What to expect from Raghuram Rajan as RBI governor

Even the worst governments make some right decisions. The appointment of Raghuram Govind Rajan as the next governor of the Reserve Bank of India(RBI) is one of the few correct decisions that the Congress led United Progressive Alliance(UPA) government has made in the last few years. Rajan, an alumnus of IIT Delhi, IIM Ahmedabad and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is currently the Chief Economic Advisor of the government of India.
Rajan was the Chief Economist of the International Monetary Fund(IMF) between October 2003 and December 2006. In 2003, he also won the first Fischer Black Prize, which is awarded to the most promising economist under the age of 40, by the American Finance Association. He is also a Professor of Finance at the Chicago University’s Booth School of Business.
So what can we expect from Rajan as the RBI governor? In order to understand we first need to understand what are Rajan’s views on various factors impacting the Indian economy right now, and which he will have to deal with as the governor of the RBI.
Rajan is a firm believer in the fact that high government spending in doling out various subsidies has been a major cause behind India’s high inflation. This clearly comes out in the Economic Survey for the year 2012-2013, which he was in-charge of as the Chief Economic Advisor.
A part of the summary to the first chapter 
State of the Economy and Prospects reads “With the subsidies bill, particularly that of petroleum products, increasing, the danger that fiscal targets would be breached substantially became very real in the current year. The situation warranted urgent steps to reduce government spending so as to contain inflation.”
This is something that he reiterated in a recent column as well, where he wrote “India needs less consumption and higher savings. The government has taken a first step by tightening its own budget and spending less, especially on distortionary subsidies.”
The RBI under D Subbarao has been very critical of the high government expenditure distorting the Indian economy. Rajan’s thinking on that front doesn’t seem to be much different from that of his predecessor.
Also Rajan firmly believes that Indian households need stronger incentives in the form of lower inflation to increase financial savings, which have been declining for a while. As the recent RBI
financial stability report  points out “Financial savings of households…have declined from 11.6 per cent of GDP to 8 per cent of GDP over the corresponding period (i.e. between 2007-08 to 2011-12.”
Financial savings are essentially in the form of bank deposits, life insurance, pension and provision funds, shares and debentures etc. In fact between 2010-2011 and 2011-2012, the household financial savings fell by a massive Rs 90,000 crore. This has largely been on account of high inflation. Savings have been diverted into real estate and gold in the hope of earnings returns higher than the prevailing inflation.
Also people have been saving lesser as their expenditure has gone up due to high inflation. And the financial savings will only go up, if inflation comes down, pushing up the real returns on bank fixed deposits.
“Households also need stronger incentives to increase financial savings. New fixed-income instruments, such as inflation-indexed bonds, will help. So will lower inflation, which raises real returns on bank deposits. Lower government spending, together with tight monetary policy, are contributing to greater price stability,” wrote Rajan in his column.
Given this, the focus of the RBI on controlling ‘inflation’ which continues to be close to double digits (consumer price inflation was at 9.87% in the month of June, 2013) is likely to continue under Rajan as well. Hence, the repo rate, which is the rate at which RBI lends to banks, is unlikely to come down dramatically any time soon.
Lower inflation leading to higher savings will also help in bringing down the high current account, deficit feels Rajan. During the period of twelve months ending December 31, 2012, the current account deficit of India had stood at $93 billion. In absolute terms this was only second to the United States.
The current account deficit(CAD) is the difference between total value of imports and the sum of the total value of its exports and net foreign remittances. Since imports are higher than exports and foreign remittances, the country is spending more than saving.
As Rajan told the India Brand Equity Foundation in an interview “CAD essentially reflects the fact that you are spending more than you are saving. That’s technically the definition of the CAD, which means that you need to borrow from abroad to finance your investment. Ideally, the way you would reduce your current account deficit is by saving more, which means consuming less, buying fewer goods from abroad and importing less. Or, the other way is by investing less, because that would allow you to bridge the CAD. Now we don’t want to invest less. We have enormous investment needs. So ideally, what we want to do is save more.”
And to achieve this “the first way is for the government to cut its under-saving or its deficit and that is part of what we are doing” “The second way is when the public decides to save more rather than spend. We need to encourage financial saving,” Rajan said in the interview.
Given this, Rajan has never been a great fan of subsidies and he looks at them as a
short term necessity. In an interview I did with him after the release of his book Fault Lines – How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy, for the Daily News and Analysis(DNA), I had asked him whether India could afford to be a welfare state, to which he had replied “Not at the level that politicians want it to. For example, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), if appropriately done, is a short term insurance fix and reduces some of the pressure on the system, which is not a bad thing. But if it comes in the way of the creation of long term capabilities, and if we think NREGS is the answer to the problem of rural stagnation, we have a problem. It’s a short-term necessity in some areas. But the longer term fix has to be to open up the rural areas, connect them, education, capacity building, that is the key.
This commitment came out in the Economic Survey as well. “
The crucial lesson that emerges from the fiscal outcome in 2011-12 and 2012-13 is that in times of heightened uncertainties, there is need for continued risk assessment through close monitoring and for taking appropriate measures for achieving better fiscal marksmanship. Open ended commitments such as uncapped subsidies are particularly problematic for fiscal credibility because they expose fiscal marksmanship to the vagaries of prices,” the Survey authored under the guidance of Rajan pointed out.
So what this clearly tells us that Rajan is clearly not
a jhollawallah. The last thing this country needs at this point of time is an RBI governor who is a jhollawallah.
Another important issue that Rajan will have to tackle is the rapidly depreciating rupee against the dollar. RBI’s attempts to control the value of the rupee against the dollar haven’t had much of an impact in the recent past. On this Rajan has an interesting view. As he said in an interview to the television channel ET Now “When we have capital either coming in or flowing out, sometimes it is very costly standing in the way. We would rather wait till our actions have the most impact. It would wait till the moment of maximum advantage and then use all the firepower that it has to pushback.”
What this means is that under Rajan the RBI won’t try to defend the rupee all the time. Given this, the rupee might even be allowed to fall further. What Rajan does on this front will become clear in the months to come, but this will be his biggest immediate challenge.
Another factor working in Rajan’s favour is that this is clearly not Rajan’s last job. He is still not 50.
Also, he has a job at the University of Chicago, which he can always go back to.
Given this, it is unlikely that he will make any compromises to help the politicians who have appointed him and is likely to make decisions that are best suited for the Indian economy, rather than help him win brownie points with politicians.
For anyone who has any doubts on this front it is worth repeating something that happened in 2005. Every year the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, one of the twelve Federal Reserve Banks in the United States, organises a symposium at Jackson Hole in the state of Wyoming.
The conference of 2005 was to be the last conference attended by Alan 
Greenspan, the then Chairman of the Federal Reserve of United States, the American central bank.
Hence, the theme for the conference was the legacy of the 
Greenspan era. Rajan was attending the conference and presenting a paper titled “Has Financial Development Made the World Riskier?
Those were the days when the United States was in the midst of a huge real estate bubble. The prevailing economic view was that the US had entered an era of unmatched economic prosperity and Alan Greenspan was largely responsible for it.
In a sense the conference was supposed to be a farewell for Greenspan and people were meant to say nice things about him. And that’s what almost every economist who attended the conference did, except for Rajan.
In his speech Rajan said that the era of easy money would get over soon and would not last forever as the conventional wisdom expected it to.
The bottom line is that banks are certainly not any less risky than the past despite their better capitalization, and may well be riskier. Moreover, banks now bear only the tip of the iceberg of financial sector risks…the interbank market could freeze up, and one could well have a full-blown financial crisis,” said Rajan.
In the last paragraph of his speech Rajan said it is at such times that “excesses typically build up. One source of concern is housing prices that are at elevated levels around the globe.” 
Rajan’s speech did not go down well with people at the conference. This is not what they wanted to hear. He was essentially saying that the Greenspan era was hardly what it was being made out to be.
Given this, 
Rajan came in for heavy criticism. As he recounts in his book Fault Lines – How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy: “Forecasting at that time did not require tremendous prescience: all I did was connect the dots… I did not, however, foresee the reaction from the normally polite conference audience. I exaggerate only a bit when I say I felt like an early Christian who had wandered into a convention of half-starved lions. As I walked away from the podium after being roundly criticized by a number of luminaries (with a few notable exceptions), I felt some unease. It was not caused by the criticism itself…Rather it was because the critics seemed to be ignoring what going on before their eyes.” 
The criticism notwithstanding Rajan turned out right in the end. And what was interesting that he called it as he saw it. India needs the same honesty from Rajan, as and when he takes over as the next RBI governor.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on August 6, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek) 

Why Subbarao can’t cut rates; only Chidambaram can


Vivek Kaul

If politicians and corporates are to be believed then India’s much beleaguered economy can be put back on track only if the Reserve Bank of India(RBI) brought down interest rates. The finance minister P Chidambaram did not mince words when he said in an interview to The Economic Times that “reduction in interest rates will certainly help get us to 6.5% (economic growth).” In another article in the Business Standard several CEOs (including those of real estate firms) have come on record to say that the RBI should cut interest rates in order to revive the economy. 
The RBI meets next on March 19. And both CEOs and politicians seem to be clamouring for a repo rate cut. Repo rate is the interest rate at which RBI lends to banks. So the logic is that once the RBI cuts the repo rate (as it did when the last time it met in late January) the banks will get around to passing that cut by bringing down the interest rates they charge on their loans. Given this people will borrow and spend more. They will buy more houses. They will buy more cars. They will buy more two wheelers. They will buy more consumer durables. Companies will also borrow and expand. All this borrowing and spending will revive the economic growth and the economy will grow at 6.5% instead of the 4.5% it grew at between October and December, 2012. And we will all live happily ever after. 
Now only if life was as simple as that. 
Repo rate at best is a signal from the RBI to banks. When it cuts the repo rate it is sending out a signal to the banks that it expects interest rates to come down in the time to come. Now it is up to the banks whether they want to take that signal or not. And turns out they are not. 
Several banks have recently been 
raising interest rates on their fixed deposits. Of course, if banks are raising interest rates on their deposits, they can’t be cutting them on their loans, given money raised from deposits is used to fund loans. And hence interest rates on loans has to be higher than those on deposits. Banks have raised interest rates despite the fact that the RBI cut the repo rate by 25 basis points (one basis point is equal to one hundreth of a percentage) when it last met on January 29, 2013. 
So why are banks raising interest rates when the RBI has given the opposite signal? The answer for that lies in the Economic Survey released on February 27, 2013. The gross domestic savings of the country were at 36.8% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) during the course of 2007-2008 (i.e. the period between April 1, 2007 and March 31, 2008). They had fallen to 30.8% of the GDP during the course of 2011-2012 (i.e. the period between April 1, 2011 and March 31, 2012). I wouldn’t be surprised if they have fallen further once figures for the current financial year become available. 
The household savings (i.e. the money saved by the citizens of India) have also been falling over the last few years. In the year 2009-2010 (i.e. the period between April 1, 2009 and March 31, 2010) the household savings stood at 25.2% of the GDP. In the year 2011-2012, the household savings had fallen to 22.3% of the GDP. 
What this means is that the country as a whole is saving lesser money than it was before. A straightforward explanation for this is the high inflation that has prevailed over the last few years. People are possibly spending greater proportions of their income to meet the rising expenses and that has lead to a lower savings rate. 
Interestingly the financial savings have been falling at an even faster rate than overall savings. As the Economic Survey points out “Within households, the share of financial savings vis-à-vis physical savings has been declining in recent years. Financial savings take the form of bank deposits, life insurance funds, pension and provident funds, shares and debentures, etc. Financial savings accounted for around 55 per cent of total household savings during the 1990s. Their share declined to 47 per cent in the 2000-10 decade and it was 36 per cent in 2011-12. In fact, household financial savings were lower by nearly Rs 90,000 crore in 2011-12 vis-à-vis 2010-11.”
One reason for this (explained in the Economic Survey) is that a lot of savings have been going into gold. And why have the savings been going to gold? The government would like us to believe that it is our fascination for gold that is driving our savings into gold. But then our fascination for gold is not a recent phenomenon. Indians have always liked gold. 
People buy gold as a hedge against inflation. When inflation is high the real returns on fixed income instruments are low. Real return is the difference between the rate of interest offered on let us say a fixed deposit, minus the prevailing rate of inflation.
As the 
Economic Survey puts it “High inflation reduces the return on other financial instruments. This is reflected in the negative correlation between rising(gold) imports and falling real rates.” (As can be seen from the following table).
What this means is that when inflation is high, the real return on fixed income investments like fixed deposits is low. Consumer Price Inflation has been close to 10% in India over the last few years. And this has meant that investment avenues like fixed deposits have been made unattractive, leading people to divert their savings into gold. “The overarching motive underlying the gold rush is high inflation…High inflation may be causing anxious investors to shun fixed income investments such as deposits and even turn to gold as an inflation hedge,” the Economic Survey points out. 
What does this mean in the context of b
anks? It means that banks have had a lower pool of savings to borrow from. One because the overall savings have come down. And two because within overall savings the financial savings have come down at a much faster rate due to lower real rates of interest, after adjusting for inflation. This means that banks need to offer high rates of interest on their fixed deposits to make it attractive for people to deposit their money into banks. It is a simple case of demand and supply. 
And who is the cause for all the inflation that the country has seen over the last few years and continues to see? Not you and me. 
High inflation has been caused by the burgeoning subsidies provided by the government. The total subsidy in 2006-2007(i.e. The period between April 1, 2006 and March 31, 2007) stood at Rs 53,462.60 crore. This has gone up by nearly five times to Rs 2,57,654.43 crore for the year 2012-2013 (i.e. the period between April 1, 2012 and March 31, 2013).
All this expenditure of the government has landed up in the hands of people and created inflation. The Economic Survey admits to the same when it states “With the subsidies bill, particularly that of petroleum products, increasing, the danger that fiscal targets would be breached substantially became very real in the current year. The situation warranted urgent steps to reduce government spending so as to contain inflation.” So the Economic Survey equated the high government spending to inflation. 
The subsidy bill for the year 2013-2014 (i.e. the period between April 1, 2013 and March 31, 2014) is expected to be at Rs 2,31,083.52 crore. This is number seems to be underestimated as this writer has 
explained before. And so the inflationary scenario is likely to continue. 
Given that people will want to deploy their savings to other modes of investment rather than fixed deposits. And hence banks will have to continue offering higher interest rates to get people interested in fixed deposits. 
As the Economic Survey points out “The rising demand for gold is only a “symptom” of more fundamental problems in the economy. Curbing inflation, expanding financial inclusion, offering new products such as inflation indexed bonds, and improving saver access to financial products are all of paramount importance.” 
To conclude, there is very little that the D Subbarao led RBI can do to push down interest rates. In fact interest rates are totally in the hands of the government. If the government can somehow control inflation, interest rates will start to come down automatically. For that to happen subsidies in particular and the high government expenditure in general, will have to be controlled. And that is not going to happen anytime soon.

The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on March 4, 2013

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets at @kaul_vivek)

Why FM is tickling the markets: it’s his only chance

Vivek Kaul
So P Chidambaram’s at it again, trying to bully the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) to cut interest rates. “In our view, the government and monetary authority must point in the same direction and walk in the same direction. As we take steps on the fiscal side, RBI  should take steps on the monetary side,” the Union Finance Minister told the Economic Times.
Economic theory suggests that when interest rates are low, consumers and businesses tend to borrow more. When consumers borrow and spend money businesses benefit. When businesses benefit they tend to expand their operations by borrowing money. And this benefits the entire economy and it grows at a much faster rate.
But then economics is no science and so theory and practice do not always go together. If they did the world we live would be a much better place. As John Kenneth Galbraith points out in The Economics of Innocent Fraud: “If in recession the interest rate is lowered by the central bank, the member banks are counted on to pass the lower rate along to their customers, thus encouraging them to borrow. Producers will thus produce goods and services, buy the plant and machinery they can afford now and from which they can make money, and consumption paid for by cheaper loans will expand..The difficulty is that this highly plausible, wholly agreeable process exists only in well-established economic belief and not in real life… Business firms borrow when they can make money and not because interest rates are low.
While India is not in a recession exactly, economic growth has slowed down considerably this year. And this has led to businesses not borrowing. As a story in theBusiness Standard points outAt a recent meeting with the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), 10 of the country’s top bankers said companies were still keeping expansion plans on hold, as business growth continued to be slow in an uncertain economic environment. Nine of 10 bankers who attended the meeting admitted their sanctioned loan pipeline was shrinking fast due to tepid demand.”
This is borne out even by RBI data. The incremental credit deposit ratio for scheduled commercial banks between March 30, 2012 and September7, 2012, stood at 14.4%. This meant that for every Rs 100 that bank raised as deposits during this period they only lent out Rs 14.4 as loans. Hence, businesses are not borrowing to expand neither are consumers borrowing to buy flats, cars, motorcycles and consumer durables.
One reason for this lack of borrowing is high interest rates. But just cutting interest rates won’t ensure that the borrowing will pick up. As Galbraith aptly puts it business firms borrow when they can make money. But that doesn’t seem to be the case right now. Take the case of the infrastructure sector which was one of the most hyped sectors in 2007. As Swaminathan Aiyar points out in the Times of India “The government claims India is a global leader in public-private partnerships in infrastructure. The private sector financed 36% of infrastructure in the 11th Plan (2007-12 ),and is expected to finance fully 50% in the 12th Plan. This is now a pie in the sky. Corporations that charged into this sector have suffered heavy losses. They expected a gold mine, but found only quicksand. They have been hit by financially disastrous time and cost overruns.”
Clearly these firms are not in a state to borrow. Several other business sectors are in a mess. Airlines are not going anywhere. The big Indian companies that got into organised retail have lost a lot of money. The telecom sector is bleeding. So just because interest rates are low it doesn’t automatically follow that businesses will borrow money.
“If you take a poll of the top 100 companies in the country, you will find them saying nothing has changed despite the reforms. Confidence will return only if things start happening on the ground,” a Chief Executive of a leading foreign bank in India was quoted as saying in the Business Standard.
Confidence on the ground can only come back once businesses start feeling that this business is committed to genuine economic reform, there is lesser corruption, more transparency, so and so forth. These things cannot happen overnight.
Consumers are also feeling the heat with salary increments having been low this year and the consumer price inflation remaining higher than 10%. Borrowing doesn’t exactly make sense in an environment like this, when just trying to make ends meet has become more and more difficult.
Given these reasons why has Chidambaram been after the RBI to try and get it to cut interest rates? The thing is that the finance minister is not so concerned about consumers and businesses, but what he is concerned about is the stock market.
With interest rates on fixed income investments like bank fixed deposits, corporate fixed deposits, debentures, etc, being close to 10%, there is very little incentive for the Indian investor to channelise his money into the stock market.
Since the beginning of the year the domestic institutional investors have taken out Rs 38,000.5 crore from the stock market. If the RBI does cut interest rates as Chidambaram wants it to, then investing in fixed income investments will become less lucrative and this might just get Indian investors interested in the stock market.
The lucky thing is that even though Indian investors have been selling out of the stock market, the foreign investors have been buying. Since the beginning of the year the foreign institutional investors have bought stocks worth Rs 72,065.2 crore. This has ensured that stock market has not fallen despite the Indian investors selling out.
If the RBI does cut interest rates and that leads Indian investors getting back into the stock market there might be several other positive things that can happen. If Indian investors turn net buyers and the stock market goes up, more foreign money will come in. This will push up the stock market even further up.
The other thing that will happen with the foreign money coming in is that the rupee will appreciate against the dollar. When foreigners bring dollars into India they have to sell those dollars and buy rupees. This increases the demand for the rupee and it gains value against the dollar.
An appreciating rupee will also spruce up returns for foreign investors. Let us say a foreign investor gets $1million to invest in Indian stocks when one dollar is worth Rs 55. He converts the dollars into rupees and invests Rs 5.5 crore ($1million x Rs 55) into the Indian market. He invests for a period of one year and makes a return of 10%. His investment is now worth Rs 6.05 crore. One dollar is now worth Rs 50. When he converts the investors ends up with $1.21million or a return of 21% in dollar terms. An appreciating rupee thus spruces up his returns. This prospect of making more money in dollar terms is likely to get more and more foreign investors into India, which will lead to the rupee appreciating further. So the cycle will feeds on itself.
In the month of September 2012, foreign investors have bought stocks worth Rs 20,807.8 crore. Correspondingly, the rupee has gained in value against the dollar. On September 1, 2012, one dollar was worth Rs 55.42. Currently it quotes at around Rs 52.8. This means that the rupee has appreciated against the dollar by 4.72%.
An immediate impact of the appreciating rupee is that it brings down the oil bill. Oil is sold internationally in dollars. Let us say the Indian basket of crude oil is selling at $108 per barrel (one barrel equals 159 litres). If one dollar is worth Rs 55.4 then India has to pay Rs 5983.2 for a barrel of oil. If one dollar is worth Rs 52.8, then India has to pay Rs 5702.4 per barrel. So as the rupee appreciates the oil bill comes down.
The oil marketing companies (OMCs) sell diesel, kerosene and cooking gas at a price which is lower than the cost price and thus incur huge losses. The government compensates the OMCs for these losses to prevent them from going bankrupt. This money is provided out of the annual budget of the government under the oil subsidy account. But as the rupee appreciates and the losses come down, the oil subsidy also comes down. This means that the expenditure of the government comes down as well, thus lowering the fiscal deficit. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what the government earns and what it spends.
This is how a rising stock market may lead to a lower fiscal deficit. But that’s just one part of the argument. A rising stock market will also allow the government to sell some of the shares that it owns in public sector enterprises to the general public.  The targeted disinvestment for the year is Rs 30,000 crore. While that can be easily met the government has to exceed this target given that the government is unlikely to meet the fiscal deficit target of 5.1% of GDP as its subsidy bill keeps going up. The Kelkar Committee recently estimated that the fiscal deficit level can even reach 6.1% of the GDP.
For the government to exceed this target the stock markets need to continue to do well. It is a well known fact people buy stocks only when the stock markets have rallied for a while. As Akash Prakash writes in the Business Standard “The finance minister will have to do a lot more than raise Rs 40,000 crore from spectrum and Rs 30,000 crore from divestment. We will need to see movement on selling the SUUTI (Specified Undertaking of UTI) stakes, strategic assets like Hindustan Zinc, land with companies like VSNL, coal block auctions, etc. To enable the government to raise resources of the required magnitude, the capital markets have to remain healthy, both to absorb equity issuance and to enable companies to raise enough debt resources to participate in these asset auctions.”
Given this the stock market has a very important role to play in the scheme of things. Controlling the burgeoning fiscal deficit remains the top priority for the government. But it is easier said than done. “Given the difficulty in getting the coalition to accept the diesel hike and LPG-targeting measures, there are limitations as to how much the current subsidies and revenue expenditure can be compressed. We can see some further measures on fuel price hikes and maybe some movement on a nutrient-based subsidy on urea; but with elections only 15-18 months away, there are serious political costs to any subsidy cuts,” points out Prakash.
Over and above this with elections around the corner the government is also likely to announce more freebies. Money to finance this also needs to come from somewhere. As Prakash writes “There is also intense pressure on the government to roll out more freebies through the right to food, free medicines and so on. If expenditure compression is intensely difficult in the run-up to an election cycle, higher revenue is the only way to control the fiscal deficit.”
For the government to raise a higher revenue it is very important that more and more money keeps coming into the stock market.  For this to happen interest rates need to fall. And that is something that D Subbarao the governor of RBI controls and not Chidambaram.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on October 1, 2012. http://www.firstpost.com/economy/why-fm-is-tickling-the-markets-its-his-only-chance-474908.html
Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected]

LIC money: Is it for investors’ benefit, or Rahul's election?

Vivek Kaul

We’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.
—Lines from the movie Fight Club
The government’s piggybank is in trouble. Well not major trouble. But yes some trouble.
The global credit rating agency Moody’s on Monday downgraded the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) of India from a Baa2 rating to Baa3 rating. This is the lowest investment grade rating given by Moody’s. The top 10 ratings given by Moody’s fall in the investment grade category.
Moody’s has downgraded LIC due to three reasons: a) for picking up stake in the divestment of stocks like ONGC, when no one else was willing, to help the government reduce its fiscal deficit. b) for picking up stakes in a lot of public sector banks. c) having excessive exposure to bonds issued by the government of India to finance its fiscal deficit.
While the downgrade will have no impact on the way India’s largest insurer operates within India, it does raise a few basic issues which need to be discussed threadbare.
From Africa with Love
The wives of certain African dictators before going on a shopping trip to Europe used to visit the central bank of their country in order to stuff their wallets with dollars. The African dictators and their extended families used the money lying with the central banks of their countries as their personal piggybank. Whenever they required money they used to simply dip into the reserves at the central bank.
While the government of India has not fallen to a similar level there is no doubt that it treats LIC like a piggybank, rushing to it whenever it needs the money.
So why does the government use LIC as its piggybank? The answer is very simple. It spends more than what it earns. The difference between what the government earns and what it spends is referred to as the fiscal deficit.
In the year 2007-2008 (i.e. between April 1, 2007 and March 31,2008) the fiscal deficit of the government of India stood at Rs 1,26,912 crore. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what the government earns and what it spends. For the year 2011-2012 (i.e. between April 1, 2011 and March 31, 2012) the fiscal deficit is expected to be Rs 5,21,980 crore.
Hence the fiscal deficit has increased by a whopping 312% between 2007 and 2012. During the same period the income earned by the government has gone up by only 36% to Rs 7,96,740 crore. The expenses of the government have risen more than eight and half times faster than its revenues.
What is interesting is that the fiscal deficit numbers would have been much higher had the government not got LIC to buy shares of public sector companies it was selling to bring down the fiscal deficit.
Estimates made by the Business Standard Research Bureau in early March showed that LIC had invested around Rs 12,400 crore out of the total Rs 45,000 crore that the government had collected through the divestment of shares in seven public sector units since 2009. The value of these shares in March was around Rs 9,379 crore. Since early March the BSE Sensex has fallen 7.4%, which means that the LIC investment would have lost further value.
Over and above this the government also forced LIC to pick up 90% of the 5% follow-on offer from the ONGC in early March this year. This after the stock market did not show any interest in buying the shares of the oil major. The money raised through this divestment of shares went towards lowering the fiscal deficit of the government of India.
News reports also suggest that LIC was buying shares of ONGC in the months before the public issue of the insurance major hit the stock market, in an effort to bid up its price. Between December and March before the public offer, the government first got LIC to buy shares of ONGC and bid up the price of the stock from around Rs 260 in late December to Rs 293 by the end of February. After LIC had bid up the price of ONGC, the government then asked it to buy 90% of the shares on sale in the follow on public offer.
This is a unique investment philosophy where institutional investor managing money for the small retail investor, first bid up the price of the stock by buying small chunks of it, and then bought a large chunk at a higher price. Stock market gurus keep repeating the investment philosophy of “buy low-sell high” to make money in the stock market. The government likes LIC to follow precisely the opposite investment philosophy of “buying high”.
Estimates made by Business Standard suggest that LIC in total bought ONGC shares worth Rs 15,000 crore. The stock is since down more than 10%.
The bank bang
LIC again came to the rescue of the cash starved government during the first three months of this year, when it was force to buy shares of several government owned banks which needed more capital. It is now sitting on losses from these investments.
Take the case of Viajya Bank. It issued shares to LIC at a price of Rs 64.27 per share. Since then the price of the stock has fallen nearly 19%.
The same is case with Dena Bank. The stock price is down by almost 10% since allocation of shares to LIC. The share price of Indian Overseas Bank is down by almost 19.7% since it sold shares to LIC to boost its equity capital. While the broader stock market has also fallen during the period it hasn’t fallen as much as the stock prices of these shares have.
There are more than a few issues that crop up here. This special allotment of shares to LIC to raise capital has pushed up the ownership of LIC in many banks beyond the 10% mandated by the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority of India, the insurance regulator. As any investment professional will tell you that having excessive exposure one particular company or sector isn’t a good strategy, especially when managing money for the retail investor, which is what LIC primarily does. What is interesting is that the government is breaking its own laws and thus not setting a great precedent for the private sector.
If LIC hadn’t picked up the shares of these banks, the fiscal deficit of the government would have gone up further. The third issue here is why should the government run so many banks? The government of India runs twenty six banks (20 public sector banks + State Bank of India and its five subsidiaries).
While given that banking is a sensitive sector and some government presence is required, but that doesn’t mean that the government has to run 26 banks. It is time to privatise some of these banks.
Gentlemen prefer bonds
As of December 31, 2011, the ratio of government securities to adjusted shareholders’ equity in LIC was 764%. This is understandable given that the subsidy heavy budget of the Congress led UPA government has seen its fiscal deficit balloon by 312% over the last five years. Again basic investment philosophy tells us that having a large exposure to one investment isn’t really a great idea, even if it’s a government.
The Rahul factor
But the most basic issue here is the fact that the government is using the small savings of the average Indian who buys LIC policies to make loss making investments. This is simply not done.
LIC has turned into the behemoth that it has over the years by offering high commissions to its agents over the years. It sells very little of “term insurance”, the real insurance. What it basically sells are investment policies with very high expenses which are used to pay high commissions to it’s the agents. The high commissions in turn ensure that these agents continue to hard-sell LIC’s extremely high cost investment policies to normal gullible Indians. The premium keeps coming in and the government keeps using LIC as a piggybank.
The high front-loading of commissions is allowed by The Insurance Act, 1938. The commission for the first can be a maximum of 40 per cent of the premium. In years two and three, the caps are 7.5 per cent, and 5 per cent thereafter. These are the maximum caps and serve as a ceiling rather than a floor.
The Committee on Investor Protection and Awareness led by D Swarup, the then Chairman of Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority, had proposed in September 2009 to do away with commissions across financial products. “All retail financial products should go no-load by April 2011,” the committee had proposed in its reports.
The National Pension Scheme(NPS) was already on a no commission structure. And so were mutual funds since August 1, 2009. But LIC and the other insurance companies were allowed to pay high commissions to their agents. “Because there are almost three million small agents who will have to adjust to a new way of earning money, it is suggested that immediately the upfront commissions embedded in the premium paid be cut to no more than 15 per cent of the premium. This should fall to 7 per cent in 2010 and become nil by April 2011,” the committee had further proposed.
Not surprisingly the government quietly buried this groundbreaking report.
While insurance commissions have come down on unit linked insurance plans, the traditional insurance policies in which LIC remains a market leader continue to pay high commissions to their agents. These traditional insurance policies typically invest in debt (read government bonds which are issued to finance the fiscal deficit).
This is primarily because the Congress led UPA government needs the premium collected by LIC to run LIC like a piggybank. The piggybank money can and is being used to run subsidies in the hope that the beneficiaries vote for Rahul Gandhi in 2014.
Is the objective of LIC to generate returns and ensure the safety of the hard earned money of crores of it’s investors? Or is it to let the UPA government run it like a piggybank in the hope that Rahul baba becomes the Prime Minister?
The country is waiting for an answer.
(This post originally appeared on Firstpost.com on May 15,2012. http://www.firstpost.com/politics/lic-money-is-it-for-investors-benefit-or-rahul-election-309545.html)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])