Dear Reader, before you start thinking that I have click-baited you one more time, let me assure you that’s not true. Your personal finances in 2021 will actually face a Chinese problem.
But before we go into this, let’s first understand a few aspects about the Chinese saving habit over the years. Let’s look at this pointwise.
1)As is well known, the Chinese physical infrastructure over the years was funded through massive domestic savings being invested in bank deposits. As Charles Goodhart and Manoj Pradhan write in The Great Demographic Reversal: “Interest rates were set well below the rate of growth and the rate of inflation. While the economy grew on average by around 10% over 1990–2010, the inflation-adjusted deposit rate over the same period averaged −3.3% (for a 1.4% average for the nominal deposit rate versus an average annual inflation rate of 4.75%).”
Hence, the rate of interest rate was lower than the prevailing rate of inflation, for a period of two decades. If one were to state this in a simple way, the low interest rates acted effectively as a tax on Chinese households.
2) This tax did not matter much because the savings were channelised into investments. This created economic growth and the average income of a Chinese kept going up, year on year. Hence, while the interest being earned on the accumulated wealth was low, the regular yearly income kept going up.
3)Low interest rates led to an interesting behaviour at the household level. As Goodhart and Pradhan point out, there was “a negative correlation between urban savings and the decline in real deposit rates.” “When banks fail to protect household savings, households tend to save more, not less, in order to achieve a ‘target’, whether that is for education or the purchase of a home.” Basically, given the negative real rate of interest on bank deposits, where inflation was higher than the interest rate, Chinese households saved more money in bank deposits in order to achieve their targeted savings. Options of investing in other avenues were extremely limited.
Now the question is how does all this apply to your personal finance in India in 2021. Allow me to explain pointwise.
1)Interest rates on bank fixed deposits have collapsed. The interest offered on fixed deposits of more than one year, currently stands at around 5.5% on an average. This when the rate of inflation as measured by the consumer price index in November 2020 stood at 6.93%. Hence, the real rate of interest is in negative territory. If after tax the rate of return on fixed deposits is taken into account, the gap gets even bigger.
2)The major reason for this collapse in interest rates has been a collapse in bank lending. Given that banks, on the whole, have barely given out fresh loans since March, they possibly couldn’t keep paying a high rate of interest on deposits. Hence, the crash in interest rates. But what has added to this is the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) policy of flooding the financial system with money, in order to drive down interest rates further. The excess money in the financial system, which the banks deposit with the RBI, stood at Rs 6.25 lakh crore as of December 31, 2020.
3) From the indications that the RBI has given, this excess liquidity in the financial system is likely to continue. The idea is to help ease the burden on current loans of corporates. In a year the tax collections have collapsed this also helps the government to borrow at extremely low interest rates. At the same time, the hope is at lower interest rates corporates will borrow and expand. But that is not happening. Data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy shows that announcements of new investment projects in terms of value fell by 88.3% during the period October to December 2020. Investment projects completed were down by 74%. So, the corporates aren’t in the mood to borrow and expand.
There are a couple of reasons for this. Many corporates continue to remain over-leveraged. Still others don’t have enough confidence in India’s economic future, irrespective of what they say in the public domain. As they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
4)What does all this have to do with personal finance? What happened in China is happening in India as well. The bank savings have gone up dramatically during 2020. Between March 27 and December 18, they were up by Rs 9.15 lakh crore. In comparison, the increase during similar periods in 2019 and 2018, had stood at Rs 4.35 lakh crore and Rs 3.90 lakh crore, respectively. Of course, all this increase in saving is not just because of low interest rates. Some of it is because of fewer opportunities to spend money in 2020. Some of it is because of the general uncertainty that prevails. Some of it is because of jobs losses and the fear of job losses. And some of it is because Indians, like the Chinese, are saving more, in order to achieve the savings target for the education of their children or their weddings, or for the purchase of a home.
5)This has repercussions. With people saving more and with banks being unable to lend that money, interest rates have come down. And people saving more in response to the lower interest rates, means extended lower interest rates. This is not good news for savers. It is also not good news for consumption. If people are saving more, they are clearly spending lesser. This is the paradox of thrift or saving. When an individual saves more, it makes sense for him or her at an individual level. When the society as a whole saves much more than it was, it hurts the economy simply because one man’s spending is another man’s income. Over a period of time, this leads to job losses, more paradox of thrift and further job losses.
At the risk of sounding very cliched, there is no free lunch in economics. The RBI’s policy of flooding the financial system with money in order to help the corporates and the government, is basically hurting individual savers, consumption and the overall economy. The savers are paying for this lunch. And unlike the corporates, the savers have no unified voice. The government, obviously, is the government.
While, there is no denying that with lending not happening bank deposit rates had to fall, but the RBI policy of driving them down further, is something that is hurting the economy.
6)So, where does that leave the Indian saver? Some individual savers are betting on the stock market. But the price to earnings ratio of the Nifty 50 index as of January 1, stood at 38.55, an all-time high level. If you have the heart to invest in stocks at such a level, best of luck to you. Some others are betting on bitcoin, which has given a return of more than 75% in dollar terms, in the last one month.
Also, unlike the Chinese, the prospects of an increase in the yearly income of an average Indian, over the next years, at best remain subdued. Hence, the humble Indian fixed depositor, who liked to fill it, shut it and forget about it, so that he could concentrate on many other issues that his or her life keeps throwing up, clearly has a problem in 2021.
To conclude, all of you who write to me asking for a safe way of investing so that you can earn a 10% yearly return, well, sorry to disappoint you, no such way exists. At least not in 2021. Of course, there are always Ponzi schemes to invest in, some fraudulent, and some not so fraudulent.
The choice is yours to make.
PS: Wishing all my readers a very Happy New Year. Hope 2021 is much better than 2020 was for each one of you.
In October 2020, inflation as measured by the consumer price index stood at 7.61%. This is the highest inflation experienced during the period Narendra Modi has been prime minister. The last time inflation or the rate of price rise, was higher than this, was in March 2014, when it had stood at 7.63%.
Let’s look at this issue pointwise.
1)A major reason for high inflation has been high food inflation which was at 11.07% in October. Food forms around 39% of the weight of the consumer price index. Within food, prices of egg, fish and meat, oils and fats, vegetables, pulses and spices, went up by more than 10%.
Interestingly, potato prices are 104.56% higher since last October. This is the highest inflation among all the items which are a part of the consumer price index. One reason offered for this has been a disruption in supply chains due to the spread of covid. But the economy has now more or less totally opened up, meaning disruption can’t continue to be a valid reason. Also, food inflation has been on the higher side since October last year, much before covid broke out.
2)The high inflation is not just because of high food inflation. If we look at core inflation, which leaves out food items and fuel and light items, the inflation is at 5.64%, the highest in thirty months. A major reason for this has been an increase in transport and communication costs which went up by 11.16% in October.
Fares of buses, taxies, auto-rickshaws and rickshaws, have gone up. This is because petrol and diesel are now more expensive than they were last year. The government has increased the excise duty on both the fuels, despite the fact oil prices have fallen internationally. The government’s dependence on fuel taxes has only gone up this year and which is now reflecting in a higher inflation as well. Petrol and diesel used for vehicles come under the transport and communication category of the consumer price index and not the fuel category.
3)Another reason for high core inflation is the higher inflation in the pan, intoxicants and tobacco segment. Interestingly, foreign liquor and beer cost 22.32% and 25.32% more this year than last year. This reflects the state governments increasing the tax on these products in order to shore up revenue.
Toddy prices have also risen 20.19%. Also, the personal care and effects segment saw an inflation of 12.07% in October. The cost of going to a barber/beautician went up by 7.04%. But the major increase here has been in the prices of gold, silver and other ornaments, which went up by 33.77%, 36.66% and 20.52%, respectively. For some reason, they are categorised under personal care and effects.
4)While inflation in the health category has been lower this year than the last year, in October it went up by 5.22%, the highest it has been this year.
5)Within the fuel category, the price of domestic cooking gas went up by 10.16% in October, while non-PDS kerosene was up 8.28%.
6) The high inflation is primarily in the areas of food, parts of fuel, communication and to some extent, health. These are areas which impact the common man. How do higher prices of gold, silver and other ornaments impact the common man? They play a very important role in Indian marriages.
All in all, high inflation has hit India at a time when the country has just gone through its first ever recession after independence. The Indian economy contracted by 23.9% during April to June. It is expected to contract between July and September as well. A recession is defined as a period when the economy contracts for two consecutive quarters.
In fact, as Nikhil Gupta and Yaswi Agarwal of the stock brokerage Motilal Oswal point out in a recent research note: “The rise in the core inflation in India is also the highest among the 21 major economies in the world.” Indeed, this is very worrying.
7)High inflation has hit us at a time when an economic contraction has led to a fall in incomes. Over and above this, people are also saving more to be ready for a rainy day. The total amount of bank savings have increased by Rs 6.32 lakh crore between March 27, around the time the country first started to realise how dangerous covid could be, and October 23. Last year, during a similar period, the deposits had gone up by Rs 3.29 lakh crore. The psychology of a recession is totally in place.
What does this mean? A good segment of the population has been cutting down on their consumption, particularly non-essential consumption, thanks to lower incomes. A high rate of inflation, if it prevails, will only add to people cutting down on consumption further, making the job of the government and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) to get the economy going even more difficult.
8)While deposits with banks have soared, the total amount of loans given by banks has actually contracted by a little over Rs 32,000 crore between March 27 and October 23. On the whole, banks haven’t given a single rupee of a new loan, since covid struck.
This has led to the RBI cutting the repo rate or the rate at which it lends to banks. Along with this, the central bank has printed and pumped a lot of money into the financial system, in the hope of driving down interest rates, in order to get both companies and individuals to borrow and spend more money.
That clearly hasn’t happened because of the lack of certainty of economic future. But all the money flooding around in the financial system has led to lower deposit rates making lives of senior citizens difficult, who have no other option but to cut down on their consumption. Even those who use fixed deposits to save for the future are caught in a jam.
To conclude, in this environment if inflation continues to remain stubbornly high, as it has through much of this year, the job of the government and the RBI to get consumption going will become even more difficult. It will also lead to the RBI finding it difficult to continue cutting the repo rate.
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.
It’s 2019, and you are out watching an international cricket match.
You didn’t book tickets quickly enough and are sitting in one of the upper stands, pretty far away from where the action is.
Instead of sitting and watching the match, you stand up to get a better view. Of course, by doing this, you end up blocking the person behind you. He also has to get up to get a better view of the cricket.
When he does this, he ends up blocking the view of the person behind him. And so, it goes. Pretty soon, everyone in the rows behind you has also stood up to get a better view.
Economists have a term for a situation like this. They call it the fallacy of composition or the assumption that what’s good for a part (that’s you in this case) is good for the whole (the people sitting behind you) as well.
So, why are we talking about cricket and sports here? What’s true about watching sports in a stadium is also true for the economy as a whole.
John Maynard Keynes, the most famous and influential economist of the twentieth century (and perhaps even the twenty first), came up with a concept called the paradox of thrift, where thrift refers to the entire idea of using money carefully.
Keynes studied the Great Depression of 1929. He concluded that during tough economic times, when the going is difficult, people become careful with spending money and try and save more of it. While this makes perfect sense at the individual level, it doesn’t make much sense at the societal level because ultimately one man’s spending is another man’s income.
If a substantial portion of the society starts saving, the paradox of thrift strikes, incomes fall, jobs are lost, businesses shutdown and the governments face a pressure on the tax front. The government also faces the pressure to do something about the prevailing economic situation.
This is precisely the situation playing out in India currently. The paradox of thrift is at work. Bank deposits between March 27 and September 25, the latest data that is available, have gone up by 5.1% or Rs 6.9 lakh crore to Rs 142.6 lakh crore. This is twice more than the increase that happened during the same period last year.
As far as loans are concerned, outstanding loans of banks have shrunk during this financial year. On the whole they haven’t given a single rupee of a new loan (loans are again meant to be spent).
Keynes had suggested that during tough economic times, when the private sector, both individuals and corporations are not spending much money, the government needs to step in and act as the spender of the last resort. In fact, Keynes rhetorically even suggested that if nothing, the government should get workers to dig holes and fill them up, and pay them for it.
When the workers spend this money, it would start reviving the economy. Economists refer to the situation of the government spending money in order to get economic growth going again as a fiscal expansion or a fiscal stimulus.
Since the start of this financial year, everyone who is remotely connected to economics in India in anyway, be it journalists, economists, analysts, corporates, fund managers and even politicians, have been demanding a bigger fiscal stimulus from the government to get economic growth going again.
The government has responded in fits and starts. Last week the central government came up with a few more steps including the LTC cash voucher scheme, special festival advance scheme, loans to states for capital expenditure and an additional capital expenditure of Rs 25,000 crore.
The fact that one week later one’s not hearing much about these moves, tells us they have already fizzled out. They didn’t have much legs to stand on in the first place. Let’s look at these moves pointwise before we get into greater fiscal stimulus as a strategy, in detail.
1) The government announced last week that in lieu of leave travel concession (LTC) and leave encashment, the central government employees can opt for a cash payment. This money has to be used to take make purchases.
LTC is a part of the salaries of central government employees. Instead of traveling in these difficult times in order to avail the LTC, the employees can opt for a cash payment. But this cash payment comes with certain terms and conditions.
Employees who opt for an encashment need to buy goods/services which are worth thrice the fare and one time the leave encashment. Only the actual fare of travelling can be claimed as a tax exemption. Tax has to be paid on the money spent on other expenses during travelling, like hotel and restaurant bills.
This money will have to be spent on buying stuff which attract a minimum 12% goods and services tax (GST), by paying through the digital route to a GST-registered vendor. It is expected that the scheme will cost the government Rs 5,675 crore. Over and above this, it will cost the public sector banks and public sector units another Rs 1,900 crore. This works out to a total of Rs 7,575 crore.
The question is will people opt for this scheme or not, given that they need to spend money out of their own pocket (i.e. their savings) in order to get a tax deduction. It needs to be mentioned here that the increase in dearness allowance of central government employees has been postponed until July 1, 2021. This will act against the idea of spending. Also, there is paperwork involved here (always a bad idea if you want people to spend money).
2) Over and above this, all central government employees can get an interest-free advance of Rs 10,000, in the form of a prepaid RuPay Card, to be spent by March 31, 2021. This is expected to cost the central government Rs 4,000 crore. It’s not clear from the reading of the press release accompanying this announcement, whether it’s compulsory for central government employees to take this card, given that this money will have to ultimately be repaid.
Also, this is not fiscal expansion in the strictest sense of the term given that LTC is already a part of the employee pay and has been budgeted for. As far as the Rs 10,000 being given as an advance is concerned, it is an interest free advance. The government will bear the interest cost on this, which will be an extremely small amount. The employees will have to repay the advance.
3)The central government is also ready to give state governments Rs 12,000 crore for capital expenditure. These loans will be interest free and need to be repaid over a period of 50 years. This money needs to be spent by March 31, 2021. A state government will be given an amount of 50% of what it is eligible for first. The second half will be given after the first half has been spent.
One can’t really question the logic behind this move. But the question that arises here is, are state governments in a position to spend this money in the next five and a half months?
4)Finally, the government has decided to spend an additional Rs 25,000 crore (over and above Rs 4.12 lakh crore allocated in the budget) on roads, defence, water supply, urban development and domestically produced capital equipment. Again, one can’t question the basic idea but one does need to ask here whether this is yet another attempt to manage the narrative.
The total capital expenditure that the government has budgeted for this financial year is Rs 4,12,009 crore. In the first five months of the financial year (April to August 2020), the government has managed to spend Rs 1,34,447 crore or around a third of what it has budgeted for. Last year, in the first five months, the government had spent around 40.6% of what it had budgeted for.
In this scenario, it is more than likely that the government will not get around to spending the extra Rs 25,000 crore. The government systems can only do a certain amount of work in a given period of time, their scale cannot be suddenly increased.
If one doesn’t nit-pick with the four above points, it needs to be said that the amounts involved are too small to even make a dent into the economic contraction expected this year. The economy is expected to contract by 10% this financial year. This means destruction of Rs 20 lakh crore of economic value, given that the nominal GDP in 2019-20, not adjusted for inflation, was Rs 203.4 lakh crore.
The government expects the moves announced last week to boost the expenditure in the economy by Rs 1 lakh crore. The mathematics of this Rs 1 lakh crore is similar to the mathematics of the Rs 20 lakh crore stimulus package (which actually added up to Rs 20.97 lakh crore) earlier in the year. As we saw earlier, the chances that the government ending up spending the Rs 4.12 lakh crore originally allocated for capital expenditure is difficult. Hence, how will it end up spending the newly allocated Rs 25,000 crore?
The government also expects the private sector spending to avail of the LTC tax benefit to be at least Rs 28,000 crore. What no one has talked about here is the fact that while there is an income tax benefit available, one also needs to pay a GST. Net net, there isn’t much benefit left after this. For someone in the marginal bracket of 20% income tax, after paying a GST of 18% to make these purchases, there isn’t much of a saving. Also, to spend three times the amount to avail of tax benefits, isn’t the smartest personal finance idea going around.
******** In the recently released OTT series Scam 1992 – The Harshad Mehta Story, there is a scene in the second episode, 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).
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 [emphasis added].”
The number used in the series is absolutely correct. Hence, the makers of the Scam 1992, have gone into this level of detailing.
Dear Reader, you must be wondering by now, why have I suddenly started talking about the budget speech of 1986-87. This random point in the OTT series made me realise something. At that point of time, the government could get the Reserve Bank of India to monetise away the fiscal deficit or the difference between what it earned and what it spent.
This meant that the RBI could simply print money and hand it over to the government to spend it. Of course, money printing could lead to a higher amount of money chasing a similar number of goods and services, and hence, higher inflation. This explains why Singh in his budget speech emphasises that the uncovered deficit of Rs 3,650 crore will be non-inflationary. Not that he knew this with any certainty, but there are somethings that need to be said as a politician and this was one of those things.
As a result of two agreements signed between the RBI and the government (in 1994 and 1997) and the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management (FRBM) Act, 2003, the automatic monetisation of government deficit was stopped.
The government funds its deficit by selling bonds to raise debt. The FRBM Act prevented the RBI from subscribing to primary issuances of government bonds from April 1, 2006. In simple terms, this meant that it couldn’t print money and hand it over directly to the government by buying government bonds.
Now why I have gone into great detail in explaining this will soon become clear.
As I wrote at the beginning of this piece, many journalists, economists, analysts, corporates, fund managers and even politicians, have been demanding a greater fiscal stimulus from the government. In short, they have been wanting the government to spend more money than it currently does.
The question is why is the government not going in for a bigger stimulus? The answer lies in the fact it simply doesn’t have the money to do so. The gross tax revenue of the government has fallen by 23.9% this year. Hence, it doesn’t even have enough money to finance the expenditure it has budgeted for. So, where is the question of spending more?
Of course, people who have been recommending a larger fiscal stimulus understand this. They simply want the RBI to print money and finance the government expenditure. Well, the RBI has been indirectly doing so. Take a look at the following table.
RBI –The Rupee Machine.
Source: Monetary Policy Report, October 2020.
What does the table tell us? It tells us that between early February and end September, the RBI has pumped in Rs 11.1 lakh crore into the financial system. How has it done so? Simply, by printing money in most cases. This does not apply to the cash reserve ratio cut, which meant banks having to maintain a lower amount of money with the RBI and hence, leading to an increase in the money available in the financial system to be lent out.
Here is the thing. The RBI prints money and buys bonds to introduce money into the financial system. Of course, it does not buy these bonds directly from the government. Nevertheless, even this indirect buying ends up financing the government fiscal deficit.
How? Let’s say the government sells bonds to finance its fiscal deficit. The financial institutions (banks, insurance companies, provident funds, mutual funds etc.) buy these bonds directly from the government (actually through primary dealers, but let’s keep this simple because the concept is more important here).
When they do this, they have handed over money to the government and have that much lesser money to lend. By printing money and pumping it into the financial system, the RBI ensures that the money that banks have available for lending doesn’t really go down or doesn’t go down as much, because of lending to the government.
Hence, in that sense, the RBI is actually indirectly financing the government. (It’s just buying older bonds and not newer ones).
The point being that despite the 1994 and 1997 agreements and the FRBM Act of 2003, the RBI is already financing the government fiscal deficit, albeit in an indirect way.
Of course, this financing is only enough to meet the current budgeted expenditure of the government. The thing is that the journalists, economists, analysts, corporates, fund managers and even politicians, want the government to spend more.
In fact, people in favour of a larger fiscal stimulus are okay with the RBI financing the government directly instead of this roundabout way. It seems that might be possible as well. As Viral Acharya, a former deputy governor of the RBI, writes in Quest for Restoring Financial Stability in India, published in July earlier this year:
“A recent amendment of the RBI Act allows the central bank to re-enter the primary market for government debt under certain conditions, annulling the reform of 2003 and recreating investor expectations of deficit monetization.”
Hence, the RBI can directly finance the government fiscal stimulus by printing money, buying government bonds and giving the government the money required to spend.
The question is why has the government not gone down this route? The fear of an even higher inflation seems to be the answer. If there is one thing in economics that the current government is bothered about, it is inflation, in particular food inflation. The food inflation in September 2020 stood at 10.7%. During this financial year, it has been at a very high level of 9.8%.
The money supply in the economy (as measured by M3) has gone up at a pace greater than 12% since June, thanks to the RBI printing and pumping money into the financial system. For fiscal expansion more money will have to be printed and pumped into the financial system, hence, there is the risk of inflation rising even further.
A few experts have said that in a situation like this growth is more important than inflation. Some others have said that inflation is not a real danger currently.
A government focussed on narrative and perception 24 x 7 would not want to take the risk of inflation at any point of time, especially when food inflation is already close to 11% and there is grave danger of it seeping into overall retail inflation (as measured by the consumer price index).
There are other risks to printing money directly and the country’s public debt going up. Foreign investors can leave India. The rating agencies can cut the ratings. (You can read about it here). This stems from the fact that investors are not as comfortable holding investment assets in a currency like the Indian rupee vis a vis a currency like the American dollar or the British pound or the currency of any other developed country.
As L Randall Wray writes in Modern Monetary Theory: “There is little doubt that US dollar-denominated assets are highly desirable around the globe… To a lesser degree, the financial assets denominated in UK pounds, Japanese yen, European euros, and Canadian and Australian dollars are also highly desired.” This allows these countries to print money in a way that India cannot even dream of.
Also, if the government wanted to go the fiscal stimulus route, it should have done so at the very beginning. But instead it chose monetary expansion, with the RBI printing money and pumping it into the financial system, cutting the repo rate or the interest rate at which it lends to banks and getting banks to lend to certain sectors.
All this, in particular money printing by the RBI to drive down interest rates, has already led to the money supply going up. A larger fiscal stimulus will lead to the money supply going up even further increasing the possibility of a higher inflation.
****** There is a new theory going around especially among the stock market wallahs who think they understand economics.
The foreign currency reserves with the RBI have gone up from $440 billion towards the end of March to around $509 billion as of October 9. What if a part of this can be converted into rupees and the money can be handed over to the government to spend, is the crux of the new theory going around.
Only someone who does not understand how these foreign currency reserves ended up with the RBI in the first place, would suggest something like this. The RBI buys foreign currency (particularly the American dollar) in order to intervene in the foreign exchange market.
Let’s say a lot of foreign money is coming into India. This increases the demand for the rupee and it leads to the appreciation of the rupee. The appreciation of the rupee makes imports more competitive, hurting domestic producers (not good for atmanirbharta). It also makes exports uncompetitive. In this scenario, the RBI intervenes. It sells rupees and buys dollars (Of course, these rupees have to be printed or rather created digitally these days).
The point being that the dollars end up on the balance sheet of the RBI, only after it has introduced rupees against them into the financial system. So, where is the question of printing and introducing more rupees against the same set of dollars? (Which is why I keep saying that stock market wallahs should stick to earnings growth and not make a fool of themselves by coming up with such silly theories).
One way of raising money against these foreign exchange reserves is to borrow against them. But that would make India look very desperate and weak on the international as well as the domestic front. Do we really want to do that?
One thing that the government needs to pursue seriously is an asset monetisation programme. This involves selling its stake in public sector units which are in a position to be sold. Even public sector units that cannot be sold have a lot of land lying idle.
This land needs to be monetised. This will take time. Nevertheless, the thing is that the Indian economy will need massive government support even in 2022-23. And if the government starts the monetising process now, it will be prepared in 2022-23 to help the economy.
In September, inflation as measured by the consumer price index continued to remain in elevated territory at 7.34%. Inflation is the rate of price rise in comparison to the same period last year.
Let’s take a look at this relatively high inflation of 7.34%, pointwise.
1)Only twice in the last five years has the monthly inflation figure been higher than that in September 2020. This was in January 2020 and December 2019, at 7.59% and 7.35%, respectively. The December 2019 inflation figure was more or less similar to the September 2020 number.
2)Interestingly, eight out of the ten highest inflation months in the last five years have been in 2020. What this clearly tells us is that 2020 has been a year of high inflation. Alongside this consumer demand has collapsed and there is stagnation in the economy. Hence, 2020 has been the year of stagflation (stagnation + inflation) as well. While, this wasn’t clear at the beginning of 2020 when covid hadn’t made an appearance (and I had said so), it is very clear by now (and I am saying so).
3)In an environment where consumer demand has collapsed, prices should be falling and not going up. What’s the logic here? When consumer demand collapses, firms in order to get people to consume, cut prices. This leads to lower inflation or even deflation (in worst cases, when prices fall).
But that hasn’t happened in the Indian context. The question is why? The following chart plots food inflation (using data from the consumer price index) over the last five years and possibly has the answer.
High food inflation
Source: Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.
Food inflation in India has been rising since early 2019 and it has continued to remain high in the post-covid environment. The inflation of vegetables, pulses, oils and fats and egg, meat and fish, was in double digits in September. Vegetable prices led the way and rose at the rate of 20.73% during the course of the month, with potato prices rising 101.98%.
4)Food carries a weight of 39.06% in the overall consumer price index. In the rural part, it carries a weight of 47.25%. Hence, elevated food inflation pushes up overall inflation. Also, the thing to notice here is that food prices were high even before the covid-pandemic struck. This was due to weather disruptions among other things. The trend of high food prices has continued post-covid.
5) Take a look at the following chart. It plots the difference in food inflation as measured by the consumer price index and as measured by the wholesale price index.
The Farmer Doesn’t Benefit
Source: Author calculations on data from Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.
What does this chart tell us? It tells us that post-covid, the food prices at the consumer level have been growing at a much faster rate than food prices at the wholesale level. The average difference between April and August was 610 basis points. One basis point is one hundredth of a percentage. The wholesale price index data for September is yet to come in (It will be published tomorrow).
What this means is that, despite the end consumers of food paying a higher price, the farmers are largely not benefitting from this rise in food prices, given that they sell their produce at the wholesale level. This difference can be because of a few reasons.
a) A collapse in supply chains has led to what is being sold at the wholesale level not reaching the consumers at the retail level, thus, leading to higher prices for the consumer.
b) This could also mean those running the supply chains hoarding stuff, in order to increase their profit.
Having said that, the former reason makes more sense given that stuff like vegetables, egg, fish and meat, etc., cannot really be hoarded. Also, hoarding stuff like pulses, needs a specialized storage environment which India largely lacks.
6) The difference in food inflation as measured by the consumer price index and as measured by the wholesale price index peaked in April at 790 basis points. This makes complete sense given the lockdown was at its peak during the month. As the economy has opened up, the difference has come down.
Nevertheless, in August the difference was at 521 basis points. This is still high given that the average of the difference over the last five years is 38 basis points. Also, with the food inflation as measured by the consumer price index going up by 163 basis points to 10.68% in September 2020, in comparison to August 2020, chances are that the difference in food inflation as measured by the consumer price index and as measured by the wholesale price index, might go up in September.
7)So, what does this mean for food inflation in the second half of this financial year? The monetary policy committee of the RBI projects that the inflation will be between 4.5-5.4% during the second half of this financial year. This can only be if food inflation comes down and also, it does not seep into overall inflation.
In the past, high food inflation has seeped into wage inflation and overall food inflation. It remains to be seen whether this happens this time around as well. The monetary policy committee doesn’t think so, but then it has as much control over food prices as it has over the finance ministry.
“Food inflation has remained elevated in recent months driven by price pressures in vegetables, cereals and protein items such as pulses, eggs and meat. The normal south-west monsoon, increased sowing of kharif crops, moderate MSP hikes, and high reservoir storage are expected to soften food inflation going forward.”
It goes on to say:
“However, a delayed normalisation of supply chains, heavy rains and floods in some states and demand-supply imbalances in key items such as pulses could exert further upward pressure on the headline inflation and keep it higher by around 50 basis points. On the other hand, an accelerated softening of food inflation due to an early restoration of supply chains, ample buffer stocks and efficient food stock management by the Government could bring headline inflation below the baseline by up to 50 basis points.”
So, the RBI in the monetary policy report is basically saying it could go either ways. In the process, it has hedged itself well, either ways.
8)Until the dynamic of whether food inflation is seeping into overall inflation becomes clear, it will be very difficult for the RBI to cut the repo rate any further than 4%, where it currently stands. The repo rate is the interest rate at which the RBI lends to banks.
Also, if the food inflation starts seeping into the overall inflation, the easy money policy of the RBI, where it has been printing and pumping money into the economy to drive down the interest rates, will have to take a backseat.
The RBI has pumped a lot of money into the financial system since February. Some of it has been done by buying bonds from financial institutions. But a lot of it has been done by defending the rupee. When a lot of foreign money comes into India, the demand for rupee increases and it tends to appreciate against the dollar. This hurts exporters as well as domestic producers.
To prevent this from happening the RBI intervenes in the foreign exchange market by selling rupees and buying dollars. When the RBI sells rupees the money supply in the economy goes up. The RBI has an option of sterilising this rupee inflow by selling government bonds and sucking out the excess money. But it has chosen not to do this, which is in line with its easy money policy.
In the recent past, the RBI has allowed the rupee to appreciate against the dollar, by not buying dollars, and not adding rupees to the money supply through this route. This is primarily because there is already too much easy money floating around in the financial system.
This easy money hasn’t led to inflation because banks are going slow on lending and borrowers are being very careful before borrowing. This has ensured that the dynamic of too much money following the same amount of goods and services hasn’t played out and hasn’t created an even higher inflation.
Nevertheless, as the economy continues to recover there is a chance of this happening. Hence, the RBI needs to be careful with its easy money policy, especially if food inflation starts seeping into the overall inflation.
In the latest monetary policy, the monetary policy committee had said: “The MPC also decided to continue with the accommodative stance 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, while ensuring that inflation remains within the target going forward [italics added].”
In simple English, this means that the RBI will keep driving lower interest rates to create growth. Up until now it doesn’t seem to be worried about its inflation mandate (to maintain the inflation as measured by the consumer price index between the range of 2-6%). But if food inflation remains high and seeps into overall inflation, the RBI will have a major problem at its hand, with all the liquidity it has pumped into the financial system.
9)Even if inflation falls to 4.5-5.4% as the RBI expects it to, the real return on fixed deposits after adjusting for inflation and taxes paid on the interest earned, will continue to remain in negative territory. And that’s not good news for savers as their savings will lose purchasing power. It’s great news for borrowers because inflation means they are repaying their loans in money which is worth less than it was at the time it was borrowed.
10)As much as economists might want us to believe, economics is no science. There are too many ifs and buts and maybes to the predictions that are made. And this is something that every reader needs to be aware of. This is true as much of this situation as it is of others.