Six Months After Demonetisation Cash is King Again and Questions Still Remain

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On November 8, 2016, the prime minister Narendra Modi announced his government’s decision to demonetise Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, to an unsuspecting nation. The decision came into effect from the midnight between November 8 and November 9, 2016, and suddenly rendered 86.4 per cent of the nation’s currency in circulation, useless.

It’s been six months since then and more than four months since December 30, 2016, the last date for depositing the demonetised Rs 500 an Rs 1,000 notes, into bank accounts. But even after this period as far as the government is concerned, a few basic points remain.

a) How much demonetised money finally made it into bank accounts? When demonetisation was first announced, this number was shared regularly. Nevertheless, the last announcement on this front from the Reserve Bank of India(RBI) came on December 13, 2016. As of December 10, 2016, Rs 12.44 lakh crore of demonetised currency had made it back into the banks.
Given that Rs 15.44 lakh crore worth of currency notes had been demonetised, nearly 80.6 per cent of the currency had found its way back into banks, nearly three weeks before the last date to deposit demonetised notes into bank accounts.
Neither the Reserve Bank nor the government has told the nation how much money eventually made it back into the banks. This is an important question and needs to be answered.

b) The initial idea behind demonetisation was to curb fake currency notes and eliminate black money.
As far as fake currency goes the minister of state for finance Arjun Ram Meghwal told the Lok Sabha in early February 2017 that the total number of fake notes deducted in the currency deposited into banks after demonetisation stood at 2.46 lakhs. This amounted to a total value of Rs 19.5 crore.
As mentioned earlier, the total value of demonetised notes had stood at Rs 15.44 lakh crore. Given this, the proportion of fake notes deducted is almost zero and can be ignored. Hence, as far as detecting and eliminating fake notes was concerned, demonetisation was a total flop.
How did it do as far as eliminating black money is concerned? The hope was that the black money held in the form of cash will not make it back into the banks, as people wouldn’t want to get caught by declaring it. But by December 10, 2016, more than four-fifth of the demonetised notes had already made it back into the banks. Since then the government and the RBI have not given out any fresh numbers. It’s surprising that it has been more than four months since December 30, 2016, and this number is still not out in the public domain.
Also, it is important to point out here: “High denomination notes are known to facilitate generation of black money. In this connection, it may be noted that while the total number of bank notes in circulation rose by 40% between 2011 and 2016, the increase in number of notes of Rs.500/- denomination was 76% and for Rs.1,000/- denomination was 109% during this period.”
If high denomination notes facilitate generation of black money, then why replace Rs 1,000 notes with Rs 2,000 notes. Given that a Rs 2,000 note is twice the value of a Rs 1,000 note, it makes black market transactions even more easier. It also makes storage of black money in the form of cash easier, given that it takes less space to hide the same amount of money.
Again, this is a basic disconnect in what the government planned to achieve through demonetisation and what it eventually did. No effort has been made to correct this disconnect.

c) The government has still not offered a good explanation of what prompted it to demonetise. There has been no similar decision taken by any other country in a stable financial situation like India currently is, in the modern era. The best that the government has done is blamed it on the RBI. As Meghwal told the Lok Sabha in early February 2017: “RBI held a meeting of its Central Board on November 8, 2016. The agenda of the meeting, inter-alia, included the item: “Memorandum on existing banknotes in the denomination of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 – Legal Tender Status.””
Anybody who has studied the history of the RBI would know that the RBI would never take such an extreme step without extreme pressure from the government.

d) Other than eliminating black money and fake currency notes through demonetisation, in the aftermath of demonetisation, the government wanted to promote cashless transactions. As Modi said in the November 2016 edition of themann ki baat radio programme: “The great task that the country wants to accomplish today is the realisation of our dream of a ‘Cashless Society’. It is true that a hundred percent cashless society is not possible. But why should India not make a beginning in creating a ‘less-cash society’? Once we embark on our journey to create a ‘less-cash society’, the goal of ‘cashless society’ will not remain very far.”

How are things looking on that front? Look at the following table. It shows the volume of digital transactions over the last few months.

Month Volume of digital transactions (in million)
Nov-16 671.5
Dec-16 957.5
Jan-17 870.4
Feb-17 763.0
Mar-17 893.9
Apr-17 843.5

Source: Reserve Bank of India

While digital transactions picked up in December, they have fallen since then. The total number of digital transactions in April 2017 is higher than it was in November 2016. Nevertheless, it is worth asking, whether this jump of 25 per cent was really worth the trouble of demonetisation.

e) Falling digital transactions since December 2016 tell us that cash as a mode of payment is back in the system. There is another way this can be shown. Between November 2016 and February 2017, banks barely gave out any home loans. During the period, the banks gave out home loans worth Rs 8,851 crore. In March 2017, they gave out total home loans of Rs 39,952 crore, which was 4.5 times the home loans given out in the previous four months. It also amounted to 35 per cent of the home loans given out during the course of 2016-2017.

A major reason why people weren’t taking on home loans between November 2016 and February 2017 was demonetisation. There simply wasn’t enough currency going around. With this, the real estate transactions came to a standstill because without currency it wasn’t possible to fulfil the black part of the real estate transaction. Those who owned homes (builders and investors) were not ready to sell homes, without being paid for a certain part of the price, in black.

By March 2017, nearly three-fourths of the demonetised currency was replaced. This basically means that by March 2017, there was enough currency in the financial system for the black part of the real estate transactions to start happening all over again. Also, the Rs 2,000 note makes this even more convenient.

To conclude, six months after the declaration of demonetisation it is safe to say that demonetisation has failed to achieve what it set out to achieve i.e. if it set out to achieve anything on the economic front.

The column originally appeared on Firstpost on May 9, 2017

Mr Mistry, When It Comes to Buying a Home, the Price is More Important Than the Interest Rate

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Keki Mistry, the bossman at HDFC, India’s leading housing finance company, recently told The Economic Times, India’s leading business newspaper: “In my view, it is the best time to buy property. First, by virtue of the fact that interest rates are significantly low. Since 2008, we have not seen rates as low as this. I don’t believe rates will go down any further. Second, property prices haven’t gone up in recent times so one would believe there is time correction of prices.”

Asking Mistry if it’s the right time to buy a home is like asking Nandan Nilekani about the privacy concerns around Aadhaar. Or asking RBI governor Urjit Patel if demonetisation has been a success. Or asking me, if freelance writers should be paid more.

The answers in all the three cases will be a definite yes. Mistry is in the business of giving out home loans. And for him, it is always the right to give out home loans, as long as he takes a margin of safety into account and lends out only a certain portion of the price of the home being financed through a home loan.

Nevertheless, it is important to try and understand what Mistry is really saying here. The first point he makes that interest rates are low, and he doesn’t really see them going down anymore. Mistry might be right about this. Interest rates have been low because of the deluge of money that has come into banks because of demonetisation.

Mistry further says that home prices haven’t gone up in recent times and there has been a time correction of prices. And hence, this is the right time to buy property.

What does Mistry mean by a time correction of prices? Let’s say that a home was selling at Rs 50 lakh in a suburb of a big metropolitan city a few years back. Even today, it is going at the same price. Meanwhile, the price of every other thing has gone up. Once we factor in this inflation, the home has seen a time correction of prices, given that the purchasing power of Rs 50 lakh today is really not the same as the purchasing power of Rs 50 lakh, a few years back.

Given this time correction of prices, buyers should not wait any further and buy homes. This is basically what Mistry is saying.

The trouble is this makes little sense. As always there are several nuances that are involved here. First and foremost, there is the black part of that needs to be paid while buying homes across most parts of the country. It is difficult to generalise the proportion that needs to be paid in black, given that rates vary across the country. But let’s say around 20 per cent of the price of the home is to be paid in black. This works out to Rs 10 lakh (20 per cent of Rs 50 lakh).

Hence, the official price of the home works out to Rs 40 lakh (Rs 50 lakh minus Rs 10 lakh). A housing finance institution like HDFC will not finance the entire thing. HDFC’s average loan to value ratio at the origination of the home loan is 64 per cent. In this case that would mean a loan of Rs 25.6 lakh. (64 per cent of Rs 40 lakh). This is roughly around the average home loan size of HDFC at Rs 25.7 lakh.

Hence, HDFC will finance around Rs 25.6 lakh of the cost of the home of Rs 50 lakh. The buyer has to finance the remaining Rs 24.6 lakh. This basically means that the buyer needs to finance nearly half of the cost of the home. And that is the real equation that the buyer needs to take a look at.

This basically means whether the buyer has Rs 25 lakh of savings which he can use to buy a home of Rs 50 lakh. If he has the money he can buy the home. If he doesn’t, he can’t, irrespective of where the interest rate on the home loan is.

What about the low interest rate that Mistry was talking about? How much difference does it make? The EMI on a loan of Rs 25.6 lakh at 10 per cent per year for a period of 20 years would work out to Rs 24,801. This would have been the case a on a new home loan, a few years back. Now at 8.5 per cent interest, the EMI would work out to Rs 22,303 per month or around 10 per cent lower.

Hence, the lower EMI does help. But the basic question still remains; whether the prospective buyer has a savings of around Rs 25 lakh. Actually, the savings need to be more once we take brokerage, the cost of moving, making the home liveable enough, etc., into account. But for the ease of calculation we will leave all that out and just concentrate on the price of the house.

Now compare this scenario to where the price of the home over the last few years has fallen by 20 per cent and is currently going at Rs 40 lakh. Assuming a 20 per cent black part, the official price of the home works out to Rs 32 lakh. Of this HDFC would lend around Rs 20.5 lakh (64 per cent of Rs 32 lakh). Hence, the buyer would need around Rs 20 lakh to get the deal going.

This meant that anyone with savings of around Rs 20 lakh could carry out the transaction and buy the home. This requires Rs 5 lakh lower savings than the earlier example. In this situation, the prospective buyer is more likely to buy than the earlier one.

The point is similar to the one I have often made in the past, if people need to start buying homes again, the home prices need to come down. Lower interest rates just don’t help enough. And this is something Mistry needs to understand.

To conclude, it is safe to say that if 20 per cent of the price of a home being bought needs to be paid in black, then the buyer needs to have half of the price of the house as savings. Only then can he go ahead with the transaction and buy the home.

The column originally appeared in Equitymaster  on May 9, 2017