Why No One is Worried About Savers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chidamabaram didn’t start the rupee fire, but India is burning because of it

Vivek Kaul
P Chidambaram, the finance minister, made the routine let’s not get worried statement, over the rupee’s recent fall against the dollar.“We are watching the situation. RBI will take whatever action it has to take. We will (do) whatever has to be done…My request is you should not react in panic. It’s happening around the world,” he said.
This was something that was reiterated by 
Arvind Mayaram, secretary of the department of economic affairs, in the ministry of finance. “No, I don’t think the government needs to take any measures…We are watching the situation closely…If you see weakening of all currencies vis-a-vis the dollar, the rupee is also not unaffected in that sense…this panic in the market is unwarranted.”
A finance minister and his bureaucrat are expected to defend a falling currency. And yes, it’s true a lot of currencies have lost value against the dollar recently. But does that make the pain any lesser for India? Are there no reasons to worry as Mayaram wants us to believe?
Chidambaram’s “it is happening around the world” argument can be tackled with a simple analogy. Let’s say one of your neighbours starts a fire by mistake, which eventually spreads to your house. What do you do in such a situation? You try and stop the fire from spreading further, rather than sitting and blaming your neighbour for it or saying that I should not panic because I did not start the fire. Irrespective of where the fire started, the damage is yours, if you do not work towards putting it off.
Even though the rupee is falling against the dollar because of 
certain actions taken by the Federal Reserve of United States, it is clearly damaging India.
A depreciating rupee means that India has to pay more in rupee terms, for its oil imports. The price of the Indian basket of crude oil was at around $98 per barrel at the beginning of June.
It rose to $104 per barrel on June 19, 2013. On June 20, 2013, it fell to $101.8 per barrel. The rupee during the same period has fallen to Rs 60 to a dollar(Rs 59.75 as I write this) from around Rs 56.5 at the beginning of .
What this means is that India’s oil import bill has gone up in rupee terms. If the government decides to pass on this increase to the final consumer in the form of an increase in the price of diesel, petrol and kerosene, then it will lead to inflation or higher prices.
In fact CNG prices have already been hiked in Delhi by Rs 2, because of a weaker rupee.
If it decides to take on a part of the increase then it means greater expenditure for the government. A greater expenditure in turn means a higher fiscal deficit for the government. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends. A higher fiscal deficit means that the government has to borrow more to finance its expenditure and this leads to higher interest rates, which holds back economic growth.
Coal is another big import item. With the rupee losing value against the dollar the cost of importing coal is going up. Coal in India is imported typically by private power companies to produce power. The government owned Coal India Ltd, does not produce enough coal to meet the needs. The Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs recently 
decided to allow private power companies to pass on the rising cost of imported coal to consumers.
This will lead to a higher cost of power, which will add to inflation. 
As Anand Tandon writes in The Economic Times “Inflation at the consumer level will start hotting up in the third quarter of the fiscal year as increases in power and fuel cost work their way through the system.”
A depreciating rupee will benefit Indian exporters, or so goes the argument. As rupee loses value against the dollar, an exporter who gets paid in dollars, gets more rupees, when he converts those dollars into rupees, thus boosting his profits.
This argument doesn’t really hold. 
The Economic Times quotes Anup Pujari, director general of foreign trade (DGFT), on this issue. “It is a myth that the depreciation of the rupee necessarily results in massive gains for Indian exporters. India’s top five exports — petroleum products, gems and jewellery, organic chemicals, vehicles and machinery — are so much import-dependent that the currency fluctuation in favour of exporters gets neutralised. In other words, exporters spend more in importing raw materials, which in turn erodes their profitability.”
The other thing that seems to be happening is that in a tough global economic environment, buyers are renegotiating contracts with Indian exports as the rupee loses value against the dollar.”The moment the rupee falls sharply against the dollar foreign buyers try to renegotiate their earlier deals. As most exporters give in to the pressure and split the benefits, the advantages of a weak rupee disappear,” Pujari told 
The Economic Times.
What this means is that a weaker rupee is unlikely to lead to higher exports. This means that the trade deficit or the difference between imports and exports will continue to remain high, which can weaken the rupee further against the dollar.
In fact, a depreciating rupee has rendered 
nearly 25,000 diamond workers in Surat jobless, reports The Times of India. “The depreciating rupee has resulted in nearly 1,200 small and medium diamond unit owners in shutting shops as they are unable to purchase rough stones whose prices have touched an all-time high. This has led to at least 25,000 workers being rendered jobless since last Thursday,” the report points out.
The rupee could have fallen to a much lower level against the dollar, but it did not. This is primarily because the Reserve Bank of India(RBI) has been defending the rupee, by selling dollars from its foreign exchange reserves, and buying rupees.
But the question is till when can the RBI keep selling dollars? “Foreign exchange reserves are barely sufficient to cover seven months of imports — the lowest it has been in the last 15 years. As a comparison, the other Bric members have 19-21 months of import cover,” writes Tandon. 
According Bank of America-Merril Lynch, the RBI can sell up to $30 billion to support the rupee.
The RBI cannot create dollars out of thin air, only the Federal Reserve of United States can do that.
Given this, there are reasons to worry. And yes, the Chidambaram’s UPA government did not start this rupee fire, but that does not mean that India is not burning because of it.

The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on June 25, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)