Interest on Interest Case Can Open a Pandora’s Box. Govt and SC Need to Be Careful

Late last week the central government told the Supreme Court that it was ready to waive off the interest on interest (i.e. compound interest) on loans of up to Rs 2 crore during the moratorium period of six months between March and August 2020.

In an affidavit submitted to the Court, the government said: “The government… has decided that the relief on waiver of compound interest [interest on interest] during the six month moratorium period shall be limited to the most vulnerable category of borrowers. This category of borrowers, in whose case, the compounding of interest will be waived, will be MSME loans and personal loans up to Rs 2 crore.”

This response was as a part of the matter of Gajendra Sharma versus the Union of India.

The Reserve Bank of India refers to retail loans as personal loans. Hence, the types of loans which would get a waiver of compound interest for a period of six months of the moratorium are home loans, vehicle loans, education loans, consumer durables loans, credit card outstandings, normal personal loans and MSME loans. This benefit will be available to all borrowers who have taken loans of up to Rs 2 crore, irrespective of whether they opted for the moratorium or not.

Before offering my views on this, let’s first try and understand the concept of compound interest or interest on interest.

Let’s consider a home loan of Rs 2 crore to be repaid over a period of 20 years (or 240 months) at the rate of 8% per year. Let’s further assume that the loan was taken during the month of March and was immediately put under a moratorium (the need to make this assumption will soon become clear).

The moratorium lasted six months. The simple interest on the loan of Rs 2 crore amounts to Rs 8 lakh (8% of Rs 2 crore divided by 2). This is not how banks operate. They calculate interest on a monthly basis. At 8% per year, the monthly interest works out to 0.67% (8% divided by 12). The interest for the first month works out to Rs 1.33 lakh (0.67% of Rs 2 crore).

Since the loan is under a moratorium and is not being repaid, this interest is added to the loan amount outstanding of Rs 2 crore.
Hence, the loan amount outstanding at the end of the first month is Rs 2.013 crore (Rs 2 crore + Rs 1.33 lakh). In the second month, the interest is calculated on this amount and it works out to Rs 1.34 lakh (0.67% of Rs 2.013 crore).

In this case, we calculate interest on the original outstanding amount of Rs 2 crore. We also calculate the interest on Rs 1.33 lakh, the interest outstanding at the point of the first month, which has become a part of the loan outstanding.

At the end of the second month, the loan amount outstanding is Rs 2.027 crore (Rs 2.013 crore + Rs 1.34 lakh).  This happens every month, over the period of six months, as can be seen in the following table.

Interest on interest

 

Source: Author calculations.

At the end of six months, we end up with a loan outstanding of Rs 2.081 crore. This is Rs 8.134 lakh more than the initial loan outstanding of Rs 2 crore. As mentioned initially, the simple interest on Rs 2 crore at 8% for a period of six months works out to Rs 8 lakh.

Hence, the interest on interest works out to Rs 13,452 (Rs 8.134 lakh minus Rs 8 lakh).

What was the point behind doing all this math and trying to explain compound interest here?

The maximum amount on which the government is ready to waive off interest on interest is Rs 2 crore. For the kinds of loan under consideration Rs 2 crore outstanding is likely to be either on a home loan or a SME loan. In case of an SME loan, the interest rate will probably be more than 8%.

On a home loan of Rs 2 crore at 8% with 240 instalments (20 years) left to pay, the interest on interest for a period of six months works out close to Rs 13,500. The point is if an individual can afford to take on a loan of Rs 2 crore at 8% interest and pay an EMI of Rs 1.67 lakh, he can also pay an interest on interest of Rs 13,452. In case of an SME loan, the interest on interest would be higher than Rs 13,432, but it wouldn’t be an unaffordable amount. So, what’s the point of doing this?

An estimate made by Kotak Institutional Equities suggests that this move is likely to cost the government around Rs 8,000 crore (Rs 5,000 crore for banks + Rs 3,000 crore for non-banking finance companies (NBFCs)). While Rs 8,000 crore isn’t exactly small change but it’s not a very large amount for the central government.

But that’s not the point here. This move and the Supreme Court dabbling in this case will end up opening a pandora’s box. Let’s take a look at this pointwise.

1) Media reports suggest that the Supreme Court is not happy with the government’s offer to waive off interest on interest. A report on NDTV.com suggests that waiving interest on interest on loans of up to Rs 2 crore “was not satisfactory and asked for a do-over in a week”.

As the report points out: “The affidavit “fails to deal with several issues raised by petitioners”, the court said. The central government has been asked to consider the concerns of the real estate and power producers in fresh affidavits.” Clearly, neither the Court nor the companies are happy with interest on interest of loans of up to Rs 2 crore being waived off.
By offering to waive off interest on interest the government is trying to meet the Court halfway. Also, it is important that the Court along with the government realise that they are interfering with the process of interest setting by banks, something that largely works well.

What is interest at the end of the day? Interest is the price of money. By taking on this case, the Supreme Court has essentially gotten into deciding the price of money. When a bank pays an interest to a deposit holder, it is basically compensating the deposit holder for not spending the money immediately and saving it. This saving is then lent out to anyone who needs the money. This is how the financial intermediation process works.

The government and the Court are both trying to fiddle around with the price of money and that is not a good thing. Today one set of companies have approached the Court to decide on the price of money, tomorrow another set might do the same.

2) The companies are clearly not happy with the interest on interest waiver offer primarily because their loans are greater than Rs 2 crore and they want more. This is hardly surprising.

In the affidavit the government has said: “If the government were to consider waiving interest on all the loan and advances to all classes and categories of borrowers corresponding to the six-month period for which the moratorium was made available under the relevant RBI circulars, the estimated amount is Rs 6 lakh crore.”

To this, the response of the real estate lobby CREDAI was: “A lot of facts and figures in the government’s affidavit are without any basis and the finance ministry’s estimate that waiving off interest on loans to every category would cost banks Rs 6 lakh crore is wrong.”

It is easy to verify this with a simple back of the envelope calculation. As of March 2020, the non-food credit of banks was at Rs 103.2 lakh crore. The banks give loans to Food Corporation of India and other state procurement agencies to buy rice and wheat directly from farmers. Once these loans are subtracted from the overall loans of banks, what is left is non-food credit.

The weighted average lending rate of scheduled commercial banks was at 10% in March 2020 (This is publicly available data). Just the simple interest on non-food credit for six months works out to Rs 5.16 lakh crore (10% of Rs 103.2 lakh crore divided by 2).

Over and above this, there is lending carried out by NBFCs, on which interest on interest will have to be waived off as well. Also, once we take compound interest into account, Rs 6 lakh crore is clearly not a wrong figure as CREDAI wants us to believe.

The weighted average lending interest rate has fallen a little since March. In August, the weighted average lending rate of scheduled commercial banks was at 9.65%. Even after taking this into account, Rs 6 lakh crore is not an unrealistic number at all.  The government and the SC need to be careful regarding any demands of lowering interest rates on loans.

3) The real estate companies have an incentive in getting as much from the Court as possible. Financially, many of them are overleveraged. In fact, the former RBI Governor Urjit Patel in his book Overdraft refers to them as ‘living dead’ borrowers or zombies. And a living dead borrower will go as far as possible to survive at the cost of others. Any new bailout allows them to survive in order to die another day. Also, it allows them to continue not cutting home prices.

Clearly, companies want some reworking on the interest front (the interest on interest for a period of six months isn’t going to amount to much). But this raises a few fundamental questions.

If the Court and the government get around to cutting interest rates on loans, they will be deciding on the price of money. If they do it this one time, they are basically giving Indian capitalists the idea that they can approach the courts and challenge the price of money being charged. What stops it from happening over and over again?

While the government does try and influence the interest rates charged on loans by public sector banks, it can’t do so when it comes to private banks, which now form around 35% of the market when it comes to loans. Nevertheless, if any decision lowering interest rates is made they will end up influencing the price of money of private banks as well. And that isn’t a good thing. The last thing you want in a period of economic contraction is to try and disturb the banking system in any way.

4) Also, any interest rate waiver or reduction will give political parties ideas, like waiving off agricultural loans they can waive off other loans as well. And that can’t be a good thing for the stability of the Indian banking system.

5) If the government really wants to help businesses it can do so by reforming the goods and services tax and making it more user friendly. That will go a much longer way in helping the Indian economy without disturbing a process which currently works well. Any fiddling around with interest rates is largely going to help only zombie companies.

As Urjit Patel writes in Overdraft: “Sowing disorder by confusing issues is a tried-and-trusted, distressingly often successful routine by which stakeholders, official and private, plant the seeds of policy/regulation reversal in India.” This time is no different. Hence, both the government and the Supreme Court need to be very careful in how they deal with this. It is ultimately, the hard earned money of millions of Indians which is at stake. The Indian banking system is one of the few systems which people continue to trust. You wouldn’t want that to break down.

 

A Primer on Bank Interest Rates for Real Estate Companies, Lawyers, Judges, Government and Everyone Else

The Supreme Court is currently hearing the loan moratorium case. Arguments have been made from different sides, on whether banks should charge an interest on loans during the moratorium and if an interest should be then charged on that interest.

I wanted to discuss a few arguments being offered by lawyers who are representing borrowers of different kinds in the Supreme Court. Either their understanding of interest rates is weak, or even if they do understand, they are just ignoring that understanding in order to make a powerful argument before the Supreme Court.

Let’s look at the issue pointwise. Also, this piece is for anyone who really wants to understand how interest rates really work. Alternatively, I could have headlined this piece, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Interest Rates But were Afraid to Ask.

1) Appearing for the real estate sector, Senior Advocate C A Sundaram told a bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, R S Reddy and M R Shah: “Even if the interest is not waived, then it must be reduced to the rate at which banks are paying interest on deposits.”

What does this mean? Let’s say a real estate company has taken a loan of Rs 100 crore from a bank. On this it pays an interest of 10% per year. For the period of the moratorium the company doesn’t pay the interest on the loan. At the end of six months, the interest outstanding on the loan is Rs 5 crore (10% of Rs 100 crore for a period of six months). In the normal scheme of things this outstanding interest needs to be added to Rs 100 crore and the loan the builder now needs to repay Rs 105 crore. Of course, in the process of repaying this loan amount, the company will end up paying an interest on interest. If it wants to avoid doing that it simply needs to pay the outstanding interest of Rs 5 crore once the moratorium ends and continue repaying the original loan.

What Advocate Sundaram told the Supreme Court is that even if the interest on the loan during the moratorium is not waived, the interest rate charged on it should be lower and should be equal to the interest rate that banks are paying on their deposits.

The question of not charging an interest rate on loans during moratorium is totally out of question. Banks raise deposits by paying a rate of interest on it. It is these deposits they give out as loans. If they don’t charge an interest on their loans, how will they pay interest on their deposits?

Bank deposits remain the most popular form of saving for individuals. Imagine the social and financial disruption something like this would create.

Even the point about banks charging an interest rate during the moratorium which is equal to the interest rate they are paying on their deposits, is problematic. Other than paying an interest rate on deposits, banks have all kinds of other expenditures. They need to pay salaries to employees and off-role staff, rents for the offices and branches they operate out of, bear the cost of insuring deposits and also take into account, the loan defaults that are happening.

If the banks charge an interest rate on loans equal to the interest rate they pay on deposits, how are they supposed to pay for all the costs highlighted above?

2) More than this, I think there is a bigger problem with Senior Advocate Sundaram’s argument. Allow me to explain. Interest on money is basically the price of money. When a bank pays an interest to a deposit holder, he is basically compensating the deposit holder for not spending the money immediately and saving it. This saving is then lent out to anyone who needs the money. This is how the financial intermediation business works.

If real estate companies could today ask the courts to decide on the bank’s price of money, the banks could do something similar tomorrow. They could approach the courts with the argument that real estate companies need to reduce home prices, in the effort to sell more units, so that they are able to repay all the money they have borrowed from banks.

If courts can decide on how banks should carry out their pricing, they can also decide on how real estate companies should carry out their pricing. This is something that needs to be kept in mind.

3) This is a slightly different point, which might seem to have nothing to do with interest rates, but it does. The real estate industry is in dire straits and hence, wants the government, Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and the Supreme Court, to help. (I am going beyond what Advocate Sundaram told the Court).

In fact, banks and non-banking finance companies, have already been allowed to restructure builder loans. Former RBI governor Urjit Patel refers to the commercial real-estate-sector as the living dead borrowers in his book Overdraft.

The real estate sector had a great time between 2002 and 2013, for more than a decade, when they really raked in the moolah.

While they did this, they obviously kept the after-tax profits with themselves and they didn’t share it with anyone else. So, why should they be supported now? Why should their losses be socialised? And if losses of real estate sector are socialised, where does the system stop? This is a question well worth asking.

If these losses are socialised, the banks will try making up for it through other ways. This would mean lower interest rates on deposits than would otherwise have been the case. This would also mean higher interest rates on loans than would otherwise have been the case. There is no free lunch in economics.

4) Senior Advocate Rajiv Datta said that banks should not take the moratorium as a default period to charge interest on interest to individual borrowers, including those repaying home loans. As he said: “Profiteering at the cost of individual borrowers during a pandemic is like Shylock seeking his pound of flesh. Individual borrowers were not defaulting.”

While I have no love-lost for bankers, but generations of bankers have had to suffer thanks to the way the William Shakespeare portrayed a Jewish money lender in his play The Merchant of Venice.

The question is why is everyone so concerned only about the borrowers. What about the savers? The average fixed deposit rate is now down to 6%. This, when the rate of inflation is close to 7%. The savers are already losing out. Why should they lose more?

5) Another argument was put forward by Senior Advocate Sanjay Hegde, where he said that banks never passed the benefit of lower repo rate to consumers in the whole of 2019 to garner bigger profits. “When there is a pandemic, they should not think of profiteering and pass on the benefits granted by the RBI to borrowers by lowering the interest rate on loans,” he said.

This is a fundamental mistake that many people make where they assume a one to one relationship between the repo rate and loan interest rates. Repo rate is the interest rate at which the RBI lends money to banks. The idea in the heads of people and often portrayed in the media is that the repo rate is coming down and so, should loan interest rates, at the same pace.

In December 2018, the repo rate was at 6.5%. Since then it has been reduced to 4%. There has been a cut of 250 basis points. One basis point is one hundredth of a percentage. During the same period, the weighted average lending rate on outstanding loans has fallen from 10.35% to 9.71%, a fall of a mere 64 basis points.

So is Senior Advocate Hegde right in the argument he is making? Not at all. As I said earlier, the link between the repo rate and the lending rate is not one to one. The reason for that is very simple. Banks raise deposits and lend that money out as loans. For lending interest rates to fall, the deposit interest rates need to fall.

The weighted average deposit interest rates since December 2018 have fallen from 6.87% to 5.96% or a fall of 91 basis points. We see that even the deposit interest rates do not share a one to one relationship with the repo rate.

Why is that the case? If a depositor invested in a deposit at 8% interest three years back, he continues to be paid that 8% interest, even when the repo rate is falling. Further, even though banks reduce the interest rate they pay on new fixed deposits, they cannot do so on the older fixed deposits. The fixed deposit interest rates are fixed and that is why they are called fixed deposits.

If the repo rate and the fixed deposit interest rates need to have a one to one relationship, meaning a 25 basis points cut in the repo rate leads to a 25 basis points cut in deposit rates, which translates into a 25 basis points cut into lending rates, then banks need to offer variable interest rate deposits and not fixed deposits. Again, that is a recipe for a social disruption.

If we look at fresh loans given by banks, the interest charged on them has fallen from 9.79% in December 2018 to around 8.52%, a fall of 127 basis points, which is much higher than the overall fall of just 64 basis points. This is primarily because the interest rate on fresh fixed deposits has fallen faster than the interest rates on fixed deposits as a whole.

This still leaves the question why has the overall lending rate fallen by 64 basis points when the overall deposit rate has fallen by 91 basis points. One reason lies in the fact that banks have a massive amount of bad loans and they are just trying to increase the spread between the interest they charge on their loans and the interest that they pay on their deposits, by not cutting the lending rate as fast as the deposit rate.

This will mean a higher profit, which can compensate for bad loans to some extent. Over and above this, there is some profiteering as well. But the situation is nowhere as bad as the lawyers are making out to be.

The reason for that is simple. There is a lot of competition in banking and if a particular bank tries to earn excessive profits, a competitor can easily challenge those profits by charging a slightly lower rate of interest and getting some of the business.

To conclude, allowing banks to set their own interest rates is at the heart of a successful banking business. And no one should be allowed to mess around with that. Also, for the umpteenth time, interest rates are not just about the repo rate.

The Unseen Effects of Banning Alcohol Along Highways

Bastiat

Sometime back the Supreme Court prohibited the sale of liquor within 500 metres of state highways and national highways. As it said in its second judgement on the issue: “India has a high rate of road accidents and fatal road accidents – one of the advisories states that it is the highest in the world with an accident occurring every four minutes.”

It further pointed out: “There is a high incidence of road accidents due to driving under the influence of alcohol… The existence of liquor vends on national highways is in the considered view of…expert authorities with domain knowledge—a cause for road accidents on national highways.”

The point being that people get drunk at shops and restaurants around highways, drive under the influence of alcohol and then cause accidents.

It is important to try and understand why people in India drink in shops and restaurants around highways. It’s not considered a good thing in India to be seen drinking with friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Hence, people like to drink outside the city near highways, so that they don’t get seen by the people whom they happen to know.

The question is will this banning of the sale of alcohol lead to a fewer accidents. Before I try and answer this question I will have to take a brief detour in order to introduce a 19th century French economist called Frédéric Bastiat.

In an essay titled That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen, he wrote: “In the department of economy, an act, a habit, an institution, a law, gives birth not only to an effect, but to series of effects. Of these effects, the first only is immediate; it manifests itself simultaneously—it is seen. The other unfold in succession—they are not seen: it is well for us if they are foreseen.”

In the case of the Supreme Court’s decision to ban alcohol along highways what is seen is that once shops and restaurants selling alcohol shutdown, it would lead to a major loss of taxes for the state governments. State governments earn taxes on the manufacture and sales of alcohol. If shops shutdown, then these earnings will fall.

This is something that the Supreme Court judgement has foreseen: “The states are free to realise revenues from liquor licences in the overwhelmingly large swathe of territories that lie outside the national and state highways and the buffer distance of 500 metres.”

Hence, the Supreme Court does not think that its decision would lead to lower taxes because the government could offer more licenses away from the highway. This is something that the government will eventually do. Meanwhile, what state governments have started to do in order to get around the decision is to denotify highways and have turned them into local, municipal or district roads, so that the sale of alcohol can continue. In many cases this is justified because highways are a part of the city and not outside it.

This has been done in order to ensure that the taxes from alcohol keep coming in. This is the unseen effect which Bastiat talked about and the Supreme Court decision did not foresee. In fact, the government of Maharashtra recently hiked the drought cess on petrol from Rs 6 to Rs 9, even when there is no drought in sight. This has been done to make up for the loss of revenue from shutting down of alcohol shops around highways.

Another unseen effect lies in the fact that those who used to go out of the city to drink in shops and restaurants along the highway, will now have to drink in the city. And if they drive after drinking, accidents will continue to happen. Given that they may not have to drive as long as they had to do in the past, the rate might fall.

Hence, the basic issue in this case is not drinking, but driving after drinking. And that cannot be solved by banning alcohol along highways. It can only be solved by better policing, in the city as well as on the highways.

 

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on April 26, 2017

Cleaning up the mess: Why the unions of Coal India are becoming increasingly irrelevant

coal

Vivek Kaul

It’s always about timing. If it’s too soon, no one understands. If it’s too late, everyone’s forgotten – Anna Wintour

For their threats to be credible it is important that the trade unions get their timing right. Gurudas Dasgupta, the general secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress, has clearly got the timing all wrong, in trying to derail the government’s initiatives for sorting up the mess in the coal sector.
The government has promulgated an ordinance which will give it the power to e-auction coal blocks. The Supreme Court in a decision given in September 2014 had cancelled the allocation of 204 out of the 218 blocks that various governments since 1993 had allocated to companies for captive consumption.
These blocks will now be auctioned. And this hasn’t gone down well with Dasgupta and other trade union leaders who have threatened to protest and possibly even go on a strike. Dasgupta said that the government decision on coal blocks is “a backdoor entry for taking over the entire coal sector by the private corporates”.
Jibon Roy, the general secretary of the All India Coal Workers Federation (AICWF) said that “to protest against the enabling provision and proposed e-auction, the workers would stage nationwide dharna on November 5 to 7.”
The decision to allot coal blocks to private players for captive consumption was made in 1993. The idea, as the Economic Survey of 1994-1995 pointed out, was to “encourage private sector investment in the coal sector, the Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act, 1973, was amended with effect from June 9, 1993, for operation of captive coal mines by companies engaged in the production of iron and steel, power generation and washing of coal in the private sector.”
This allowed private companies engaged in the production of iron and steel, power and cement to own coal blocks for their captive use. Hence, if a coal block had been allocated to a power plant, the coal produced needed to be passed on to the power plant.
In 1993, the government allocated only one coal block. Until 2002, the government had allocated only 19 coal blocks in total. The allocation of coal blocks picked up since 2003. During that year 20 coal blocks were allocated. A considerable number of these blocks were allocated to private companies for captive consumption.
The question is why are the trade unions protesting now? The allocation of coal blocks to private companies had been on for a while. The government has decided to go in for an e-auction of the coal blocks after the Supreme Court cancelled most of the allocations that had been made. Hence, only the method of allocation has changed and not its purpose. So why are the trade unions protesting now?
Further, the process of auctioning is transparent, unlike the earlier “screening committee” method of allotment which was fairly opaque as well as arbitrary, leading to crony capitalists gaining in the process. Also, the government has decided to hand over the money raised from the auction to the state government where the coal block is based. Why have the unions got a problem with all this?
The government has also said that sometime in the future it will allow private companies to commercially mine coal. Currently only the government owned Coal India is allowed to do that. The trade unions are bound to have a problem with this. As Dasgupta put it “We strongly protest and call upon the government to reverse the decision as there is an enabling clause in the Ordinance which gives rise to concerns and apprehensions of sweeping privatisation of coal sector.”
This, Dasgupta said could lead to “serious industrial disturbances,” and added that allowing private companies to commercially mine coal would jeopardise “national interest” and weaken Coal India.
Let’s look at this statement of Dasgupta in detail. Coal India had an average manpower of 4,76,577 individuals in 2004-2005. Since then the number of employees has constantly come down. In 2013-2014, the average manpower stood at 3,52,282. The number has fallen further, and as on August 31, 2014, it stood at 3,39,769 individuals.
Hence, between 2004-2005 and 2013-2014, the total manpower of Coal India came down by 26% and the unions haven’t been able to do anything about that. During the same period, the total production of coal went up by 43% from 323.58 million tonnes to 462.42 million tonnes.
So, the coal production went up despite the number of employees coming down.
This has happened due to two reasons. Coal India was overstaffed and has not been filling up the posts of retiring employees. Further, over the years Coal India has been extracting more and more coal by outsourcing work to private contractors. Between 2010-2011 and 2013-2014, the contractual expenses of Coal India jumped by 47.9% to Rs 7,812.71 crore. These expenses came in third after salaries and and provident fund expenses of employees.
A major part of coal is now extracted through outsourcing to private contractors. The private contractors don’t have to pay their employees as much as Coal India does to its workers, and hence coal is extracted at cheaper rates than it would be if employees were to do the job.
Over and above this, what is interesting is that some of the subsidiaries of Coal India, which have the least number of employees, produce most of its coal. Take the case of Mahanadi Coalfields Ltd. As on August 31, 2014, it employed
22,206 individuals or 6.5% of the total number of people working for Coal India. During the course of 2013-2014 it produced 114.34 million tonnes of coal or nearly one fourth of the coal that was mined by Coal India.
Or take the case of Northern Coalfields Ltd. The company employed 16,515 individuals as on August 31, 2014 or around 4.86% of the total number of people working for Coal India. In 2013-2014, it produced 72.11 million tonnes of coal or around 15.6% of the total coal produced by Coal India.
This is primarily because these companies have taken to outsourcing. Also, the coal mines of Northern Coalfields are highly mechanised. Now let’s compare this to Eastern Coalfields Ltd, which employs 70,191 individuals or around 20.7% of the Coal India total. In 2013-2014, it produced just 36.25 million tonnes or 7.8% of the coal produced by Coal India. The same was the case with Bharat Coking Coal, which employed 17% of total Coal India employees but produced only 7.4% of coal that was produced.
One reason for this is that a lot of mines run by Eastern Coalfields and Bharat Coking Coal are underground mines, where the technology used to mine coal is still very labour intensive.
Also, the trade unions are stronger in this part of the country (Eastern Coalfields is head-quartered at Sanctoria in West Bengal and Bharat Coking Coal at Dhanbad in Jharkhand, but right on the Bengal border) and that is another reason why these companies employ so many people to produce a minuscule amount of coal in comparison to other subsidiaries of Coal India.
Dasgupta feared that recent moves of the government were “a backdoor entry for taking over the entire coal sector by the private corporates”. But as far as coal mining is concerned that has already happened. Dasgupta and others of his ilk should have started protesting many years back. This protest has come too little too late. It is interesting nonetheless to observe that the contractual expenses of Eastern Coalfields have risen by 117% since 2009-2010.
Coal India has privatized a major part of coal mining and is reaping in tremendous benefits because of the same. As on March 31, 2014, it had cash and bank balances amounting to Rs 52,389.93 crore.
The number would have been greater than Rs 70,000 crore had the company not been forced to give a dividend of close to Rs 20,000 crore to the government to help control the fiscal deficit. The fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends.
It needs to be pointed out that the country needs more coal right now than what is being produced. Despite having the fifth largest coal reserves in the world of 301.6 billion tonnes, India was the third largest importer of coal in 2013-2014 at 104.7 million tonnes. What this tells us is that Coal India, which produces most of the coal produced in the country, hasn’t been able to keep pace.
In fact as of last week 64 out of 103 power plants had a coal inventory of less than a week. Between 2010-2011 and 2013-2014, the rate of coal production of Coal India increased at a minuscule rate of 1.76% per year.
To conclude, it is important that India produces more coal. For this, the monopoly of Coal India needs to be broken and private players (including foreign players) need to be allowed to commercially mine coal.
As Dasgupta said allowing private players would “weaken” Coal India. That is precisely what needs to happen, for the country as a whole to produce more coal. The comparable example for this is what happened after private telecom players were allowed to offer services. Despite the scams and the controversies that have happened over the years, the tele-density increased big time. Why shouldn’t that happen in the coal sector as well? Maybe Dasgupta has an answer for that.

The article originally appeared on www.FirstBiz.com on Oct 22, 2014

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

Dear Modi govt, ordinance on coal blocks won’t help much, privatisation will

coal

Vivek Kaul

The coal sector in India is in a mess. Yesterday, the government started the process to set it right. It plans to promulgate an ordinance to start with. This ordinance will give the government the power to e-auction coal blocks. The Supreme Court in a decision given in September 2014 had cancelled the allocation of 204 out of the 218 blocks that various governments since 1993 had allocated to companies for captive consumption.
The blocks had been allocated to several companies so that they could use the coal produced in the production of cement, power, aluminium, steel etc. The Supreme Court deemed the process of allocation to be suffering from the
“vice of arbitrariness” and cancelled these blocks.
These blocks will now be auctioned. As finance minister Arun Jaitley said yesterday “
As far as the private sector is concerned, the actual users of coal in the cement, steel and power sectors who apply for a certain number of coal mines will be put in the pool and there would be an e-auction. A sufficient and adequate number of mines would be put so that actual users go back with the mines.”
This is a good step given that it makes the entire process transparent instead of the arbitrary manner in which coal blocks were allocated through the earlier screening committee method. Further, the system of allocation of coal blocks for free through the screening committee method was discriminatory. It offered a huge premium to companies which managed to get a free coal block, in comparison to ones that did not.
Nevertheless it is important that auctions are designed properly.
Earlier this year the government tried to auction a few coal blocks and found no takers. Take the case of the Jhirki west coal block. The auction for this block had a fixed price of Rs 177 crore. Over and above this a minimum price of Rs 2,902 per tonne needed to be paid. Then there was the cost of excavating coal and getting the block up and running.
Once these factors were taken into count the total cost worked out at Rs 8,000 per tonne. The block had low quality coking coal. And at this price good quality coking coal could be imported from Australia. Given this, it is not surprising that the government found no takers for the block. Hence, it is important that the auctions be designed properly.
Further, 42 out of the 218 coal blocks whose allocation has been cancelled are already operational.
The ordinance will allow the transfer of land from companies which own these cancelled mines to the companies which emerge as the winning bidder in the e-auction.
A committee will decide on the price of land.
Interestingly, a PTI report points that “Sources said successful bidders in the fresh auction of coal blocks along with the land and plant standing on it would be liable to pay the earlier allottees the cost of the land and the plant along with 12 per cent annual interest on the amount that was originally invested for purchasing the land and setting up plant.”
This process needs to be handled with care. Many of the companies which were allotted coal blocks are basically crony capitalists and may try to come up with trumped up estimates of the cost of land and plant. Also, in case of mines that are operational, a certain amount of coal has already been mined. This will have to be taken into account so that the prospective bidders in the auction know the amount of coal they can hope to mine, and can accordingly come up with a bid price.
In fact, the companies which were allocated coal blocks had to use the coal produced for captive consumption only. Hence, if a coal block had been allocated to a power plant, the coal produced needed to be passed on to the power plant. Any excess coal had to be handed over to the local subsidiary of the government owned Coal India Ltd.
Nonetheless there have been a spate of media reports suggesting that the excess coal that was produced was being sold in the open market.
As a report in The Economic Times points out “What happened to the surplus coal extracted? In some cases, illegally mined coal has found its way to places like the coal mandi near Varanasi.”
This factor will also have to be taken into account before the auction. And it is here that the things can get a little tricky because some companies have mined more coal than they have actually reported.
The government plans to hand over the money generated through the auctions to the state in which the block is located. This is an excellent move, given that the permissions at the state level take a lot of time for a coal mine to get operational. With states being made a part of the process, they have some incentive in not creating hurdles in the production of coal, as has been the case in the past.
Interestingly, Jaitley also said that coal mining will be opened up for the private sector. Currently only Coal India Ltd is allowed to do excavate and sell coal to end users. As Jaitley put it “There will be an enabling provision for the future where under rules which are framed for commercial users of mines could also be decided by the Central government. This would lead to an optimal utilisation of the natural resource.”
This will call for the amendment of the Coal Mines (Nationalization) Act of 1973.
India currently has a
total of 301.6 billion tonnes of coal reserves. Despite having the fifth largest coal reserves in the world, India is the third largest importer of coal having imported around 104.7 million tonnes in 2013-2014. These imports cost around $20 billion a year, as per Jaitley.
Given this, it is a no-brainer to suggest that India needs to produce more coal.
During the year 2010-2011, Coal India produced around 431.26 million tonnes of coal. In 2013-2014, it produced 462.42 million tonnes. Hence, the production of coal has increased at the rate of a minuscule 1.76% per year.
Coal India produces a bulk of India’s coal. And it is obvious that it has been unable to increase its rate of production over the years. Given this, more companies need to be allowed to excavate coal. Taking that into account, the decision of the government to open coal mining to the private sector is a good one.
As former coal secretary PC Parakh writes in his book
Crusader or Conspirator—Coalgate and Other Truths : “Had we opened up coal mining to private sector for commercial mining, along with power sector, in the early 1990s, we would by now have at least half a dozen large coal mining companies in the private sector. This is what happened in the telecom sector. The country would not be facing huge shortage of coal and large outgo of foreign exchange on import of coal.”
Also, production of coal for captive use is not the most optimum way to go about the whole thing.
As Partha Bhattacharya, former chairman of Coal India, wrote in a column in The Indian Express “Captive end-users mining coal is not optimal. Nor is it known to have succeeded elsewhere in the world. Coal-mining has its own challenges and needs core competence, which the end-users are unlikely to possess.”
Given this, allowing private companies into commercial coal mining is required.
The first thing opening up of the sector will do is to create some competition for Coal India and hopefully improve its productivity.  
As Swaminathan Aiyar pointed out in a recent column in The Economic Times “In Australia, collieries produce 75 tones per manshift (of eight hours) in open-cast mines and 40 tonnes per manshift in underground mines. Coal India averages barely 7 tonnes and 0.8 tonnes respectively…Coal India’s machines work 15 hours per day , against 22 hours per day in efficient mines.”
Nevertheless, there are a few issues that need to be highlighted here. First and foremost no date has been set for allowing private commercial mining of coal.
As Parakh told The Times of India “I won’t say it is a big ticket reform…There is no timeline. This was an opportunity to come clean on the coal sector and allow commercial mining.” And that hasn’t happened.
Further, no foreign companies will be allowed to carry out commercial mining of coal. This is where things get tricky. The expertise in India to set up and run a coal mine is limited to Coal India. If only Indian companies are allowed to commercially mine coal, they will end up poaching people from Coal India to run their mines. Hence, is important that we allow international companies to enter this sector. If this happens, these companies can bring in their technology and in the process hopefully improve India’s low coal productivity.
Also, this is likely to keep the crony capitalism in India under some control. As Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales write in
Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists The most effective way to reduce the power of incumbents to affect legislation is to keep domestic markets open to international competition…Openness creates competitions from outsiders—outsiders that incumbents cannot control through political means.”
To conclude, the government has done well to address the issues plaguing the coal sector in India. Nevertheless, given the mess that the coal sector is in, a lot more needed to be done.

The article originally appeared on www.FirstBiz.com on Oct 21, 2014

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)