Demonetisation: Can Indian Banks Handle Low Interest Rates?

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One of the benefits of demonetisation that is being bandied around is lower interest rates. Suddenly, banks are flush with a huge amount of deposits. The demonetised Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes need to be handed over to banks as well as post offices by December 30, 2016. The total value of demonetised currency is Rs 15.44 lakh crore.

Between November 10, 2016 and December 10, 2016, Rs 12.44 lakh crore has made it back to the banks. Banks have issued new notes as well as notes which continue to be legal tender of Rs 4.61 lakh crore to the public over their counters and through their ATMs.

What this means that the deposits with the banks have gone up at a very rapid pace. Between November 11 and November 25, 2016, the aggregate deposits with banks went up by 4 per cent. This increase was within a span of just 15 days. (This is the latest figure that is available.)

Given this, huge and sudden jump in deposits, it is but natural that the banks will cut the interest rates that they offer on their deposits. At the same time, the overall lending by banks (non-food credit) during the 15-day period fell by 0.9 per cent.

Hence, a rise in deposits and a fall in loans will lead to banks cutting interest rates on their deposits and then on their loans. At lower interest rates both businesses as well as consumers will borrow and spend more. And this will help economic growth. Or so we are being now told.

This, as I have often argued in the past, is a very simplistic argument. (You can read one such argument here in the Letter that I write every Friday). Lower interest rates for borrowers are just one side of the equation. We also need to consider lower interest rates for savers, who form the other side of the equation. There can’t be any borrowers without savers. Look at Table 1.

Table 1: Financial Saving of the Household Sector.As can be seen from Table 1. Deposits form a bulk of the household financial savings. Between 2011-2012 and 2015-2016, the share of deposits in the household financial savings has come down. Nevertheless, it remains a major part of how people save. If interest rates on deposits come down, people need to save more to meet their savings goal. This means lesser consumption, which has an impact on economic growth. There is also a possibility of not saving enough and not meeting their savings goal, which again is not a good thing. This could mean not having an adequate amount of money for the education of children, among other things.

Further, in a country with very little social security, the senior citizens use fixed deposits to generate regular monthly income. A sudden fall in interest rates hurts them the most. This is another thing that needs to be kept in mind. Hence, fixed deposit interest rates at any point of time should be at least 150 to 200 basis points higher than the prevailing rate of inflation as measured by consumer price index. This is not a perfect formula, given that each one of us has our own rate of inflation, but then something is better than nothing.

Given that it is the largest borrower, it is understandable that the government keeps batting for lower interest rates. But lower interest rates are not necessarily good for everyone and mindlessly advocating lower interest rates as many experts and industrialists tend to do, is not good for anyone.

Take the case of banks. How responsibly can we expect them to lend? If we look at the recent record of the banks, they don’t inspire enough confidence. In fact, this is precisely the point made by Pallavi Chavan and Leonardo Gambacorta in the RBI Working Paper titled Bank Lending and Loan Quality: The Case of India. The paper was published on the RBI website on December 14, 2016.

The major point that Chavan and Gambacorta make is as follows: “We find that a one-percentage point increase (decrease) in loan growth is associated with an increase (decrease) of NPLs over total advances (NPL ratio) by 4.3 per cent in the long run.” What does this mean in simple English? It essentially means that for every one per cent increase in loans the bad loans ratio goes up by 4.3 per cent.

This basically means that when the times are good, Indian banks go easy on the lending and end up giving loans to even those who don’t deserve a loan. As Chavan and Gambacorta point out: “Banks tend to take on more risks during an upturn in credit growth and be more cautious whenever there is a downturn.”

So why do banks go overboard while lending while times are good? The simple reason is that when times are good there is far greater competition to lend and in this scenario, the lending conditions tend to get relaxed.

But there is another reason as well-crony capitalists. As Chavan and Gambacorta point out: “Well-capitalised banks tend to take on less credit risk”. What does this mean? It means that banks which have more capital tend to take less risk when it comes to giving out loans. Hence, banks which have less capital tend to take more risk while giving out loans. The question is which banks have less capital? Public sector banks.

The new generation private sector banks, which form a bulk of the private sector banking in India, are much better capitalised than the public sector banks. So, what is it that leads to public sector banks going easy on the lending? While Chavan and Gambacorta don’t say so, the answer perhaps lies in crony capitalism.

Politicians force public sector banks to lend to their businessman friends or crony capitalists. The projects are poorly financed with the businessmen putting very little of their own money at risk. As Raghuram Rajan said in a November 2014 speech: “The reason so many projects are in trouble today is because they were structured up front with too little equity, sometimes borrowed by the promoter from elsewhere. And some promoters find ways to take out the equity as soon as the project gets going, so there really is no cushion when bad times hit.”

To conclude, those talking about lower interest rates leading to higher lending to businesses, should also keep this in mind. Public sector banks are not adept at lending, at least not as long as they remain public sector banks, which allows politicians in power to interfere

(The column originally appeared on Equitymaster on December 16, 2016)

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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 Amazon.com and Amazon.in. Currently he works as an economic commentator and writes regular columns for www.firstpost.com. He is also the India editor of The Daily Reckoning newsletter published by www.equitymaster.com. 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, Quartz.com, DailyO.in, Business World, Huffington Post and Wealth Insight. In the past he has also been a regular columnist for www.rediff.com. 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 vivek.kaul@gmail.com

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