idea was to encourage people to borrow and spend more and businesses to borrow and expand, at lower interest rates. Take a look at the following chart. It plots the average interest at which banks have given out fresh loans over the years.

Source: Reserve Bank of India.

The data on average interest at which banks have given out fresh loans is available for a period of a little over six years, starting from September 2014 and up to October 2020. It can be seen from the above chart that the interest rates in the recent months, have been the lowest in many years. But has that led to an increase in lending by banks, that’s the question that needs to be answered?

As of October 2020, the total outstanding non-food credit of banks by economic activity, had gone up by 5.6% in comparison to October 2019. Banks give loans to the Food Corporation of India and other state procurement agencies to buy rice, wheat and a few other agricultural products directly from farmers. Once we subtract these loans out from the overall loans given by banks that leaves us with non-food credit by economic activity.

Also, it needs to be mentioned here that this is how banking data is conventionally reported, in terms of the total outstanding loans of banks.

When you compare this with how other economic data is reported, it’s different. Let’s take the example of passenger cars.

When passenger car sales are reported, what is reported is the number of cars sold during a particular month and not the total number of cars running in India at that point of time. In case of banks, precisely the opposite thing happens.

What is conventionally reported is the total outstanding loans at any point of time and not the loans given incrementally during a particular period. So, the total outstanding non-food credit of Indian banks by economic activity, as of October end 2020 stood at Rs 92.13 lakh crore. This increased by 5.6% over October 2019.

The way this data is reported does not tell us the gravity of the situation that the banks are in. That comes out when we look at just incremental loans from one year back. The way to calculate this is to take total outstanding loans as of October 2020 and subtract that from outstanding loans of banks as of October 2019. The difference is incremental loans for October 2020. Similarly, the calculation can be done for other months as well.

Let’s take a look incremental loans data over the last three years.

111

As can be seen the above chart, the incremental loans every month in comparison to the same month last year, have been falling since late 2018, just a little before the RBI started cutting the repo rate. In October 2020, they stood at Rs 4.83 lakh crore, a three-year low.

What does this mean? It means that as the MPC of the RBI has gone about cutting the repo rate, the incremental loans given by banks have gone down as well. This is the exact opposite of what economists and central banks expect, that as interest rates fall, borrowing should go up.

And this has been happening from a time before the covid-pandemic struck. Covid has only accentuated this phenomenon. This also leads to the point I make often that for people to borrow more, just lower interest rates are not enough.

The main point that encourages people and businesses to borrow more is the confidence in their economic future. While the government will try and blame India’s currently economic problems totally on covid, it is worth mentioning here that India’s economic growth has seen a downward trend since March 2018. The economic growth for the period January to March 2018 had stood at 8.2% and has been falling since, leading to a lesser confidence in the economic future, both among individuals and corporates.

In fact, if we compare the situation between March 27, 2020, when covid first started spreading across India, and November 6, 2020, the total outstanding non-food credit of banks has grown by just Rs 2,221 crore (yes, you read that right, and this is not a calculation error).

During the same period, the total deposits of banks have grown by Rs 8.13 lakh crore or 6%. The incremental credit deposit ratio between March 27 and November 6, is just 0.27%. We can actually assume it be zero, given that it is so close to zero. Al these deposits have primarily been invested in government bonds.

Basically, on the whole, the banks have been unable to lend any of the deposits they have got from the beginning of this financial year. Only one part of banking is in operation. Banks are borrowing, they are not lending.

What does this tell us? It tells us that banking activity in the country has collapsed post covid, despite the RBI cutting the repo rate to an all-time low-level of 4%, where it’s 361 basis points lower than the latest rate of retail inflation of 7.61%. Other than cutting the repo rate, the RBI has also printed a lot of money and pumped it into the financial system, to drive down interest rates.

But despite that people and businesses are not borrowing. RBI’s monetary policy has been an even bigger flop than Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet, Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker and Satish Kaushik’s Roop ki Rani Choron ka Raja. (I name three different films so that readers of different generations all get the point I am trying to make here).

In the monetary policy statement released a few hours back, there is very little mention of this, other than:

“A noteworthy development is that non-food credit growth accelerated and moved into positive territory for the first time in November 2020 on a financial year basis .”

The governor’s statement has some general gyan like this:

“In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Reserve Bank has focused on resolution of stress among borrowers, and facilitating credit flow to the economy, while ensuring financial stability.”

No explanations have been offered on why the monetary policy has flopped. The current dispensation at India’s central bank is getting used to behaving like the current government.

It is important to understand here why monetary policy has been such a colossal flop this year. The answer lies in what the British economist John Maynard Keynes called the paradox of thrift. When a single individual saves more, it makes sense, as he prepares himself to face an emergency where he might need that money.

But when the society as a whole saves more, as it currently is, that causes a lot of damage because one’s man spending is another man’s income. As we have seen bank deposits during this financial year have gone up Rs 8.13 lakh crore or 6%. On the whole, people are cutting down on their spending and saving more for a rainy day.

The psychology of a recession at play and not just among those people who have been fired from their jobs or seen a fall in their income. It is obvious that such people are cutting down on their spending. But even those who haven’t faced any economic trouble are doing so.

They are doing so in the fear of seeing a fall in their income or losing their job and not being able to find a new one. When the individuals are cutting down on their spending, it doesn’t make much sense for businesses to borrow and expand. In fact, the overall bank lending to the industry sector has contracted by Rs 4,624 crore between October 2019 and October 2020.

Typically, in a situation like this, when the private sector is not in a position to spend, the government of the day steps in. The trouble is that the current government is not in a position to do so as tax revenues have collapsed this year. There other fears at play here as well.

In the midst of all this, Dinesh Khara, the chairman of the State Bank of India told the Business Standard, that bank lending rates “have actually bottomed”. Given that banks have barely lent anything this year, it makes me sincerely wonder what Mr Khara has been smoking. Clearly, it makes sense to avoid that.

To conclude, monetary policy should not get the kind of attention it gets in the business media, simply because, it is dead, and it has been dying for a while. The trouble is, there are one too many banking correspondents and even more central bank watchers, including me, who need to make a living.

And very few among us, are likely to ask the most basic question—why monetary policy is not working.

Le jayenge le jayenge dilwale dulhaniya le jayenge
— Rajkavi Inderjeet Singh Tulsi, Ravindra Jain, Kishore Kumar, Asha Bhonsle and Ashok Roy, in Chor Machaye Shor.

 

13 Reasons RBI Shouldn’t Allow Large Corporates/Industrial Houses to Own Banks

Apna hi ghar phoonk rahe hain kaisa inquilab hai.

— Hasrat Jaipuri, Mohammed Rafi, Mukhesh, Ravindra Jain and Naresh Kumar, in Do Jasoos.

Should large corporates/industrial groups be allowed to own banks? An internal working group (IWG) of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), thinks so. I had dwelled on this issue sometime last week, but that was a very basic piece. In this piece I try and get into some detail.

The basic point on why large corporates/industrial groups should be allowed into banking is that India has a low credit to gross domestic product (GDP) ratio, which means that given the size of the Indian economy, the Indian banks haven’t given out enough loans. Hence, if we allow corporates to own and run banks, there will be more competition and in the process higher lending. QED.

Let’s take a look at the following chart, it plots the overall bank lending to GDP ratio, over the years.


Source: Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

The above chart makes for a very interesting read. The bank lending grew from 2000-01 onwards. It peaked at 53.36% of the Indian GDP in 2013-2014. In 2019-20 it stood at 50.99% of the GDP, more or less similar to where it was in 2009-10, a decade back, at 50.97% of the GDP. Hence, the argument that lending by Indian banks has been stagnant over the years is true.

But will more banks lead to more lending? Since 2013, two new universal banks, seven new payment banks and ten new small finance banks have been opened up. But as the above chart shows, the total bank loans to GDP ratio has actually come down.

Clearly, the logic that more banks lead to more lending is on shaky ground. There are too many other factors at work, from whether banks are in a position and the mood to lend, to whether people and businesses are in the mood to borrow. Also, the bad loans situation of banks matters quite a lot.

In fact, even if we were to buy this argument, it means that the Indian economy needs more banks and not necessarily banks owned by large corporates/industrial houses, who have other business interests going around.

Also, the banks haven’t done a good job of lending this money out. As of March 2018, the bad loans of Indian banks, or loans which had been defaulted on for a period of 90 days or more, had stood at 11.6%. So, close to Rs 12 of every Rs 100 of loans lent out by Indian banks had been defaulted on. In case of government owned public sector banks, the bad loans rate had stood at 15.6%. Further, when it came to loans to industry, the bad loans rate of banks had stood at 22.8%.

Clearly, banks had made a mess of their lending. The situation has slightly improved since March 2018. The bad loans rate of Indian banks as of March 2020 came down to 8.5%. The bad loans rate of public sector banks had fallen to 11.3%.

The major reason for this lies in the fact that once a bad loan has been on the books of a bank for a period of four years, 100% of this loan has been provisioned for. This means that  the bank has set aside an amount of money equal to the defaulted loan amount, which is adequate to face the losses arising out of the default. Such loans can then be dropped out of the balance sheet of the banks. This is the main reason behind why bad loans have come down and not a major increase in recoveries.

This is a point that needs to be kept in mind before the argument that large corporates/industrial houses should be given a bank license, is made.

There are many other reasons why large corporates/industrial houses should not be given bank licenses. Let’s take a look at them one by one.

1) The IWG constituted by the RBI spoke to many experts. These included four former deputy governors of the RBI, Shyamala Gopinath, Usha Thorat, Anand Sinha and N. S. Vishwanathan. It also spoke to Bahram Vakil (Partner, AZB & Partners), Abizer Diwanji (Partner and National Leader – Financial Services EY India),  Sanjay Nayar (CEO, KKR India), Uday Kotak (MD & CEO, Kotak Mahindra Bank.), Chandra Shekhar Ghosh (MD & CEO, Bandhan Bank) and PN Vasudevan (MD & CEO, Equitas Small Finance Bank).

Of these experts only one suggested that large corporates/industrial houses should be allowed to set up banks. The main reason behind this was “the corporate houses may either provide undue credit to their own businesses or may favour lending to their close business associates”. This is one of the big risks of allowing a large corporate/industrial house to run a bank.

2) As the Report of the Committee on Financial Sector Reforms (2009) had clearly said:

“The selling of banks to industrial houses has been problematic across the world from the perspective of financial stability because of the propensity of the houses to milk banks for ‘self-loans’ [emphasis added]. Without a substantial improvement in the ability of the Indian system to curb related party transactions, and to close down failing banks, this could be a recipe for financial disaster.”

While, the above report is a decade old, nothing has changed at the ground level to question the logic being offered. Combining banking and big businesses remains a bad idea.

3) Let’s do a small thought experiment here. One of the reasons why the government owned public sector banks have ended up with a lot of bad loans is because of crony capitalism. When a politician or a bureaucrat or someone higher up in the bank hierarchy, pushes a banker to give a loan to a favoured corporate, the banker isn’t really in a position to say no, without having to face extremely negative consequences for the same.

Along similar lines, if a banker working for a bank owned by a large corporate or an industrial house, gets a call from someone higher up in the hierarchy to give out a loan to a friend of a maalik  or to a company owned by the maalik, will he really be in a position to say no? His incentive won’t be very different from that of a public sector banker.

4) As Raghuram Rajan and Viral Acharya point out in a note critiquing the entire idea of large corporates/industrial houses owning banks: “Easy access to financing via an in-house bank will further exacerbate the concentration of economic power in certain business houses.” This is something that India has had to face before.

As the RBI Report of Currency and Finance 2006-08 points out:

“The issue of combining banking and commerce in the banking sector needs to be viewed in the historical perspective as also in the light of crosscountry experiences. India’s experience with banks before nationalisation of banks in 1969 as well as the experiences of several other countries suggest that several risk arise in combining banking and commerce. In fact, one of the main reasons for nationalisation of  banks in 1969 and 1980 was that banks controlled by industrial houses led to diversion of public deposits as loans to their own companies and not to the public, leading to concentration of wealth in the hands of the promoters. Many other countries also had similar experiences with the banks operated by industrial houses.”

This risk is even more significant now given that many industrial houses are down in the dumps thanks to over borrowing and not being able to repay bank loans. Hence, the concentration of economic power will be higher given that few industrial houses have their financial side in order, and they are the ones who will be lining up to start banks.

5) Another argument offered here has been that the RBI will regulate bank loans and hence, self-loans won’t happen. Again, this is an assumption that can easily be questioned. As the RBI Report of Currency and Finance 2006-08 points out: “The regulators temper the risk taking incentives of banks by monitoring and through formal examinations, this supervisory task is rendered more difficult when banking and commerce are combined.”

This is the RBI itself saying that keeping track of what banks are up to is never easy and it will be even more difficult in case of a bank owned by a big business.

6) The ability of Indian entrepreneurs to move money through a web of companies is legendary. In this scenario, the chances are that the RBI will find out about self-loans only after they have been made. And in that scenario there is nothing much it will be able to do, given that corporates have political connections and that will mean that the RBI will have to look the other way.

7) There are other accounting shenanigans which can happen as well. As the RBI Report of Currency and Finance cited earlier points out:

“Bank can also channel cheaper funds from the central bank to the commercial firm. On the other hand, bad assets from the commercial affiliate could be shifted to the bank either by buying assets of the firms at inflated price or lending money at below-market rates in order to effect capital infusion.”

Basically, the financial troubles of a large corporate/industrial house owning a bank can be moved to the books of the bank that it owns.

8) If we look at the past performance of the RBI, there wasn’t much it could do to stop banks from bad lending and from accumulating bad loans.  This is very clear from the way the RBI acted between 2008 and 2015. Public sector banks went about giving out many industrial loans, which they shouldn’t have, between 2008 and 2011. The RBI couldn’t stop them from giving out these loans. It could only force them to recognise these bad loans as bad loans, post mid-2015 onwards, and stop them from kicking the bad loans can down the road. So, the entire argument that the RBI will prevent a bank owned by a large corporate/industrial house from giving out self-loans, is on shaky ground.

9) Also, it is worth remembering that the RBI cannot let a bank fail. This creates a huge moral hazard when it comes to a bank owned by a large corporate/industrial house. What does this really mean? Before we understand this, let’s first try and understand what a moral hazard means.

As Alan S Blinder, a former vice-chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States, writes in After the Music Stopped: “The central idea behind moral hazard is that people who are well insured against some risk are less likely to take pains ( and incur costs) to avoid it. Here are some common non financial examples: …people who are well insured against fire may not install expensive sprinkler systems; people driving cars with more safety devices may drive less carefully.”

In the case of a large corporate/industrial house owned bank, the bank knows that the RBI cannot let a bank fail. This gives such a bank an incentive to take on greater risks, which isn’t good for the stability of the financial system.

As the Currency Report points out:

“The greatest source of risk from combining banking and commerce arises from the threat to the safety net provided under the deposit insurance and ‘too-big-to-fail’ institutions whose depositors are provided total insurance and the mis-channeling of resources through the subsidised central bank lending to banks. Because of the safety net provided, the firms affiliated with banks could take more risk with depositors’ money, which could be all the more for large institutions on which there is an implicit guarantee [emphasis added] from the authorities.”

Other than incentivising the other firms owned by the same large corporates/industrial houses to take on more risk in its activities, it also means that now the RBI other than keeping track of banks, will also need to keep track of the economic activities of these other firms. Does the RBI have the capacity and the capability to do so? 

10) Another argument offered in favour of large corporates/industrial houses owning banks is that they already own large NBFCs. So, what is the problem with them owning banks? The problem lies in the fact that banks have access to a safety net which the NBFCs don’t. RBI will not let a bank fail and will act quickly to solve the problem. And that is the basic difference between a large corporate/industrial house owning a bank and owning an NBFC. Also, the arguments that apply to large corporates/industrial houses owning a bank are equally valid in case of them owning NBFCs, irrespective of the fact that large corporates already own NBFCs. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

11) We also need to take into account the fact many countries including the United States, which has much better corporate governance than India, don’t allow the mixing of commerce and business. As the Report of the Committee on Financial Sector Reforms (2009) had pointed out: “This prohibition on the ‘banking and commerce’ combine still exists in the United States today, and is certainly necessary in India till private governance and regulatory capacity improve.”

The interesting thing is that in the United States, the separation between banking and commerce has been followed since 1787.

As the Currency Report points out:

“Banks have frequently tried to engage in commercial activities, and commercial firms have often attempted to gain control of banks. However, federal and state legislators have repeatedly passed laws to separate banking and commerce, whenever it appeared that either (i) the involvement of banks in commercial activities threatened their safety and soundness; or (ii) commercial firms were acquiring a large numbers of banks.”

Also, anyone who has studied the South East Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s would know that one of the reasons behind the crisis was allowing large corporates to own banks.

12) This is a slightly technical point but still needs to be made. Banks by their very definition are highly leveraged, which basically means the banking business involves borrowing a lot of money against a very small amount of capital/equity invested in the business. The leverage can be even more than 10:1, meaning that the banks can end up borrowing more than Rs 100 to go about their business, against an invested capital of Rs 10.

On the flip side, the large corporates/industrial houses have concentrated business interests or business interests which are not very well-diversified. Hence, trouble in the main business of a large corporate can easily spill over to their bank, given the lack of diversification and high leverage. This is another reason on why they should not be allowed to run banks.

13) As Raghuram Rajan and Viral Acharya wrote in their recent note: “One possibility is that the government wants to expand the set of bidders when it finally sets to privatizing some of our public sector banks.”

This makes sense especially if one takes into account the fact that in recent past the government has been promoting the narrative of atmanirbharta.

In this environment they definitely wouldn’t want to sell the public sector banks to foreign banks, who are actually in a position to pay top dollar. Hence, the need for banks owned by large corporates/industrial houses looking to expand quickly and willing to pay good money for a bank already in existence.

Given this, the government wants banks owned by large corporates/industrial houses in the banking space, so that it is able to sell out several dud public sector banks at a good price. But then this as explained comes with its own set of risks.

 

To conclude, the conspiracy theory is that all this is being done to favour certain corporates close to the current political dispensation. And once they are given the license, this window will be closed again. Is that the case? On that your guess is as good as mine. Nevertheless, if this is pushed through, someone somewhere will have to bear the cost of this decision.

As I often say, there is no free lunch in economics, just that sometimes the person paying for the lunch doesn’t know about it.

Aa gaya aa gaya halwa waala aa gaya, aa gaya aa gaya halwa waala aa gaya
— Anjaan, Vijay Benedict, Sarika Kapoor, Uttara Kelkar, Bappi Lahiri and B Subhash (better known as Babbar Subhash), in Dance Dance.

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.

Using Deposits to Rescue Banks is a Bad Idea; It Needs to Be Nipped in the Bud

Indian_ten_rupee_coin_(2008_Reverse)
I have been travelling for the past two weeks and a question that has been put to me, everywhere I have gone is: “will fixed deposits be used to rescue banks that are in trouble?

People have been getting WhatsApp forwards essentially saying that the Modi government is planning to use their bank deposits to rescue all the banks that are in trouble. As is usually the case with WhatsApp, this is not true. The truth is a lot more nuanced.

Let’s try and understand this in some detail.

Where did the idea of fixed deposits being used to rescue troubled banks come from?
The government had introduced The Financial Resolution and Deposit Insurance(FRDI) Bill, 2017, in August 2017. This Bill is currently being studied in detail by a Joint Committee of members belonging to the Lok Sabha as well as the Rajya Sabha.

The basic idea behind the FRDI Bill is essentially to set up a resolution corporation which will monitor the health of the financial firms like banks, insurance companies, mutual funds, etc., and in case of failure try and resolve them.

The Clause 52 of the FRDI Bill uses a term called “bail-in”. This clause essentially empowers the Resolution Corporation “in consultation with the appropriate regulator, if it is satisfied that it necessary to bail-in a specified service provider to absorb the losses incurred, or reasonably expected to be incurred, by the specified service provider.”

What does this mean in simple English? It basically means that financial firms or a bank on the verge of a failure can be rescued through a bail-in. Typically, the word bailout is used more often and refers to a situation where money is brought in from the outside to rescue a bank. In case of a bail-in, the rescue is carried out internally by restructuring the liabilities of the bank.

Given that banks pay an interest on their deposits, a deposit is a liability for any bank.
The Clause 52 of FRDI essentially allows the resolution corporation to cancel a liability owed by a specified service provider or to modify or change the form of a liability owed by a specified service provider.

What does this mean in simple English? Clause 52 allows the resolution corporation to cancel the repayment of various kinds of deposits. It also allows it to convert deposits into long term bonds or equity for that matter. Haircuts can also be imposed on firms to which the bank owes money. A haircut basically refers to a situation where the borrower negotiates a fresh deal and does not payback the entire amount that it owes to the creditor.

But there are conditions to this…
The bail-in will not impact any liability owed by a specified service provider to the depositors to the extent such deposits are covered by deposit insurance. This basically means that the bail-in will impact only the amount of deposits above the insured amount. As of now, in case of bank deposits, an amount of up to Rs 1 lakh is insured by the Deposit Insurance and Credit Guarantee Corporation (DICGC). This amount hasn’t been revised since 1993.

Typically, anyone who has deposits in a bank tends to assume that they are 100 per cent guaranteed. But that is clearly not the case. Over the years, the government has prevented the depositors from taking a hit by merging any bank which is in trouble with another bigger bank.

So, to that extent the situation post FRDI Bill is passed, is not very different from the one that prevails currently. It’s just that the government has come to the rescue every time a bank is in trouble and I don’t see any reason for that to change, given the pressure on the government when such a situation arises and the risk of the amount of bad press it would generate, if any government allowed a bank to fail.

Over and above this, Clause 55 of the FRDI Bill essentially states that “no creditor of the specified service provider is left in a worse position as a result of application of any method of resolution, than such creditor would have been in the event of its liquidation.” This basically means that no depositors after the bail-in clause is implemented should get an amount of money which is lesser than what he would have got if the firm were to be liquidated and sold lock, stock and barrel.

While, this sounds very simple in theory, it will not be so straightforward to implement this clause.

So why is the government doing this?
In late 2008 and early 2009, governments and taxpayers all over the world bailed out a whole host of financial institutions which were deemed too big to fail. In the process, they ended up creating a huge moral hazard.

As Mohamed A El-Erian writes in The Only Game in Town“[It] is the inclination to take more risk because of the perceived backing of an effective and decisive insurance mechanism.”

If governments and taxpayers keep rescuing banks what is the signal they are sending out to bank managers and borrowers? That it is okay to lend money irresponsibly given that governments and taxpayers will inevitably come to their rescue.

In order to correct for this moral hazard, in November 2008, the G20, of which India is a member, expanded the Financial Stability Forum and created the Financial Stability Board. The Board came up with a proposal titled “Key Attributes of Effective Resolution Regimes for Financial Institutions”. This proposal suggests to “carry out bail-in within resolution as a means to achieve or help achieve continuity of essential functions”. India has endorsed this proposal. Hence, unlike what WhatsApp forwards have been claiming this proposal has been in the works for a while now.

But does this really prevent moral hazard?
A bulk of the banking sector in India is controlled by the government owned public sector banks. As of September 30, 2017, these banks had a bad loans rate of 12.6 per cent (for private banks it is at 4.3 per cent).  Bad loans are essentially loans in which the repayment from a borrower has been due for 90 days or more. The bad loans rate when it comes to lending to industry is even higher. In case of some banks it is close to 40 per cent.

This is primarily because banks over the years, under pressure from politicians and bureaucrats, lent a lot of money to crony capitalists, who either siphoned off this money or overborrowed and are now not in a position to repay. This is a risk that remains unless until the banking sector continues to primarily remain government owned in India.

Also, the rate of recovery of bad loans of banks in 2015-2016, stood at 10.3 per cent.  This does not inspire much confidence. In this scenario, having a clause which allows the resolution corporation to get depositors to pay for the losses that banks incur, is really not fair. The moral hazard does not really go away. The bankers, politicians and crony capitalists, can now look at bank deposits to rescue banks. As of now, the government and the taxpayers have kept rescuing public sector banks, by infusing more and more capital into them. Now the depositors can take over, if FRDI Bill becomes an Act.

It is worth pointing out here that the other G20 countries which have supported this proposal have some sort of a social security system in place, which India lacks. Given this, deposits are the major form of savings and earnings for India’s senior citizens and clearly, they don’t deserve to be a part of any such risk.

While, any government will think twice before using depositor money to rescue a bank, this is not an option that should be made available to governments or bureaucrats in India. It is a bad idea. It needs to be nipped in the bud.

These are my initial thoughts on the issue. Depending on how the situation evolves, I will continue to write on it.

The column originally appeared on Equitymaster on December 11, 2017.

India’s Big and Messy Real Estate Ponzi Scheme, Just Got Messier

 

250px-Underconstruction_Building

Over the last few years, many real estate companies across the country, particularly in Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR), have taken money from home buyers and not been able to deliver promised homes on time.

Some of these companies have also taken loans from banks and defaulted on those loans as well. Basically, these companies have taken money from home buyers, they have also taken loans from banks, and still been unable to deliver the promised homes. In some cases, real estate companies have already booked sales on homes they are yet to deliver.

The question is where has this money gone?
I think there are two answers to the question. 1) Promoters of real estate companies have siphoned off a part of the loans they took on from banks and the money they took from buyers. 2) This money has been diverted for other uses, like completing previous projects and buying more land (or to put it in real estate parlance for building a formidable land bank).

Banks are now looking to recover their bad loans from real estate companies. And at the same time, the buyers are also hopeful that someday their dream homes will be delivered to them.

There are several interesting issues that crop up here:

a) It is now more or less clear that the real estate companies had been happily running a Ponzi scheme. A Ponzi scheme is basically a financial scam in which investors are promised very high returns. The money being invested by the second set of investors is used to pay off the first set. The money invested by the third set of investors is used to pay off the second set and so on. A Ponzi scheme runs until the money being invested in the scheme is greater than the money that is going to redeem the investment of the early investors. The moment this reverses, the scheme collapses.

The real estate companies essentially followed this model. They announced a new real estate project and then raised money against it. This money was then used to buy more land or simply siphoned off. Then a new project was announced. The money raised against the new project was used to complete the earlier project. Of course, I am simplifying things a bit here, but that was the basic modus operandi.

The key in this method of selling homes was the ability to keep launching new projects. Over the years, as real estate returns fell, the ability of real estate companies to launch new projects came own drastically. Once this happened, they couldn’t raise enough money to complete their existing projects. And this led to many buyers being left stranded in a rented home.

b) The inability to deliver on promised homes along with low returns has put off people from investing in real estate. The falling interest in owning real estate becomes clear from the savings figures as well. As per the recently released annual report of the Reserve Bank of India, in 2012-2013, savings in physical assets made up for 14.4 per cent of the gross national disposable income (GNDI). By 2015-2016 this had fallen to 10.7 per cent of the GNDI. GNDI is a concept similar to GDP which also takes remittances from abroad and food aid into account. India’s GNDI is around 1.03 times its gross domestic product.

c) A bulk of the buyers had bought homes by taking on home loans from banks. They are currently paying EMIs against these loans. They are also paying a rent to live in the homes that they currently do. Given this, they are monetarily stretched. Further, they are paying an EMI for an asset which they haven’t got as yet and will probably never get in the form they had originally envisaged.

d) When prospective buyers take a home loan from a bank, the home they are buying is the collateral or the security against the loan that is taken. In many cases, the real estate companies have offered these homes against which home loans had already been taken, as a collateral to the banks, and taken on more loans. So, the buyers have been taken for a ride here. Also, the question is how have banks allowed dual financing on the same asset?

It is worth remembering here that many real estate companies which have defaulted on banks loans and delivering homes, worked on a pay as you build model. This basically meant that these companies got paid in instalments from the buyers at every stage of construction.

Hence, the homes were technically owned by the buyer (or to put it more specifically the bank from which the buyer had taken on a home loan) and could not have been offered as a collateral, without the consent of the buyer. Nevertheless, that seems to have happened. This is something that the banks need to explain. (In case you want to understand dual financing in even more detail click here and here).

e) So, where does that leave the buyer? Recently, bankruptcy proceedings have been started against Jaypee Infratech which took money from more than 30,000 buyers and did not deliver on the promised homes. At the same time, it has defaulted on bank loans. The Supreme Court has stayed these proceedings.

The Bankruptcy and Insolvency Code in its current form does not leave anything for the buyers. The buyers are not on the list of entities that will be compensated for payment of what is due to them once the company is liquidated. From the legal point of view this makes sense given that the money that the buyers had handed over to the real estate companies was basically an advance and not a loan. But then given that thousands of families are involved, should only the legal view prevail is a question even though tricky, worth asking.

Of course, the bureaucrats who wrote the bankruptcy code did not take the real estate sector and the way it operates, into account. This is something that the government should hopefully correct for in the days to come.

f) Suggestions are now being made that like the banks, the buyers should also be ready for a haircut (i.e. be ready to accept a part of the money they had invested with a real estate company to buy a flat and not the entire amount). The trouble with this argument is that for the banks, the bad loans of real estate companies are just a part of their overall bad loans. For the buyers, the money they invested with real estate companies was probably the biggest investment they ever made and if they have to take a haircut on it, they will probably never recover financially from it.

The Supreme Court now needs to decide whether the buyers are financial creditors or not. This is a tricky question, which I shall elaborate on later in the days to come.

g) In all this, the real estate promoters seem to be having the last laugh. A part of the money they borrowed from banks and took from real estate buyers, has been tunnelled out. It is hardly likely that the bankers will be able to go after their other assets (i.e. the land bank they built by tunnelling out money) in order to recover their loans. Hence, they have clearly managed to limit their losses.

In fact, in a fair world, the balance sheets of these real estate companies would have been subjected to forensic accounting in order to figure out where did the money go. But the bankruptcy code has no such provision. If it did that would inevitably delay the resolution process.

And this brings me back to the point that I keep making for all my readers who forever seem to want solutions to all problems; everything in India does not have a clear solution.

Of course, now the central government will have to get involved if this issue has to be sorted at any level. I only hope that they try and arrive at a private sector solution and the taxpayer money is not used in any form. Already, a section of the real estate sector is talking about a government bailout. If the builders in India don’t have money, who does?

To conclude, the mess in the real estate sector in India is an excellent example of what follows when a Ponzi scheme goes bust. And as they like to say in Hollywood films, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Keep watching.

The column originally appeared on Equitymaster.com on September 11, 2017.