Bihar’s APMC Story Does Not Inspire Much Confidence

This is the third piece in the agriculture reform series. You can read the first two pieces here and here. While this piece stands on its own, for a better context on the overall issue, it makes sense to read the two pieces published earlier, before reading this piece.

Chintan Patel and Vivek Kaul

The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act 2020 became a law on September 27, 2020. It is one of the three farm laws passed by the Modi government that has been met by stiff opposition from farmers. The law supposedly creates a mechanism allowing the farmers to sell their farm produce outside the Agriculture Produce Market Committees (APMCs).

As we pointed out in an earlier article, the fate of the APMCs or mandis, under the new laws is a topic of much debate. Proponents of the bill claim that allowing farm trade outside the APMCs will encourage competition and help farmers get better prices for their produce. The idea being that there will be more competition for agriculture produce and in the process, farmers will make more money. QED.

Farmer organizations opposing the bill argue that unregulated transactions outside the APMCs will actually result in a price squeeze for the farmers, given the asymmetry or the huge difference of negotiating power between the individual farmer and corporate-backed buyers. As is often the case, both sides can lay claim to a logically coherent argument backed by economic theory. So, which argument has higher odds of manifestation?

When the future is uncertain, the past is often a reliable guide. Using that rationale, it is instructive to look deeper at the Bihar experience vis-a-vis APMC markets. Bihar had done away with APMC markets in 2006. But before we get into the specifics, let’s zoom out a little and take a look at the bigger picture first.

Bihar’s Backdrop

Bihar is India’s poorest state. Given below are tables that chart the per capita income of India’s richest and poorer states.

Source: https://statisticstimes.com/economy/india/indian-states-gdp-per-capita.php

Source: https://statisticstimes.com/economy/india/indian-states-gdp-per-capita.php

As the above tables show, Bihar has the lowest per capita income in the country. It is about 18 percent of the income of Haryana and less than 10 percent of the income of Goa. Ironically, Bihar is endowed with abundant natural resources, especially fertile soil and groundwater, and yet it continues to remain one of the poorest states in the country.

The state has a population of 11.52 crore (2016), with a very high population density of 1,218 per square km as compared to the national average of 396 per square km. It is largely an agrarian rural economy with approximately 88.5 percent rural population out of which 74 percent of the workforce is reliant on the agriculture sector for a livelihood as per the 2011 Census.

Even accounting for shifts in the economy away from agriculture and migration out of rural areas since the last Census, the poverty in Bihar is closely linked to state of its farmers.

The high population density is clearly reflected in the land holding pattern in Bihar. Compared to other states, Bihar has highly fragmented landholdings. As the same piece of land has got divided among more and more family members over the generations, the average holding has fallen dramatically. Even though quite a few migrate to the cities, they still keep their farmland. This also stems from the fact that selling agricultural land in India is not easy.

As the table below indicates, marginal holdings of less than one hectare (around 2.47 acres) constituted about 91.2 percent of all land parcels in 2015-16, compared to the national average of 68.5 percent. Additionally, 97 percent of all holdings are  less than 2 hectares in Bihar. This high skew towards small land holdings is an important statistic, as agricultural marketing policies affect small and marginal farmers differently from those with larger holdings.

Land holdings in Bihar.

APMC Abolishment in Bihar

In 2006, the Nitish Kumar state government made the decision to abolish its state-level APMC Act allowing private players to directly purchase agricultural produce from farmers. Under the erstwhile Bihar APMC Act, both farmers and buyers would pay 1 percent of the sale price to municipal bodies. After the APMCs were abolished, the government introduced Primary Agriculture Credit Societies (PACS). PACS are panchayat level cooperatives with farmer members that fulfil 3 roles in Bihar.

1) Help farmers borrow money for buying farm equipment, farming inputs such as seeds, fertilizers, etc., or to tide through losses. PACS in turn are given credit by cooperative banks which are funded by the state government.

2) A one-stop shop for high-quality seeds, fertilisers, and other inputs.

3) Most importantly, PACS are responsible for procurement of grains particularly rice-paddy and wheat from the farmers at the government-announced minimum support price (MSP). Thus, PACS act as an intermediary between the farmers and the eventual purchasers of wheat and rice – which can be any of the following; Food Corporation of India (FCI), state procurement agencies or private mills, for that matter. For other produce (other than rice and wheat), farmers interact directly with private traders.

Upon procurement of the crop, especially in the case of paddy, it goes to the Bihar State Food and Civil Supplies Corporation, and then on to the Food Corporation of India, who direct it to the Public Distribution System or ration shops as they are more popularly known. The payment is expected to reach the farmer within 48 hours of selling the crop at PACS.

It should be noted that PACS exist nationwide and have long been a part of the cooperative banking system in India, formed to provide credit to rural areas. Bihar however is unique in that it expanded the scope of PACS to b) and c) above. As we shall see later in the article, PACS have not been able to deliver effectively on these objectives.

The deregulation of agriculture market transactions in Bihar in 2006 shares significant similarities with the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act 2020 . Although the central law does not call for the closure of state APMCs or creation of PACS-like entities, the core idea of deregulating agriculture trade outside of APMCs is the same.

Thus, there is merit in examining the outcomes of what has happened in Bihar over the last decade and a half,  to form expectations from the new law.

Several leaders of the Bhartiya Janata Party including prime minister Narendra Modi  and other supporters  of the new laws have touted Bihar’s abolition of APMCs to make their case. At the same time, critics have invoked Bihar as a cautionary tale of deregulating agriculture market.   So, the same scenario is being presented to suit diametrically opposite arguments.

What gives? As is often the case, the truth lies somewhere in between two extremes.

Prices

The bane of Indian agriculture is the price difference between the first transaction – what the farmer gets for a commodity, and the last transaction – what you and I pay for the same commodity.  Any changes to agricultural markets like the abolition of APMCs in Bihar needs be assessed against its impact on prices.

The government recognizes the importance of collecting data on prices. Each year, the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare publishes data on farm gate prices based on data received from the state governments “to facilitate fine-tuning of agriculture policies aimed at farmer welfare”  .

The average wholesale price of a commodity (e.g. wheat, rice, etc.) at which the farmer sells to a trader at the village site during the specified marketing period after the harvest of each commodity, is termed as the Farm Harvest Price (FHP) for each commodity.  The next few charts track both the FHP and MSP of four commodities (paddy, wheat, maize, and ragi) from 2000- 2017. The central government announces MSPs for 23 agricultural crops during the course of any year, but primarily buys only rice and wheat directly from farmers.

Source:  https://eands.dacnet.nic.in/

The above chart shows that for rice paddy, the MSP has always been higher than the FHP. From 2001-02 to 2006-07, the average difference between MSP and FHP was around 26 percent. This basically means that  the FHP was 26 percent lower than the MSP on an average. From 2006-07 to 2014-15, the average difference reduced to around 18 percent. 2015-16, onwards the difference has inched up to around 24 percent, for the last two years for which the data is available.

                                                                            Source:  https://eands.dacnet.nic.in/

For wheat, the difference between MSP and FHP has been less stark than that for rice paddy.  From 2001-02 to 2006-07, the average difference between MSP and FHP for wheat was around 7 percent. From 2006-07 to 2014-15, the average difference barely moved up to  around 8 percent . However, for the last two years 2015 to 2017, for which data is available, the difference has spiked to around 17 percent.

Source:  https://eands.dacnet.nic.in/

For maize too, the difference between MSP and FHP has been less stark than for paddy but higher than that of wheat.  From 2001-2 to 2006-07, the average difference between MSP and FHP for wheat was around 19 percent. From 2006-07 to 2014-15, the average difference reduced to around 12 percent . However, for the last two years 2015 to 2017, the difference has spiked to around 18 percent.

Source:  https://eands.dacnet.nic.in/

Finally, for ragi, the difference between MSP and FHP has been quite high and has kept increasing.  From 2001-02 to 2006-07, the average difference between MSP and FHP for ragi was around 26 percent. From 2006-07 to 2014-15, the average difference increased to around 31 percent. Finally, for the last two years, 2015 to 2017, the difference has increased to around 37 percent.

The following table summarises the data from the above four charts.

Price Trends Summary
Source:  https://eands.dacnet.nic.in/

What can we infer from the above charts. Let’s take a look pointwise.

1)  The span from 2001 to 2017 can be divided into three periods : 2001-06, 2007-13, and 2015-17. Farm prices improved for paddy in the second period (around 18 percent lower than the MSP)  compared to the first period (around 25 percent lower than the MSP). Of course, they were lower than the MSP during both the periods.

Similarly maize prices improved in the second period (around 12 percent lower than the MSP) from the first period (around 19 percent lower than the MSP). Of course, they were lower than the MSP during both the periods.

For wheat, difference between the farm prices relative to MSP stood at 7 percent during the first period and at 8 percent during the second period. Hence, the difference increased though marginally.

Rice, wheat and maize are the three major cereals produced in Bihar and make up for 80 percent of the cropping area. The difference in prices between the FHP and the MSP, largely came down in the seven year period after the removal of the state level APMC Act. This finding weakens the argument that market deregulation will necessarily lead to lower prices, even though the farmers did not get the MSP.

2) As can be seen from the above table, starting in 2015, difference between FHP and MSP has increased for all the four commodities. Let’s take the case of maize. Between 2007 and 2014, the difference had stood at around 12 percent. It has since jumped to around 18 percent, almost back to pre-2006 levels.

A similar trend can be seen for the other three crops as well.

The official government data is only available till 2017, but this divergence between FHP and MSP is also reported in recent articles discussing the farmer situation in Bihar.

An article from People’s Archive of Rural India on Feb 20, 2021  reports  that “In 2019, a farmer sold his stock of raw paddy at the rate of Rs. 1,100 per quintal – this was 39 percent less than the MSP (minimum support price) of Rs. 1,815 at that time”.
Another article from December 2020 reports that “Paddy has sold for Rs 900-1,000 a quintal in Bihar, almost half the Rs 1,868 fixed by the Centre as MSP”.

The farm prices at which farmers sell continue to be depressed compared to the MSPs and given that difference has only increased in recent years, weakens the argument forwarded by supporters of the new farm laws which extrapolates deregulation to improved price realization for farmers. Economic theory doesn’t always fall in line with things actually happening on the ground.

A key underlying rationale behind dismantling of the APMCs in Bihar was that it would lead to an increase in the number of buyers in the marketplace. A similar argument is also being made in the case of the new farm laws. However, that is not how things have worked out, in markets across Bihar.

In fact, anecdotal evidence from newsreports emanating from Bihar suggests that sales to private traders are often distress sales since farmers don’t have access to a sizeable pool of local buyers .

A 2019 paper by the National Council of Economic Research makes a similar observation: “Despite the abolition of the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Act in 2006, private investment in the creation of new markets and strengthening of facilities in the existing ones did not take place in Bihar, leading to low market density. Further, the participation of government agencies in procurement and the scale of procurement of grains continue to be low. Thus, farmers are left to the mercy of traders who unscrupulously fix lower prices for agricultural produce that they buy from farmers..”

Of course, there are other reasons that push farmers to make these distress sales such as a deficient transport network, poor storage facilities, and lack of capital. All of these are exacerbated for small and marginal farmers who form the bulk of agriculturists in Bihar. Given these harsh conditions, it is unsurprising that farmers are unhappy with the present system.

The disillusionment of the Bihar farmer can also be understood looking at incomes of farmers, because ultimately the proof is in the pudding.

Income of Farmers in Bihar

 Source: Study on Agricultural Diagnostics for the State of Bihar in India, 2019 report by NCAER

                                   
The above chart shows that while the net income of farmers in Bihar rose from 2007 to 2010, nevertheless, it has been declining continuously since 2010, up to the point we have data for. The declining income is explained by a rise in costs of agriculture inputs (seeds, power, labour, fertilizers, cost of finance, etc.) without a commensurate increase in sales revenue. The net income per hectare farmed, has moved alarmingly towards zero.

Government procurement of foodgrains 

Farm prices and farmer incomes are significantly affected by the level of government procurement of foodgrains in Bihar. The Central Government extends price support to paddy and wheat through the Food Corporation of India (FCI) and state procurement agencies across the country.

As per this policy, state governments are supposed to purchase paddy and wheat (conforming to certain specifications) from farmers at the declared MSP. Farmers have the option to sell their produce to private traders if they can get better prices in the open market. The objective of foodgrains procurement by government agencies is to ensure that farmers get remunerative prices for their produce and do not have to resort to distress sale. The central government accepts the responsibility to fund the procurement operations.

The next two tables give a breakdown of foodgrain procurement in the recent few years for major rice and wheat producing states.

State wise FCI Procurement of rice-paddy 
Source: Food Corporation of India.

State wise FCI procurement of wheat

Source: Food Corporation of India.

Procurement of paddy in Bihar is around 20 percent of the state’s total production, and that of wheat is almost negligible (less than 1 percent). Compare this to Punjab and Haryana, where procurement levels for paddy are over 80 percent and that of wheat are over 60 percent. This is primarily because of historical reasons, in order to promote the green revolution in the states.

This is one of the reasons for the disparity of wealth between Bihar and the other states. Since government buys paddy and wheat at MSP rates, low levels of government procurement in Bihar negatively impact the FHP for wheat and paddy, and in the process farmer incomes.

If the government purchased 100 percent (hypothetically speaking) of the paddy grown in the state, the FHP for paddy would more than likely be the same as the MSP. At 2016-17 prices, that would mean the farmer would get Rs 1,510 per quintal instead of Rs 1,147 per quintal for paddy – an increase of around 32 percent or Rs 363 per quintal. This additional revenue would directly pass-through as added income for farmers. This explains why procurement at MSP rates is a pressing demand by farmers during any policy debates on improving farmer incomes.

Low procurement of foodgrains by the state of Bihar can be attributed to two main reasons: a) inadequate funding by the state and b) Poorly functioning PACS.

There are several deficiencies in how PACS operate including restrictive registration requirements which limit who can sell to PACS, limited windows of procurement, sub-optimal timing of procurement, rejection of crop by the PACS due to excessive moisture content, and excessive delays in payment.  In fact, the number of PACS  in Bihar has declined by over 82 percent, from 9,035 in 2015-16 to 1,619 in 2019-20.

While the specific problems of PACS are less relevant to the national debate on the farm bills, they point to an important fact. The success or failure of market deregulation is highly dependent on the alternate systems that emerge in that environment, which will be unique for each state. Hence, the “vocal for local” mantra should also be applied when implementing policy solutions that strengthen federalism over a one solution-fits-all approach.

Conclusions

1) The so-called opening up of the agriculture market in Bihar to private players has not fundamentally altered the state of the Bihari farmer. The data on farm prices and farmer incomes is mixed after dismantling the APMCs. The difference between FHP and MSP for commodities like paddy and maize did decrease after APMCs were abolished, but those gains have reversed since 2015. The lived experience of farmers as reported by ground reports and the data on farmer incomes and prices paint a grim picture.

2) The PACS created by the state government for procuring food-grains have proven to be inefficient and non-responsive to farmer needs.

3) The government procurement at MSP continues to be a key contributing factor in improving FHPs and farmer incomes. This underlines why MSPs continue to be a key issue for farmers protesting the new farm laws.

4) The Bihar experiment is pertinent to the 2020 Farm Laws, but extrapolating the outcomes in Bihar to the current farm law debate needs some nuance. The data can be presented selectively, both by opponents and proponents of the farm laws to further their argument. But based on the analysis presented here, it is clear that deregulating agriculture markets in Bihar, did not cause prices to crash, though the difference with the MSPs has risen in the recent years. Neither did it usher in a wave of private buyers vying for agriculture produce, buoying up farmer incomes and prosperity in its wake.

It must be noted that the total output of an agrarian economy is affected by a host of factors including crop yield (how much crop is produced per unit area), land usage (how much area is used for cropping), cropping patterns (choice of high-value vs low-value agricultural produce), and prices . Of these, only prices are affected by the new law.

The other factors are influenced by variables such as irrigation, power availability, fertilizer usage, seed quality, rainfall, weather events, mechanization, among others. In a 2017 paper on agriculture in Bihar, the authors identify the following factors as drivers of agricultural growth. These are, irrigation, flood protection, energy for agriculture, roads, procurement system and agriculture markets.

While government policy has a role to play in shaping some of these variables, Bihar’s APMC abolishment law in 2006 and the central laws in 2020, are limited to procurement and agriculture markets. Thus, commentary correlating the abolishment of APMCs in 2006 with changes in macroeconomic metrics in Bihar such as total agricultural output or agricultural growth is disingenuous.

PS: Such a detailed data dive takes a lot of time and effort and you won’t see it anywhere in the mainstream media. Given this, our work needs your constant financial support. 

Modi’s Rs 2.5 lakh cr Asset Sale Plan Needs a Transparent Approach

The Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set a target of monetising 100 government-owned assets across sectors. As he said: “We have a target of 100 assets from oil, gas, airport, power, which we plan to monetise. This has the potential for investment opportunities of Rs 2.5 lakh crore.”

This is in continuation of the idea that the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman had presented in her budget speech on February 1, 2021. As she had said:

“Idle assets will not contribute to Atmanirbhar Bharat. The non-core assets largely consist of surplus land with government Ministries/Departments and Public Sector Enterprises. Monetising of land can either be by way of direct sale or concession or by similar means.”

Hence, a lot of this idle assets are government owned land or will involve land in some form or other. This is a good and an innovative idea which some of the previous budgets lacked.

Many large Indian cities have a lot of government land lying idle while the cities on the whole are stretched for land. Hence, freeing up some of this land and earning some money in the process is a good idea.

Let’s look at this greater detail pointwise.

1) If you are the kind who likes walking around India’s big cities, you would definitely see a lot of government land lying unused bang in the middle of cities. Close to where I live in central Mumbai is the Bicycle Corporation of India, in one of the by lanes of Worli. In the one and half decades I have walked past the company, I haven’t seen any economic activity happening. Peepul trees now grow from the walls.

This is land bang in the middle of Mumbai, some of the most expensive real estate in the world, lying unused. This is criminal to say the least. Another great example of unused real estate are all the MTNL offices, all across Mumbai and Delhi.

The Heavy Engineering Corporation (HEC) in the city of Ranchi where I was born and raised, has acres and acres of land lying unused, while the city itself hardly has any land going around. This is land that has been lying unused for decades and needs to be put to some use.

2) It’s not just the big cities that have all this excess land lying unused. Even a place like Ooty, has acres and acres of land lying unused thanks to the Hindustan Photo Films Manufacturing Company Ltd., which is largely not functional. There are quite a few such public sector enterprises which are no longer relevant, all across the country.

Given this, one of the first things that the government needs to do is to make an inventory of all this land and put it up in the public domain on a website. It needs to do so with all the other assets that it plans to monetise as well.

Of course, this inventory is not going to be made overnight and will take time. But it is important that this is done in the most transparent way, given that corruption/crony capitalism and land/asset sales, almost go hand in hand.

This is even more important because the government considers this route as an important source of revenue in the years to come. As the finance minister said in the budget that over the years the government hopes to earn more money “by increased receipts from monetisation of assets, including Public Sector Enterprises and land”. Hence, getting the process right is very important.

This becomes even more important given that there will be great opposition to the process from those who benefit from the status quo and even otherwise. The government selling its assets to raise money to do other things is not seen as a good thing. Hence, even a hint of corruption or any other controversy can threaten to derail the entire process, something the government cannot afford at this point of time.

3) In cases where the land was taken from state governments to start a public sector enterprise, it is important that the land be returned to the state government and let the state government decide what it wants to do with it. In the years to come, state governments will also be running short of money to meet their expenditure.

Also, this is the right thing to do. The state government can also use the land to attract more investment into their state. In some cities where there aren’t enough public parks, some land can even go to develop such infrastructure. The aim shouldn’t be to maximise the money earned all the time, but maximise the general well-being.

Again, this is something that will need some amount of thinking and the government’s thinking on this should be clear and out in the public domain.

4) There is another factor that needs to be kept in mind here. Real estate prices in most big Indian cities have remained and continue to remain high. One of the major reasons for this lies in the fact that the land prices remain expensive across Indian cities. Hence, it is important that some of this land be sold to build affordable housing. Only if land prices come down, will home prices come down.

And by affordable housing I mean homes which can be sold profitably in the range of Rs 10-20 lakh per unit and not affordable housing as the way the RBI defines it, which isn’t really affordable housing at all, but just a fancy moniker to help banks meet their priority lending targets.

Other than helping people buy affordable homes to live in, the real estate sector has the ability to create a large number of jobs very quickly. It also has the capability to have a multiplier effect across many other sectors. Building real estate requires cement, sand, steel, bricks, pipes, etc., and so on. Once real estate has been built in, moving into a home requires its own set of purchases. Buying homes also gives a fillip to the home loan business. And of course, people living in homes they own, enhances general well-being.

5) Finally, it is important that the money earned through this route be used for a specific purpose and not just for bringing down the fiscal deficit, which has ballooned to Rs 18.49 lakh crore or 9.5% of the gross domestic product (GDP) this year. Even in 2021-22, the fiscal deficit target has been set at a high Rs 15.07 lakh crore or 6.8% of the GDP. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends and is expressed as a percentage of the GDP.

It is important that money coming from land sales be allocated towards specific infrastructure projects, preferably in the very state where land is being sold. This will make it easier to sell this idea to the state governments, whose cooperation is very necessary to make this idea a reality.

To conclude, the monetisation of excess government land in particular and other assets in general, is a good idea. Having said that, it needs to be executed in a proper process driven and transparent way.

This is an updated version of an article that first appeared on Firstpost on February 2, 2021.

How to Run Public Sector Banks Well Without Privatising Them. And Why That’s Not Going to Happen

As of March 31, 2020, the total bad loans of public sector banks stood at Rs 6,78,318 crore. This is a drop of 24.3% from a peak of Rs 8,95,600 crore as of March 2018. Bad loans are largely loans which haven’t been repaid for a period of 90 days or more.

So how did bad loans of public sector banks come down by nearly a fourth? First and foremost, as of March 31, 2018, IDBI Bank, the worst performing bank when it comes to bad loans, was a public sector bank. From January 21, 2019, the bank was categorised to be a private bank. Accordingly, its bad loans moved to the overall bad loans of private banks. But we need to remember IDBI Bank is owned by the Life Insurance Corporation of India, that makes it as close to being a private bank, as Indian Chinese food is close to the real Chinese food.

As of March 31, 2020, the overall bad loans of IDBI Bank were Rs 47,272 crore. If we add this to the bad loans of public sector banks, the real bad loans of public sector banks work out to Rs 7,25,590 crore (Rs 6,78,318 crore + Rs 47,272 crore). This means that the real fall in bad loans of public sector banks in the two-year period has been around 19% and not 24.3%, as we originally calculated.

So, bad loans worth Rs 47,272 crore came down, simply because IDBI Bank got recategorised as a private bank.

Let’s move to the next point. Take a look at the following chart, which basically plots the bad loans of public sector banks over the years. The bad loans of IDBI Bank are included in this chart.

India’s Manhattan

Source: Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy and Indian Banks’ Association.

As I elaborate in detail in my book Bad Money, the RBI practiced regulatory forbearance between 2011 and 2014 and did not force public sector banks to recognise their bad loans as bad loans, even though they had started to appear by then. In simple English, regulatory forbearance, essentially means the central bank looking the other way from the problem.

An asset quality review (AQR) was launched in mid 2015 and this forced banks to recognise their bad loans as bad loans. As you can see in the chart, the overall bad loans of public sector banks take a huge jump post 2014-15. This was the AQR at work.

Now loans which have been bad loans for four years can be dropped from the balance sheet of banks by way of a write-off. Hence, many loans which had been categorised as bad loans in 2015-16 would have spent four years on the balance sheet by 2019-20.

Accordingly, they got written off from the balance sheet of banks. Of course, before such bad loans are written off, a 100 per cent provision needs to be made for these bad loans. This means that banks need to set aside money to meet the losses arising from these loans. This essentially led to the overall bad loans of banks coming down as well.

And over and above this, the banks would have managed to recover a portion of the bad loans (which includes bad loans that have been written off as well). The overall recovery rate for banks through various recovery channels during 2018-19 was around 15.5% of the amounts involved. (Numbers for 2019-20 aren’t currently available or at least I couldn’t find them anywhere).

In fact, a bulk of the current accumulated bad loans will disappear from the balance sheets of public sector banks over the next two to three years, thanks to the fact that bad loans can be written off after they have spent four years on the balance sheet.

Nevertheless, the question is: even after this can the public sector banks operate in a healthy way where they don’t need to be constantly recapitalised. In fact, once public sector banks get around to identifying post-covid bad loans early next year, their balance sheets are likely to come under stress again.

But the basic problem of public sector banks remains interference by the government. This interference can take several forms. As Viral Acharya and Raghuram Rajan write in a research paper titled Indian Banks: A Time to Reform?: “Interference, including appointing favoured candidates to management, expanding lending just before elections, or directing banks to lend to favoured borrowers is obviously harmful.” (Again, something I discuss in great detail in my book Bad Money).

To ensure that public sector banks do not face this kind of interference it has been suggested that they need to be privatised. Over and above this, there have been news reports which suggest that the government is looking to privatise public sector banks.

This remains a difficult decision politically. Also, in an economic environment like the one prevailing, there will be fairly limited number of firms looking to buy government banks saddled with a huge amount of bad loans and a section of employees not used to the idea of working.

Further, unlike other public sector enterprises, the government has to be even more careful while selling a bank. As Acharya and Rajan write:

“The experience in other countries with allowing corporations to own banks is that it increases the possibility of self-dealing within the group – the bank is used to make risky loans to failing group entities, and the bill is paid by the tax payer when the bank is eventually bailed out.”

They further say that the Indian industry is already heavily concentrated. As a recent McKinsey Knowledge Centre report titled India’s turning point An economic agenda to spur growth and jobs points out: “Our analysis shows that just 20 of the country’s roughly 600 large firms contribute 80 percent of the total profit of large firms.” The report defines large firms as firms with an annual revenue of more than $500 million.

If India’s large corporates end up buying its banks, the industry is likely to get even more concentrated. Hence, while privatisation of public sector banks remains a good idea over a long-term, currently, the government can initiate the reform process through the Axis Bank model, wherein the government is an investor in banks rather being a promoter.

The Committee to Review Governance of Boards of Banks in India (better known as the Nayak Committee, after its chairman, PJ Nayak) which presented its report to the RBI in May 2014, suggested the Axis Bank model.

Axis Bank was originally called UTI Bank. It was set up in 1993. It was owned by the Unit Trust of India (UTI) and a clutch of public sector banks. Even though ownership was 100 per cent in the public sector, the bank got a licence to operate as a private sector bank. The bank was listed on the stock exchanges in 1998. UTI Bank was later renamed Axis Bank.

Even at that point of time, the public sector shareholding continued to be the majority shareholding. In early 2000s, when the Unit Trust of India ran into trouble, the government broke it down into two parts. One part became the UTI Mutual Fund and the other was the Specified Undertaking of the Unit Trust of India (SUUTI).

In February 2003, the shareholding of UTI in the bank was transferred to SUUTI. UTI Bank was later renamed Axis Bank.

As the Nayak Committee Report pointed out:

“The Government-as-Investor stance has characterised the control of the Bank, with SUUTI acting as a special purpose vehicle holding the investment on behalf of the Government. The CEO is appointed by the bank’s board, and because the bank was licensed in the private sector, it sets its own employee compensation, ensures its own vigilance enforcement (rather than being under the jurisdiction of the Central Vigilance Commission), and is not subject to the Right to Information Act. SUUTI appoints the non-executive Chairman and up to two directors on the Board, and there is no direct intervention by the Finance Ministry.”

This means that the bank has been run as a proper banking business, without much intervention from the government. Between March 2003 and March 2014, the share price of Axis Bank rose thirty-two times. Over the years, the government has been able to sell its stake in the bank to raise a decent amount of money.

The point being that even though, as per its shareholding, Axis Bank ‘was for many years a public sector bank’, but ‘fortuitously, the bank was licensed at the commencement of its business as a private sector bank’.

The Nayak Committee Report suggests that the government should look at public sector banks as an investment and not as a business it has to run, and follow the Axis Bank model. This essentially means the government reducing the stake in these banks to less than 50 per cent, and letting the bank’s management and its board do their job, like in the case with private sector banks.

But then as the oft-repeated cliche goes, public sector banks are not just about making money. They also need to keep the social objectives of the government in mind. This is something that even Prime Minister Narendra Modi had suggested at the First Gyan Sangam in 2015 (a meeting of bureaucrats, bankers and insurers). As Modi had said on that occasion, while “government interference was inappropriate, but government intervention was needed to further public objectives”.

It’s this line of thought has driven India’s public sector enterprises for seven decades now and gotten them nowhere in the process.

R C Bhargava, the current Chairman of Maruti Suzuki, who was also an IAS officer for a very long time, writes the following in his book Getting Competitive: A Practitioner’s Guide for India:

“The USSR was the pioneer in attempting industrialization along with creating a communist society. It did not succeed. On the other hand, Japan became a highly competitive and industrialized nation and has a high degree of equality and social justice. The policies for regulating and promoting industrial growth do not have any social content in them [emphasis added]. Social equality was a result of the political and industrial leadership understanding that manufacturing competitiveness would be enhanced if there was greater equality and the bulk of the people were enabled to become consumers of manufactured goods.”

What Bhargava, who has worked for long periods of time, both for the government and the private sector, is basically saying is that social objectives of the government shouldn’t become objectives of its enterprises.

This does not mean that the government should do away with meeting its social objectives. Not at all. But what it should do instead is incentivise banks on this front.

As Acharya and Rajan write:

“Perhaps a better approach would be to pay for the mandates (such as reimbursing costs for maintaining branches in remote areas or opening bank accounts for all) so that both private banks and public sector banks compete to deliver on them. This will distance the public sector banks a little from the government. While public sector banks may be given a slightly different set of objectives than private banks (for example, they may put more weight on financial inclusion), their boards should have operational independence on how to achieve the objectives.”

Competition and incentivisation goes a much longer way in delivering services than a government diktat.

The question is, where will the money for all this come from? Allow me to throw a few numbers at you, before I answer this question.

The market capitalisation of the State Bank of India, India’s biggest bank and the biggest public sector bank, is Rs 1.67 lakh crore. The total assets of the bank as of March 2020 were at Rs 41.97 lakh crore. Now compare this to Kotak Mahindra Bank. Its market capitalisation is at Rs 2.53 lakh crore. The total assets of the bank as of March 2020 stood at Rs 4.43 lakh crore.

Hence, in comparison to the State Bank of India, the Kotak Mahindra Bank is a very small bank. But its market capitalisation is almost Rs 86,000 crore more. Why? Simply because Kotak Mahindra Bank is run like a proper bank and the stock market gives it a proper valuation for the same.

Or take the case of HDFC Bank, which has a market capitalisation of Rs 5.80 lakh crore, which is more than all public sector banks put together. Both these well-run banks have much lower bad loans than public sector banks. The overall bad loans of private banks, Yes Bank notwithstanding, are significantly lower than public sector banks even after adjusting for their size.

The point I am trying to make here is that if public sector banks end up being much better run than they currently are, the stock market will give them a higher market capitalisation. And the government can then finance its social objectives by gradually selling the shares it owns in these banks.

Of course for anything like that to happen, the Department of Financial Services in the Finance Ministry which controls the public sector banks, needs to take a backseat. As Rajan writes in I Do What I Do: “Unless PSBs are run like normal corporations, they will not be competitive in the medium term. I have a simple metric of progress here: We will have moved significantly towards limiting interference in PSBs when the Department of Financial Services (which oversees public sector financial firms) is finally closed down, and its banking functions taken over by bank boards.”

But as we all know, bureaucrats don’t take backseats.

Oh and politicians. Let’s not forget them here. Back in 2000, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government tried to push through the move and dilute the government stake in PSBs to 33 per cent. And it failed. Why?

Vajpayee’s finance minister, Yashwant Sinha, had introduced a bill to reduce the government’s stake in PSBs to 33 per cent. It never saw the light of day. In a 2018 interview, Sinha said: “The parliament and the people were not prepared for such [a] kind of step”.

In fact, all these years down the line, we are still grappling with the same issue.

The more things change…

And I sincerely hope, I am proven wrong on this.

Modi government refuses to acknowledge India’s jobs crisis

narendra_modi
Indian Railways, India’s largest public sector employer, recently received more than 28 million applications for 90,000 jobs posts, it had advertised for. As of March 31, 2017, the Indian Railways employed around 1.31 million individuals.

The ratio of the number of applicants to the number of jobs stood at a whopping 311:1.
The number of applicants was more than the population of Australia, which was a little over 24 million in 2016. It was around 6 times the population of New Zealand, which in 2016, was around 4.6 million.

Using data provided by the Central Statistics Office of the government of India, we can estimate that the number of Indians between the ages of 15 and 29, who are most likely to apply for these jobs on offer, are at 360 million (189 million males and 171 million females).

This basically means that close to 7.8% of the population in the age group that can be categorised as India’s youth has applied for the 90,000 jobs on offer at the Indian Railways. What this calculation does not take into account is the fact that everybody in the age group 15-29 is not looking for a job.

Many individuals in this age group are studying. In case of females, many are married at a young age and take care of the family. In some other cases, females have been pulled out of school or college, and are waiting at home to get married.

We need to adjust for this i.e. take the labour force participation rate of this age group of the population into account, and then recalculate the numbers.

The labour force participation rate for males in the age group 15-29 is 63.1% (as per NSSO June 2012). These are the proportion of people who are actually looking for jobs. For women it is 18.3%.

There are two explanations for the low female labour participation rate. One lies in the fact that many individuals in this age group are still studying. Further, the overall labour force participation rate for females is also very low at 18.1%, and this reflects in this age-group as well.

Taking the labour force participation rates into account, the total number of people actively looking for jobs in the 15-29 age group works out to 150 million (119 million males and 31 million females).

This means close to 18.7% (28 million expressed as a percentage of 150 million) of the population in the 15-29 age group, has applied for the 90,000 jobs on offer at Indian Railways. Or to put it a little simplistically, one in five individuals in the 15-29 age-group has applied for the jobs on offer in the Indian Railways.

This tells us the sad state of affairs for the one million youth who are joining the Indian workforce every month. Another factor at work here is that the government pays much better at lower levels than the private sector in India does, which obviously gets many people to apply.

The above figures clearly show the lack of formal jobs in India. This is a problem that the Indian government is not willing to acknowledge. Recently, Jayant Sinha, a junior minister in the Modi government, called India’s jobs crisis more of a data crisis, in a column he wrote for The Times of India, India’s largest selling English newspaper.

In his column he stated that 6.5 million new jobs were created in the retail sector between 2014 and 2017. While he didn’t state the source of this data, some digging around suggests that he borrowed this number from Human Resources and Skill Requirement in the Retail Sector, authored by KPMG, for the NITI Aayog, a government run think tank.

The 6.5 million jobs that Sinha talked about was basically a forecast, which Sinha passed off as the actual number of jobs created.

As far as the lack of data is concerned, the Labour Bureau carried out six household based Annual Employment-Unemployment Surveys (EUS) between 2010 and 2016. Of this, reports of five rounds have been released till date. (Makes us wonder why has the report on the sixth round been held back up until now).

The report of the fifth round was released in September 2016. One the major findings of the report was that only 60% of the Indians who were looking for a job all through the year, found one. This figure showed the bad state of jobs in India, very clearly. This finding was consistent with a similar finding reported in the report on the fourth round of the survey as well.

Recently, in an answer to a question raised in the Parliament, the government said, “On the recommendations of Task Force on Employment, however, this survey has been discontinued”. Basically, a survey which brought bad news has been discontinued and then the government goes around talking about lack of data.

There is enough data that suggests that India is facing a huge jobs problem. The so called demographic dividend is collapsing. The Modi government refuses to even acknowledge this problem. The first step towards solving any problem is to acknowledge it. If you don’t acknowledge a problem, how do you solve it?

The column was originally published on April 13, 2018, on AsiaTimes.

PM Modi, Nehruvian Economic Policies Aren’t Going to Get Us Anywhere

narendra_modi
This is something that we should have written on a while back, but as they say it is better late than never.

In the annual budget of the government of India, presented earlier this month, the finance minister Arun Jaitley raised custom duties on a whole host of products. In his speech, Jaitley made it clear that this wasn’t a one-off thing, but a change in policy direction.

As he said: “In this budget, I am making a calibrated departure from the underlying policy in the last two decades, wherein the trend largely was to reduce the customs duty. There is substantial potential for domestic value addition in certain sectors, like food processing, electronics, auto components, footwear and furniture. To further incentivise the domestic value addition and Make in India in some such sectors, I propose to increase customs duty on certain items. I propose to increase customs duty on mobile phones from 15% to 20%, on some of their parts and accessories to 15% and on certain parts of TVs to 15%. This measure will promote creation of more jobs in the country.”

The customs duty has been raised on around 45 products. The maximum increase was in case of cranberry juice from 10% to 50%. (All you cranberry juice drinkers out there, maybe it is time to start appreciating the taste of chilled filtered water with a dash of lemon in it).

The idea as Jaitley explained is to create jobs within the country. With increased custom duties, imported goods will become expensive. This will make domestic goods competitive. As people buy more and more of domestic goods, the companies producing goods in India will do well. Once they do well, they will expand and create jobs in the process. Alternatively, because imports will become uncompetitive, the domestic companies can continue operating, and jobs can thus be saved. QED.

The problem with this argument is that it stinks of Nehruvian era economic policies, in particular import substitution, which was the norm in independent India, up until the economic reforms of 1991. Import substitution as a policy was introduced by Jawahar Lal Nehru and carried forward by Indira Gandhi, two individuals, the Bhartiya Janata Party keeps blaming for everything that is wrong in this country (even though we are four years into the term). At its simplest level, import substitution is basically an economic policy which promotes domestic production at the cost of imports. And it is an economic policy, which doesn’t work.

As the French economist Jean Tirole writes in Economics for the Common Good: “In economic matters too, first impressions can mislead us. We look at the direct effect of an economic policy, which is easy to understand, and we stop there. Most of the time we are not aware of the indirect effects. We do not understand the problem in its entirety. Yet secondary or indirect effects can easily make a well-intentioned policy toxic.”

What does Tirole mean here? Another French economist Frédéric Bastiat explains what secondary or indirect effects are, through the broken window fallacy.

Bastiat basically talks about a shopkeeper’s careless son breaking a pane of a glass window. He then goes on to say that those present would say: “It is an ill wind that blows nobody good. Everybody must live, and what would become of glaziers if panes of glass were never broken.

The point being that if windows weren’t broken, how would those repairing windows, the glaziers that is, ever make a living. This seems like a fair question to ask, but things aren’t as simple as that.

As Bastiat writes in Essays on Political Economy: “This form of condolence contains an entire theory, which it will be well to show up in this simple case, seeing that it is precisely the same as that which, unhappily, regulates the greater part of our economical institutions.”

Bastiat then goes on to explain what exactly he means by this. Let’s say replacing the pane of the broken window costs 6 francs. This is the amount that the shopkeeper pays the glazier. If the shopkeeper’s son would not have broken the window there was no way that the glazier could have earned these six francs.

As Bastiat puts it: “The glazier comes, performs his task, receives his six francs, rubs his hands, and, in his heart, blesses the careless child. All this is that which is seen.” This leads us to conclude that breaking windows is a good thing because it leads to money circulating and those who repair broken windows doing well in the process.

Nevertheless, this is just one side of the argument. As Bastiat writes: “It is not seen that our shopkeeper has spent six francs upon one thing, he cannot spend them upon another. It is not seen that if he had not had a window to replace, he would, perhaps have replaced his old shoes, or added a book to his library. In short, he would have employed his six francs in some way which this accident prevented.”

How does this apply in the case of the Narendra Modi government increasing custom duties on a whole host of products? The seen effect of this, as already explained above, is that domestic Indian companies can compete with cheaper imports because of the custom duties being increased. This is likely to create jobs and if not, it is at least likely to save jobs. This is the first order effect or the seen effect.

What is the second order effect or the unseen effect? It is well worth remembering here that consumers only have so much money to spend. If cheaper imports no longer remain cheaper because of an increase in custom duties, the consumers have to pay a higher price for the goods made by domestic companies. Once this happens, they are likely to cut their spending on some other front.

The trouble is that this some other front on which consumers cut their spending, is not easily identifiable. Once consumers cut their spending on other fronts, some domestic businesses are not going to do well, and jobs will be lost there. The trouble is this is not something which is very obvious. It is an unseen effect.

If the consumers keep spending the same amount of money as before, they will end up cutting down on their savings, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. As Henry Hazlitt writes in Economics in One Lesson: “The fallacy… comes from noticing only the results that are immediately seen, and neglecting the results that are not seen.”

Another point that needs to be made here is that the domestic companies are organised well enough to lobby with the government. The end consumer never is.

Increasing customs duties is not a solution to creating jobs. For jobs to be created Indian firms need to be globally competitive. When companies produce for the global market, they need to compete with the best in the world. This automatically leads to a situation wherein the products which a company produces need to be globally competitive. On the other hand, when import substitution is the norm and companies need to produce just for the internal market, almost anything goes. This explains why the Indian corporate sector on the whole, has not been able to be competitive on the global front. It has still not been able to come out of the import substitution era. (We hope people do remember the Ambassador Car which had the same engine between 1944 and 1982.)

In order to be globally competitive, India needs to introduce a whole host of reforms, from labour law reforms to land reforms. It needs to start pricing electricity correctly. The governments need to control their fiscal deficits to ensure that they don’t push up interest rates in the long-term. Our education system needs a paradigm shift (We find this phrase absolutely cringeworthy, but nothing explains the situation better). The corporate bond market needs to function much better than it currently is. The number of inspectors that an average business needs to deal with has to come down. The paper work needs to be simplified. All these distortions in the system need to go.

Long story short—going back to Nehruvian economics is not going to do any good to the country. The sooner Narendra Modi understands this, the better it will be for India. India has suffered enough because of the mess initiated by the economic policies of Nehru and Indira Gandhi. And there is no point, going back to it.

The column originally appeared in Equitymaster on February 19, 2018.