Who is Benefitting from Lower Interest Rates?



Over the last one year, bank interest rates have fallen majorly, at least in theory (it will become clear later in the column, why I say this). The question is, who is benefitting from the lower interest rates? The savers, whose fixed deposits have matured, have had to reinvest them at significantly lower interest rates. This includes retirees who have seen interest rates on their deposits, fall from nine per cent to six per cent in a short period of time. In the process, their incomes have crashed by a third. Not surprisingly, they are having a tough time.

People have suggested that senior citizens should invest with the post office where higher interest rates are on offer. Anyone who has actually invested money with the post office for generating a regular income, would never suggest anything like this. Their service levels are abysmally low. They can give a thorough run around to anyone looking to get paid regularly on the investment he has made with the post office.

In fact, I know of several retirees who have reluctantly moved their investments into mutual funds (both equity and debt), given the low after-tax returns on fixed deposits. Even if the returns on mutual funds are the same as bank fixed deposits, the different tax treatment for both these forms of investing, helps generate higher after-tax returns in case of mutual funds.

This investing strategy has worked well for retirees in the last one year, given that the stock market has rallied massively. Nevertheless, is this a sustainable strategy in the long-term for anyone who is looking to generate a regular income out of his accumulated corpus, given the volatility that comes with investing in a mutual fund?

In a country with almost no social security and a health care system which keeps getting expensive by the day, this is a fair question to ask.

Another set of savers who has lost out due to low interest rates are people saving for their future, the wedding and education of their kids, and their own retirement. These people now need to save more in order to meet their long-term investment goals. Of course, these people still have the option of discovering the power of compounding by investing in mutual funds through the systematic investment plan (SIP) route.

But given the abysmal levels of financial literacy that prevail in the country, the chances that they will be mis-sold a unit linked insurance plan(ULIP) by a private insurance company or an endowment or a money-back policy by Life Insurance Corporation of India, remain very high. These forms of investing remain the worst way you can invest your money.

Also, consumption growth and interest rates are closely linked. Conventional economic logic tells us that at lower interest rates people borrow and spend more, and this increases private consumption growth and in turn helps economic growth. QED.

While that may be true for developed countries, it doesn’t quite work like that in India. In India, if interest rates fall, the retirees need to cut down on their regular expenditure because their regular income also falls. People who are saving for the long-term also need to save more in order to meet their investment goals.

Given that most household financial savings get invested in fixed deposits, a fall in interest rates makes people feel less wealthy and this has an impact on their consumption. Due to these reasons people end up cutting down on their expenditure. This is reflected to some extent in Figure 1, which plots the growth in private consumption expenditure over the last few years.

Figure 1: 

As interest rates have fallen through 2017, the growth in private consumption expenditure has collapsed from 11.1 per cent to 6.5 per cent. As of December 2016, private consumption expenditure formed 59 per cent of the Indian gross domestic product. Since then, it has fallen to 54 per cent. So, much for lower interest rates.

There are two sides to interest rates, the saving side which I was talking about up until now, and the borrowing side, which I will talk about in the remaining part of this column.

The total non-food lending carried out by Indian banks has actually contracted during this financial year. But weren’t lower interest rates supposed to help increase lending? Now only if economic theory and reality played out same to same, the world would be such a different place.

Banks are extremely quick to cut interest rates on their fixed deposits, as well as raising interest rates on their loans. Nevertheless, the same cannot be said about a situation where they need to pass on the benefit of lower interest rates to their borrowers.

Let’s take the example of people who have taken on home loans from banks as well as housing finance companies. Over the last one year, the interest rate on a home loan has fallen from 80 to 100 basis points. One basis point is one-hundredth of a percentage.

The trouble is in many cases the banks and the housing finance companies haven’t bothered to inform the borrower, about the lower interest rate. And the borrower has unknowingly continued to pay the higher EMI. This never happens when the banks and the housing finance companies need to raise interest rates on their home loans. In that case, the letter/sms/email arrives right on time.

In fact, I have heard cases where people have pointed this dichotomy out to a leading housing finance company, and they have been told that they are expected to come to the office of the housing finance company and keep checking. So much for market competition which is supposed to lower interest rates. Of course, the stock market rewards such companies with a higher price to earnings ratio, given that they can do these things, get away with it, and make more money in the process.

The media which is quick to announce lower EMIs whenever RBI cuts the repo rate, never goes back to check whether EMIs have actually fallen. This is simply because it is easier to take the theoretical way out and announce lower EMIs when RBI cuts the repo rate, whereas actual checking would involve doing some legwork and speaking to banks, housing finance companies and borrowers. And who wants to work hard? It’s worth pointing out here that banks are huge advertisers in the media.

The question is when higher interest rates are passed on immediately, why is the same not true with lower home loan interest rates? What are the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and the National Housing Bank (the RBI subsidiary which regulates housing finance companies) doing about this? Aren’t the regulators also supposed to take care of the consumers? Or are they just there to bat for those who they regulate? Or is it a case of “regulatory capture” where those who are regulated (i.e. the banks and the housing finance companies) given that they are organised, manage to get their point of view to the regulator, but the borrowers, given that they are not organised, cannot do that.

Whatever it is, it is not fair. And the RBI and the National Housing Bank need to do something about it. Consumer protection is something that should be high on their agenda, even though it may be the most unglamorous of things that they are supposed to do.

The column originally appeared in Equitymaster on December 14, 2017.


India Has 8.4 Crore More Workers in Agriculture Than is Economically Feasible

One of the themes that I have often explored in my columns and discuss in detail in my book India’s Big Government, is that India has way too many people working in agriculture. Or as economists like to put it, we have huge disguised unemployment in agriculture.

A new discussion paper titled Changing Structure of Rural Economy of India Implications for Employment and Growth, authored by Ramesh Chand, SK Srivastava and Jaspal Singh, and published by the NITI Aayog, makes a few interesting points on this front.

As per this discussion paper, the rural economy in 2011-2012, formed 46.9 per cent of India’s economy, though it employed 70.9 per cent of its workforce.

Most people tend to believe that India’s rural economy is primarily concerned only with agriculture. Agriculture contributes around 12-13 per cent of the overall Indian economy.

Given that, the rural economy contributes 46.9 per cent to the overall Indian economy, it basically means that there are other areas that the rural economy is contributing to as well. And some of the findings of this discussion paper may surprise many people. Let’s look at them one by one.

1) One of the misconceptions that prevails is that rural India is totally dependent on agriculture. The discussion paper sets this right. As it points out: “Contrary to the common perception about predominance of agriculture in rural economy, about two third of rural income is now generated in non-agricultural activities.” This was clearly not the case earlier.

2) This is primarily because agriculture as a profession is nowhere as rewarding as it used to be. As the discussion paper points out: “In year 2011-12 per worker income varied from Rs. 33,937 for agricultural labour to Rs.1,71,836 for rural non-farm workers.” The ratio of rural non-farm rural income to income of agricultural labour has increased over the years, though it has fallen in the recent past.

Take a look at Figure 1. It plots the ratio of non-farm rural income to income of agricultural labour over the decades.

Figure 1: 

Take a look at Figure 2. It plots the ratio of average urban income to that of average income of an agricultural labour.

Figure 2: 

Figure 2 clearly explains why people migrate from rural areas to urban areas. As the discussion paper clearly points out: “Between 2001 and 2011, India’s urban population increased by 31.8 per cent as compared to 12.18 per cent increase in the rural population.

Over fifty per cent of the increase in urban population during this period was attributed to the rural-urban migration and re-classification of rural settlements into urban.” There is a clear economic incentive for people to move from rural areas to urban areas.

3) With two-thirds of rural income now being generated from non-agriculture activities, the rural economy as a whole when it comes to income is moving away from agriculture, but that is not true when it comes to employment. This is something that I have been talking about for a while. Indian agriculture employs way too many people in comparison to what it needs.

The discussion paper points out that in 1970-1971, agriculture formed 72.4 per cent of India’s rural economy, and employed 85.5 per cent of the rural workforce. By 2011-2012, the size of agriculture had nearly halved, and it formed 39.2 per cent of India’s rural economy, but it still employed 64.1 per cent of the rural workforce. This data points shows that agriculture continues to employ many more people than it should.

4) Having said that, there is another point that needs to be made here. While, the overall employment in agriculture given its share in the rural economy remains high, it has fallen dramatically between 2004-2005 and 2011-2012. In 2004-2005, agriculture formed 38.9 per cent of India’s rural economy, while employing 72.6 per cent of the country’s rural workforce. By 2011-2012, agriculture formed 39.2 per cent of India’s rural economy, and at the same time employed 64.1 per cent of the rural workforce.

Hence, there has been a fall in the total number of people dependent on agriculture. But is this goods news?

5) As the discussion paper points out: “Sizable occupational shifts in workforce were also observed between 2004-05 and 2011-12. Out of 33 million workers who left agriculture 27 million (81%) were female and 6 million (19%) were male. Further, outgoing workforce from agriculture comprised both cultivators and agricultural labours with their respective shares of 56 per cent and 44 per cent. It is worth mentioning that out of 27 million female workers who left agriculture, only 5 million joined non-farm sectors and rest withdrew from labour-force itself.”

So, the point is that while lesser proportion of the workforce is now dependent on agriculture than was the case in the past, many of the women who have dropped out of agriculture, have stopped working all together. Indeed, this de-feminisation of the workforce, is a very disturbing trend.

6) The takeaway from the NITI Aayog discussion paper is that in 2011-2012, agriculture employed 64 per cent of the rural workforce and produced only around 39 per cent of its economic output. In an ideal world, a sector producing 39 per cent of output, should employ 39 per cent of the workforce.

For something like this to happen, nearly 8.4 crore agricultural workers need to be shifted to sectors other than agriculture. As the discussion paper points out: “This amounted to almost 70 per cent increase in non-farm employment, which looks quite challenging.” It also amounts to around one-fourth of the rural workforce of 34.2 crore as of 2011-2012. Chances are the 8.4 crore number would have grown between 2011-2012 and now.

Over and above this, the bigger challenge is the agriculture workforce lacks skills to do anything else. As per the discussion paper: “Only 1.3 per cent of the rural workforce of the age group 15-59 years possessed technical education. Similarly, only 14.6 per cent of the rural workforce of age group 15-59 years received vocational trainings, which aim to develop competencies (knowledge, skills and attitude) of skilled or semi-skilled workers in various trades.”

These skills cannot be improved overnight and jobs be created. Hence, the fear is that the current generation of Indians still largely dependent on agriculture, are going to lose out in the process. As time goes by, this looks more and more likely.

7) One area which has added to employment is construction. Construction formed 3.5 per cent of the rural economy in 1970-1971. This increased to 10.5 per cent by 2011-2012. The share of the sector in rural employment in 1972-1973 was at 1.4 per cent. This jumped to 10.7 per cent in 2011-2012.

One area where agricultural workers can be nudged towards is construction. As the discussion paper points out: “Rural areas are characterised by poor infrastructure and civic amenities. Similarly, a large per cent of houses are in need of upgradation. These facts indicate considerable scope for growth of construction sector in rural areas.”

Over and above this, the real estate sector in urban areas can be a huge employment generator. But for that to happen, the prices need to fall, and more than a few real estate companies need to go bust.

While the role of the government in India to be able to achieve anything significant is limited, this is something where both the state governments and the central government, can have a major role to play. Road construction is one area where many jobs can be generated. This can then act as a multiplier for the services sector as well. As people earn more they are likely to spend more.

To conclude, the fact that India has way too many people employed in agriculture, is probably the country’s biggest social and economic challenge. The trouble is no one really is even talking about it, let alone working towards a solution. The first step towards solving any problem is acknowledging that it exists.

The column originally appeared in Equitymaster on Dec 13, 2017.

Using Deposits to Rescue Banks is a Bad Idea; It Needs to Be Nipped in the Bud

I have been travelling for the past two weeks and a question that has been put to me, everywhere I have gone is: “will fixed deposits be used to rescue banks that are in trouble?

People have been getting WhatsApp forwards essentially saying that the Modi government is planning to use their bank deposits to rescue all the banks that are in trouble. As is usually the case with WhatsApp, this is not true. The truth is a lot more nuanced.

Let’s try and understand this in some detail.

Where did the idea of fixed deposits being used to rescue troubled banks come from?
The government had introduced The Financial Resolution and Deposit Insurance(FRDI) Bill, 2017, in August 2017. This Bill is currently being studied in detail by a Joint Committee of members belonging to the Lok Sabha as well as the Rajya Sabha.

The basic idea behind the FRDI Bill is essentially to set up a resolution corporation which will monitor the health of the financial firms like banks, insurance companies, mutual funds, etc., and in case of failure try and resolve them.

The Clause 52 of the FRDI Bill uses a term called “bail-in”. This clause essentially empowers the Resolution Corporation “in consultation with the appropriate regulator, if it is satisfied that it necessary to bail-in a specified service provider to absorb the losses incurred, or reasonably expected to be incurred, by the specified service provider.”

What does this mean in simple English? It basically means that financial firms or a bank on the verge of a failure can be rescued through a bail-in. Typically, the word bailout is used more often and refers to a situation where money is brought in from the outside to rescue a bank. In case of a bail-in, the rescue is carried out internally by restructuring the liabilities of the bank.

Given that banks pay an interest on their deposits, a deposit is a liability for any bank.
The Clause 52 of FRDI essentially allows the resolution corporation to cancel a liability owed by a specified service provider or to modify or change the form of a liability owed by a specified service provider.

What does this mean in simple English? Clause 52 allows the resolution corporation to cancel the repayment of various kinds of deposits. It also allows it to convert deposits into long term bonds or equity for that matter. Haircuts can also be imposed on firms to which the bank owes money. A haircut basically refers to a situation where the borrower negotiates a fresh deal and does not payback the entire amount that it owes to the creditor.

But there are conditions to this…
The bail-in will not impact any liability owed by a specified service provider to the depositors to the extent such deposits are covered by deposit insurance. This basically means that the bail-in will impact only the amount of deposits above the insured amount. As of now, in case of bank deposits, an amount of up to Rs 1 lakh is insured by the Deposit Insurance and Credit Guarantee Corporation (DICGC). This amount hasn’t been revised since 1993.

Typically, anyone who has deposits in a bank tends to assume that they are 100 per cent guaranteed. But that is clearly not the case. Over the years, the government has prevented the depositors from taking a hit by merging any bank which is in trouble with another bigger bank.

So, to that extent the situation post FRDI Bill is passed, is not very different from the one that prevails currently. It’s just that the government has come to the rescue every time a bank is in trouble and I don’t see any reason for that to change, given the pressure on the government when such a situation arises and the risk of the amount of bad press it would generate, if any government allowed a bank to fail.

Over and above this, Clause 55 of the FRDI Bill essentially states that “no creditor of the specified service provider is left in a worse position as a result of application of any method of resolution, than such creditor would have been in the event of its liquidation.” This basically means that no depositors after the bail-in clause is implemented should get an amount of money which is lesser than what he would have got if the firm were to be liquidated and sold lock, stock and barrel.

While, this sounds very simple in theory, it will not be so straightforward to implement this clause.

So why is the government doing this?
In late 2008 and early 2009, governments and taxpayers all over the world bailed out a whole host of financial institutions which were deemed too big to fail. In the process, they ended up creating a huge moral hazard.

As Mohamed A El-Erian writes in The Only Game in Town“[It] is the inclination to take more risk because of the perceived backing of an effective and decisive insurance mechanism.”

If governments and taxpayers keep rescuing banks what is the signal they are sending out to bank managers and borrowers? That it is okay to lend money irresponsibly given that governments and taxpayers will inevitably come to their rescue.

In order to correct for this moral hazard, in November 2008, the G20, of which India is a member, expanded the Financial Stability Forum and created the Financial Stability Board. The Board came up with a proposal titled “Key Attributes of Effective Resolution Regimes for Financial Institutions”. This proposal suggests to “carry out bail-in within resolution as a means to achieve or help achieve continuity of essential functions”. India has endorsed this proposal. Hence, unlike what WhatsApp forwards have been claiming this proposal has been in the works for a while now.

But does this really prevent moral hazard?
A bulk of the banking sector in India is controlled by the government owned public sector banks. As of September 30, 2017, these banks had a bad loans rate of 12.6 per cent (for private banks it is at 4.3 per cent).  Bad loans are essentially loans in which the repayment from a borrower has been due for 90 days or more. The bad loans rate when it comes to lending to industry is even higher. In case of some banks it is close to 40 per cent.

This is primarily because banks over the years, under pressure from politicians and bureaucrats, lent a lot of money to crony capitalists, who either siphoned off this money or overborrowed and are now not in a position to repay. This is a risk that remains unless until the banking sector continues to primarily remain government owned in India.

Also, the rate of recovery of bad loans of banks in 2015-2016, stood at 10.3 per cent.  This does not inspire much confidence. In this scenario, having a clause which allows the resolution corporation to get depositors to pay for the losses that banks incur, is really not fair. The moral hazard does not really go away. The bankers, politicians and crony capitalists, can now look at bank deposits to rescue banks. As of now, the government and the taxpayers have kept rescuing public sector banks, by infusing more and more capital into them. Now the depositors can take over, if FRDI Bill becomes an Act.

It is worth pointing out here that the other G20 countries which have supported this proposal have some sort of a social security system in place, which India lacks. Given this, deposits are the major form of savings and earnings for India’s senior citizens and clearly, they don’t deserve to be a part of any such risk.

While, any government will think twice before using depositor money to rescue a bank, this is not an option that should be made available to governments or bureaucrats in India. It is a bad idea. It needs to be nipped in the bud.

These are my initial thoughts on the issue. Depending on how the situation evolves, I will continue to write on it.

The column originally appeared on Equitymaster on December 11, 2017.

Shutting Out Chinese Products is Not Going to Create Jobs

Public rallies against imported Chinese goods are held quite regularly these days, across different parts of the country. India’s dependence on Chinese goods has only grown over the years. This can be made out from Figure 1, which plots India’s imports from China every quarter, for the last few years.

Figure 1 tells us very clearly that India’s imports from China have grown over the years. Having said that, it doesn’t make sense to look at imports in isolation given that India exports stuff to China as well. Hence, Figure 2 plots India’s trade deficit with China (i.e. the difference between our total imports from China and our total exports to it).

Figure 1:
Figure 2 clearly shows that India’s trade deficit with China has grown over the years. This means that we import much more from China than we export to it. A major reason for this lies in the fact that most of the Indian firms are small in size. Take a look at Figure 3.

Figure 2:
What does Figure 3 tell us? It tells us very clearly that close to 85 per cent of Indian manufacturing firms are small. They employ less than 50 workers. In case of China, only around 25 per cent of the manufacturing firms are small. Also, in case of China, more than 50 per cent of manufacturing firms are large i.e. they employ more than 200 workers. In the Indian case, around 10 per cent of the manufacturing firms are large. And India has very few middle-sized firms which employ anywhere between 50 to 200 workers.

Figure 3: Distribution of manufacturing workforce among small,
medium and large firms in India and China
Given this small size, Indian firms lack economy of scale, which is basically a proportionate fall in costs gained with increased production. Hence, Indian products are costlier than Chinese products. In a recent newsreport, Blooomberg quotes a small shopkeeper as saying: “India-made lights cost twice as much… Customers aren’t willing to pay that.”

The other factor that helps make Chinese imports cheaper is the huge fall in international shipping costs over the years. This is a point that Tim Harford makes in his new book 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy: “Goods can now be shipped reliably, swiftly and cheaply: rather than the $420 that a customer would have paid… to ship a tonne of goods across the Atlantic in 1954, you might now pay less than $50 a tonne.”

This has had a major impact on the way goods are manufactured and business in general is carried out. As Harford writes: “Manufacturers are less and less interested in positioning their factories close to their customers – or even their suppliers. What matters instead is finding a location where the workforce, the regulations, the tax regime and the going wage all help make production as efficient as possible. Workers in China enjoy new opportunities; in developed countries [and developing countries] they experience new threats to their jobs; and governments anywhere feel that they’re competing with governments everywhere to attract business investment. On top of it all, in a sense, is the consumer, who enjoys the greatest possible range of the cheapest possible products – toys, phones, clothes, anything [emphasis added].”

The point is that the Chinese factories operate on a very large scale and that makes their products cheaper than the ones being made in India. The fact that transportation costs are low, helps as well.

Those against Chinese products want this dominance of Chinese products on India to end. As Arun Ojha, national convener of Swadeshi Jagran Manch recently told Bloomberg: “Our youth are losing jobs and we are becoming traders of Chinese products.”

It is important to dissect Ojha’s statement. What he is essentially saying is that because Indians are buying Chinese products, Indian industry is shutting down and the Indian youth are losing jobs. So, what is the way out? The way out is that we stop buying Chinese products and start buying Indian ones. Will this help?

This is where things are no longer as straightforward as they seem. The straightforward interpretation here is that, as Indians stop buying Chinese goods and start buying Indian goods, Indian industry will flourish, and Indian youth will find jobs. Now only if it was as simple as that.

Henry Hazlitt discusses a similar situation in his brilliant book Economics in One Lesson, in the context of United Kingdom of Great Britain and United States of America. As he writes: “An American manufacturer of woollen sweaters… sells his sweaters for $30 each, but English manufacturers could sell their sweaters of the same quality for $25. A duty of $5, therefore, is needed to keep him in business. He is not thinking of himself, of course, but of the thousand men and women he employs, and of the people to whom their spending in turn gives employment. Throw them out of work, and you create unemployment and a fall in purchasing power, which would spread in ever-widening circle.”

An American manufacturer of sweaters can sell his sweaters for $ 30 per piece. At the same time, an English manufacturer can sell the same sweater for $25 per piece. Hence, the American manufacturer charges $5 or20 per cent more for the same product than the British one. Of course, if both the products are allowed into the American market, the consumer will buy the cheaper one. This would mean that the British manufacturer would flourish. In the process, the American manufacturer might have to shutdown and this would mean a loss of a huge number of jobs.

The American government would obviously be bothered about the American manufacturer and the American jobs. Given this, to ensure that the American manufacturer can compete, the American government needs to impose a duty of $5 on the British manufacturer. This will mean the British manufacturer will also sell sweaters for $30. In the process, the American manufacturer would be able to compete, and jobs would be saved.

This trouble with this argument, as convincing as it sounds, is that it does not take the point of view of the consumer buying the sweater into account. As Hazlitt puts it: “The fallacy comes from looking merely at this manufacturer and his employees, or merely at the American sweater industry. It comes from noticing only the results that are immediately seen, and neglecting the results that are not seen because they are prevented from coming into existence.”

If the consumer ends up paying $30 per sweater, he would be paying $5 more. This basically means that he would have $5 less to spend on other things. As Hazlitt writes: “Because the American consumer had to pay $5 more for the same quality of sweater he would have just that much less left over to buy anything else. He would have to reduce his expenditures by $5 somewhere else. In order that one industry might grow or come into existence, a hundred other industries would have to shrink. In order that 50,000 persons might be employed in a woollen sweater industry, 50,000 fewer persons would be employed elsewhere.”

If the British manufacturer was allowed a level playing field and sweaters continued to sell at $25 per piece, the American manufacturer would soon have to shutdown. The loss of these 50,000 jobs would be noticed. This would be the seen effect of letting the British sell in the American market.

If these jobs are to be protected, then even the British sweaters would have to sell at $30 per piece. This would leave the consumer with $5 less, which he could have spent on something else, otherwise. This lack of spending would impact other industries and jobs would be lost there. It’s just that the loss of these jobs would not be so visible as was the case with the American sweater industry. This is the unseen effect.

Now replace the United States with India and the United Kingdom with China in the above example, the entire logic remains the same. If Indians move towards buying more Indian goods than Chinese, they will end up paying more for those goods. This will leave them with less money to spend elsewhere. This would impact other industries, where jobs would be lost. It’s just that these job losses won’t be so obvious.

This is a rather obvious point that most people miss out on while analysing this issue. There is a certain opportunity cost of money. As Dan Ariely and Jeff Kreisler write in Dollars and Sense-Money Mishaps and How to Avoid Them: “The opportunity cost of money is that when we spend money on one thing, it’s money that we cannot spend on something else, neither right now nor anytime later.”

Given this, shutting out Chinese products is not going to create jobs in India. The only way jobs can be created is if Indian industry can compete with China. Right now, it doesn’t.

The column originally appeared in Equitymaster on Nov 27, 2017.

Why We End Up Buying Things We Normally Wouldn’t


When I visit a supermarket or a large store to buy grocery, I inevitably end up buying stuff which I wouldn’t otherwise. On some days, it can be products like muffins or a chocolate bar, placed strategically near the billing counter. On other days, it can be a new flavour of ready to eat noodles.

What is happening here? Human beings look at purchasing decisions from the relative value lens. The question is, relative to what.

I buy grocery around once in three weeks. And on most occasions, I end up with a bill of around Rs 4,000-5,000. When I am buying something like a chocolate muffin which costs around Rs 100, it feels like a very small part of the overall bill. (Rs 100 is only 2 per cent of Rs 5,000). It is basically a useless unhealthy purchase, which one can easily buy at an outside bakery for Rs 30-40. But given that it feels like a very small part of the overall price, I simply go ahead and buy it.

The same stands true for the chocolate bars which supermarkets and large grocery stores tend to stock near their checkout counters. As Dan Ariely and Jeff Kreisler writes in Dollars and Sense: Money Mishaps and How to Avoid Them: “Supermarket checkout queues dare us to resist trashy tabloids and sugary sweets, using the same approach.”

This approach is also at work in hotel rooms where soft drinks which are placed inside the refrigerator in the room, are expensively priced. On a visit to Pune earlier this year, I paid around Rs 100 for a soft drink can which at that point of time was generally priced around Rs 30. My calculation was the same. The per day room rent was around Rs 5,000 and a charge of Rs 100 more wasn’t going to make a significant dent to it. Having said that, I would have never paid Rs 100 for a soft drink can, otherwise.

In fact, the same approach is at work in a restaurant, where soft drinks, water bottles and even bottles of wine, are more expensively priced. In fact, wine in a restaurant costs much more than in a wine shop.

As Ariely and Kreisler write: “It’s logical to pay more for the convenience of wine with dinner – we don’t want to take a bite, then have to run to our car to [take a ] swig… – but it’s also a tribute to relative versus absolute value.”

In all these situations we tend to find value in something, which we otherwise wouldn’t, by comparing it to the overall cost. Marketers make use of this and try to sell us things we wouldn’t have bought otherwise. This plays out almost every time one buys electrical goods like a washing machine or a refrigerator or a television or even a laptop.

The salesman on such occasions always tries to sell us something known as an extended warranty. This is a warranty over and above the one which is offered by the manufacturer of the product that we have bought. It is pretty much useless in most cases given that electrical goods these days tend to function well and rarely go bad.

But the pitch is that now that you are spending so much money, why not spend a little more and get yourself an extended warranty.

This approach is also at play when buying a car. As Ariely and Kreisler write: “Car dealers… know that when we’re spending $25,000, additional purchases, like a $200 CD changer, seem cheap, even inconsequential, in comparison. Would you ever buy a $200 CD changer? Does anyone listen to CDs anymore? No and no. But at just 0.8 per cent of the total purchase price, we hardly shrug.”

The overall point being that marketers are a devious lot and if there is a trick out there they can use to sell more, they are most likely to find it and use it. Beware!

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on November 22, 2017.


One Example of How a Good and Simple Tax Should Work

Late last week I was paying the Goods and Services Tax (GST) I had collected on behalf of the government, to the government.

In the process of payment, I made a mistake, which, with the benefit of hindsight I can say was a rather silly one. Basically, the entries for the state GST and integrated GST got interchanged. In the process, I ended up paying more integrated GST than I had to and less state GST than I had to.

Integrated GST is a tax which the seller must collect from the buyer on the inter-state supply of goods and services. State GST and central GST are taxes which the seller must collect from the buyer on the intra-state supply of goods and services.

Let’s understand this through an example. I am based out of Mumbai in the state of Maharashtra. I write a column for a magazine, which is based out of New Delhi. In this case, when I bill the magazine (the buyer), I will raise an invoice with an integrated GST of 18 per cent.

If I write a column for a website (it could even be a magazine/newspaper) based out of Mumbai, then I will raise an invoice with a central GST of 9 per cent and a state GST of 9 per cent. The point to be noted here is that the overall rate of tax in both the cases (interstate and intrastate) is the same. Only the division is different.

Anyway, getting back to my story. Given that I hadn’t paid the right amount of state GST, this meant that I had logon to the GST portal once again and pay the state GST I hadn’t. The integrated GST I had already paid will now get adjusted against the payments that I will make in the months to come. The money is safe. There is nothing to worry on that front.

Of course, I didn’t realise I had made a mistake while paying the GST. It was only when my chartered accountant started filing the GST return, this mistake was noticed. After this, I frantically logged on to the GST portal in order to pay the state GST, I hadn’t. In fact, I almost ended up paying the integrated GST all over again. Thankfully, I noticed the mistake this time around.

In the process of making this mistake I had a rather obvious realisation. As someone who is collecting GST on behalf of the government, it doesn’t matter to me whether I am collecting state GST or central GST or integrated GST. This is something that should work at the backend of the system that has been created to implement GST.

How the GST collected by the government is split between the different governments (central and states) is not something I am really bothered about. Once I have upload my returns and have paid the right amount of GST, the system should be able to figure out, using GST numbers which have state codes and the PAN number of buyer as well as the seller built into it, what proportion of the GST should go to the central government and what proportion should go to the state governments.

Given this, I as a user should simply be making an entry for the total GST that I need to pay. The GST system can then easily figure out, the various kinds of GST, given that each buying-selling transaction along with the value, is reported as well.

But that is not how the current GST system works. The backend has become the front end as well. That is how the system has been designed.

It is well worth asking why? Dear Reader, if you have ever filed an income tax return form on your own even once, you would already know the answer. When the government designs these forms, it does not keep the ease of use of the end user in mind. That’s the idea with which the government has always operated. This has seeped into the GST system as well.

The success of any government system (or for that matter any system) also depends on how easy it is to use. This ease of use will make GST a good and simple tax, which it currently isn’t. In case of the GST, the government has just made the laws. The actual taxes need to be collected by the seller from the buyer. The seller then needs to hand the tax over to the government. The seller also needs to file returns. Currently, this entire process that has been made extremely cumbersome.

I am no GST expert, but I am sure that if some thought was given to the entire process of filing GST returns and paying GST to the government, it could be simplified. But for that to happen, first and foremost what is needed is bureaucratic will, even more than political will.

Indian bureaucrats have never liked to make things simple for the citizens of this country, because a simple system would discourage rent-seeking, which many of them excel in. And therefore, I feel that the GST will continue to be as complicated as ever.

The column originally appeared on Equitymaster on November 21, 2017.



The Javed Akhtar Syndrome in Real Estate


Poets usually write poems on love, breakups, betrayal, friendships, alcohol, the women serving alcohol, the world at large, politics and so on. But very rarely does a poet write a poem or a couplet on the unaffordability of real estate in India. But Javed Akhtar has done that:

sab kā ḳhushī se fāsla ek qadam hai.
har ghar meñ bas 
ek hī kamra kam hai

A loose translation of this in English would be as follows: “Everyone is just one step away from happiness; Every house has just one room less”.

Given the fact that Akhtar has spent a large part of his adult life in Mumbai, the above couplet reflects or rather captures the sensibilities of the city that never sleeps, very beautifully.

Dear Reader, you must be wondering, why am I talking about a couplet written by Javed Akhtar on a rather muggy Tuesday in Mumbai. Allow me to explain.

Over the weekend, I met a friend who wants to sell his one-room-kitchen (a very Mumbai thing) apartment and buy a one-bedroom-hall-kitchen (one BHK) apartment. Basically, he feels his current apartment has one room less and he wants an apartment which has one room more than his current one.

Of course, the transaction cannot be carried out, unless he is able to sell his current apartment. The money generated from that will partly be used to pay off the current home loan. The new apartment will be bought with whatever remains after selling off the current apartment and repaying the home loan; along with this a fresh larger home loan will have to be taken. Over and above this, some financial savings accumulated through investing in mutual funds through the SIP route, will also have to be used.

My friend had bought the apartment for Rs 50 lakh, nearly three years back. He is looking at a price of at least Rs 60 lakh. In fact, more than looking, he is specifically anchored on to that price and won’t sell for anything less than that price.

As Garly Belsky and Thomas Gilovich write in Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes and How to Correct Them: “Anchoring is really just a metaphoric term to explain the tendency we all have of latching on to an idea or fact and using it as a reference point for future decisions. Anchoring can be particularly powerful because you often have no idea that such a phenomenon is affecting you.”

This is not the first time I am discussing the phenomena of anchoring in real estate, nevertheless, this example is interesting and different, because anchoring, as we shall see, is happening at multiple levels.

My friend is anchored on to a price of Rs 60 lakh because he feels that at that price he will be in a situation of no-profit no-loss, while selling his current apartment. The extra Rs 10 lakh, over and above the price he bought the apartment for, should take care of the home loan EMIs and the maintenance charges paid, over the last three years. This is his logic for being anchored on to a price of Rs 60 lakh.

The trouble is that at that the few buyers who have approached him do not want to pay more than Rs 55 lakh, while my friend remains stuck on the Rs 60 lakh figure.

In this case, the transaction is what we can call a relative transaction. The money that my friend gets for selling the current apartment will be used to buy a bigger apartment in the same locality that he lives in.

If he waits too long to get a price of Rs 60 lakh, chances are that the price of the bigger apartment that he wants to buy will also go up. Currently, the bigger apartment is available for a price of around Rs 80 lakh.

I tried explaining this point to him without much success. In fact, after I explained this point to him, my friend told me that he had a buyer who was willing to pay Rs 60 lakh. The trouble was that this prospective buyer needed to sell an apartment in another city to be able to raise the amount.

This buyer, because my friend had become anchored to a price of Rs 60 lakh, was also anchored to that price. Given that he was a senior citizen, he was not in a position to raise a home loan. Hence, he needed someone to pay Rs 60 lakh for his flat to be able to purchase my friend’s flat.

No one was willing to pay Rs 60 lakh for the flat. In this case, the prospective buyers were willing to pay anything in the range of Rs 55-60 lakh. But that was clearly not enough. And given this, the sale of both the flats remained stuck.

This example clearly shows as to how anchoring works at multiple level and not just at one level, as is often believed. This anchoring essentially stops the market from working. The more general conclusion from this example would be that anchoring working at multiple levels, is one of the reasons why the buying and selling of real estate has slowed down majorly.

The sellers (not necessarily the builders) are still expecting prices that their homes were worth until a few years back. But the buyers, who have paid more than their fair share over the years, are currently not willing to pay the price that the sellers want.

Ultimately, this anchoring on to a specific price will break down. It’s just that it won’t happen overnight and will take some time.

Until then writers like me will have enough masala to keep writing on real estate.

Keep watching this space!

The column originally appeared on Equitymaster on November 14, 2017.