The Orwellian Economics of Modi Govt

George_Orwell_press_photo

Almost, every other day I get an email or an sms from banks asking me to link my accounts and my Aadhar number.

The email typically says: “The Prevention of Money Laundering (Maintenance of Records) Rules, 2005 (“PML Rules 2005”) have been amended with effect from June 1, 2017 to require Aadhaar for every bank account. All existing Bank accounts have to be verified with Aadhaar by the banks by 31st December,2017, failing which the accounts will become inoperative.”

At the same time, a mobile phone company also sends out reminders at regular intervals asking me to link my phone number with my Aadhar number. The couple of times I visited their office in the recent past, I have been reminded of the same.

The last time I logged on to an airline website to carry out a web-checkin, I was asked for my Aadhar number, though this was optional.

When I applied for an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) for my last book, I was asked for my Aadhar number. An Aadhar number is now required for access to a whole host of government welfare programmes. The idea is to ensure that only those who genuinely qualify for the programme have access to it.

On the whole, the idea seems to be to use Aadhar to identify those people who are not paying their share of income tax, by figuring out their spending patterns.

On August 23, 2017, a notification was introduced which brought jewellers with a turnover of more than Rs 2 crore, under the Prevent of Money Laundering Act.

The limit for reporting transactions under the Act is at Rs 50,000. Basically, anyone using cash to buy gold jewellery over Rs 50,000 had to show his or her PAN card. Before this, since December 2015, anyone buying gold above Rs 2 lakh, had to show a PAN card.
With the August notification, the limit for showing the PAN card was lowered from Rs 2 lakh to Rs 50,000. Recently, the August 23 notification was rescinded. In doing so, the limit till which gold could be bought in cash without providing any identification jumped up again to Rs 2 lakh.

This, brings multiple questions to the fore. First and foremost, when every bank account holder needs to link his bank account to the Aadhar number, why doesn’t the same rule apply to anyone buying gold using cash. When every mobile phone user is being pestered to link his mobile number to his Aadhar number, why doesn’t the same rule apply to anyone buying gold using cash.

If it is important to clearly identify bank accounts and mobile numbers, it is also important to clearly identify who is buying gold. The question that arises here is that who buys gold in cash.

As the report titled A Study in Widening of Tax Base and Tackling Black Money produced by the business lobby FICCI points out: “The black money holders invest in bullion and Jewellery to protect the value of their black money from inflationary depreciation. Cash sales in the gold and Jewellery trade gives the buyer an option to convert black money into gold and Jewellery, while it gives the trader the option of keeping his unaccounted wealth in the form of stock, not disclosed in the books or valued at less than market price.”

The point being those who have black money like to buy gold in its various forms, using cash. If cash sales of gold need to be attacked it is important that some sort of identity of the individual buying gold be established.

Nevertheless, the Narendra Modi government doesn’t seem to think like that. Different rules for different people. As George Orwell writes towards the end of his brilliant book Animal Farm: “There was nothing there now except a single Commandment. It ran: All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

The column was originally published in the Bangalore Mirror on October 11, 2017.

Where George Orwell meets Wasim Barelvi 

george orwell
अभी कुछ दिनों की बात के एक मित्र जो के हिंदुस्तानी में थोड़ा बहुत लिखते हैं, उन्होने पुछा के जॉर्ज ओरवेल की Animal Farm में एक पंक्ति है “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,”  इसका हिंदुस्तानी में क्या अनुवाद होगा.

अब एक तरीका ये था के ओरवेल की इस पंक्ति का सीधे सीधे अनुवाद किया जाए. मुझे ये तरीका बड़ा बोरिंग लगा, क्यूंकि हर भाषा में इतनी गहराई होती है, के कम से कम मिसाल तो उसी भाषा में दी जा सके.
तभी मेरी tubelight हमेशा की तरह देर से जली और प्रोफेसर वसीम बरेलवी का एक शेर याद  आया: “गरीब लहरों पर पहरे बिठाये जाते हैं, समन्दरों की तलाशी कोई नहीं लेता”. इस शेर का भी लगभग वही माने है जो ओरवेल की पंक्ति का है.

ओरवेल ने अपनी बात प्रोफेस्सर बरेलवी से काफी पहले कही थी. क्या ओरवेल की ये पंक्ति प्रोफेसर साब के शेर की प्रेरना है? अब ये तो वही बता सकते हैं.

मतलब इसका ये है, के दुनिया में जो भी कहा जा सकता है, वो कहा जा चूका है. आप बस इतना कर सकते हैं को उसी बात को अपने अंदाज़ में कह सकते हैं. और अपने अंदाज़ में प्रोफेसर बरेलवी ने ये बात खूब कही है.

अब GST को ही ले लीजिये…
Prof._Wasim_Barelvi_(2)

Where George Orwell meets Wasim Barelvi 

george orwell
अभी कुछ दिनों की बात के एक मित्र जो के हिंदुस्तानी में थोड़ा बहुत लिखते हैं, उन्होने पुछा के जॉर्ज ओरवेल की Animal Farm में एक पंक्ति है “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,”  इसका हिंदुस्तानी में क्या अनुवाद होगा.

अब एक तरीका ये था के ओरवेल की इस पंक्ति का सीधे सीधे अनुवाद किया जाए. मुझे ये तरीका बड़ा बोरिंग लगा, क्यूंकि हर भाषा में इतनी गहराई होती है, के कम से कम मिसाल तो उसी भाषा में दी जा सके.
तभी मेरी tubelight हमेशा की तरह देर से जली और प्रोफेसर वसीम बरेलवी का एक शेर याद  आया: “गरीब लहरों पर पहरे बिठाये जाते हैं, समन्दरों की तलाशी कोई नहीं लेता”. इस शेर का भी लगभग वही माने है जो ओरवेल की पंक्ति का है.

ओरवेल ने अपनी बात प्रोफेस्सर बरेलवी से काफी पहले कही थी. क्या ओरवेल की ये पंक्ति प्रोफेसर साब के शेर की प्रेरना है? अब ये तो वही बता सकते हैं.

मतलब इसका ये है, के दुनिया में जो भी कहा जा सकता है, वो कहा जा चूका है. आप बस इतना कर सकते हैं को उसी बात को अपने अंदाज़ में कह सकते हैं. और अपने अंदाज़ में प्रोफेसर बरेलवी ने ये बात खूब कही है.

अब GST को ही ले लीजिये…
Prof._Wasim_Barelvi_(2)

Dear Mr Urjit Patel, Have You Ever Heard of Wasim Barelvi?

For a man who rarely and barely speaks, the Reserve Bank of India governor Urjit Patel spoke quite a lot in the press conference that happened after the first monetary policy of this financial year was presented on April 6, 2017.

In response to the question, “What do you think are the implications of the farm loan waiver schemes and is it a cause of concern for the RBI?”, Patel had this to say: “There are several conceptual issues, if one were to put one’s hat as an economist on. I think it undermines an honest credit culture, it impacts credit discipline, it blunts incentives for future borrowers to repay, in other words, waivers engender moral hazard. It also entails at the end of the day transfer from tax payers to borrowers. If on account of this, overall Government borrowing goes up, yields on Government bonds also are impacted. Thereafter it can also lead to the crowding out of private borrowers as higher government borrowing can lead to an increase in cost of borrowing for others. I think we need to create a consensus such that loan waiver promises are eschewed, otherwise sub-sovereign fiscal challenges in this context could eventually affect the national balance sheet.

Basically in one paragraph, Patel summarised all that is wrong about waiving off farmer loans or in fact, any loan. I had discussed most of these issues in my Diary dated April 5, 2017, last week.

The first issue that a waive-off of bank loans creates is that of a moral hazard. The economist Alan Blinder in his book After the Music Stopped writes that 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.”

This basically means that once the farmer sees a loan being waived off today, he will wait for elections in the future for the newer loans he takes on to be waived off as well. Essentially, he will see little incentive in repaying loans that he takes on in the future. Or as Patel put it: “it impacts credit discipline, it blunts incentives for future borrowers to repay”.

The second issue that a waive-off of bank loans creates is that it can lead to the crowding out of private borrowers. The state government waiving off the bank loans needs to compensate banks which had given these loans. In case of the Uttar Pradesh government which recently wrote off the loans, this amounts to Rs 36,359 crore. The government will have to borrow this amount in order to pay the banks simply because its earnings are lesser than its expenditure.

When a government borrows more, it leaves a lesser amount of money for others to borrow. This can push up interest rates and as Patel aptly puts it, “higher government borrowing can lead to an increase in cost of borrowing for others”. What also needs to be taken into account here is the fact that the Uttar Pradesh government waive-off might inspire other state governments to waive-off farmer loans as well. This will mean greater government borrowing and a higher crowding out effect.

It will also lead to the overall fiscal deficit of the nation (i.e. fiscal deficits of state governments plus that of the central government) going up. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends during the course of a year. The difference between the earning and the spending is met through borrowing.

If several state governments waive-off bank loans and borrow more, it will lead to the national fiscal deficit going up. As Patel puts it: “sub-sovereign fiscal challenges in this context could eventually affect the national balance sheet.”

So far so good. It is nice to see the RBI governor speak out against what is essentially bad economics and can screw up the economic and financial situation of the nation. Nevertheless, the question is where has all this forthrightness been when it comes to the issue of corporate defaults and loan write-offs?

As is well known, corporates have defaulted on several lakhs of crore of bank loans over the years. These defaulters have been treated with kid gloves. Over the years, a huge amount of corporate loans have been written off. It needs to be mentioned here that loans written off are different from loans being waived off, at least theoretically.

This is something I discuss in detail in my new book India’s Big Government—The Intrusive State and How It is Hurting Us. The loans written off are no longer be a part of the balance sheet of the bank, even though they can be recovered in the future. There is no chance of recovery in case of a loan that is waived off. Hence, theoretically there is a difference between a write-off and a waive-off.

Let’s try and understand this issue in a little more detail. Let’s first take the case of the State Bank of India. As of April 1, 2015, the bank had Rs 56,725 crore of bad loans, or gross NPAs. During the course of the year, Rs 4,389 crore of bad loans was recovered. At the same time, the bank wrote off Rs 15,763 crore of bad loans. The loans written off would no longer be a part of the balance sheet of the bank, even though they could be recovered in the future.

As we can see in case of the State Bank of India, the total amount of the loans written off during the year was more than three times the total amount of the loans recovered. That tells us the sad state of the loan recovery process. There were also fresh bad loans that were added to the balance sheet of the bank during the course of the year, and by March 31, 2016, the total bad loans of the bank had slipped to Rs. 98,173 crore.

Or take a look at Table 1 which shows the overall scenario comparing write-offs and recoveries.

Table 1: Write-offs versus recoveries of public sector banks

Write-offs versus recoveries of public sector banks

YearWrites-Offs
(in Rs. Crore)
Recoveries
(in Rs. Crore)
2015-201659,54739,534
2014-201552,54241,236
2013-201434,40933,698
2012-201327,23119,832

Source: Reserve Bank of India

As is clear from Table 1, write-offs of public sector banks have been greater than their recoveries. And the absolute difference between the two has only gone up over the years. A bulk of these loans are corporate loans. Hence, it is safe to say on the basis of this data that a large portion of corporate loans which are written-off are over the years, are practically waived-off because banks are really not able to recover these loans.

Hence, if the issue of moral hazard comes up with farmer loan waive-offs, it also comes up with corporate loan write-offs. And given that a large portion of what is technically a write-off is actually a waive-off, the case for moral hazard in this case is really very strong. The RBI governor Patel could have talked about this as well, given that he has been in office for more than seven months now.

Over and above this, corporate loan write-offs have led to the situation of diminishing bank capital. This has led to the central government having to recapitalise the public sector banks over the years. Between 2009 and now, the amount of money put in has been greater than Rs 1,30,000 crore. This money is ultimately borrowed by the government and leads to crowding out, higher interest rates and a weaker national balance sheet. All these issues pointed out by Patel in case of farm loan waive-offs apply to corporate write-offs as well.

But a word hasn’t been spoken against them.

In the Diary dated March 22, 2017, I had quoted the British author George Orwell. In his book Animal Farm, Orwell writes: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” The point being, if there is a moral hazard for the farmer, there is also one for corporates. And if the RBI governor has pointed out one, he should have pointed out the other as well.

Over the weekend, I came across a very interesting couplet which makes the same point has George Orwell did in the Animal Farm, but rather more forcefully.

As Wasim Barelvi, probably the greatest Urdu poet alive today, writes:

Garib lehron par pehren bithaye jaate hain
samundaron ki talashi koi nahi leta”.

(I couldn’t come across a good translation of this couplet. Hence, I am leaving it untranslated. But its basic meaning is the same as the line from Orwell’s Animal Farm, quoted earlier).

The column originally appeared on April 10, 2017 on Equitymaster

The Orwellian Economics of Indian Banking

George Orwell towards the end of his brilliant book Animal Farm writes: “There was nothing there now except a single Commandment. It ran: All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

Nowhere is this more visible these days than at Indian banks, in particular the government owned public sector banks, and the way they treat their different kind of borrowers. As is well known by now, Indian public sector banks have a massive bad loans problem. This basically means that borrowers who had taken loans over the years are now not repaying them. The bad loans of Indian banks are now among the highest in the world, only second to that of Russia.

The borrowers who have defaulted on their loans primarily consist of large borrowers i.e. corporates, who have taken on loans and are now not repaying them. As per the Economic Survey of 2016-2017, among the large defaulters are 50 companies which owe around Rs 20,000 crore each on an average to the banking system. Among these 50 companies are 10 companies which owe more than Rs 40,000 crore each on an average to the banking system.

These are exceptionally large amounts. Typically, when a borrower defaults the bank comes after him with full force, in order to recover the loan, by selling
assets offered as a collateral against the loan. But this force is not felt by the large corporates. It is felt by the small entrepreneurs who borrow from banks or people like you and me who take on retail loans like home loans, vehicle loans, credit card loans etc.

As former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan said in 2014 speech: “Its full force [i.e., of the banking system] is felt by the small entrepreneur who does not have the wherewithal to hire expensive lawyers or move the courts, even while the influential promoter once again escapes its rigour. The small entrepreneur’s assets are repossessed quickly and sold, extinguishing many a promising business that could do with a little support from bankers.”

Given that they have access to the best lawyers and are close to politicians, the large borrowers don’t feel the heat of the banking system.

In fact, the large borrowers given that they are large, get treated with kids gloves. In some cases, the repayment periods of their loans have been extended. In some other cases, the borrower does not have to pay interest on the loan for a specific period. But all this hasn’t really helped and the banking mess continues.

The Economic Survey of 2016-2017 has recommended based on the data for the year ending September 2016 that “about 33 of the top 100 stressed debtors would need debt reductions of less than 50 percent, 10 would need reductions of 51-75 percent, and no less than 57 would need reductions of 75 percent or more.”

This basically means that banks will have to take on what is technically referred to as a haircut. Let’s say a corporate owes Rs 100 to a bank. A haircut of 51 per cent would mean that he would now owe only Rs 49 to the bank. The bank would have to take on a loss of Rs 51.

The Economic Survey offers multiple reasons why haircuts will be required. The first and the foremost is that the borrowers simply do not have the money to repay. Secondly, large corporates owe money to many banks and these banks need to agree on a strategy to tackle the defaults. That hasn’t happened.

Of course, what the Economic Survey does not tell us is that the large borrowers are politically well connected. It also does not get into the moral hazard haircuts would create. Once corporates are bailed out this time around, why would they go around repaying loans the next time around? They simply won’t have the economic incentive to do so.

And finally, the Survey does not tell us anything about why only the large corporates are being treated with kids gloves? I guess it does not need to because that was something Orwell explained to us many years back.

The column originally appeared in Bangalore Mirror on March 29, 2017.