On May 21, the central board of directors of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) approved the transfer of Rs 99,122 crore as surplus to the central government for the accounting period of nine months ending March 31, 2021 (July 2020-March 2021).
This transfer to the government has raised a few issues. Let’s look at them point wise. But before we do that, I want to make a disclaimer here. This is a complicated topic and to make sure that I am able to explain it in simple English, I have left out a few details. At the cost of repetition, the idea is to explain the issues at hand, than get all the details right. So, to everyone who understands this inside out, apologies in advance.
Here we go.
1) The RBI’s accounting year was from July to June, different from the April to March period that the central government follows. From 2021-22 onwards, the accounting year of the RBI will be the same as that of the government. Given this, the last accounting year of the RBI was for the period of nine months from July 2020 to March 2021, as it moved to the government’s accounting year.
Despite this shortening in the accounting year, the RBI surplus to the government has jumped big time. The surplus transferred to the government from July 2019 to June 2020, had stood at Rs 57,128 crore, for a period of full 12 months. Clearly, there has been a huge jump in the surplus transferred to the government, once we consider the fact that the last accounting year of the RBI was just nine months long.
2) The annual budget of the central government presented by the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman on February 1, had assumed that the central government would earn Rs 53,511 crore as way of dividend/surplus from the RBI, the nationalised banks and the financial institutions (read the Life Insurance Corporation of India). A few months later, the surplus transferred just by RBI is much more than Rs 53,511 crore. So what gives?
3) Let’s first try and understand how the RBI managed to generate such a huge surplus, which was unexpected (or at least not made public) up until the budget was presented earlier this year. From July 2020 to March 2021, the RBI gross sold a total of $85.2 billion of its foreign exchange.
An accounting change made in 2019, thanks to the Bimal Jalan Committee report, now allows the RBI to pass a part of the profit made from selling foreign exchange, to the government as a surplus. The earlier system was different (for the sake of simplicity we won’t go there).
There is a certain weighted average price at which RBI has bought these dollars over the years. The RBI doesn’t reveal this detail. As per Ananth Narayan, Senior India Analyst at the Observatory Group, this weighted average stood at Rs 55.70, from July 2019 to June 2020.
It would be fair to say the weighted average would be a little higher in the last accounting year, more towards Rs 58-60 to a dollar. The RBI would have sold these dollars, from July 2020 to March 2021, at Rs 72-75 to a dollar, and thus made a profit of around Rs 15 for every dollar sold.
A part of this profit has been passed on to the central government as a surplus. So far so good.
4) While at the aggregate level, everything looks fine, if we start to look at the detailed data, this doesn’t pass the basic smell test. Take a look at the following graph, which basically plots the total gross dollars sold by the RBI every month from July 2020 to March 2021.
Source: Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.
The above chart makes for a very interesting reading. Close to 60% of the dollars sold during the accounting year were sold in the last two months ($50.5 billion of the total $85.2 billion). More than 77% of the dollars sold during the year were sold in the last three months ($65.9 billion of the total $85.2 billion).
What does this tell us? It tells us that the RBI sold a lot of dollars after the finance minister had presented the budget. And a good chunk of the surplus given to the government was probably thus generated. If I was a gossip columnist, I would have definitely speculated, whether one of the secretaries in the FinMin dialled RBI for more money, around the time the budget was presented.
5) As mentioned earlier, the facts stated above don’t pass the basic smell test. The RBI at various points of time needs to sell dollars in order to manage the dollar rupee exchange rate. While the RBI sold $65.9 billion from January to March, it also bought $61.8 billion during the same period. On the whole, this wouldn’t have made much of a difference in moving the foreign exchange market in a particular direction, when it comes to dollar rupee exchange rate.
Take a look at the following chart, which plots the dollar rupee exchange rate from January 2021 to March 2021.
Source: Yahoo Finance.
As can be seen from the above chart, the dollar rupee exchange rate moved within a narrow range of Rs 72.4-73.6, for the first three months of 2021.
So what does this really mean? The RBI sold lots of dollars after the finance minister’s budget speech, not because that was what was required in the foreign exchange market, but in order to generate an accounting surplus for a cash-starved government. If I were to put it in very simple terms, the RBI led by Shaktikanta Das, resorted to jugaad.
6) The way things stand the RBI is not allowed to directly finance the expenditure by printing money and handing it over to the government to spend. Hence, over the last couple of years, it has been resorting to different ways to do so. Selling and buying dollars in order to generate an accounting profit is one such way.
If I were to be slightly flippant here I would ask a rhetorical question – Is RBI a central bank or is it a government sponsored hedge fund?
Another way of financing the government has been printing money and buying existing government bonds from banks and other financial institutions.
While this move does not hand over money to the government directly, it does ensure that the supply of money in the financial system goes up, and the newly created money can be used by banks and financial institutions to buy fresh government bonds. Hence, this is indirect monetisaton of the government’s fiscal deficit or the difference between what it earns and what it spends.
To conclude, while nothing can stop a central bank from printing money, the tactic of selling dollars in order to generate a profit depends on how much the rupee depreciates against the dollar. While the weighted average cost of the dollars that the RBI currently has, is less than Rs 60 to a dollar, it will only rise in the years to come.
Hence, for enough profit to be generated through this route, the rupee needs to depreciate against the dollar. But that’s where atma nirbharta will come in and limit the RBI’s hand. Strong nations have strong currencies, at least that’s the idea in the heads of the politicians who run the current government.