Why politicians love paper money

3D chrome Dollar symbolMoney makes money, and the more money that money makes, makes more money—Benjamin Franklin

John Maynard Keynes was the most influential economist of the twentieth century. Keynes really came into his own in 1936, when his magnum opus The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money was published.
One of the core points of the book was that when it came to thrift or saving, the economics of the individual differed from the economics of the entire system. For an individual to save by cutting down on expenditure made tremendous sense. But when a society, as a whole, began to save more, there was a problem.
This was because the expenditure of one person was the income for another. Hence, when expenditure began to go down, incomes would fall too, leading to a further reduction in expenditure. And so the cycle would continue. The aggregate demand of a society as a whole would fall in the end, leading to either lower prices or lower production or both, thus impeding economic growth and causing economic contraction.
As per Keynes, the way out of this situation was for someone to spend more. Citizens and businesses were not willing to spend more, given the state of the economy. So, the only way out of this situation was for the government to spend more on public works and other programs. This would act as a stimulus and thus cure the recession.
This has been standard prescription given by economists when countries are not doing well. Having said that the basic idea put forward by Keynes had been known for a very long time. Even Roman kings had practised it.
As Kabir Sehgal writes in Coined—The Rich Life of Money and How Its History Has Shaped Us: “Julius Caesar left his stamp on Roman monetary history by using the gold treasure he pillaged from Gaul to increase the quantity of the aureus in circulation…These new coins helped Rome cope with a financial crisis of 49BC.” So, even Julius Caesar had used Keynes’ prescription of increasing government spending during recessionary times and thus helped revive the economy.
Caesar’s successor Augustus followed the same prescription in order to revive the Roman economy when it was suffering from a depression, during the course of his rule. As Sehgal writes: “Augustus used loot captured from Egypt to spend lavishly on civil projects and enhanced welfare programs…In time…the economy recovered.”
Interestingly, the rulers that followed Julius and Augustus, followed their model. One such ruler was Nero who ruled Rome between AD 54 and AD 68 and had to face a depression in AD 62. In AD 64, a fire blazed through Rome and this created further problems. But Nero got through this by increasing “food subsidies for the public” and “spending on civil projects like canals”.
But along with following the Keynesian model, Nero did something else as well. He started reducing the quantity of metal in the Roman coins. Nero reduced the silver content of denarius (a silver coin) by 10%. He also reduced the gold content of the aureus by 10 percent in AD 64. By reducing the metal content in coins Nero was able to produce more coins. In the modern sense, he was thus able to increase money supply by around 7%.
What was the idea behind this debasement of metallic money? “The story goes that with more money flowing through the economy, prices will rise to reflect the reduced value of the currency, which will spur individuals and businesses to spend now rather than later, leading to a bump in economic activity,” writes Sehgal.
Nero was the not the first ruler to practice this strategy. Neither was he the last one. This is a practise that has been regularly resorted to by kings, queens, dictators, general secretaries, and politicians ever since.
In fact, Nero couldn’t have gone about it as well as politicians and central bankers do, in this day and age. The reason for this lies in the fact that during Nero’s time Rome used gold and silver coins as money. As Sehgal writes: “Nero was unable to affect uniformly his entire currency at once. When he issued a new batch of debased coins[i.e. coins with lower metal content] there were still high-grade coins{i.e. the coins that had been issued earlier and had a higher amount of metal content in them] in circulation. The value of these high-grade coins would appreciate, yet it would take time for them to be hoarded and removed from circulation.” They would be hoarded because they had more metal in them than the new coins.
But with paper money there are no such problems. When a central bank issues more paper money it “adjusts the overall money supply” and “affects the value of all notes simultaneously”. “Today it’s still common practice for central banks to adjust the supply of money to abet political goals,” writes Sehgal.
Take the case of Bank of Japan—the Japanese central bank is mandated to print 80 trillion yen annually so that it can create some inflation in Japan and get people to spend money (as explained above) and in the process create some economic growth. The idea also is to drive down the value of the yen against other currencies so that Japanese exports pick up. A paper money system gives the government and the central bank this kind of flexibility. This is something that would not be easily possible in a metallic based system. In order to flood the financial system with more gold or more silver, more gold or silver would be required. Unlike paper money, metallic money cannot be created out of thin air.
Also, history has shown that debasement of currency leads to inflation as more and more money chases the same amount of goods and services. And inflation benefits borrowers as they repay money they had borrowed with money that is less valuable than it was before. Further, governments run by politicians are themselves big borrowers. Hence, inflation ends up benefiting governments as well.
It is much easier to create inflation with a paper money system than with metal based currencies. In fact, a few years back I spoke to Russell Napier of CLSA who made a very interesting point: “The history of the paper currency system, or the fiat currency system is really the history of democracy… Within the metal currency, there was very limited ability for elected governments to manipulate that currency. And I know this is why people with savings and people with money like the gold standard. They like it because it reduces the ability of politicians to play around with the quantity of money. But we have to remember that most people don’t have savings. They don’t have capital. And that’s why we got the paper currency in the first place. It was to allow the democracies. Democracy will always turn toward paper currency and unless you see the destruction of democracy in the developed world, and I do not see that, we will stay with paper currencies and not return to metallic currencies or metallic based currencies.”
And this best explains why politicians love paper money.

The column originally appeared on The Daily Reckoning on April 16, 2015

Mute Manmohan watches as “Coalgate” engulfs Congress from all sides

Vivek Kaul

The Great Fire of Rome started on July 19, 64AD, and burnt for six days. There are several varying accounts of it in history. One of the accounts suggests that Nero the king of Rome watched the fire destroy the city, from one of Rome’s many hills, while singing and playing the lyre, a stringed musical instrument.
India these days has its own Nero, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. As the Congress led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government gets engulfed in the coal-gate scam, Manmohan Singh has largely been a silent spectator watching from the stands and seeing his government being engulfed by the coal fire.
And this is not the first time. Manmohan Singh has largely been a bystander at the helm of what is turning out to be probably the most corrupt government that India has ever seen. As TN Ninan, one of the most respected business editors in the country, recently wrote in the Business Standard “Corruption silenced telecom, it froze orders for defence equipment, it flared up over gas, and now it might black out the mining and power sectors. Manmohan Singh’s fatal flaw — his willingness to tolerate corruption all around him while keeping his own hands clean — has led us into a cul de sac , with the country able to neither tolerate rampant corruption nor root it out.”
Manmohan Singh like Nero before him has been watching as institutionalised corruption burns India. The biggest of these scams has been termed “coal-gate” by the Indian media. The Comptroller and the Auditor General (CAG) of India put the losses on account of this scam at a whopping Rs 1,86,000 crore.
The background
The Planning Commission of India had estimated that the raw demand for coal in the year 2011-2012 will be at around 696 million tonnes. Of this 554 million tonnes was expected to be produced in the country by Coal India, Singareni Collieries and a host of other small companies. The remaining was expected to be met through imports.
Production of coal in 2011-2012 in million tonnes
Company Target Achievement
Coal India 447 436
Singareni Collieries 51 52
Others 56 52
Total 554 540
Source: Provisional Coal Statistics 2011-2012, Coal Controller Organisation, Ministry of Coal
As can be seen from the table above the actual production of coal at 540 million tonnes was a little less than the target. This was an increase of 1.3% over the previous year. Also since the actual demand for coal was significantly higher than the actual production, India had to import a lot of coal during the course of the year. Estimates made by the Coal Controller Organisation suggest that the country imported around 99million tonnes of coal in 2011-2012. The Planning Commission had expected around 137million tonnes to be imported in the year. So the Coal Controller’s estimate for coal imports is significantly lower than that. Also the increasing iport of coal is not a one off trend.
Coal Imports In Million tonnes In Rupees crore
1999-2000 19.7 3548
2000-2001 20.9 4053
2001-2002 20.5 4536
2002-2003 23.3 5028
2003-2004 21.7 5009
2004-2005 29 10266
2005-2006 38.6 14910
2006-2007 43.1 16689
2007-2008 49.8 20738
2008-2009 59 41341
2009-2010 73.3 39180
2010-2011 68.9 41550
2011-2012 98.9 45723*
*from April-Oct 2011
Source: Provisional Coal Statistics 2011-2012, Coal Control Organisation, Ministry of Coal
As the above table suggests India has been importing more and more coal since the turn of the century. A major reason for this has been the inability of the government owned Coal India, which is the largest producer of coal in the country, to increase production at a faster rate. Between 2004-2005 and 2011-2012 the company managed to increase its production by just 65million tonnes to 436million tonnes, an absolute increase of around 17.5%. The import of coal went up by a massive 241% to around 99 million tonnes, during the same period.
In fact, to its credit, the government of India realised the inability of the country to produce enough coal in the early 1990s. The Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act 1973 was amended with effect from June 9, 1973, to allow the government to give away coal blocks for free for captive use of coal. The Economic Survey for 1994-95 points out the reason behind the decision: “In order to encourage private sector investment in the coal sector, the Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act, 1973 was amended with effect from June 9, 1993 for operation of captive coal mines by companies engaged in the production of iron and steel, power generation and washing of coal in the private sector.”
The total coal production in the country in 1993-94 stood at 246.04million tonnes having grown by 3.3% from 1992-93. The government understood that the production was not going to increase at a faster rate anytime soon because the newer projects were having time delays and cost overruns. As the 1994-95 economic survey put it “As on December 31,1994, out of 71 projects under implementation in the coal sector, 22 projects are bedeviled by time and cost over-runs. On an average, the time overrun per project is about 38months.There is urgent need to improve project implementation in the coal sector”.
The last few years
The idea of giving away coal blocks for free was to encourage investment in coal by companies which were dependant on coal as an input. This included companies producing power, iron and steel and cement. Since the government couldn’t produce enough coal to meet their needs, the companies would be allowed to produce coal to meet their own needs by giving them coal blocks for free.
While the policy to give away coal blocks has been in place since 1993, it didn’t really take off till the mid 2000s. Between 1993 and 2003, the government gave away 39 coal blocks free to private companies as well as government owned companies. 20 out of the 39 blocks were allocated in 2003.
In the year 2004, the government gave away four blocks. But these were big blocks with the total geological reserves of coal amounting to 2143.5million tonnes. After this the floodgates really opened up and between 2005 and 2009, 149 coal blocks were given away for free.
Year Number of mines Geological Reserves (in million tonns)
2004 4 2143.5
2005 21 3174.3
2006 47 14424.8
2007 45 10585.8
2008 21 3423.5
2009 15 6549.2
153 40301.1
Source: Provisional Coal Statistics 2011-2012, Coal Control Organisation, Ministry of Coal
The above table makes for a very interesting reading. Between 2004 and 2009, the government of India gave away 153 coal blocks with geological reserves amounting to a little more than 40billion tonnes for free. Estimates made by the Geological Survey of India suggest that India has 293.5billon tonnes of coal reserves. This implies that the government gave away 13.7% of India’s coal reserves for free in a period of just five years.
The Congress led United Progressive Alliance was in power for most of this period with Manmohan Singh having been sworn in as the Prime Minister in May 2004. Interestingly, things reached their peak between 2006 and 2009, when the Prime Minister was also the Minister for Coal. During this period 128 coal blocks with geological reserves amounting to around 35billion tonnes were given away for free. But giving away the coal blocks for free did not solve any problem. As per the report prepared the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, as on March 31, 2011, eighty six of these blocks were supposed to produce around 73million tonnes of coal. Only 28 blocks have started production and their total production has been around 34.6million tonnes, as on March 31,2011.
The CAG and the losses
As is clearly explained above the Manmohan Singh led UPA government gave away around 14% of nation’s coal reserves away for free. Nevertheless, several senior leaders of the Congress party have told the nation that there have been no losses on account of the coal blocks being given away for free, primarily because very little coal was being produced from these blocks.
P Chidamabaram, the finance minister recently said “If coal is not mined, where is the loss? The loss will only occur if coal is sold at a certain price or undervalued.” Digvijaya Singh, a senior Congress leader targeted Vinod Rai, the Comptroller and Auditor General. Singh told The Indian Express that “the way the CAG is going, it is clear he(i.e. Vinod Rai) has political ambitions like TN Chaturvedi (a former CAG who later joined the BJP). He has been giving notional and fictional figures that have no relevance to facts. How has he computed these figures? He is talking through his hat.”
This is sheer nonsense to say the least and anyone who understands how CAG arrived at the loss number of Rs 1,86,000 crore wouldn’t say so.
The CAG reasonably assumed that the coal mined from the coal blocks given away for free could have been sold at a certain price in the market. Since the government gave away the blocks for free it lost that opportunity. This lost opportunity is what CAG has tried to quantify in terms of a number.
While calculating the loss the CAG did not take into account the coal blocks given to the government companies. Only blocks given to private companies were taken into account. Further only open cast mines were included in calculating the loss. Underground mines were not taken into account.
Also, the total coal available in a block is referred to as geological reserve. Due to several reasons including those of safely, the entire geological reserve cannot be mined. The portion that can be mined is referred to as extractable reserve. The extractable reserves for the blocks (after ignoring the blocks owned by government companies and underground mines) came to 6282.5million tonnes. This is equivalent to more than 14 times the annual production of Coal India Ltd.
The government could have sold this coal at a certain price. Also mining this coal would have involved a certain cost. The CAG first calculated the average sale price for all grades of coal sold by Coal India in 2010-2011. This came to Rs 1028.42 per tonne. Then it calculated the average cost of production for all grades of coal for the same period. This came at Rs 583.01. Other than this there was a financing cost of Rs 150 per tonne which was taken into account, as advised by the Ministry of Coal. Hence a benefit of Rs 295.41 per tonne of coal was arrived at (Rs 1028.42 – Rs 583.01 – Rs 150). The losses were thus estimated to be at Rs 1,85,591.33 crore (Rs 295.41 x 6282.5million tonnes) or around Rs 1.86lakh crore, by the CAG.
Chidambaram and Singh were basically trying to confuse us by mixing two issues here. One is the fact that the government gave away the blocks for free. And another is the inability of the companies who got these blocks to start mining coal. Just because these companies haven’t been able to mine coal doesn’t mean that the government of India did not face a loss by giving away the mines for free.
What are the problems with the CAG’s loss calculation?
The problem with CAG’s loss calculation is that it doesn’t take into account the time value of money. The government wouldn’t have been able to sell all the coal all at once. It would have only been able to do so over a period of time. The CAG doesn’t take this into account. Ideally, it should have assumed that the government earns this revenue over a certain number of years and then discounted those revenues to arrive at a present value for the losses.
This goes against the government. But there are several assumptions that favour the government. The coal blocks given away free to government companies aren’t taken into account. The transaction of handing over a coal block was between two arms of the government. The ministry of coal and a government owned public sector company (like NTPC). In the past when such transactions have happened the profit earned from such transactions have been recognised. A very good example is when the government forces the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) of India to buy shares of public sector companies to meet its disinvestment target. One arm of the government (LIC) is buying shares of another arm of the government (for eg: ONGC). And the money received by the government is recognised as revenue in the annual financial statement. So when revenues for transactions between two arms of the government are recognised so should losses. Around half of the coal blocks were given to government owned companies.
Also, the price at which Coal India sells coal to companies it has an agreement with, is the lowest in the market. It is not linked to the international price of coal. The price of coal that is auctioned by Coal India is much higher than its normal price. As the CAG points out in its report on the ultra mega power project, the average price of coal sold by Coal India through e-auction in 2010-2011 was Rs 1782 per tonne. The average price of imported coal in November 2009 was Rs 2874 per tonne (calculated by the CAG based on NTPC data). The CAG did not take into account these prices. It took into account the lowest price of Rs 1028.42 per tonne, which was the average Coal India price.
Let’s run some numbers to try and understand what kind of losses CAG could have come up with if it wanted to. At a price of Rs 1,782, the profit per tonne would have been Rs 1050 (Rs 1782-Rs 583.01- Rs 150). If this number had been used the losses would have amounted to Rs6.6lakh crore.
At a price of Rs 2874 per tonne, the profit per tonne would have been Rs 2142(Rs 2874 – Rs 583.01 – Rs 150). If this number had been used the losses would have been Rs 13.5lakh crore. This number is a little more than the Rs 13.18 lakh crore expenditure that the government of India incurred in 2011-2012.
So there are weaknesses in the CAG’s calculation of the losses on account of coal blocks being given away free. But these weaknesses work in both the directions. The bottomline though is that the country has suffered a big loss, though the quantum of the loss is debatable.
To conclude
News reports suggest that several Congress politicians have benefitted from the coal blocks being given away for free. The companies which got coal blocks haven’t been able to produce coal. The government hasn’t been able to invoke the bank guarantees of the companies for the delay in producing coal. This is because of a flaw in the allocation letters. As the Business Standard reports “There is a technical flaw in the format of the allocation letters. As per the letters, the government can invoke the bank guarantee clause only in cases of less production, and not nil production.” Some companies have started selling power in the open market. This power is being produced from the coal they mined out of the coal blocks they got free from the government.
The situation has all the facets of turning into a big mess like the previous scams under the Congress led UPA regime. And like the previous scams, it is likely to be swept under the carpet as well. Despite all this, the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will continue to be a mute spectator to all this, keeping the chair warm till Rahul Gandhi is ready to take over. I would be glad to be proven otherwise.
(The article originally appeared in The Seasonal Magazine on September 12,2012. http://www.seasonalmagazine.com/2012/09/mute-manmohan-watches-as-coalgate.html)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])