It’s Not the Interest Rate, Stupid


This week there has been an overdose on Raghuram Rajan, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India(RBI) and his decision to not take on a second term. I guess some readers haven’t liked that. Nonetheless, it is important to discuss his ideas and thoughts, given that this is an opportunity to explain some basic economics, which many people don’t seem to understand.

I don’t blame them given the surfeit of reading material that is generated these days. I get many WhatsApp forwards with spectacularly illogical conclusions and many people seem to believe in them. One of the theories going around these days is that Rajan did not cut interest rates fast enough, and this impacted both businesses as well as consumers.

I have tried to counter this argument over the last one week in different ways. But given that I have limited access to data, some questions still remained unanswered. Governor Rajan though does not have these limitations. In his latest speech, made in Bangalore, yesterday, he explained in his usual simple style, as to why interest rates weren’t slowing down bank lending.

But before we get down to that, I would like to discuss something else.

In one of the many columns written to justify Rajan’s decision of not taking on a second term, BJP member and newspaper editor Chandan Mitra, wrote: “Rajan’s emphasis on increasing savings fell on deaf ears because the middle class was by now impatient to spend, not save.”

The insinuation here is that if Rajan had cut interest rates fast enough, the middle class would have borrowed and spent. This would have reinvigorated the Indian economy. But then the Indian economy grew by 7.6% in 2015-2016. It is fastest growing major economy in the world. So, I really don’t what Mitra was cribbing about. Also, Rajan has cut the repo rate by 150 basis points since January 2015.

Rajan in his speech made it clear through data that interest rates hadn’t held back bank lending. As he said:“The slowdown in credit growth has been largely because of stress in the public sector banking and not because of high interest rate.” Take a look at the following chart.

Chart 1 : Non food credit growthChart1 Non Food credit growth 

The yellow line shows the overall lending growth of the new generation private sector banks (Axis, HDFC, ICICI, and IndusInd) over the last two years. What this shows very clearly is that the lending growth of new generationprivate sectors banks has had an upward trend with a few small blips in between.

In contrast the lending growth of public sector banks (the blue line) has slowed down considerably over the last two years. Let’s look at the bank lending growth in a little more detail. The following chart shows the bank lending growth to industry over the last two years.

Chart 2 : Credit to industryChart 2 Credit to Industry 

As can be seen from the above chart, the lending to industry, carried out by the new generation private sector banks has been robust. In fact, in the last one year, it has grown by close to 20%. Hence, the new generation private sector banks have been lending to industry at a very steady pace.

When it comes to public sector banks, the same cannot be said. The lending growth has been falling over the last two years. Now it is in negative territory. In fact, due to this, the overall lending by banks to industry in the last one year was at just 0.1%. The figure was at 5.9% between April 2014 and April 2015. A similar trend can be seen from the following chart when it comes to lending to micro and small enterprises.

Chart 3 : Credit to Micro and Small EnterpriseChart 3 Credit to Micro & Small Enterprices 

This has led many people to believe that high interest rates have slowed down bank lending. As Rajan put it:“The immediate conclusion one should draw is that this is something affecting credit supply from the public sector banks specifically, perhaps it is the lack of bank capital.”

But as I have mentioned in the past, both public sector banks as well as private banks, have been happy to lend to the retail sector or what RBI calls personal loans.

These include home loans, vehicle loans, credit card outstanding, consumer durable loans, loans against shares, bonds and fixed deposits, and what we call personal loans. As I have mentioned in the past, retail loans have grown at a pretty good rate in the last one year.

The retail loans of banks have grown by 19.7% in the last one year. Between April 2014 and April 2015(between April 18, 2014 and April 17, 2015), these loans had grown by 15.7%. Hence, the retail loan growth has clearly picked up over the last one year. What is interesting is that in the last one-year retail loans have formed around 45.6% of the total loans given by banks (i.e. non-food credit). Interestingly, between April 2014 and April 2015, retail loans had formed 32.4% of the total lending.

This is precisely the point that Rajan made in his speech. Take a look at the following chart:

Chart 5 : Personal LoansChart 5 Personal Loans 

In this graph, the retail ending growth of public sector banks and new generation private sector banks has been plotted. As can be seen, the two curves are almost about to meet. What this tells us is that when it comes to lending to the retail sector, the public sector lending growth is almost as fast as the new generation private sector bank. And given that the public sector banks are lending on a bigger base, they are carrying out a greater amount of absolute lending.

As Rajan put it in his speech: “If we look at personal loan growth (Chart 5), and specifically housing loans (Chart 6), public sector bank loan growth approaches private sector bank growth. The lack of capital therefore cannot be the culprit. Rather than an across-the-board shrinkage of public sector lending, there seems to be a shrinkage in certain areas of high credit exposure, specifically in loans to industry and to small enterprises. The more appropriate conclusion then is that public sector banks were shrinking exposure to infrastructure and industry risk right from early 2014 because of mounting distress on their past loan.”

This isn’t surprising given that banks are carrying a huge amount of bad loans on lending to industry. As the old Hindi proverb goes: “Doodh ka jala chaach bhi phook-phook kar peeta hai – Once bitten twice shy.”

As I have mentioned in the past, in case of the State Bank of India, the gross non-performing ratio (or the bad loans ratio) of retail loans for 2015-2016 was at 0.75% of the total loans given to the retail sector. This came down from 0.93% in 2014-2015.

The bad loans ratio of large corporates has jumped from 0.54% to 6.27%. The bad loans ratio of mid-level corporates has jumped from 9.76% to 17.12%. And the bad loan ratio of small and medium enterprises has remained more or less stable and increased marginally from 7.78% to 7.82%. This is a trend seen across public sector banks. Hence, it isn’t surprising that public sector banks do not want to lend to the industry, at this point of time.

Take a look at the following chart, which plots the home loan lending growth of public sector banks and new generation private sector banks.

Chart 6 : Housing LoansChart 6 Housing Loans 

In this case, the lending growth of public sector banks is as fast as the lending growth of new generation private sector banks.

What all this tells us very clearly is that when it comes to the retail segment, public sector banks are lending as much as they can. This refutes Mitra’s point where he said that the middle class isn’t borrowing and spending because of high interest rates. If middle class wasn’t borrowing and spending, retail lending wouldn’t have grown by close to 20%, in the last one year.

In fact, credit card outstanding of banks has grown by 31.2% in the last one year, after growing by 22.9% between April 2014 and April 2015. So, I have really no clue as to what is Mitra talking about. Vehicle loans have grown by 19.7% against 15.4% earlier. Guess, it’s time he opened a few excel sheets before just mindlessly commenting on things.

Rajan summarised it the best when he said: “These charts refute another argument made by those who do not look at the evidence – that stress in the corporate world is because of high interest rates. Interest rates set by private banks are usually equal or higher than rates set by public sector banks. Yet their credit growth does not seem to have suffered. The logical conclusion therefore must be that it is not the level of interest rates that is the problem. Instead, stress is because of the loans already on public sector banks balance sheets, and their unwillingness to lend more to those sectors to which they have high exposure.”

To conclude, and with due apologies to Bill Clinton, “It’s not the interest rate, stupid!”

The column originally appeared on the Vivek Kaul’s Diary on June 23, 2016


About vivekkaul
Vivek Kaul is a writer who has worked at senior positions with the Daily News and Analysis(DNA) and The Economic Times, in the past. He is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. Easy Money: The Greatest Ponzi Scheme Ever and How It Is Set to Destroy the Global Financial System , the latest book in the trilogy has just been published. The first two books in the trilogy were published in November 2013 and July 2014 respectively. Both the books were bestsellers on and Currently he works as an economic commentator and writes regular columns for He is also the India editor of The Daily Reckoning newsletter published by His writing has appeared across various other publications in India. These include The Times of India, Business Standard,Business Today, Business World, The Hindu, The Hindu Business Line, Indian Management, The Asian Age, Deccan Chronicle, Forbes India, Mutual Fund Insight, The Free Press Journal,,, Business World, Huffington Post and Wealth Insight. In the past he has also been a regular columnist for He has lectured at IIM Bangalore, IIM Indore, TA PAI Institute of Management and the Alliance University (Bangalore). He has also taught a course titled Indian Economy to the PGPMX batch of IIM Indore. His areas of interest are the intersection between politics and economics, the international financial crisis, personal finance, marketing and branding, and anything to do with cinema and music. He can be reached at

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