It’s Time the Govt Treated Deposit Holders with Some Respect

Take a look at the following chart. It shows the various kinds of savings that made up for household financial savings in 2013-2014 (the latest data that is available on this front).

Housing Financial savings in 2013-2014

Deposits constituted close to 63.3 per cent of the total household financial savings. Banks deposits formed around 56.7 per cent of the total household financial savings. Hence, bulk of the Indian savings are in the form of deposits in general and bank deposits in particular.

Shares and debentures formed around 1.5 per cent of the total household financial savings. Within that, investment in mutual funds constituted around 0.98 per cent of total household financial savings. Further, investment in shares and debentures of private corporate companies constituted around 0.46 per cent of total household financial savings.

What this tells us very clearly is that the Indian financial media spends a disproportionate amount of time and space, discussing stocks, debentures and mutual funds. A very small segment of India’s population actually invests in them. This also largely explains why the pink newspapers in India, have such small circulation numbers, given that most of the stuff they publish remains irrelevant to a large section of the population.

What the above chart clearly tells us is that deposits are the main form of savings in India. First and foremost, these deposits help both the union as well as the state governments in India. It is mandatory for banks to invest a certain proportion of their deposits in government bonds (i.e. bonds issued both by the union government as well as the state governments).

The statutory liquidity ratio as this ratio is referred to as is currently at 21 per cent. Hence, for every Rs 100 raised as deposits, banks need to invest at least Rs 21 in government bonds. As on August 5, 2016, 29.3 per cent of aggregate deposits of banks were invested in government bonds.

With so much money chasing government bonds, it allows the union government to raise money at a lower rate of interest than would have been the case, if it was not compulsory for banks to invest in government securities.

Over and above the banks, the provident funds as well as the insurance companies also need to compulsorily buy government bonds. This allows the government to raise money at lower interest rates, than would have otherwise been the case.

Further, given that deposits are the main form of savings, it is this money invested by deposit holders with banks, that ultimately finds its way into the lending carried out by banks. It finances almost everything from homes to cars to two-wheelers to credit card spending to infrastructure projects to corporate takeovers.

But for all that they do as a whole, the deposit holders don’t get treated well. In fact, rarely do they even get a rate of interest on their deposits, which is higher than the rate of inflation. Take a look at the following chart.
Average Reat Rate of Return on Deposits
It shows that between 2009 and 2013, the interest rate on fixed deposits was lower than the rate of inflation. This basically meant that the purchasing power of the money invested in deposits, had been going down. Between mid-2014 and now, the rate of interest offered on fixed deposits of one year or more, has been higher than the rate of inflation.

But in the recent past, this gap has started to narrow again. Also, for those in the higher tax brackets, the real rate of return after paying tax on interest that they earn on fixed deposits, must already be in the negative territory. The real rate of return is essentially the difference between the nominal rate of interest on a fixed deposit minus the rate of inflation.

One of the ironies of the Indian tax system is that income that is earned as capital gains is either not taxed at all, or taxed at lower rates, than income which is earned as an interest on a fixed deposit. Further, capital gains made on selling a house or a debt mutual fund are even allowed the benefit of indexation. The question is why are fixed deposit investors not allowed the benefit of indexation as well, while paying taxes?

Indexation basically allows to take inflation into account while calculating the price of acquisition of an asset. This essentially ensures that the capital gains come down. And in the process, so does the tax that needs to be paid on the capital gains.

Such benefits are not available to those who invest in fixed deposits. If all this was not enough, politicians and bureaucrats keep talking about the need for lower interest rates all the time. This is something I discussed in yesterday’s column, where the commerce and industry minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, had talked about the need to lower interest rates by 200 basis-points to help the micro, small and medium enterprises(MSME) sector.

The finance minister Arun Jaitley has in the past on multiple occasions talked about the need for lower interest rates on fixed deposits. In fact, sometime back, Jaitley even said that people should be investing their money in mutual funds, bonds and shares, that finance projects and lead to economic activity. As if fixed deposits do not finance economic activity. For the finance minister of the nation to be saying something as remarkably silly as this, is surprising indeed.

As I explained earlier in the piece, fixed deposits are ultimately loaned out by banks and this creates economic activity in the process. The money invested in fixed deposits is also invested in government bonds which finance the government. Government bonds essentially help finance the fiscal deficit. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends. The money spent by the government also creates economic activity. Hence, saying that fixed deposits do not create economic activity is totally incorrect.

Also, fixed deposits need to offer a real rate of return. One reason for this is that they are used by senior citizens to generate a regular income. In a country, where there is very little social security on offer along with the fact there is almost no specialised care for the elderly and a medical system which basically robs everyone, the least that we can do is to ensure that the interest on fixed deposits is higher than the rate of inflation. Also, as I keep saying deposits are also used to build a corpus for retirement and weddings and education of children.

Given the reasons cited above, it is important that the government treated the deposit investors with some respect and not make them the fall guy, all the time.

The column originally appeared in Vivek Kaul’s Diary on August 26, 2016

Rahul Gandhi Needs a Lesson in Inflation

rahul gandhi

Rahul Gandhi, in his new avatar, as the angry young man (yes at 45 he is still young), has a thing or two to say on most issues. Let’s take the latest decision of the Narendra Modi government to cut the interest rates on the public provident fund(PPF) and the small savings schemes like Kisan Vikas Patra(KVP) and National Savings Certificate(NSC). Interest rate cuts ranging from 40 basis points to 130 basis points have been carried out. One basis point is one hundredth of a percentage.

Earlier the interest rates ranged from 8.4% to 9.3%. Now they are in the range of 7.1% to 8.6%. These interest rates come into effect from April 1, 2016.

Rahul Gandhi’s office tweeted to say that “slashing interest rates on small savings – on PPF and KVPs, is yet another assault by the Modi Govt on hard working middle class people.” He further said that “this Govt has failed farmers, failed the poor & now it’s failing the middle class. Modiji ppl are seeing through your event management politics.”

While the Modi government has taken the middle class for granted on other issues, like not passing on the benefits of the fall in oil prices in the form of lower petrol and diesel prices, or trying to tax the Employees’ Provident Fund corpus of private sector employees, the same cannot be said in this case. Before I get into explaining this, we first need to understand the meaning of inflation and how it impacts investment returns.

What is inflation? Inflation is essentially the rate of price increase. If the price of a product in March 2015 is Rs 100 per unit and it jumps to Rs 110 per unit by March 2016, the rate of inflation is said to be 10%. So far so good.

What does it mean when people say inflation  is falling? It doesn’t mean that the prices are falling. It means that the rate of increase in price rise is falling. Allow me to explain. Let’s extend the example considered earlier.

The price of a product in March 2016 is at Rs 110 per unit. Let’s say by March 2017, the price of the product has increased to Rs 115.5 per unit. This means that the price of the product has risen by Rs 5.5 or 5%. The inflation is 5%. Hence, the rate of price rise has fallen and the price of the product has gone up.

A fall in the price of the product would mean the price of the product going below Rs 110 per unit, by March 2017, which is a totally different thing.

This is a very important point which many people don’t understand and hence, it is worth repeating. A fall in the rate of inflation does not mean lower prices, it just means that the rate of price rise is falling or has slowed down.

Now let’s get back to Rahul Gandhi and the Modi government’s decision to cut interest rates on PPF and other small savings schemes.

The rate of interest on offer from April 1 onwards, ranges from 7.1% (on the one-year post office deposit) to 8.6% (on the Senior Citizens Savings Scheme and the Sukanya Samriddhi Account Scheme). What is the prevailing rate of inflation? Inflation as measured by the consumer price index in February 2016 had stood at 5.18%.

What does this tell us? It tells us that the rate of interest on offer on PPF as well as other small savings scheme is higher than the prevailing rate of inflation. This means that the money invested will “actually” grow and not lose its purchasing power. The real rate of return on these schemes is in positive territory. The same cannot be said for the period when Rahul Gandhi’s Congress Party was in power.

Inflation as measured by the consumer price index was 10% or higher between 2008 and 2013. In fact, the inflation during the period stood at an average of 10.1% per year. What was the interest that the Congress led UPA government was paying on PPF and other small savings schemes?

The rate of interest varied from anywhere between 8-9%. This, when the prevailing rate of inflation was greater than 10%. Hence, the money invested in these schemes was actually losing purchasing power.

This is not the case now. Investors are actually earning a “real” return on their investment. Some people told me on the social media that even with lower inflation, prices are not really falling. As I explained earlier, lower inflation does not mean falling prices. It just means that the rate of price increase has slowed down.

Also, it needs to be mentioned here that investments made into PPF and other schemes like Senior Citizens Savings Scheme, National Savings Certificate and Sukanya Samriddhi Account Scheme, enjoy a tax deduction under Section 80C. Hence, the effective rate of return on these schemes is higher than the interest that they pay.

I guess these are points that Rahul Gandhi needs to understand. Editors of media houses who have run headlines saying how the middle class will be hurt because of the cut in interest rates, also need to understand this. While “middle class hurt” makes for a sexy headline, that is really not the case.

Also, it is worth mentioning here that the Modi government is trying to introduce a certain method in the calculation of the interest to be paid on these schemes. The interest will now be linked to the rate of return on government securities and will be calculated every three months.

Indeed, this is a good move and brings a certain transparency to the entire issue. Further, people up until now have been used to interest rates on PPF and small savings schemes remaining unchanged for long periods of time. But now with a quarterly reset in these interest rates coming in, they need to get used to the idea of these interest rates changing on a regular basis.

This is something that needs a change in mental makeup and will happen if the government persists with this. Also, it is important in the days to come the government ensures that the rate of interest being paid on PPF and small savings schemes is higher than the rate of inflation. That to me is the most important thing than the current rate cut.

The column originally appeared in the Vivek Kaul Diary on March 21, 2016