Central bank governors rarely indulge in any plain speak. You have to always read between the lines to understand what they are really saying. They never say what they mean. And they never mean what they say.
But D Subbrarao, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India, indulged in some plain speaking on Wednesday and questioned the logic of the Mamata Banerjee government in West Bengal setting up a Rs 500 crore relief fund to compensate the losses of those people who had invested in deposits raised by the Saradha Group in West Bengal.
A part of this relief fund will be funded by a 10% tax on cigarettes and the rest of the money will be raised through other sources. “If you go back to the West Bengal Saradha scheme, the Chief Minister said ‘I will levy additional taxes on cigarettes and some other things to compensate the people who have lost money’ … Is it fair?” Subbarao asked.
Why should people who smoke fund those whose money has gone up in smoke, is a reasonable question to ask. It is like robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Subbarao also dwelled into why Ponzi schemes like Saradha have become fairly popular. “The reason it (the Ponzi schemes) is happening because ordinary people… the low income people are not sufficiently aware of where they can put their money. They don’t have enough avenues to put their money. They can’t get into the banks like we all do. They face both formal and informal barriers…So they fall prey to these fraudulent schemes,” Subbarao explained.
This is an explanation similar to the one his deputy K C Chakrabarty had come up with a few days back when he said: “The need of the hour is to ensure that our unbanked population gains access to formal sources of finance, their reliance on informal channels and on the shadow banking system subsides and, in the process, consumer exploitation is curbed.”
This is a very one-dimensional explanation of why Ponzi schemes have become so popular in India in the last few years. Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment scheme where the money being brought in by newer investors is used to pay off older investors. The scheme offers high returns and it keeps running till the money being brought in by the newer investors is greater than the money needed to pay off the older investors whose investment is up for redemption. The moment this breaks, the scheme collapses.
This writer has explained in the past that lack of a bank in their neighbourhood is not a reason good enough to explain why people invest money in Ponzi schemes. Many of the Ponzi schemes over the last few years have been very popular in urban as well as semi-urban areas, where there are enough number of banks going around. At the same time some of the Ponzi schemes have even needed bank accounts to ensure participate. So saying that people invest in Ponzi schemes because there are not enough banks going around, is not good enough. There are other bigger factors at work.
Ponzi schemes have become a big menace in India over the last few years. There numbers have gone up many times over. While there is no hard data to support the claim, but there is enough anecdotal evidence going around. Be it Speak Asia or Stock Guru or MMM India or Emu Ponzi schemes etc, there has been endless list of Ponzi schemes hitting the market.
This has also been a period of high inflation where interest offered on fixed deposits and postal savings deposits, has been very low or even negative once it is adjusted for inflation. There are other reasons as well why people find fixed deposits and postal savings deposits unattractive.
As Ila Patnaik wrote in a recent column in The Indian Express “Even those who have access often find it unattractive. Interest rates paid to depositors have been pushed down through years of policies of administered interest rates and lack of competition in banking. Regulatory requirements for priority sector lending and holding of government bonds have further resulted in lower returns. The result is low or negative real interest rates for depositors.”
It has been an era where bank fixed deposits have offered around 9% interest before tax when the inflation has been at 10% or more. The returns from post office savings deposits have been even lower than bank fixed deposits. Hence, in the strictest sense of the term, money deposited in banks or post office, has essentially been a losing proposition, given the high inflationary scenario that has prevailed.
And not surprisingly in this situation people have been looking at other investment avenues where there is a prospect of making higher returns. Gold has been one such investment avenue. As the Economic Survey released by the government in late February this year pointed out “Gold imports are positively correlated with inflation. High inflation reduces the return on other financial instruments… This observation, in line with global trends, is easily explained by the declining real returns on the gamut of financial instruments available to the investor and soaring ones on gold (23.7 per cent annual average return between April 2007 – March 2012 versus 7.3 per cent return on Nifty and 8.2 per cent on savings deposits).”
So money came into gold because there was a prospect of earning a high real return instead of bank and post office deposits where the individual would have actually lost money after adjusting for high inflation.
A similar explanation can be offered for people investing their hard earned money in Ponzi schemes like Saradha. They were looking for a higher return which helped them at least beat the rate of inflation. And this is where Ponzi schemes like Saradha came in. These schemes offered deposits which promised higher returns than bank or post office deposits.
As an article in the Business Standard pointed out “Sen(in reference to Sudipta Sen who ran Saradha) offered fixed deposits, recurring deposits and monthly income schemes. The returns promised were handsome. In fixed deposits, for instance, Sen promised to multiply the principal 1.5 times in two-and-a-half years, 2.5 times in 5 years and 4 times in 7 years. High-value depositors were told they would get a free trip to “Singapur”.”
In case of Saradha, the credibility it had built through its media empire as well as being seen closely aligned to the ruling Trinamool Congress, also helped. The deposits being raised may have even been seen as very safe, by those investing.
The other thing that has happened over the last few years is that household savings have come down. In 2009-2010 (i.e. the period between April 1, 2009 and March 31, 2010), savings stood at 25.2% of the gross domestic product (GDP). In 2011-2012 (i.e. the period between April 1, 2011 and March 31, 2012) the savings had fallen by nearly three percentage points to 22.3% of the GDP.
This has primarily happened because of high inflation which has pushed up expenditure as a proportion of total income. But incomes haven’t gone up at the same pace. And this has led to a fall in savings.
Given that savings of people have come down, there might be a temptation to invest them in avenues where they thought a higher return could be earned so as to ensure that investment goals continue to be on track, even with a lesser amount of savings being invested. This might have increased people’s appetite for taking on investment risk.
Hence, high inflation may have had a big role to play in people investing their money in Ponzi schemes. And we all know who is to be blamed for that.
Inflation has had Subbarao worried for a while now. “There is an important constituency in the country that is hurt by inflation. Their voice also needs to be heard. It is the responsibility of public policy institutions like the Reserve Bank to go out of our way and listen to silent voices,” the RBI governor said on Wednesday.
To conclude, it is very easy to argue that more Ponzi schemes spread because people people lack access to basic banking. But the reality is a little more complicated than that. As they say, truth is often stranger than fiction.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on May 9,2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)
Sudipta Sen, the man behind the Saradha group, who has been on the run, was finally arrested yesterday in the beautiful alpine valley of Sonamarg in Kashmir. Sen is accused of running a Rs 20,000 crore Ponzi scheme.
A Ponzi scheme is essentially a fraudulent investment scheme where money brought in by the newer investors is used to pay off the older investors. This creates an impression of a successful investment scheme. Of course, as long as money entering the scheme is greater than the money leaving it, all is well. The moment the situation is reversed, the scheme collapses.(For a more detailed and historical treatment of Ponzi schemes click here).
The scheme gets its name from an Italian American called Charles Ponzi who in 1919 ran an investment scheme in the city of Boston, which promised to double the investor’s investment in 90 days. This was later cut to 45 days. At its peak the scheme managed to collect around $40 million and had nearly 15,000 investors.
Ponzi thought he had figured out an arbitrage opportunity which would help him earn stupendous return. In the end he couldn’t execute the arbitrage and started using the money being brought in by newer investors to pay off the older investors whose money needed to be returned.
While every Ponzi scheme is different from another in its details, there are certain key characteristics that almost all Ponzi schemes tend to have. And Saradha was no exception to this.
The rate of return promised is high and is fixed at the time the investor enters the scheme: For an individual to get interested, the returns on offer in a Ponzi scheme need to be higher than the returns he can hope to earn from other modes of investment available at that point of time.
An order issued by the Securities and Exchange Board of India yesterday, explains this point beautifully. This order has asked Saradha Reality, one of the companies being run by the Saradha Group, to wind up operations in three months.
Saradha Reality catered to all kinds of investors. It had had instalment plans with tenure varying from 12 to 60 months where minimum investment was Rs 100 per month. It raised money from investors with contributions ranging from Rs 10,000 to Rs 1 lakh for a tenure of 15 months to 120 months. It also had a lump sum investment scheme (with minimum amount of 1000/- and multiple thereof) with tenure varying from 12 months to 168 months. The rates of interest on offer where different for different investment plans.
At the end of the tenure the investor had the option to get allotment of land or a flat or to simply get a refund of the money he or she had put in, along with the promised interest. And what were the returns on offer? As the Sebi order points out “The average return offered by the noticee (i.e. Saradha), in lieu of the land when the investor opts for returns were between 12% to 24%.”
So clearly the returns being offered by Saradha were higher than the returns on offer through other investment avenues. And most investors seem to have opted for the absolute return option rather than claiming land or a flat at the end of the investment tenure. As the Sebi order points out “As informed by the noticee (i.e. Saradha), not many of investors have opted for allotment of land rather, more investors have opted for the pre-determined returns as promised by it.”
The higher returns clearly got investors to invest in Saradha.
The most important part of a Ponzi Scheme is assuring the investor that their investment is safe.
How did an upstart like Saradha managed to assure investors that their investment would be safe? The story that seems to be coming out is that Saradha employed agents of Peerless General Finance and Investment Co. Ltd. Peerless, formed in 1932 had pioneered the collection of small savings in eastern India, primarily West Bengal. Hence, it had a reasonable reputation among the people of West Bengal.
As The Mint points out “Though it didn’t ever default on repayments, Reserve Bank of India (RBI) forced Peerless to stop taking deposits in 2005-2006. This spawned the growth of unregulated deposit-taking companies in West Bengal and other eastern Indian states.”
Agents of Peerless were used to collect money for the Saradha group. In that way the brand name of Peerless rubbed onto Saradha. The Mint story cited earlier talks about one Debasish Banerjee, who used to work for Peerless and then became the blue eyed boy of Sudipta Sen, and presided ove 10,000 sub-agents working across eight districts in West Bengal.
The instrument in which the scheme will invest appears to be a genuine investment opportunity but at the same time it is obscure enough, to prevent any scrutiny by the investors. If you go to the website of Saradha Group (http://saradhagroup.com/index.html) you will find that they were in multiple lines of business. From real estate to two wheelers to media to tours and travels to even bio gas. The company had presence across sectors. But where they doing any business? Largely, the answer is no. The various businesses were just used as a façade to collect money from investors. They were used to show investors and agents as to what the company was doing with the money it was collecting.
As the Sebi order points out in the context of the reality division “It was prima facie observed that under the scheme of the noticee(i.e. Saradha) the real objective is to mobilize fund from public by showing some real estate projects to the investors and the noticee indirectly promises return of funds with high interest rates.”
The company had even bought a two wheeler company called Global Motors to show off to its agents. As the Business Standard points out “The Hooghly factory of Global Motors, acquired by Saradha sometime back, had closed down in 2011. But 150 of its employees had been kept on rolls to show, when agents made visits, that all was hunky dory and operations were on in full swing.”
All this was enough to create an illusion that the company was putting the money it collected from its investors to some use. Turned out it was not. It was simply rotating money.
The period between the investment and the pay out in a Ponzi Scheme is short. This ensures that the word spreads fast and more money comes in. Every additional investor gives legitimacy to the Ponzi Scheme. As we can see in case of Saradha the minimum tenure on offer was around 12-15 months. While there is no conclusive proof to say that most investors opted for the minimum tenure or lower tenures, I feel it would be safe to say that most new investors who were checking out the scheme would have opted for lower tenures. And gradually as the scheme spread and got some legitimacy only then would the investment tenures have gone up.
Also the fact that the scheme has collapsed tells us at some level that not many investors opted for long investment tenures. If they had, money would still be coming in and Saradha would have managed to continue operations. The fact that its more or less shutdown tells us that money has clearly stopped coming in.
Brand building is an inherent part of a Ponzi Scheme. Sudipta Sen ensured that the Saradha Group had huge presence in the media. “His first entry into the space was through Channel 10 and thereafter he expanded into dailies—Bengal Post & Sakalbela—in 2010. Sen bought out Tara channels, as well. At the time of closing down, the group had 10 media outfits — news TV channels, newspapers and magazine,” the Business Standard points out. This gave the group a lot of credibility and helped build its brand. The cine actor Mithun Chakraborty was the brand ambassador for Channel 10.
Trinamool Congress was also seen to be close to the group. As Reba Mitra a Saradha agent told NDTV.com “We put our faith in Saradha because big leaders of the Trinamool, like Madan Mitra, Didi…the chief minister, Kunal Ghosh, Shatabdi Roy, Mithun Chakraborty – when these big people are with them, government people, then would this money be stolen from us?”
Julie Potua, another agent of Saradha told NDTV that “they told clients in their pitch that other companies could collapse but Saradha would not as “Kunal Ghosh is with us, Mamata didi is with us, so invest in us.”
Kunal Ghosh, was editor and chief executive of Saradha Group’s media business. He is also a member of the Rajya Sabha nominated by the Trinamool Congress. Shatabdi Roy is a Bengali actress who is also a Lok Sabha MP from the Trinamool Congress. Being seen close to the leading political party of the state was like the icing on the cake and attracted investors by the drove.
There are some indications being given now that the Reserve Bank of India had warned the state government on the mushrooming of chit funds in West Bengal.
What is interesting is that the SEBI has been investigating the Saradha Group since June 2010. The Saradha Group, like Sahara now, had managed to delay the process by submitting voluminous documents. At various points of time in 2012, Saradha submitted 16 cartons, 19 cartons, 170 boxes and 35 cartons, as a strategy to avoid submitting the specific information being asked for by SEBI.
After this Saradha Group was directed to provide information in excel sheets. This helped Sebi to nail the group. As the SEBI order points out “On sample study of the data (in excel) provided by the noticee (Saradha), veracity of which cannot be verified, it is noted that agreements for sale was entered into with two investors namely Dhruba Bose and Arindam Pani on January 01, 2010 for flats having number 1A and 1C, respectively, both admeasuring 1437 sq ft. area in the same building i.e., Ten Katha. It is further noted that the consideration amount for flat number 1A was Rs 37,69,000 and for flat number 1C was Rs 1,17,75,850. It is highly unlikely that in a real estate business the difference between consideration amounts for sale of two similar flats at the same building on the same day shall be in the ration of 1:4. In view of these facts the possible inference will be that the allotment of plots/flats are simply a farce, and might have been done to mislead the regulatory authority.”
But by the time the SEBI order came out, Saradha had already collapsed. What is intriguing is that the investigation against Saradha started in mid 2010, but it took the company more than two years to submit the relevant data. If SEBI had cracked the whip and acted a little faster, the situation might have been a little better.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on April 24, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)