Why the Nirav Modi fraud is much more than just a fraud

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During the course of the last one week, the hottest news-story in India has been that of a jeweller named Nirav Modi, allegedly defrauding one of India’s largest government owned banks, the Punjab National Bank (PNB).

PNB is India’s second largest government owned bank (with assets of around Rs 7,203 billion ($111.7 billion, assuming $1 = Rs 64.5) as on March 31, 2017). The total amount of the fraud has been estimated to be at $1.8 billion (or around Rs 114 billion). News report suggest that Modi (no relation to the current prime minister of India Narendra Modi) fled the country in early January. His immediate family also left India, during the course of the month.

Nirav Modi is believed to be holed up in a luxury hotel in New York and was last seen in Davos, as a part of a business delegation which got a picture clicked with the prime minister Narendra Modi. Before Nirav Modi, Vijay Mallya, another businessman, who hasn’t repaid loans worth Rs 90 billion ($1.4 billion) due to Indian banks, fled the country.

The latest fraud basically involves PNB guaranteeing loans issued to Nirav Modi by issuing a letter of undertaking (LOU). Every time a loan became due, Nirav Modi got PNB to open another LOU equivalent to the loan amount plus the interest that was due on it. The money from the new LOU was used to pay off the loan and the interest due on the previous LOU. In the process, Modi never repaid the loan.

Currently, it is being suggested that he was helped in the process by two employees of PNB. That such a huge Ponzi scheme could be run without the top or the middle management of the bank knowing about it, is a little difficult to believe.

Thus, Modi managed to operate a Ponzi scheme, with money from the new LOU being used to pay off the previous one. Of course, like all Ponzi schemes, Nirav Modi’s scheme collapsed as well. And before the authorities came after him, he left the country, along with his family.

How does Nirav Modi’s fraud look in light of the other frauds that Indian banks face? In July 2017, the ministry of finance had shared some interesting data in this context.

Between the years 2012-2013 and 2016-2017, the banks in the country had seen a total number of 22,949 frauds, with total losses to banks amounting to Rs 698 billion ($10.8 billion). The average loss on a fraud thus amounted to Rs 30.4 million ($0.47 million). The interesting thing here is that of the 78 banks on the list, PNB faced the highest losses when it came to frauds. Over the five-year period, the bank faced 942 frauds with losses of Rs 90 billion ($1.4 billion). The losses amounted to around 12.9% of the total losses faced by the Indian banks due to frauds.

In fact, the average loss for PNB due to frauds stood at Rs 95.5 million ($1.48 million), which was three times the total average of Rs 30.4 million. Also, more than that, PNB faced more frauds than the State Bank of India, the country’s largest bank, with an asset base which is 4.6 times that of PNB.

What this tells us is that PNB’s control systems were in bad shape and hence, the bank got defrauded significantly more than the other banks did. Having said that, the average fraud at PNB between 2012-2013 and 2016-2017 had cost the bank Rs 95.5 million. In Nirav Modi’s case, the size of the fraud is around Rs 114 billion, which is much bigger than the size of the average fraud PNB has faced in the recent years.

What this tells us is that Nirav Modi’s case is more than a petty bank fraud. It is basically more along the lines of a large bank loan default; which many of India’s crony capitalists specialise in.

India’s government owned banks have been facing a huge pressure of corporate loan defaults over the last few years. As of September 2017, the bad loans ratio of these banks stood at 13.5%. This basically means that of every Rs 100 of loans given by these banks, Rs 13.5 had been defaulted on. A bad loan is a loan which hasn’t been repaid for a period of 90 days or more. The corporate default rate has been even higher.

Largely due to corporate loan defaults, the Indian banks have had to write off loans worth around Rs 2,500 billion ($38.8 billion) for the period of five years ending March 31, 2017. Nirav Modi’s bank fraud will only add to this.

To keep these banks going, the government of India has to regularly keep infusing capital in them. In fact, an estimate made by The Times of India suggests that the government has infused Rs 2,600 billion ($40.3 billion) in the banks that it owns, over the last 11 years. Every rupee that goes into these banks is taken away from more important areas like agriculture, education, health, defence etc.

The reason why many Indian businessmen blatantly default on loans is because they know that given India’s slow judicial system and their closeness to politicians, their chances of getting away with a loan default are very high. Nirav Modi is just a small part of this significant whole.

No wonder, former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Raghuram Rajan, in a November 2014 speech had said that, India was a “country where we have many sick companies but no “sick” promoters”.

A slightly different version of this column appeared on BBC.com on February 20, 2018.

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For their size, Public Sector Banks Have Had Fewer Frauds Than Private Sector Ones.

 

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A lot has been written on the jeweller Nirav Modi defrauding Punjab National Bank to the tune of $1.8 billion (or Rs 11,400 crore). One line of thought that has been pursued is that of the difference between the public sector banks and the private sector banks.

The logic offered here is that frauds happen only in public sector banks and not private sector banks. And even if they happen at private sector banks, the taxpayer does not pick up the tab. The taxpayer did pick up the tab when the private Global Trust Bank went belly up and had to be merged with the Oriental Bank of Commerce. If the bank is big enough and is going bust, the government has to ultimately come to the rescue, irrespective of whether it is privately owned or government owned. No bank of any significant size can be allowed to go bust.

Now let’s look at the first point I raised, whether public sector banks are defrauded more?

In a recent answer to a question raised in the Lok Sabha, the ministry of finance pointed out that between 2014-2015 and 2016-2017, the total number of bank frauds were 12,778.
Of these 8,622 frauds happened in public sector banks and the remaining 4,156 at private sector banks. The ratio of the total number of frauds at public sector banks to the total number of frauds at private sector banks is 2.07.

The ratio of the average assets of public sector banks to the average assets of private sector banks, between 2014-2015 and 2016-2017, is 2.95. If the ratio of frauds between the two types of banks were to be the same at 2.95, the total number of frauds at public sector banks would have amounted to 12,260 (4,156 multiplied by 2.95). This is not the case. The number of frauds is significantly lower than that. Hence, this basically means that public sector banks are having fewer frauds in terms of their size in comparison to their private sector counterparts in India.

Having said that what is true about public sector banks in general may not necessarily be true for the Punjab National Bank in particular. Punjab National Bank is the second largest public sector bank in the country. As of March 31, 2017, it had total assets worth Rs 7,20,331 crore.

In July 2017, the ministry of finance had provided some very interesting data points with regard to bank frauds. Between 2012-2013 and 2016-2017, a period of five years, the Punjab National Bank faced 942 bank frauds with losses amounting to Rs 8,999 crore.
The only other public sector bank bigger than Punjab National Bank, is the State of Bank of India. As of March 31, 2017, it had assets worth Rs 33,23,191 crore, making it significantly bigger than the Punjab National Bank.

Between 2012-2013 and 2016-2017, the State Bank of India, faced 2,786 frauds with losses amounting to Rs 6,228 crore. Even though the State Bank of India faced more frauds, its total losses were 30.8% lower than that of Punjab National Bank.

Further, of the 78 banks that data was offered on, the Punjab National Bank faced the highest losses due to frauds. It’s average loss on a fraud was also three times the overall average loss on a fraud.

This tells us very clearly that the control systems at the Punjab National Bank were weaker than in comparison to the other banks, and that allowed bigger frauds to happen. In comparison, other banks were placed better than Punjab National Bank. Does this mean that if the bank had better control systems, Nirav Modi wouldn’t have been able to defraud the bank, to the extent that he did? On that your guess is as good as mine.

The column originally appeared on Firstpost on February 20, 2018.

PM Modi, Nehruvian Economic Policies Aren’t Going to Get Us Anywhere

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This is something that we should have written on a while back, but as they say it is better late than never.

In the annual budget of the government of India, presented earlier this month, the finance minister Arun Jaitley raised custom duties on a whole host of products. In his speech, Jaitley made it clear that this wasn’t a one-off thing, but a change in policy direction.

As he said: “In this budget, I am making a calibrated departure from the underlying policy in the last two decades, wherein the trend largely was to reduce the customs duty. There is substantial potential for domestic value addition in certain sectors, like food processing, electronics, auto components, footwear and furniture. To further incentivise the domestic value addition and Make in India in some such sectors, I propose to increase customs duty on certain items. I propose to increase customs duty on mobile phones from 15% to 20%, on some of their parts and accessories to 15% and on certain parts of TVs to 15%. This measure will promote creation of more jobs in the country.”

The customs duty has been raised on around 45 products. The maximum increase was in case of cranberry juice from 10% to 50%. (All you cranberry juice drinkers out there, maybe it is time to start appreciating the taste of chilled filtered water with a dash of lemon in it).

The idea as Jaitley explained is to create jobs within the country. With increased custom duties, imported goods will become expensive. This will make domestic goods competitive. As people buy more and more of domestic goods, the companies producing goods in India will do well. Once they do well, they will expand and create jobs in the process. Alternatively, because imports will become uncompetitive, the domestic companies can continue operating, and jobs can thus be saved. QED.

The problem with this argument is that it stinks of Nehruvian era economic policies, in particular import substitution, which was the norm in independent India, up until the economic reforms of 1991. Import substitution as a policy was introduced by Jawahar Lal Nehru and carried forward by Indira Gandhi, two individuals, the Bhartiya Janata Party keeps blaming for everything that is wrong in this country (even though we are four years into the term). At its simplest level, import substitution is basically an economic policy which promotes domestic production at the cost of imports. And it is an economic policy, which doesn’t work.

As the French economist Jean Tirole writes in Economics for the Common Good: “In economic matters too, first impressions can mislead us. We look at the direct effect of an economic policy, which is easy to understand, and we stop there. Most of the time we are not aware of the indirect effects. We do not understand the problem in its entirety. Yet secondary or indirect effects can easily make a well-intentioned policy toxic.”

What does Tirole mean here? Another French economist Frédéric Bastiat explains what secondary or indirect effects are, through the broken window fallacy.

Bastiat basically talks about a shopkeeper’s careless son breaking a pane of a glass window. He then goes on to say that those present would say: “It is an ill wind that blows nobody good. Everybody must live, and what would become of glaziers if panes of glass were never broken.

The point being that if windows weren’t broken, how would those repairing windows, the glaziers that is, ever make a living. This seems like a fair question to ask, but things aren’t as simple as that.

As Bastiat writes in Essays on Political Economy: “This form of condolence contains an entire theory, which it will be well to show up in this simple case, seeing that it is precisely the same as that which, unhappily, regulates the greater part of our economical institutions.”

Bastiat then goes on to explain what exactly he means by this. Let’s say replacing the pane of the broken window costs 6 francs. This is the amount that the shopkeeper pays the glazier. If the shopkeeper’s son would not have broken the window there was no way that the glazier could have earned these six francs.

As Bastiat puts it: “The glazier comes, performs his task, receives his six francs, rubs his hands, and, in his heart, blesses the careless child. All this is that which is seen.” This leads us to conclude that breaking windows is a good thing because it leads to money circulating and those who repair broken windows doing well in the process.

Nevertheless, this is just one side of the argument. As Bastiat writes: “It is not seen that our shopkeeper has spent six francs upon one thing, he cannot spend them upon another. It is not seen that if he had not had a window to replace, he would, perhaps have replaced his old shoes, or added a book to his library. In short, he would have employed his six francs in some way which this accident prevented.”

How does this apply in the case of the Narendra Modi government increasing custom duties on a whole host of products? The seen effect of this, as already explained above, is that domestic Indian companies can compete with cheaper imports because of the custom duties being increased. This is likely to create jobs and if not, it is at least likely to save jobs. This is the first order effect or the seen effect.

What is the second order effect or the unseen effect? It is well worth remembering here that consumers only have so much money to spend. If cheaper imports no longer remain cheaper because of an increase in custom duties, the consumers have to pay a higher price for the goods made by domestic companies. Once this happens, they are likely to cut their spending on some other front.

The trouble is that this some other front on which consumers cut their spending, is not easily identifiable. Once consumers cut their spending on other fronts, some domestic businesses are not going to do well, and jobs will be lost there. The trouble is this is not something which is very obvious. It is an unseen effect.

If the consumers keep spending the same amount of money as before, they will end up cutting down on their savings, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. As Henry Hazlitt writes in Economics in One Lesson: “The fallacy… comes from noticing only the results that are immediately seen, and neglecting the results that are not seen.”

Another point that needs to be made here is that the domestic companies are organised well enough to lobby with the government. The end consumer never is.

Increasing customs duties is not a solution to creating jobs. For jobs to be created Indian firms need to be globally competitive. When companies produce for the global market, they need to compete with the best in the world. This automatically leads to a situation wherein the products which a company produces need to be globally competitive. On the other hand, when import substitution is the norm and companies need to produce just for the internal market, almost anything goes. This explains why the Indian corporate sector on the whole, has not been able to be competitive on the global front. It has still not been able to come out of the import substitution era. (We hope people do remember the Ambassador Car which had the same engine between 1944 and 1982.)

In order to be globally competitive, India needs to introduce a whole host of reforms, from labour law reforms to land reforms. It needs to start pricing electricity correctly. The governments need to control their fiscal deficits to ensure that they don’t push up interest rates in the long-term. Our education system needs a paradigm shift (We find this phrase absolutely cringeworthy, but nothing explains the situation better). The corporate bond market needs to function much better than it currently is. The number of inspectors that an average business needs to deal with has to come down. The paper work needs to be simplified. All these distortions in the system need to go.

Long story short—going back to Nehruvian economics is not going to do any good to the country. The sooner Narendra Modi understands this, the better it will be for India. India has suffered enough because of the mess initiated by the economic policies of Nehru and Indira Gandhi. And there is no point, going back to it.

The column originally appeared in Equitymaster on February 19, 2018.

India’s Rs 1,66,276 Crore Problem

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One of the major points that we talk about in India’s Big Government is the fact that the Indian state is overambitious. The government wants to do too many things at the same time, and ends up making a mishmash of everything.

One of the areas where the governments (both central as well as state governments) devote a lot of their time and attention are public sector enterprises. In the past columns, we have discussed many cases of central public-sector enterprises continuing to bleed and the government continuing to bail them out, year on year. This includes loss makers like Air India and Hindustan Photo Films Manufacturing Corporation, which have been losing money for many years.

In fact, very recently, the government revealed the losses of the perennially loss-making Air India, in the Lok Sabha. For 2016-2017, the government owned airline made losses of Rs 5,765 crore. Despite all the government spin around the airline working in a much better way, than it was in the past, the losses increased by 50%. In 2015-2016, the losses of the airline were at Rs 3,837 crore. With these numbers, it is surprising that a few media houses chose to report the fact that the operating profit of Air India, had improved year on year. But how does that matter, when the losses have gone up by 50%?

The airline has lost a total of Rs 41,657 crore, between 2010-2011 and 2016-2017. It continues to function on back of the government investing money in it, every year. Between 2011-2012 and 2017-2018, the government has invested a total of Rs 26,545 crore, into the airline. Of course, as we keep saying, every extra rupee invested in this airline, is a rupee taken away from more important areas like defence, education, health, agriculture etc.

Over and above this, the banks give the airline working capital loans. These loans as of March 31, 2017, amounted to Rs 31,088 crore. The question is why do banks give an airline which has accumulated losses of greater than Rs 41,000 crore, more loans? The answer lies in the fact that Air India is ultimately owned by the Indian government. No private sector airline in a similar situation, will get bank loans.

And lending to Air India is essentially lending to the government. Any default on loan repayment by Air India will be seen as a default by the Indian government. Hence, the assumption is that such a default is never going to happen. Given this, banks are happy to keep giving loans.

The point in throwing all these numbers at you, dear reader, is to show you, that it takes a lot of money to keep a “dead elephant” like Air India, alive. It is beyond the government babus who run this airline, to breathe life into it. With every new appointment at the top, we are told this gentleman will now revive the airline. But that hasn’t happened in years.

Meanwhile, the government continues to invest money in the airline. At the same time, the accumulated debt of the airline stands at Rs 48,447 crore (this includes aircraft loans over and above, the working capital loans). The good part is that the total debt is down from Rs 52,817 crore as of March 31, 2016. This is ultimately, the liability of the government of India, which actually does not show on its books.

In the recent past, there has been some talk about selling the airline, lock, stock and barrel. But then, until things really happen, talk is just talk. In fact, the government has been talking about selling the airline since June 2017. The proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating.

Air India, over the years, has become a poster boy of the government owning and continuing to run, loss making enterprises. This problem is well known at the central level. In 2015-2016 (the latest set of agglomerated numbers which are currently available) 78 out of the 244 central public sector enterprises, were loss making. Of these nearly half of the companies had made losses three years in a row. Further, between 2006-2007 and 2015-2016, a period of a decade, the net profit to capital employed ratio, of the central public sector enterprises has fallen from 12.27% to 5.97%. This tells us how well the government’s capital (or in other words the taxpayer’s capital) is being put to use.

The story of central public sector enterprises not doing well has been well highlighted over the years. But the same cannot be said for public sector enterprises owned by the state governments. Economist Vijay Joshi in a recent lecture pointed out: “In addition to Central PSEs, there are around 1000-odd State PSEs, of which two-thirds make losses, including notably the zombie electricity distribution companies. The aggregate losses of all PSEs, central and state, amount to about one per cent of GDP annually.”

One percent of  the GDP is not a small amount. The GDP (gross domestic product) at current prices for 2017-2018 is projected to be at Rs 16,627,585 crore. One percent of this works out to around Rs 1,66,276 crore. This is a large amount of money.

Of course, a lot of this amount, the government is not currently paying for directly. Many public sector enterprises borrow from banks, in order to make up for their losses. The banks lend them money simply because these companies are ultimately owned by the central and the state governments.

Hence, the total liabilities of the government keep increasing day by day and will have to be paid for one day, simply because a government cannot default.
Rs 1,66,276 crore are just the projected losses of India’s public sector companies, for this year. Imagine, the kind of losses that have been accumulated over the years. Now imagine the kind of money that has been borrowed by these companies to keep running.

And now imagine, the kind of money that the government of India will have to provide in the years to come, to keep repaying these loans.

It’s a very scary proposition. And since, in the end, we are always asked, but what is the solution, let’s provide a solution, at least this time around. As Joshi said in his speech: “So far, successive Indian governments have been stuck with the fetish of 51 per cent ownership and have only flirted with the idea of privatization…It is high time the government grasped the nettle of mounting a substantial programme of privatization, at least of those PSEs that make losses or meagre profits… This gain could be used by the government to invest in socially beneficial activities that the private sector would normally avoid, such as rural roads and irrigation.”

But this is what we call an impossible solution. Joshi is not the first economist to have recommended the sale of public sector enterprises and the investment of the money thus generated into public goods. The government(s) have been in the know of this solution for a very long time, and have chosen to do nothing about it, up until now. And there is no reason for them to change that.

The column originally appeared in Equitymaster as on February 15, 2018.

How We Pay for Incompetence

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Sometime back I got some plumbing work done. The plumber said the work would take around eight hours or one full day. Once he started working, it took me a couple of hours to figure out that he was basically wasting time and he could easily finish work in four hours.

I confronted him on this and he agreed. The logic he offered for wasting time was very interesting. He said, plumbing was a profession that needed some experience and expertise. He had the necessary experience and expertise and could work faster than the average plumber could. The trouble was whenever he finished worked fast, the customers would dilly dally in paying him, the amount of money, that had been agreed on.

The reason always offered was, “but that hardly took any time”. He found it very difficult to explain to his customers that it barely took any time simply because of his experience and expertise. Hence, over the years, he had come to the conclusion that it simply made more sense to waste time and then get paid the amount that had been agreed on.

Both the customer and the plumber lost out in the process. The plumber by having to waste more time, couldn’t take on more work or he couldn’t spend those extra hours in leisure, if he did not want to work. The customer also had to keep engaging with the plumber for those extra hours. In the process, both of them lost out.

Dan Ariley and Jeff Kreisler discuss a similar story about a locksmith in their book Dollars and Sense—Money Mishaps and How to Avoid Them: “A locksmith once told Dan that when he started his career, he took forever to open a lock, in the process, he often broke it, taking even more time and money to get one properly installed and finish the job… People were happy to pay for all this, and they tipped him well… As he became proficient and opened a lock quickly, without breaking the old lock… customers not only didn’t tip, but they also argued about his fee.”

This is a phenomenon, where we confuse effort and outcome, and in the process award incompetence. Take the case of many people leaving office late, even if they have no work and no reason to hang around. But by hanging around they are just trying to send that signal to their bosses that they are putting in a lot of effort, which hopefully will be rewarded once appraisals come around.

Of course, many bosses confuse this “useless” effort of hanging around, with the employee adding value to the organisation. And once a few employees start doing this in an organisation, almost everyone else has to. In the end, more than rewarding anyone, this just becomes a “nuisance” that everyone needs to follow.

In fact, Dan Ariely carried out a research along with On Amir, on how much would people pay for data recovery. The result was very interesting: “When the data recovery took only a few minutes, willingness to pay was low, but when it took more than a week to recover the same amount of data, people were willing to pay much more. Think about it: They were willing to pay more for the slower service with the same outcome.”

The point being that when effort is more valued than outcome, we end up paying for incompetence. There is a great story about the painter Pablo Picasso, perhaps apocryphal, which shows precisely this. A woman once approached Picasso and asked him to paint her portrait. The painter looked at her, and then with a single stroke, drew her a perfect portrait.

The woman was impressed and told Picasso that he had captured her essence in a single stroke. She asked him: “How much do I owe you?” Picasso asked for $5,000. The woman was aghast. “It only took you a few seconds,” she said. To which Picasso replied: “No, ma’am. It took me an entire life and a few more seconds.”

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on Feb 14, 2018.

Taxpayer Funded Bailouts of Public Sector Banks Will Only Get Bigger

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In the first column that we wrote this year, we said that even the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) is not sure of how deep the bad loans problem of India’s public sector banks, runs. And from the looks of it, the central bank has finally gotten around to admitting the same and doing something about it.

Up until now, the banks (including public sector banks) could use myriad loan restructuring mechanisms launched by the RBI and available to them, and in the process, postpone the recognition of a bad loan as a bad loan. Restructuring essentially refers to a bank allowing a defaulter more time to repay the loan or simply lowering the interest that the defaulter has to pay on the loan. Bad loans are essentially loans in which the repayment from a borrower has been due for 90 days or more.

These mechanisms came under fancy names like the strategic debt restructuring scheme to the 5/25 scheme. Banks, in particular public sector banks, used these mechanisms to keep postponing the recognition of bad loans as bad loans. This allowed banks to spread out the problem of bad loans over a period of time, instead of having to recognise them quickly.

This has led to a situation where the bad loans of public sector banks in particular, and banks in general, have kept going up, with no real end in sight.

We have seen senior bankers say, the worst is behind us, for more than a few years now. And that is clearly not a good sign.

The bad loans of banks jumped to 10.2 per cent as on September 30, 2017, up by 60 basis points from 9.6 per cent as on March 31, 2017. One basis point is one hundredth of a percentage.

This basically means that for every Rs 100 that banks have lent, more than Rs 10 has been defaulted on by borrowers. The situation is worse in case of public sector banks. For every Rs 100 lent by these banks, Rs 13.5 has been defaulted on by borrowers. For private sector banks, the bad loans stood at 3.8 per cent.

This has led to the RBI, having to revise its future projections of bad loans, over and over again. In fact, in every Financial Stability Report, published once every six months, the RBI makes a projection of where it expects the bad loans to be in the time to come. And in every report over the past few years, this figure has been going up.

As the latest Financial Stability Report points out: “Under the baseline scenario, the GNPA ratio [gross non-performing assets ratio] of all scheduled commercial banks may increase from 10.2 per cent in September 2017 to 10.8 per cent by March 2018 and further to 11.1 per cent by September 2018.”

In the Financial Stability Report published in June 2017, the RBI had said: “Under the baseline scenario, the average GNPA ratio of all scheduled commercial banks may increase from 9.6 per cent in March 2017 to 10.2 per cent by March 2018.”

In June 2017, the RBI expected the bad loans figure in March 2018 to be at 10.2 per cent. Now it expects it to be at 10.8 per cent. This is an increase of 60 basis points. This revision of forecasts had been happening for a while now. This is a problem that needed to be corrected. The bad loans of Indian banks need to be recognised properly, once and for all. The farce of the bad loans increasing with no end in sight, needs to end.

Earlier this week, the RBI did what it should have done a while back. But, as they say, it is better late than never. India’s central bank has done away with half a dozen loan restructuring arrangements that were in place and which allowed banks to keep postponing the recognition of their bad loans as bad loans.

As per a notification issued on February 12, 2018, a bank has to start insolvency proceedings against a defaulter with a default of Rs 2,000 crore or more, if a resolution plan is not implemented within 180 days of the initial default. The banks will have to file an insolvency application, singly or jointly (depending on how many banks, the borrower owes money to), under the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code 2016 (IBC) within 15 days from the expiry of 180 days from the initial default.

The resolution plan can be anything from lowering of interest rate, to converting a part of the loan into equity or increasing the repayment period of the loan. The banks have a period of 180 days to figure out whether the plan is working or not. If it is not working, then insolvency proceedings need to be initiated.

This particular change will not allow banks to keep postponing the recognition of bad loans, as they have been up until now. One impact of this move will be that the bad loans of public sector banks will shoot up fast in the near future. While that is the bad part, the good part is that now we will have a better understanding of how bad the bad loans problem of Indian banks really is. The farce of every increasing bad loans is likely to end quickly.

In addition to this, the notification has also asked the banks to report to the Central Repository of Information on Large Credits (CRILC), all details of borrowers who have defaulted and have a loan exposure of Rs 5 crore or more. This has to be done weekly, every Friday. This will give the RBI a better understanding of the bad loans problem. And with more information at its disposal, it will also be in a position to see, whether banks are recognising bad loans as bad loans, or not.

While this is a good move, it does not solve the basic problem of the public sector banks i.e. they are public sector banks. With these changes made by the RBI, the real extent of the bad loans problem is expected to come out. With more bad loans, more capital will have to be written off in the days to come. This means that the government, as the major owner of public sector banks, will have to infuse more capital into these banks, if it wants to maintain its share of ownership in these banks. And from the looks of it, there is no reason to suggest otherwise. This means that the taxpayer funded bailout of public sector banks, is likely to get bigger in the days to come.

As we have been saying for a while, the government only has so much money going around, and if the taxpayer funded bailouts of public sector banks bailout are likely to get bigger, that money has to come from somewhere.

Where will that money come from? The money will come from lesser government spending on agriculture, education, health etc. That is something which has been happening for the last few years. It will also come from more farcical decisions like LIC buying shares in other public sector enterprises, and companies like ONGC having to borrow money to buy a big stake, in companies like HPCL, with the overall government ownership not changing at all.

As we like to say very often, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

The column was originally published on Equitymaster on February 14, 2018.

India’s Investment Conundrum

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The Economic Survey released by the ministry of finance every year before the budget is by far the best document on the ‘real’ state of the Indian economy. The latest Economic Survey released in late January, discusses the poor state of investment in India in great detail.

The investment to gross domestic product (GDP) ratio (a measure what part of the overall economy does investment form) peaked in 2007 at 35.6%. It has been falling ever since and in 2017, it had stood at 26.4%. No other country in the world has gone through such a huge investment bust, during the same period, the Survey suggests.

Further, the Survey remains pessimistic about whether India will be able to bounce back from here. For one, India’s investment slowdown is not yet over. As the Survey puts it: “Cross -country evidence indicates a notable absence of automatic bounce-backs from investment slowdowns. The deeper the slowdown, the slower and shallower the recovery.”

Evidence from other countries which have gone through a similar investment slowdown seems to suggest that a full recovery rarely happens. Further, a fall in private investment accounts for a bulk of the investment decline. This is something that can be seen from the fact that new projects announcement in the period of three months ending December 2017, came in at a 13-year low (as per data from Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy).

A fall in the investment to GDP ratio also suggests that enough jobs and employment opportunities are not be created. A recent estimate made by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy suggests that in 2017, two million jobs were created for 11.5 million Indians who joined the labour force during the year.

With sufficient jobs and employment opportunities not going around, it has impacted the earning capacity of many Indians, especially, the one million Indians entering the workforce every month.

Ultimately, enough jobs and employment opportunities not being created has translated itself into a lack of growth on the consumer demand front. This can be seen in the capacity utilisation of manufacturing firms which has varied between 70-72% for a while now. This lack of consumer demand has finally translated into falling corporate profits, over the last decade.

Take a look at Figure 1.

Figure 1:
graph
Source: Economic Survey 2017-2018.

Figure 1 plots the corporate profits as a proportion of the GDP since 2008. The Indian profits are represented by the blue line, which has gone down. As the Economic Survey points out: “India’s current corporate earnings/GDP ratio has been sliding… falling to just 3½ percent.” Indian corporate profits have halved since 2008. This is a clear impact of a falling investment to GDP ratio.

Of course, no relationship in economics can be totally linear.

A falling investment rate leads to fewer jobs and employment opportunities, in turn leading to lower consumer demand and lower corporate profits.

Lower consumer demand obviously has a negative impact on the investment rate, which again has an impact on jobs, employment opportunities and corporates profits. And so the cycle works.

John Maynard Keynes, in the aftermath of the Great Depression of 1929, had suggested that when the private sector is not investing, the government needs to step in, up the ante, spend money and create consumer demand.

One of the best sectors to invest in, in order to create demand is housing. The sector has many forward and backward linkages, which can have a huge multiplier effect. As the finance minister Arun Jaitley said in his budget speech: “Under Prime Minister Awas Scheme Rural, 51 lakhs houses in year 2017-18 and 51 lakh houses during 2018-19 which is more than one crore houses will be constructed exclusively in rural areas. In urban areas the assistance has been sanctioned to construct 37 lakh houses.” A few months back, the government had announced a huge road building programme as well.

These programmes will definitely help. But the government can only do so much, given the fact that India’s investment to GDP ratio has been falling for more than a decade. The government doesn’t have access to an unlimited amount of money, and the private sector needs to start investing if the investment rate has to revive.

The private sector won’t do so, at least not immediately, because of a lack of consumer demand and also because it is just coming out of a huge borrowing binge. The government can only facilitate this situation by pushing through ease of doing business at every level.

As Jaitley said in his speech: “To carry the business reforms for ease of doing business deeper and in every State of India, the Government of India has identified 372 specific business reform actions.” These reforms need to be quickly implemented, if there has to be any hope of breaking India’s investment conundrum.

The column originally appeared in Daily News and Analysis on February 13, 2018.