Matthew Effect of Covid Pandemic: Rich Got Richer and Poor Got Poorer

In 1968, sociologists Robert K Merton and Harriet Zuckerman, came up with the concept of the Matthew Effect of accumulated advantage. The term takes its name from the Gospel of Matthew, which points out: “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

In simpler terms, the Matthew Effect of accumulated advantage is stated as the rich become richer and the poor get poorer. This is precisely how things have played out over the last one year, as the covid pandemic has spread through India and large parts of the world.

Let’s take a look at the different ways in which this has happened.

1) Central banks in the rich world have printed a massive amount of money post covid. Just the Federal Reserve of the United States has printed more than $3.5 trillion between end February 2020 and now. Other big central banks like the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan and European Central Bank have also done the same.

This has been done in order to drive down interest rates. The hope is that at lower interest rates people will borrow and spend money, and businesses will borrow and expand. This will help the economy revive. Many rich countries have put money directly in the bank accounts of people, encouraging them to spend.

Some of this money has found its way into stock markets all around the world, including India, driving stock prices way beyond what the earnings of companies justify. The foreign institutional investors invested a whopping $37.03 billion in Indian stocks in 2020-21, the highest they have ever invested. The next best being $25.83 billion in 2012-13.

This sent stock prices soaring with the Sensex, India’s most famous stock market index, gaining 68% in 2020-21. In fact, the market capitalisation of all BSE listed stocks (not just the 30 Sensex stocks) went up by Rs 90.82 lakh crore in 2020-21.

The poor don’t buy stocks, the rich do. The rally in the stock market has benefitted them tremendously, making them richer. In 2019-20, investment in shares and debentures (which includes mutual funds), despite all the hype, formed a minuscule 3.39% of the overall Indian household financial savings. In 2020-21, this would have definitely gone up, but given its low base it would have still formed a very small part of the overall financial savings of Indian households.

As per the 10th Edition of Hurun Global Rich List 2021, India added 55 new dollar billionaires in 2020, with the total number of billionaires in the country going up to 177, a 45% jump in the number of billionaires in comparison to 2019. If one looks at the list of the richest Indian billionaires, most of their wealth is in the stock market. And with stock markets rallying big time in 2020-21, their wealth has gone up.

2) Like the central banks of the rich world, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) also joined the money printing party and printed Rs 3.6 lakh crore between the beginning of March 2020 and the end of March 2021. This has primarily been done in order to drive down interest rates and help the government borrow at lower interest rates. The central government borrowed Rs 12.8 lakh crore last year and is expected to borrow Rs 12.06 lakh crore in 2021-22.

While money printing helps the central government borrow at lower rates, it hurts the middle class and the poor, who invest in fixed deposits and other forms of fixed income investments to save money. It needs to be remembered that most Indians save by investing in fixed deposits, small savings schemes, provident and pension funds and life insurance. In 2019-20, 84.24% of the household financial savings were made in these financial instruments. Low interest rates largely mean lower returns from these investments. 

In the last two years, the average interest rate on bank term deposits (fixed deposits, recurring deposits, etc.) of more than one year has come down dramatically. It was at 7.5% in March-April 2019. In March 2021, it stands at 5.5%. A bulk of this fall has happened from the beginning of 2020. Recently, the government had majorly cut the interest rates on small savings schemes for the period April to June. Nevertheless, it reversed the decision overnight, probably because of the assembly elections that were still on. It is now expected that the government will cut the interest rate on small savings schemes for the period July to September. 

Lower interest rates, hurt the middle class and the poor especially when the rate of inflation is as high as the interest rates on offer.

The money printing by the RBI to drive down interest rates is likely to continue in the months to come. The Indian central bank is expected to print Rs 1 lakh crore during April to June . This means that bank interest rates will continue to remain low, continuing to hurt the poor and the middle class.

3) While the Indian economy is expected to contract during 2020-21, data from Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) shows that the listed corporates (both financial and non-financial) have made their highest profits ever during the period July to September 2020 and October to December 2020.

As Mahesh Vyas of the Centre for Monitoring of Indian Economy pointed out in a recent piece: “In the December 2020 quarter, the net profit of listed companies exceeded…the record profits of September 2020.” The net profit during the quarters stood at Rs 1.51 lakh crore and Rs 1.53 lakh crore, respectively. These were the highest quarterly profits ever made by listed Indian corporates. 

This means that owners of these businesses have grown richer and so has the top management of these companies given that they own employee stock option plans and benefit from the dividends paid by the companies every year.  

But how did listed Indian corporates make their highest profits ever, while the economy was contracting? The net sales of the non-financial companies, which are a bulk of the listed corporates, fell by 10.4% in the quarter ending September and by 0.9% in the quarter ending December, in comparison to a year earlier, but the companies still made record profits. This happened primarily because the companies were able to drive down their operating expenses.

In the quarter ending March 2020, the operating expenses or the cost of running a business, made up 91.1% of their sales. In the quarters ending September 2020 and December 2020, the operating expenses amounted to 81.4% and 82.8% of the sales, respectively.

In simple English, the companies slashed employee expenses and they renegotiated their contracts with their suppliers and contractors, to drive down their costs. The larger businesses benefitted in the process  at the cost of the smaller ones.

Of course, if a small company gets paid a lower amount of money from a large company, it also has to renegotiate the money it is paying to its employees and suppliers. This also leads to job losses as smaller companies then need to fire employees in order to cut costs and continue to stay viable.

This has played out for the last one year and continues to play out now as well, with the second wave of covid spreading. It is not easy to put a number to this phenomenon, but that does not mean that this is not happening or is not important.

4) Data from the Centre of Monitoring Indian Economy shows that the size of the labour force between January 2020 and March 2021, has shrunk by 1.66 crore. This when the size of the working age population or the population greater than 15 years of age has increased by 2.88 crore during the same period.

What this means is that many individuals who can’t find jobs, have stopped looking and simply dropped out of the workforce. To be counted as a part of a labour force, an individual needs to be either employed or unemployed and be looking for a job.

The sheer size of numbers here tells us that it is the poor who are dropping out of the workforce, giving up on job search. Also as I have discussed in the past, women have faced the brunt of India’s unemployment problem.

5) The rise of the internet and the availability of cheap broadband has ensured that the need to have all hands on the deck is no longer there.

Of course, this does not mean that everyone can work from home. The working class has faced the brunt of the crisis. As Scott Galloway writes in Post Corona – From Crisis to Opportunity: “Most working-class people… can’t do their jobs at home, since they are tied to the store, warehouse, factory, or other place of work.”

People working in factories, hotels, bank branches, hospitals, real estate projects, mom and pop shops, emergency services, delivery services, etc., or driving cabs for that matter, need to turn up at their places of work and job sites every day.

Also, extended working from home, will end up having other major economic consequences. Other than permanent employees, every office has office maintenance jobs which are not on the rolls of the company. Most large offices have canteens run by a contractor. Some companies offer pick up and drop facilities to their employees.

This is how services companies create low-skilled and semi-skilled jobs. Around many large office complexes there are tapris (very small shops) selling tea, coffee and food. Further, the app cab drivers and normal taxi drivers, have already seen their business go down.

Working from home has already hit people in these professions hard. Again, while it is not easy to put a number to this phenomenon, that does not mean that this is not happening or is not important.

6) Given these factors, it is hardly surprising that many people have dropped out of the middle class. A Pew Research centre analysis found that “the middle class in India is estimated to have shrunk by 32 million in 2020 as a consequence of the downturn, compared with the number it may have reached absent the pandemic.”

This accounted for three-fifths of the global retreat in the number of people in the global middle class (defined as people with incomes of $10.01-$20 a day).

While the number of people dropping out of the middle class is high, the increase in the number of poor is shocking beyond belief. Their number is “estimated to have increased by 75 million because of the COVID-19 recession.” This also accounts for around three-fifths of the global increase in poverty.  

In fact, this is something that Nobel Prize winning economist Angus Deaton confirms in a recent research paper, where he points out:

“China did better than almost all other countries, while India did worse. China’s 1.4 billion people experienced few deaths and growth in per capita income, which took them closer to the richer countries of the world and decreased (weighted) global inequality. India’s 1.4 billion people experienced many more deaths, as well as a large drop in income, which increased (weighted) global inequality.”

Of course, with the second wave of covid starting, all this is likely to continue. One point that we need to consider here is the ability of individuals to make a living in the years to come. School and college students are being taught digitally since the last one year. It needs to be considered here that not every student has access to a computer. Further, even if there is access to a computer, it might have to be shared among multiple siblings. Then there is the question of internet speed, electricity and so on.

The quality of education being delivered digitally will impact the earning capacity of many middle class and poor students, in the years to come.

In short, like the disease itself, the negative economic effects of covid, especially among the poor and the middle class, will continue to be felt in the years to come. 

RBI to Print Rs 1 Lakh Crore to Keep Government Happy

After Lehman Brothers, the fourth largest investment bank on Wall Street went bust in September 2008, the Federal Reserve of the United States, the American central bank, came up with three rounds of large-scale asset purchases (LSAP). The LSAP was popularly referred to as quantitative easing or QE.

Yesterday, Shaktikanta Das, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) announced a similar sounding GSAP or G-sec acquisition programme, where G-sec stands for government securities. India now has its own planned QE. (At the risk of deviation, it’s not just the Indian film industry which copies the Americans, our central bank also does.)

The government of India issues financial securities known as government securities or government bonds, in order to finance its fiscal deficit or the difference between what it earns and what it spends. Banks, insurance companies, non-banking finance companies, mutual funds and other financial institutions, buy these securities. Some are mandated to do so, others do it out of their own free will. 

What does GSAP entail? Like was the case with the Federal Reserve and the LSAP, the RBI will print money and buy government securities. For the first quarter of 2021-22 (April to June), the RBI has committed to buying government securities worth Rs 1 lakh crore. The first purchase under GSAP of Rs 25,000 crore will happen on April 15, later this month.

Why is this being done? Among other things, the RBI is also the debt manager for the central government. It manages government’s borrowing programme. After borrowing Rs 12.8 lakh crore in 2020-21, the government is expected to borrow another Rs 12.05 lakh crore in 2021-22. Due to the covid-pandemic and a general slowdown in tax revenues over the years, the government has had to borrow more in order to finance its expenditure and the fiscal deficit.

This information of the government having to borrow more than Rs 12 lakh crore again in 2021-22, came to light when the annual budget of the central government was presented on February 1. Due to this higher borrowing, the bond market immediately wanted a higher return from government securities.

The return (or yield to maturity as it is more popularly know) on 10-year government securities as of January 29, had stood at 5.95%. By February 22, the return had jumped to 6.2% or gone up by 25 basis points, in a matter of a few weeks. One basis point is one hundredth of a percentage. 

The yield to maturity on a security is the annual return an investor can expect when he buys a security at a particular price, on a particular day and holds on to it till its maturity.

As the latest monetary policy report of the RBI released yesterday points out: “Yields spiked following the announcement of government borrowings of  Rs12.05 lakh crore for 2021-22 and additional borrowing of Rs 80,000 crore for 2020-21.”

In May 2020, the government had announced that it would borrow a total of Rs 12 lakh crore in 2020-21. When the budget was presented, the government said that it would end up borrowing Rs 12.8 lakh crore or Rs 80,000 crore more. 

At any given point of time, the financial system can only lend a given amount of money. When the demand for money goes up, it is but natural that the return expected by the lenders will also go up. This led to the bond market demanding a higher rate of return on government securities, pushing up the yields or returns on government securities.

How did this become a bother for the government? When the returns on existing government securities go up, the RBI has to offer higher rates of interest on the fresh financial securities that it plans to issue on behalf of the government to fund the fiscal deficit. This pushes up the interest bill of the government, which the government is trying to minimise. 

Government securities are deemed to be the safest form of lending. Once returns on these securities go up, the interest rates in general across the economy tend to go up, which is not something that the RBI wants at this point of time. The hope is that lower interest rates will help the economy revive faster.

As the debt manager of the government, it’s the RBI’s job to offer the best possible deal to its main client. Hence, post the budget, the RBI got into the job quickly and to drive down returns on government securities launched an open market operation (OMO). As the monetary policy report points out: “Yields subsequently eased somewhat on the back of… the OMO purchases for an enhanced amount of Rs 20,000 crore on February 10, 2021.”

In an OMO, the RBI prints money and buys government securities from those institutions who are willing to sell them. The idea here is to pump more money into the financial system and in the process ensure that yields or returns on government securities go down.

With the GSAP, the RBI has just taken this idea forward. While the GSAP is not very different from the OMOs that the RBI carries out, it is more of an upfront commitment and clear communication from the RBI that it will do whatever it takes to ensure that yields on government securities don’t go up. Like between April and June, the RBI plans to print and pump Rs 1 lakh crore into the financial system. 

Let me make a slight deviation here. In this case, the RBI is also indirectly financing the government’s fiscal deficit. As the debt manager for the government, the RBI sells fresh securities to raise money in order to help the government finance its fiscal deficit.

These securities are bought by various financial institutions. When they do this, they have handed over money to the RBI, which credits the government’s account with it. In the process, the financial institutions as a whole have that much lesser money to lend for the long-term.

By printing money and pumping it into the financial system, the RBI ensures that the money that financial institutions have available for lending for the long-term, doesn’t really go down or doesn’t go down as much,

Hence, in that sense, the RBI is actually indirectly financing the government borrowing. (It’s just buying older bonds and not newer ones directly). A reading of business press tells me that the bond market expects more money printing by the RBI during the course of the year. One particular estimate going around is that of more than Rs 3 lakh crore. In that sense, even if the RBI prints Rs 3 lakh crore, it will indirectly finance around a fourth of the government borrowing given that it is scheduled to borrow Rs 12.05 lakh crore in 2021-22. 

Now getting back to the topic. Like in any OMO, while carrying out a GSAP operation, the RBI will print money and buy government securities. In the process, it will put money into the financial system. This will ensure that returns on government securities don’t go up. In the process, the government will end up borrowing at lower rates.

This is how the RBI plans to keeps its main customer happy. It needs to be mentioned here that with the second wave of covid spreading across the country, chances are economic recovery will take a backseat and the government will have trouble raising tax revenues like it did in 2020-21, the last financial year.

This might lead to increased borrowing on the government front. Increased borrowing without the RBI interfering will definitely lead to the bond market demanding higher returns from government securities. With the GSAP, the hope is that yields or returns on government securities will continue to remain low.

It is worth remembering that Shaktikanta Das’ three year term as the RBI Governor comes to an end later this year. Hence, at least until then, it makes sense for Das to keep Delhi happy.

Of course, the money printing leading to lower return on government securities, will also ensure that the interest you, dear reader, earn on your fixed deposits, will continue to remain low, and the real rate of interest after adjusting for the prevailing inflation, will largely be in negative territory. 

As mentioned earlier, lending to the government is deemed to be the safest form of lending. And if that lending can be carried out at low rates, the other rates will also remain low. This is the cost of the RBI trying to help the government, the corporates and the individual borrowers. It comes at the cost of savers. This is interest that the savers would have otherwise earned.

It is as if the RBI is telling the savers, don’t have your money lying around in deposits. Chase a higher return. Buy stocks. Buy bitcoin. 

If the RBI had let the interest rates find their own level, with the government borrowing more, the interest rates would have gone up and helped the savers earn a higher return on their deposits. This would have also encouraged consumption, especially among those individuals whose expenditure depends on interest income. The argument offered by economists over and over again is that lower interest rates lead to higher borrowing and faster economic recovery.

Let’s take a look at this in the case of bank lending to industry. As of February 2021, the total bank lending to industry stood Rs 27.86 lakh crore. As of February 2016, five years back, the total bank lending to industry had stood at Rs 27.45 lakh crore.

Over a period of five years, the net bank lending to industry has gone up by a minuscule Rs 40,731 crore or just 1.5%. Meanwhile, the interest rate on fresh rupee loans given by banks during the same period has fallen from 10.54% to 8.19%, a fall of 235 basis points.

So much for corporates borrowing more at lower interest rates. This is their revealed preference; the actions that they are taking and not the bullshit that they keep mouthing on TV and in the business media. Currently, the Indian corporate simply isn’t confident enough about the country’s economic future and that’s the reason for not borrowing and expanding, irrespective of the public posturing. 

Anyway, the point is not that higher interest rates are required. But the point is that if the RBI did not intervene like it has been doing, by printing money and buying bonds, slightly higher interest rates which would put the real interest rate in positive territory, would have been the order of the day. And that would have been better than the prevailing situation. A little better for the savers about whom neither the RBI nor the government seems to be bothered about.

But then as I said earlier, the government is the RBI’s main customer these days. And that’s the long and the short of it.

Why RBI is Doing Dhishum Dhishum With Bond Market

I used to think if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the President or the Pope or a .400 baseball hitter. But now I want to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody. – James Carville.

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) is unhappy with the bond market these days. Well, it hasn’t said so directly. A central bank rarely does. But a series of newsreports across the business media suggests so. (Oh yes, the RBI also leaks when it wants to).

The bond market wants the RBI to pay a higher yield on the government of India bonds it is currently issuing. The cost of the higher yield will have to be borne by the government of India, something that the RBI doesn’t want.

And this is where we have a problem (don’t worry I will explain this in simple English and not write like bond market reporters or experts tend to, for other bond market reporters and other bond market experts). Government bonds are financial securities which pay an interest and are issued by the government in order to borrow money.

Let’s try and understand this issue pointwise.

1) The government’s gross borrowings for 2020-21, the current financial year, had been budgeted at Rs 7.8 lakh crore. In May 2020, after the covid pandemic broke out and the tax collections crashed, the number was increased to Rs 12 lakh crore. The final borrowings are expected to be at Rs 12.8 lakh crore. In 2021-22, the gross borrowings of the government are expected to be at Rs 12.06 lakh crore.

Hence, over a period of two years, the government will end up borrowing close to Rs 25 lakh crore. It isn’t surprising that the bond market wants a higher rate of return or yield as it likes to call it, from government bonds, given that the financial savings in the country will not expand at the same rate as government borrowing is expected to. Also, there is no guarantee that the government will stick to borrowing what it is saying it will borrow. That’s a possibility the market is also discounting for.

2) Take a look at the following chart which plots the 10-year bond yield of the government of India. A 10-year bond is a bond which matures in ten years and the return on it on any given day is the per year return an investor will earn if he buys that bond on that day and holds on to it until maturity.

Source: www.investing.com

As can be seen from the above chart, the 10-year bond yield has largely seen a downward trend since January 2020, though since January 2021 it has gradually been rising. As of the time of writing this, it stood at 6.14%, having crossed 6.2% on February 22.

Media reports suggests that the RBI wants the yield to settle around 6%. The bond market clearly wants more. This explains why in the recent past bond auctions have failed with the bond market not buying bonds or the RBI refusing to sell them at yields the bond market wanted.

3) The question is why does the bond market now want a higher rate of return on bonds than it did in 2020. There are multiple reasons for it. Bank lending has largely collapsed during this financial year and has only improved since October. Between March 27, 2020 and January 29, 2021, the overall bank lending has grown by just Rs 3.34 lakh crore, with almost all of this lending carried out during the second half of the financial year.

This forms around 27% of the deposits of Rs 12.3 lakh crore that banks have managed to raise during the period. Clearly, the banks haven’t been able to lend out a large part of their fresh deposits.

Hence, it has hardly been surprising that a bulk of the bank deposits have been invested in government bonds. During the period Rs 6.94 lakh crore or 56% of the deposits have been invested in government bonds. Along with banks, other financial institutions have had few lending/investment opportunities, leading to a lot of money chasing government bonds, which has led to lower returns on them.

Over and above this, the RBI has flooded the financial system with money by cutting the cash reserve ratio (CRR) and by also printing money and buying bonds (something it refers to as open market operations), thereby driving down returns further.

4) What has changed now? The budget expects India to grow by 14.4% in nominal terms (not adjusted for inflation) in 2021-22. Even in real terms (adjusted for inflation), India is expected to grow by at least 10%. This basically means that bank and other lending will pick up. At the same time, the government borrowing will continue to remain high at Rs 12.06 lakh crore. Hence, there will be more competition for savings in 2021-22 than has been the case during this financial year, given that savings are not going to rise suddenly. Hence, yields or returns on government bonds need to go up accordingly. QED.

5) There is another point that needs to be made here. Thanks to the RBI wanting to drive bond yields and interest rates down, there is excess liquidity in the financial system right now. Lending to the government is deemed to be the safest form of lending. If lending to the government becomes cheaper, interest rates on everything else also tends to go down.

As of February 23, the excess liquidity in the financial system stood at Rs 5.7 lakh crore. This is money which banks have parked with the RBI.

On February 5, the RBI governor, Shaktikanta Das, had said: “A two phase normalisation of the cash reserve ratio (CRR) – which I am going to announce – needs to be seen in this context.”

The banks need to maintain a certain proportion of their deposits with the RBI. It currently stands at 3%. In April 2020, the RBI had cut the CRR by 100 basis points to 3%. One basis point is one hundredth of a percentage. With the banks having to maintain a lower proportion of their deposits with the RBI there was more liquidity in the financial system, which helped drive down yields and interest rates.

Now the RBI wants to increase the CRR in two phases. Assuming it wants to increase the CRR to 4%, this means that more than Rs 1.56 lakh crore (using data as of February 23) will be pulled out of the financial system by banks and be deposited with the RBI, in the months to come.

The bond market is discounting for this possibility as well, even with Das saying: “systemic liquidity would, however, continue to remain comfortable over the ensuing year.” What this basically means is that the RBI will continue to carry out open market operations by buying bonds and pumping money into the financial system as and when it deems fit.

Having said that, the overall liquidity in the financial system will go down, simply because once the RBI withdraws more than Rs 1.56 lakh crore through raising the CRR, it isn’t going to pump in the same amount of money back into the system, through open market operations, simply because then there would have been no point in increasing the CRR.

6) If your head is not spinning by now, dear reader, then you are clearly a bond market veteran. (Now isn’t the stock market so much simpler). Basically, the RBI is trying to play two roles here. It is the government’s debt manager and banker. At the same time, it also has the mandate of maintaining the rate of consumer price inflation between 2-6%. And at some level these objectives go against each other.

As the government’s debt manager, the RBI needs to ensure that the government is able to borrow at lower rates. In order to do that the RBI now and then floods the system with more money and drives down rates.

The trouble with flooding the system with more money in an economy which is recovering from a huge economic shock, is higher inflation as there is the risk of more money chasing the same amount of goods and services. Of course, with the manufacturing sector having a low capacity utilisation, they can always start more machines and pump up more goods, and ensure that inflation doesn’t shoot up. But the risk of inflation is there, given that money supply (M3) as of January 29, had gone up by 12.1%, year on year.

Over the years, there has been a lot of debate around whether the RBI should continue being the debt manager to the government or should that function be split up from the central bank and another institution should be created specifically for it, with the RBI just concentrating on managing inflation. I guess, in times like the current one, this suddenly starts to make sense.

7) Okay, there is more. The yield on the 10-year US treasury bond has been rising and as I write it has touched 1.33% from around 0.92% at the end of 2020. A major reason for this lies in the fact that the bond market is already factoring in the plan of the newly elected American president Joe Biden to spend more money in order to drive up economic growth.

Of course, with bond yields rising in the US, there is bound to be an impact everywhere else, given that the American government bond is deemed to be the safest financial security in the world. This has added to further pressure on the yields on the Indian government bonds.

8) After the finance minister presented the budget, the bond market realised that the government has huge borrowing plans even in 2021-22 and that even this financial year it would borrow Rs 80,000 crore more than the Rs 12 lakh crore it had said it would.

Accordingly, the 10-year bond yield moved up from 5.95% on January 29 to 6.13% on February 2, a day after the budget was presented. The RBI carried out open market operations worth Rs 50,169 crore between February 8 and February 12, on each of the days, to increase the liquidity in the financial system and push the yield below 6% to 5.99% on February 12.

But the yields have gone back up again and stand at 6.14% at the point of writing this. Interestingly, the yields on state government bonds have almost touched 7.2%.

Clearly, the bond market has made up its mind as far as yields are concerned. The way out of this for RBI is to print more money and buy more government bonds and drive down yields. Of course, this needs to be done regularly and by following a certain routine.

That’s the trouble with printing money. A major lesson in economics since 2008 has been that printing money by central banks leads to printing of more money in the time to come, given that the market gets addicted to the easy money.

Let’s see how the RBI comes out of this predicament, given that it has promised an “accommodative stance of monetary policy as long as necessary – at least through the current financial year and into the next year”.

9) We aren’t done yet. Other than being the debt manager to the government and having to manage the consumer price inflation between 2-6%, the RBI also needs to keep a look out for the dollar rupee exchange rate.

During the course of this financial year, the foreign institutional investors have brought in $35.4 billion to invest in the stock market. When they bring money into India they need to sell their dollars and buy rupees. This increases the demand for the rupee and leads to the rupee appreciating against the dollar.

When the rupee is appreciating against the dollar, the RBI typically sells rupees and buys dollars, in order to ensure that there is enough supply of rupees going around. In the process, the RBI ends up building foreign exchange reserves and it also ends up pumping more rupees into the financial system, thereby increasing the money supply, and pushing up the risk of a higher inflation.

Over and above this, the open market operations of buying bonds and cutting the CRR, this is another way the RBI ends up pumping money into the financial system. All this goes against its other objective of maintaining inflation.

One dollar was worth Rs 74.9 sometime in mid-November 2020. It has been falling since then and as I write this, it stands at Rs 72.4. What this means is that in the last few months, the RBI has barely been intervening in the foreign exchange market.

This brings us back to the concept of trilemma in economics, which the RBI seems to have hit. Trilemma is a concept which was originally expounded by the Canadian economist Robert Mundell. Basically, a central bank cannot have free international movement of capital, a fixed exchange rate and an independent monetary policy, all at the same time. It can only choose two out of these three objectives. Monetary policy refers to the process of setting of interest rates in an economy, carried out by the central bank of the country.

This explains why the RBI is letting the rupee appreciate, in order to ensure free movement of capital (at least for foreign investors) and an independent monetary policy. Let’s say the RBI kept intervening in the foreign exchange market in order to ensure that the rupee doesn’t appreciate against the dollar. In this situation, it would have ended up pumping more rupees into the financial system and thereby risking higher inflation in the process.

A higher inflation would have forced the RBI to start raising interest rates in an environment where the economy is recovering from a huge shock and the government is looking to borrow a lot of money. This would have led to the RBI losing control over its monetary policy. Clearly, it didn’t want that. (For everyone wanting to know about the trilemma in detail, you can read this piece, I wrote in September last year).

10) Finally, an appreciating rupee has multiple repercussions. People like me who make some amount of money in dollars, get hit in the process. (I would request my foreign supporters to keep this in mind while supporting me. Okay, that was a joke!)

Further, it makes imports cheaper, going against the entire narrative of atmabnirbharta being promoted right now. If imports become cheaper, the local products will find it even more difficult to compete. Of course, cheaper imports is good news for the consumers, given that the main aim of all economics is consumption at the end of the day.

An appreciating rupee also hurts the exporters as they earn a lower amount in rupee terms, making it more difficult for them to compete globally. And all this goes against the idea of promoting Indian exports and exporters to become a valuable part of global value chains and boosting Indian exports.

To conclude, and I know I sound like a broken record (millennials and gen Xers please Google the term) here, there is no free lunch in economics. That’s the long and short of it. All the liquidity created in the financial system to drive down yields on government bonds to help the government borrow at lower rates, is having other repercussions now. And there isn’t much the RBI can do about it.

Of course, if the bond market keeps demanding higher yields, the RBI’s dhishum dhishum with it will get even more intense in the days to come . If you are the kind who gets a high out of these things, well, continue watching this space then!

How Trustworthy are the Bad Loans Numbers of Banks?

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in the Financial Stability Report (FSR) released in January had said that by September, the bad loans of banks, under a baseline scenario, could shoot up to 13.5% of their total loans. In September 2020, the bad loans rate of banks had stood at 7.5%. Bad loans are largely loans, which haven’t been repaid for a period of 90 days or more.

If the economic scenario were to worsen into a severe stress scenario, the bad loans could shoot up to 14.8% of the loans. For public sector banks, the rate could go up to 16.2% under a baseline scenario and 17.8% in a severe stress one.

What this meant was that the RBI expected the overall bad loans of banks to shoot up massively in the post-covid world, even more or less doubling from 7.5% to 14.8%, under a severe stress scenario.

A past reading of the RBI forecasts suggests that in an environment where bad loans are going up, they typically end up at levels which are higher than the severe stress level predicted by the RBI.

Given all this, there should be enough reason for worry on the banking front. But as things are turning out the dire predictions of the RBI are still not visible in the numbers. The quarterly results of a bunch of banks for the period October to December 2020 have been declared and it must be said that the banks look to be doing decently well.

In a research note, CARE Ratings points out that the bad loans rate of 30 banks which form the bulk of the Indian banking system (including the 12 public sector banks, IDBI Bank and the big private banks), stood at 7.01% as of December 2020. The rate had stood at 8.72% as of December 2019 and 7.72% as of September 2020.

In fact, when it comes to public sector banks, the bad loans rate has improved from 11.22% as of December 2019 to 9.01% as of December 2020 (This calculation includes IDBI Bank as well, which is now majorly owned by the Life Insurance Corporation of India and not the union government, and hence is categorised as a private bank).

When it comes to private banks ( a sample of 17 banks), the bad loans rate has improved from 4.87% as of December 2019 to 3.49% as of December 2020.

On the whole, these thirty banks had bad loans amounting to Rs 7.38 lakh crore on loans of Rs 105.37 lakh crore, leading to a bad loans rate of a little over 7%. Do remember, the RBI’s baseline forecast for September 2021 is 13.5%. Hence, things should have been getting worse on this front, but they seem to be getting better.

What’s happening here? The Supreme Court in an interim order dated September 3, 2020, had directed the banks that loan accounts which hadn’t been declared as a bad loan as of August 31, shall not be declared as one, until further orders.

This has essentially led to banks not declaring bad loans as bad loans. Nevertheless, the banks are declaring what they are calling proforma slippages or loans which would have been declared as bad loans but for the Supreme Court’s interim order.

A look at the results of banks tells us that even these slippages aren’t big. The proforma slippages of the State Bank of India between April and December 2020, stood at Rs 16,461 crore, which is small change, given that the bank’s total advances stand at Rs 24.6 lakh crore. When it comes to the Punjab National Bank, the total proforma slippages were at Rs 12,919 crore between April to December 2020.

Similarly, when we look at other banks, the proforma slippages are present but they are not a big number. An estimate made by the Mint newspaper suggests that India’s ten biggest private banks have proforma slippages amounting to around Rs 42,000 crore.

The 30 banks in the CARE Ratings note had total bad loans of Rs 7.38 lakh crore or a rate of 7.01 %. If this has to reach anywhere near, 13.5-14.8% as forecast by the RBI, the overall bad loans need to nearly double or touch around Rs 14 lakh crore.

The initial data doesn’t bear this out. As the RBI said in the FSR, “[With] the standstill on asset classification… the data on fresh loan impairments reported by banks may not be reflective of the true underlying state of banks’ portfolios.”

Hence, the situation will only get clearer once the Supreme Court decision comes in and the banks need to mark bad loans as bad loans. While banks are declaring proforma slippages, it could very well be that the Supreme Court interim order along with restructuring schemes announced by the RBI and the fact the Insolvency and the Bankruptcy Code remains suspended, have led to a situation where they are under-declaring these numbers.

This is not the first time something like this will happen. Around a decade back in 2011, Indian banks had started accumulating bad loans on the lending binge carried out by them between 2004 and 2010, but they didn’t declare these bad loans as bad loans immediately.

Only after a RBI crackdown and an asset quality review in mid 2015, did the banks start declaring bad loans as bad loans. There is no reason to suggest that banks are behaving differently this time around.

It is important that the same mistake isn’t made all over again. Hence, the RBI should carry out an asset quality review of banks(and non-banking finance companies) and force them to come clean on their bad loans.

A problem can only be solved once it has been identified as one.

The article originally appeared in the Deccan Herald on February 14, 2021.

[email protected],000 – How RBI Played a Part in Creating the Stock Market Bubble

The BSE Sensex, India’s premier stock market index, crossed 50,000 points today in intra day trading. It has risen by more than 80% from around the end of March, when it had fallen to 27,591 points, in the aftermath of the covid pandemic hitting India.

This astonishing rise has now got the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) worried. The RBI Governor Shaktikanta Das, writing in the foreword to the latest Financial Stability Report, pointed out:

“The disconnect between certain segments of financial markets and the real economy has been accentuating in recent times, both globally and in India.”

People who run central banks are not always known to talk in simple English. Das is only following tradition here. The statement basically refers to stock prices. Das feels they have risen too fast in the recent past and have become disconnected from the overall economy.

While the overall Indian economy is expected to contract this year, the stock market has rallied by more than 80%. How is this possible? Or as you often get to hear these days, if the economy is doing badly, why is the stock market doing so well.

Theoretically, a possible explanation is that the stock market discounts the future and the stock market investors think that the future of the Indian economy is bright. Another explanation offered often by the stock market investors is that corporate profits this year have been at never seen before levels.

But even after taking these reasons into account, the current high level is really not justified. As Das put it in his foreword: “Stretched valuations of financial assets pose risks to financial stability.” One way to figure out whether valuations are stretched is to look at the price to earnings ratio of the stocks that constitute the Sensex index.

In January 2021, the price to earnings ratio has been at around 34. This means that investors are ready to pay Rs 34 as price, for every rupee of earning of the companies that make up for the Sensex. Such a high level of the price to earnings ratio has never been seen before. Not even in late 2007 and early 2008, when stock prices rallied big time or the first half of 2000, when the dotcom bubble was on.

Clearly, stock prices are in extremely bubbly territory. The current jump in corporate earnings isn’t sustainable for the simple reason that corporates have pushed up earnings by cutting employee costs as well as raw material costs. This means the incomes of those dealing with corporates from employees to suppliers and contractors, have fallen.

This fall in income has limited the ability of these individuals to spend money. This will lead to lower private consumption in the months to come, which, in turn, will impact corporate revenues and eventually profits. A sustainable increase in profits can only happen when people keep buying things and corporate revenues keep going up.

This brings us back to the question as to why stock prices are going up, when the overall economy is not doing well. A part of the reason is the RBI, though the central bank, rather expectedly, glosses over this totally in the latest edition of the Financial Stability Report.

Since February 2020, the RBI has pumped in a massive amount of money into the financial system through various measures, some of which involve the printing of money. By flooding the financial system with money, or what central banks refer to as liquidity, the RBI has ensured that interest rates in general and bank deposits in particular, have fallen.

The idea here is threefold. A drop in interest rates allows the government to borrow at lower interest rates. This became necessary because thanks to the pandemic, the tax collections of the government have dropped during this financial year. Between April and November 2020, the gross tax revenue stood at Rs 10.26 lakh crore, a drop of 12.6% in comparison to the same period in 2019.

Secondly, lower interest rates ensured that the interest costs of corporates on their outstanding loans, came down. Also, the hope was that at lower interest rates, corporates will borrow and expand.

Thirdly, at lower interest rates, the hope always is that people will borrow and spend more, and all these factors will lead to a faster economic recovery.

But there is a flip side to all this as well. A fall in interest rates has got people looking for a higher return. This has led to many individuals buying stocks, in the hope of a higher return and thus driving up prices to astonishingly high levels.

This can be gauged from the fact that in 2020, the number of demat accounts, which are necessary to buy and sell stocks, went up by nearly a fourth to 4.86 crore accounts. One of the reasons for this is the rise of Robinhood investing in India. This term comes from the American stock brokerage firm Robinhood which offers free online trading in stocks. India has seen the rise of similar stock brokerages offering free trading.

What has added to this is the fact that many unemployed individuals have turned to stock trading to make a quick buck. All it needs is a smartphone, a cheap internet connection and a low-cost brokerage account.

Of course, this search for a higher return isn’t local, it’s global. Hence, foreign institutional investors have invested a whopping $31.6 billion in Indian stocks during this financial year, the highest ever. This stems from the fact that Western central banks, like the RBI, have printed a huge amount of money to drive down interest rates.

This has pushed more and more investors into buying stocks despite the fact that the global economy isn’t doing well either.

A slightly different version of this column appeared in the Deccan Herald on January 17, 2021. It was updated after the Sensex first crossed 50,000 points during intra day trading on January 21, 2021.