The Banking Ordinance is no magic pill for ailing banks

Recently, the government promulgated the Banking Regulation(Amendment) Ordinance, 2017, to tackle the huge amount of bad loans that have accumulated in the Indian banking system in general and the government owned public sector banks in particular. Bad loans are essentially loans in which the repayment from a borrower has been due for 90 days or more.

This Ordinance is now being looked at the magic pill which will cure the problems of Indian banks. Will it?

The Ordinance essentially gives power to the Reserve Bank of India(RBI) to give directions to banks for the resolutions of bad loans from time to time. It also allows the Indian central bank to appoint committees or authorities to advise banks on resolution of stressed assets.

The basic assumption that the Ordinance seems to make is that the RBI knows more about banking than the banks themselves. This doesn’t make much sense for the simple reason that if the RBI was better at banking than the banks themselves, it would have been able to identify the start of the bad loans problem as far back as 2011, which it didn’t.

Over and above this, this is not the first time that Indian banks have landed in trouble because of bad loans. They had landed up in a similar situation in the early 1980s and the early 2000s as well, and the RBI hadn’t been able to do much about it.

In fact, at the level of banks, many banks have been more interested in postponing the recognition of the problem of bad loans. This basically means they haven’t been recognising bad loans as bad loans. One way of doing this is by restructuring the loan and allowing the borrower a moratorium during which he does not have to repay the principal amount of the loan. In some cases, even the interest need not be paid. In some other cases, the tenure of the loan has been increased. In many cases this simply means just pushing the can down the road by not recognising a bad loan as a bad loan.

Why have banks been doing this? The Economic Survey gives us multiple reasons for the same. Large debtors have borrowed from many banks and these banks need to coordinate among themselves, and that hasn’t happened. At public sector banks recognising a bad loan as a bad loan and writing it off, can attract the attention of the investigative agencies.

Also, no public sector banker in his right mind would want to negotiate a settlement with the borrower who may not be able to repay the entire loan, but he may be in a position to repay a part of the loan. As the Economic Survey points out: “If PSU banks grant large debt reductions, this could attract the attention of the investigative agencies”. What makes this even more difficult is the fact that some of defaulters have been regular defaulters over the decades, and who are close to politicians across parties.

Hence, bankers have just been happy restructuring a loan and pushing the can down the road.

Over and above this, writing off bad loans once they haven’t been repaid for a while, leads to the banks needing more capital to continue to be in business. In case of public sector banks this means the government having to allocate more money towards recapitalisation of banks. There is a limit to that as well.

Also, a bigger problem which the Economic Survey does not talk about is the fact that the rate of recovery of bad loans has gone down dramatically over the years. In 2013-2014, the rate of recovery was at 18.8 per cent. By 2015-2016, this had fallen to 10.3 per cent. Hence, banks were only recovering around Rs 10 out of the every Rs 100 of bad loans defaulted on by borrowers. This is clear reflection of the weak institutional mechanisms in India, which cannot change overnight.

Also, many of the companies that have taken on large loans are no longer in a position to repay. As the Economic Survey points out: “Cash flows in the large stressed companies have been deteriorating over the past few years, to the point where debt reductions of more than 50 percent will often be needed to restore viability. The only alternative would be to convert debt to equity, take over the companies, and then sell them at a loss.”

The first problem here will be that many businessmen are very close to politicians.
Hence taking over companies won’t be easy. Over and above this, it will require the government and the public sector banks, working with the mindset of a profit motive, like a private equity or a venture capital fund. And that is easier said than done.

The column originally appeared in the Daily News and Analysis on May 22, 2017.

Of “Shaky” Demonetisation Statistics, Arun Jaitley and Black Money

We don’t live in a perfect world. And given this, governments like to showcase the positive impact of the decisions they make, all the time. Sometimes, they get very desperate in the process.

Take the case of the economic impact of demonetisation. Most data now coming out clearly shows that the decision did not have a positive impact on the Indian economy. It might have helped the Bhartiya Janata Party to win the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a right decision on the economic front.

Nevertheless, the Modi government would like us to believe that demonetisation has helped the country on the economic front. Early last week the finance minister Arun Jaitley said that “more than 91 lakh people were added to the tax base due the result of the actions taken by the income tax department.”

It was later clarified that 91 lakh people were added to the tax base in 2016-2017(i.e. between April 1, 2016 and March 31, 2017). As per Jaitley’s statement 91 lakh individuals were added to the tax base post demonetisation, which is incorrect.

Meenakshi Goswami, Income Tax Commissioner and the official spokesperson of the Central Board for Direct Taxes (CBDT), told NDTV later in the week that91 lakh was the total number of new taxpayers enrolled in the financial year 2016-2017.”

Now this makes things interesting. On the face of it, the addition of 91 lakh individuals to the income tax base sounds like a huge number. But when we are talking about any increase or decrease, a number should never be viewed in isolation.

The trouble is that we don’t have long term data on this front because of a change in the definition of “tax base” and “new tax payer added during the year”. The annual report of the ministry of finance for 2015-2016 points out that new taxpayers “added during the year 2014-15 is 76,04,154”. This basically means that 76 lakh new taxpayers were added during 2014-2015. I couldn’t find any data for 2015-2016. Now compare the 91 lakh additions in 2016-2017 to 76 lakh additions in 2014-2015, and suddenly the number doesn’t seem too high, given that no demonetisation was carried out in 2014-2015.

Even if the government doesn’t do anything, taxpayers get added every year, especially when the minimum tax slab continues to remain the same. In 2014-2015, the minimum tax slab was Rs 2,50,000, which is where it continues to be. This basically means that inflation alone would have ensured that more people came into the tax bracket and thus increased the tax base.

Over and above this, as the economy grows and people earn more, more people come into the tax bracket.

Once we take these factors into account, the addition of 91 lakh taxpayers suddenly doesn’t sound much, especially taking into account the disruption that demonetisation caused through the length and the breadth of the country.

Further, Sushil Chandra, chairman of CBDT said that between November 2016 and March 2017, the search actions of the income tax department revealed an undisclosed income of Rs 16,398 crore. On the other hand, the surveys had led to a detection of Rs 6,746 crore during the same period.

Again, if we look at these numbers in isolation, they sound like a lot of money. But that doesn’t turn out to be the case if we look at numbers over a period of time. Take a look at Table 1. It shows the undisclosed income admitted to and detected during the search operations as well as surveys conducted by the income tax department over the last few years.

Table 1: Undisclosed income

Financial Year Number of groups searched Undisclosed income admitted (in Rs Crore) Number of surveys conducted Undisclosed income detected (in Rs Crore) Total undisclosed income (in Rs Crore)
2012-2013 422 10,291.61 4630 19,337.46 29,629.07
2013-2014 569 10,791.63 5327 90,390.71 1,01,182.34
2014-2015 545 10,288.05 5035 12,820.33 23,108.38
2015-16 445 11,066.24 4422 9,654.8 20,721.04
2016-17* 222 6,304.71 977 17,62.51 8,067.22

*Up to September 2016 in case of search numbers and August 2016 in case of survey numbers
Source: Ministry of Finance Annual Reports and the Press Information Bureau
The numbers for 2016-2017 are incomplete. But there is enough detail that lets us analyse the issue. Between April and September 2016, the total undisclosed income (or black money) admitted through search operations of the income tax department stood at Rs 6,304.71 crore. The undisclosed income detected through surveys conducted between April and August 2016 had stood at Rs 1,762.51 crore. If we add these numbers we get Rs 8,067.22 crore.

Between November 2016 and March 2017, the search actions of the income tax department revealed an undisclosed income of Rs 16,398 crore, as pointed out earlier. On the other hand, the surveys had led to a detection of Rs 6,746 crore during the same period. Adding both these numbers we get Rs 23,144 crore. Adding this to the earlier Rs 8,067.22 crore, we get around Rs 31, 211 crore.

This is the total undisclosed income identified by the income tax department during the course of 2016-2017. The number is incomplete because the information for the month of October 2016 is missing in case of search operations and information for the months of September-October 2016 is missing in case of survey operations.

Nonetheless, it is a good ballpark number to work with. Hence, the total amount of undisclosed income or black money identified by the income tax department in 2016-2017 stood at more than Rs 31,211 crore.

Is it such a big deal? Look at Table 1. The total amount in 2012-2013 had stood at Rs 29,629 crore. This amount hasn’t been adjusted for inflation. It is safe to say that in inflation adjusted terms more undisclosed income was identified by the income tax department in 2012-2013 than in 2016-2017. In 2013-2014, the number stood at Rs 1,01,182 crore, which is significantly more than 2016-2017. And it is worth remembering here that these numbers happened without demonetisation. In fact, as the numbers clearly show the efficacy of the income tax department when it comes to identification of black money has come down since 2014-2015.

To conclude, the rosy picture of demonetisation that the government is trying to paint, is really not true. The more data we look at the clearer this becomes.

Postscript: I recently did a podcast with the writer Amit Varma who is currently the editor of the Pragati magazine, on the Right to Education and how it has screwed up our education system. Most of what I spoke was based on my new book India’s Big Government—The Intrusive State and How It is Hurting Us. You can listen to the podcast here.

The column originally appeared in Equitymaster on May 22, 2017.

Why Bangalore Came Last in IPL

Virat_Kohli_26_Feb_2012

The Indian Premier League(IPL) is just about to come to an end. The Bangalore team did not do particularly well in this year’s edition and won only three out of their 14 games. They lost 10 games and one game was drawn because of rains.

The team was a finalist last year and lost to Hyderabad in the final. Given this, at the beginning of the 2017 season, nobody expected that the Bangalore team would come last among the 8 teams. Nevertheless, reasons are now being offered on why the Bangalore team did not do well this time around.

While analysing and offering reasons is fine, some of the cricket experts are now saying that they always knew that Bangalore wouldn’t do well this year. Multiple reasons have been offered. Here are a few that I have heard.

The captain Virat Kohli was injured and missed the first few games. KL Rahul missed the entire tournament because of an injury. Chris Gayle was not in his usual form. AB de Villiers was also injured and came in only after the first few games. One expert even said that the injury to batsman Sarfaraz Khan hit the team hard.  And hence, the team was never able to build the momentum that is required to keep winning T20 games.

While all this sounds fine, none of these reasons were offered at the beginning of the tournament. At the beginning of the tournament none of the experts said that they don’t expect the Bangalore team to do well this year. But now once the Bangalore team has not done well, they are busy coming up with various reasons to explain the non-performance.

And along with that they are convinced about the fact that they had always believed that the Bangalore team would not do well this year. As David Hand writes in The Improbability Principle: “After the fact, it’s easy to put the pieces together, and show how they form a continuous chain leading to the outcome.” Or to put it simply, everything is obvious once you know the answer. Hence, Bangalore did not do well because Kohli was injured and could not play in the first few games. Bangalore did not do well in these games and in the process, they were never able to build the required momentum which is an essential part of a tournament of this kind.

This kind of storyline could not have been offered at the beginning of the tournament. As Hand writes: “Before the fact, however, there are many pieces and potential chains and it’s just not possible to know which events fit together. This isn’t because there are too many pieces, but simply because they can be put together in a vast number of possible ways, and there’s no reason to select any one of them.”

Hence, before this year’s IPL started one did not know that Chris Gayle, the master of the T20 game, would have the kind of disastrous year he did. It was always difficult to predict that the likes of de Villiers, Travis Head and Shane Watson, brilliant T20 players in their own right, wouldn’t have much of an impact on Bangalore’s overall performance. Even Kedhar Jadhav burdened with the  responsibility to keep wickets, looked out of touch.

But all this and more can be now said with confidence, almost at the end of the tournament. As Hand writes: “Our innate tendency to retrospectively adjust a new recollection as new information becomes available, to identify the chain which led to the disaster and to say, after the fact, ‘Look, it was staring us in the face!’ is called hindisight bias.”

The point being that Bangalore lost because they did not score enough runs and they did not take enough wickets. Any analysis beyond this, is essentially hindsight bias.

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on May 17, 2017

New IIP Shows Demonetisation Slowed Down Indian Manufacturing Growth Big Time

India_textile_fashion_industry_workers

India has a new Index of Industrial Production (IIP). It is bigger and according to economists who track such things, it is better than the previous one. The IIP basically gives growth estimates of three sectors-manufacturing, mining and electricity. The manufacturing sector forms more than three-fourths of the IIP.

The base year for the new IIP has been changed to 2011-2012 from the earlier 2004-2005. This has been done to capture the changes in the industrial sector that have happened over a period of time and “to also align it with the base year of other macroeconomic indicators like the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Wholesale Price Index (WPI)”.

Like any other index, the IIP tracks various items that make for the manufacturing, mining and electricity sectors. These items need to be changed or relooked at from time to time in order to ensure that the IIP continues to maintain a representativeness of the manufacturing, mining and electricity sectors in particular and the industry as a whole in general.

The new IIP has a total of 809 items in the manufacturing sector. The earlier one had 620. While, the number of items which constitute the manufacturing part of IIP have gone up, 124 items have been removed as well. These include items like gutka, calculators and colour TV picture tubes. Items like cement clinkers, medical and surgical accessories, refined palm oil etc., have been added. Along similar lines, the electricity sector now includes data from the renewable energy sector as well.

Over and above this, there has been an increase in number of factories in panel for reporting data and closed ones have been removed. All in all, these steps have been taken in order to ensure that the new IIP is a better representation of industry than the old one was.

Given that, items that constitute IIP have change majorly, it is not surprising that the growth figures of IIP have changed as well. Take a look at Figure 1. It plots both the new IIP and the old IIP growth rates over the last half decade, April 2012 onwards.

Figure 1: 

One look at Figure 1 is enough to tell us that the old IIP and new IIP are different beasts altogether, though both are very volatile. Now take at data from March 2013. As per the old IIP series, the growth was at 3.5 per cent. The new IIP series puts the growth at 15.1 per cent. That’s how different the old and the new IIP are.

In fact, as per the new IIP, the industrial growth stood at 3.3 per cent in 2014-2015, the last year of the Congress led UPA government. As per the old IIP the growth had stood at – 0.1 per cent. Hence, we can conclude that the state of the industry in the last year of the Congress government wasn’t as bad as it seemed at that point of time. It’s just that the old IIP may have no longer remained a good representation of the Indian industry.

In fact, the new IIP shows that industrial growth picked up in 2016-2017, the last financial year. The growth stood at 5.1 per cent. As per the old IIP the industrial growth was at 0.6 per cent, during the course of the year. What this also tells us is that the two IIPs are as different as chalk and cheese.

There is an interesting trend that the new IIP catches on to in the manufacturing sector. Manufacturing makes up for 77.6 per cent of the new IIP as against the 75.5 per cent in the old one. Take a look at Table 1.

Table 1: Manufacturing Growth

Period Manufacturing Growth(in %)
Dec 2012 to Mar 2013 9.4
Dec 2013 to Mar 2014 3.7
Dec 2014 to Mar 2015 3.2
Dec 2015 to Mar 2016 4.9
Dec 2016 to Mar 2017 1.6

Source: Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

The manufacturing growth between December 2016 and March 2017 stood at 1.6 per cent. This has been the slowest in comparison to the same period in previous years. Why is this the case? The one word answer to this is demonetisation. The Modi government announced demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes on November 8, 2016, and sent the economy into a tailspin. The interesting thing is that the average manufacturing growth between April 2016 and October 2016 had stood at 6.9 per cent. This signalled the revival of the manufacturing sector after having grown by around 3 per cent in 2015-2016 and 3.8 per cent in 2013-2014.

Demonetisation managed to scuttle that revival in this growth. Also, it is worth pointing out here that the IIP data is collected from “entities in the organised sector units registered under the Factories Act, 1948”. This means that the unorganised sector is not covered. And as I have often written in the past, the impact of demonetisation on the unorganised sector has been far greater.

Up until now, the government has refused to admit that demonetisation has had a negative impact on the economy (Subscription Required). I guess it’s time it looked at the new IIP numbers to realise the obvious.

(The column was originally published in Equitymaster on May 16, 2017)

Mr Subramanian, Lower Interest Rates Do Not Always Lead to More Bank Loans

Arvind_Subrahmaniyam

“Lower interest rates lead to higher lending,” is something that most economists firmly believe in. The beliefs of Arvind Subramanian, the chief economic adviser to the ministry of finance, are not an exception to this rule.

Hence, not surprisingly in a lecture a few days back he came out all guns blazing against the Reserve Bank of India(RBI) for not cutting the repo rate. Repo rate is the rate at which RBI lends to banks and acts as a sort of a benchmark to the interest rates that banks pay for their deposits and in turn charge on their loan. We say sort of a benchmark here because there are other factors which go into deciding what rate of interest that banks charge on their loans.

Subramanian wants the RBI to cut the repo rate further from its current level of 6.25 per cent. As he said: “Inflation pressures are easing considerably… the inflation outlook is benign because of a number of economic developments… Against this background, most reasonable economists would say that the economy needs all the macroeconomic policy support it can get: instead, both fiscal policy and monetary policy remain tight.

The point here being that current inflation is under control and from the looks of it, future inflation should also be under control. And given this, the RBI must cut its repo rate. The RBI last cut the repo rate in October 2016. And as and when it cuts the rate further, the hope is that the banks will cut their lending rates. Only then will people and industries both borrow and spend more. This will give a flip to the economy. QED.
Subramanian’s point is well taken. Nevertheless, does it make sense? We will deviate a little here before we arrive at the answer.

The RBI Monetary Policy Report released in early April 2017 points out that the decline in the one-year marginal cost of funds based lending rates (MCLRs) of banks between April and October 2016 was just 15 basis points. This when the repo rate was cut by 50 basis points. Hence, even though the RBI cut its repo rate by 50 basis points, the banks cut their lending rates by just 15 basis points, a little under a one-third. One basis point is one hundredth of a percentage.

Post demonetisation “27 public sector banks have reduced their one-year median MCLR in the range of 50 to 105 bps, and 19 private sector banks have done so in the range of 25 to 148 bps.” This when the repo rate has not been cut at all. On an average the one year MCLRs of banks fell by 70 basis points to 8.6 per cent.

What has happened here? A cut in the repo rate barely makes any difference to the cost at which banks have already borrowed money to fund their loans. But demonetisation did. The share of the “low cost current account and savings account (CASA) deposits in aggregate deposits with the SCBs went up to 39.2 per cent (as on March 17, 2017) – an increase of 4.0 percentage points relative to the predemonetisation period”. This is because people deposited the demonetised notes into the banks and this money was credited against their accounts.

This basically meant that banks suddenly had access to cheaper deposits because of demonetisation. And this in turn led them to cut interest rates on their loans, despite no cut in the repo rate. The RBI’s repo rate continued to be at 6.25 per cent during the period.

A cut in lending rates is only one part of the equation. The bigger question has it led to higher borrowings? Are people and businesses borrowing more because lending rates are now lower than they were in the past? And this is where things become interesting.
The total deposits of banks between October 28, 2016 (before demonetisation) and December 30, 2016 (the last date to deposit demonetised currency into banks) went up by 6.41 per cent to Rs 10,568,17 crore. This was a huge jump during a period of two months. This sudden increase in liquidity led to banks cutting their deposit rates and then their lending rates.

Interestingly, the total deposits of banks have continued to remain stable and as of April 30, 2017, were at Rs 10,509,337 crore. This is a minor fall of 0.6 per cent since December 2016.

Between end October 2016 and end April 2017, only around 36 per cent of the incremental deposits raised by banks were loaned out. (We are looking at non-food credit here. The total bank loans that remain after we adjust for the loans that have been given to the Food Corporation of India and other state procurement agencies for the procurement of rice and wheat produced by farmers).

This means for every new deposit worth Rs 100, the bank loaned out just Rs 36, despite a cut in interest rates.

If we were to look the same ratio between end October 2015 and end April 2016, it projects a totally different picture. 116 per cent of the incremental deposits during the period were lent out. This means for every new deposit worth Rs 100, the bank loaned out Rs 116.  This means that deposits raised before the start of this period were also lent out.

Hence, a greater amount of lending happened at higher interest rates between October 2015 and April 2016. And this goes totally against Subramanian’s idea of the RBI needing to cut the repo rate. It also goes against the idea of banks lending more at lower interest rates.

Given this, low interest rates are only a part of the story. If that is not leading to higher lending, it doesn’t help in anyway. Lending isn’t happening due to various reasons, which we keep discussing. Demonetisation has only added to this issue.

Also, a fall in interest rates hurts those who depend on a regular income from fixed deposits to meet their expenditure. It also hurts those who are saving for their long-term goals. In both the cases, expenditure has to be cut down. In one case because enough regular income is not being generated and in another case in order to be able to save more to reach the investment goal. And this cut in spending hurts the overall economy. Interest rates are also about the saver and depositor.

We are yet to see a professional economist talk from this angle. To them it is always a case of garbage in garbage out i.e. lower interest rates lead to increased lending. This is simply because most professional economists these days get trained in the United States where the system is totally different and lower interest rates do lead to a higher borrowing by businesses and people.

But that doesn’t necessarily work in India. It is a totally different proposition here.

The column originally appeared in Equitymaster on May 15, 2017.

RERA: There’s no way home prices will go up anytime soon

250px-Underconstruction_Building

The Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Act, 2016 (RERA), came into force on May 1, 2017. After this those who make their living in the real estate industry have been suggesting that real estate prices will go up in the days to come.

The logic being offered is that this will be because of compliance costs of RERA which the buyers will ultimately have to pay for.

Given that India does not have any data which agglomerates real estate prices at the country level, those connected with the real estate industry can get away with such statements, because no one else has any idea anyway.

Data from PropEquity Research shows that unsold home inventories stood at close to 4.72 lakh units in the top eight cities across India, as on March 31, 2017. These are homes that have been built but not been sold.

During the period January to March 2017, the inventory of unsold homes came down by 3.12 per cent. Despite this fall, the unsold inventory overhang continues to be huge, across the country. Data from PropEquity suggests that overhang is 60 months in Noida, 43 months in Mumbai, 38 months in Chennai and 30 months in Bengaluru.

If this unsold inventory has to be sold, the home-prices cannot go up from where they are, RERA notwithstanding. The fact that so much inventory has accumulated in the first place tells us very clearly that people are not buying homes to begin with. The only reason for this is that homes across urban India are fairly expensive in comparison to the capacity of people to pay.

This is obvious from the rental yield (annual rent divided by the market price of the home). Typically, the rental yield currently varies between 1.5-2 per cent. This basically means that in order to buy a home right now, one has to pay 50 to 67 times the annual rent. This tells us very clearly that it makes more sense to rent a home and at the same time that home-prices are very expensive. Of course, rental housing comes with its own set of issues in India, with insecure landlords being the biggest one.

Data from PropEquity suggests that property prices fell by 1.7 per cent for January to March 2017. This is clearly not enough. If this inventory overhang has to clear, prices need to fall further. What will force the builder’s hand further is that with RERA in place, new launches to raise finance for previously delayed projects or to pay off debt, will not so be easy, anymore.

A careful look at home loan data of 2016-2017 also suggests that home-prices have fallen.

In 2015-2016, only 16.8 per cent of the home loans given by banks were given to the priority sector. A housing loan of up to Rs 28 lakh in a city with a population of 10 lakh or more, which finances the purchase of a home with a price of up to Rs 35 lakh, is categorised as a priority sector housing loan.

In 2016-2017, 23 per cent of the home loans given by banks were given to the priority sector. This basically means that banks are giving out more sub Rs 28 lakh home loans for financing more homes worth less than Rs 35 lakh, than they were in the past.

This basically means that home-prices have either come down or builders are building more of sub Rs 35 lakh homes. Either ways, this is a good trend. It is not so obvious given that no agency agglomerates real estate prices in India at a national level. But the home loan data from banks clearly suggests this.

Last week, Keki Mistry, the bossman at HDFC, the largest housing finance company in the country suggested that given the low interest rates and the time correction of prices that has happened, it is a good time to buy a house.

Of course, for a home loan lender, it is always a good time to buy a house. What does Mistry mean by time correction of prices? He basically means that even though home-prices haven’t fallen much in absolute terms, they have fallen once we adjust for inflation.

It is worth re-stating here that if the builders have to sell off their unsold inventory of homes, they need to cut prices. Even if they manage to hold on to the current prices, they will not be in a position to increase prices, over the next few years. Hence, the time correction of prices is likely to continue. Given this, those who want a home to live-in and are in a position to continue to wait, should do that.

As far as interest rates are concerned, what Mistry forgot to mention is that home loans have a floating rate of interest, which keeps changing. Hence, over the 15-20 year term of a home loan, interest rates can and will vary. And given this, low interest rates initially, does not make much of a difference in the overall scheme of things. What is needed are lower home-prices.

The column originally appeared on business-standard.com  on May 9, 2017

Why We Complete Reading Books We Don’t Like

business-books

I love reading crime fiction. It’s my favourite weekend activity. It really relaxes me and gets me ready for the next week.

This weekend I happened to read this book called The Baltimore Boys by the Swiss author Joël Dicker. I read this book because I had particularly liked reading Dicker’s previous book The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, a couple of years back.

Other than being a thriller with a great plot and several twists at the right places, the book also examined what goes on in a writer’s mind while he is writing a book. And that is something I enjoyed tremendously.

With this background in mind, I started reading Dicker’s new book The Baltimore Boys. This book at the same time is a prequel as well as a sequel to The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair.

Fifty pages into it, I knew that this book was nowhere as good as Dicker’s first one. It didn’t have the one liners that the first one did. Neither did it have the kind of intricate plot that Harry Querbert Affair did.

This disappointment notwithstanding I continued reading the 444 page book and finished it over one and a half days. Why did I do that? One was because I had been extremely impressed by Dicker’s first book and kept thinking all along that the second book is also building towards something. That something never came.

But more importantly I had become a victim of what economists call the sunk cost fallacy. This, despite knowing about it. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman defines this fallacy as “the decision to invest additional resources in a losing account, when better investments are available”.

I could have easily given up reading The Baltimore Boys, 100 pages into it, and spent my time reading something else, or I could have slept more over the weekend, or I could have seen IPL matches a little more carefully than I currently do. But I chose to finish reading The Baltimore Boys. This for the simple reason that I did not want to feel that I had wasted the time I had already spent reading the book. In the process, I ended up wasting more time on it.

This phenomenon is clearly visible in other things we do in life as well. Like books, we continue watching a move till the end even though half way through it we know that the movie is not going anywhere. The last time this happened to me was when I saw Vishal Bhardwaj’s Rangoon. Bhardwajs reputation from his previous films made sure that I watched the movie till the end, hoping that something substantial might come up and I would miss it, if I chose to walk out.

The sunk cost fallacy is also visible in bad marriages and relationships. People remain stuck in them. If they get out of it, they will feel that all the time they spent on it was basically a waste. And to avoid that feeling, they end up wasting more time on it than they should have in the first place.

As Kahneman writes: “The sunk-cost fallacy keeps people for too long in poor jobs, unhappy marriages, and unpromising research projects. I have often observed scientists struggling to salvage a doomed project when they would be better advised to drop it and start a new one.”

In fact, sunk cost fallacy even leads to wars continuing longer than they should. As Richard Thaler writes in Misbehaving—The Making of Behavioural Economics: “Many people believe that the United States continued its futile war of in Vietnam because we had invested too much to quit.” This escalation of commitment led to the war lasting longer than it should have and in the process killed many more people. But that is not how things turned out.

To conclude, the funny thing is that you can become a victim of the sunk cost fallacy despite knowing about it, which is precisely what happened to me.

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on May 10, 2017.