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.

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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.

Who is Benefitting from Lower Interest Rates?

 

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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.

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

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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.

The Real Brave-hearts are Those Who Still Have Deposits in IDBI Bank

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IDBI Bank is the worst performing public sector bank when it comes to its gross non-performing advances or bad loans. Bad loans are essentially loans in which the repayment from a borrower has been due for 90 days or more.

As on September 30, 2017, the bad loans rate of the bank stood at 24.98 per cent. This basically means that the borrowers have defaulted on nearly one-fourth of the loans given by the bank. Now take a look at Figure 1. It plots the bad loans of IDBI Bank over the last three years.

Figure 1: 

The bad loans rate of IDBI Bank has jumped from around 5 per cent to around 25 per cent, over a period of just three years. What is happening here? What this tells us is that initially the bank did not recognise bad loans as bad loans. It probably did that by restructuring loans (i.e. giving the borrowers more time to repay or decreasing their interest rate or by simply postponing their repayment) or by issuing fresh loans to borrowers in a weak position, so that they could repay the loans that were maturing. In the process, the recognition of bad loans as bad loans was avoided.

Of course, any bank can’t perpetually keep kicking the can down the road, and after a point of time must do the right thing. IDBI Bank is now doing the right thing of recognising bad loans as bad loans and given this it has such a high bad loans rate. Given that, one-fourth of the loans advanced by the bank have been defaulted on, it is worth asking whether this bank should be in the business of banking at all.

Nevertheless, the more important issue here is how do depositors view this bank. The best way to find this out is to look at the total amount of deposits the bank still has. Take a look at Figure 2, which plots that.

Figure 2: 

What does Figure 2 tell us? The total deposits of the bank have fallen after peaking in December 2016. Nevertheless, the total deposits with IDBI Bank are still higher than they were three years back. Hence, the conclusion that we can draw here is that while bad loans of the bank have gone up from 5 per cent to 25 per cent over a period of three years, the total deposits with the bank are still at the level they were.

Why is this the case? Why would you continue banking with such a bank? First and foremost, this faith comes from the great faith in the government. The government will not allow any bank to go bust. Fair enough. But why wait for that to happen? Typically, when a bank lands up in major trouble, the government tends to merge it with a bigger bank and thus the depositors continue to be safe. Nevertheless, such a merger is never smooth and there might be a brief time period when the full money deposited in the bank cannot be withdrawn. Hence, liquidity can become an issue.

Also, it is worth remembering here that IDBI Bank is not a small bank. It is a relatively big bank and had total assets of close to Rs 3,61,768 crore, as on March 31, 2017. This means that if the government were to decide to merge it with another bank, the balance sheet and the profit and loss account of the combined entity, will be another big mess.

Secondly, many people are simply unaware of how badly the bank is placed. This lack of knowledge about their financial activities is a general trend among many people in this country. We spend more time gossiping and worrying about the state of the nation, than the state of our own finances.

Thirdly, many people locked in their fixed deposits at high interest rates, a few years back. In the aftermath of demonetisation, interest rates have crashed as banks have been flush with funds that were deposited and at the same time their lending has crashed. Given this, even if some individuals understand the riskiness of the situation, they really can’t do much about it. In case they were to break their fixed deposits and move it to other banks, they would earn a much lower rate of interest.

And at that lower rate of interest, they would simply not be in a situation to meet their monthly expenses. This is another negative impact of demonetisation at play, with people having to continue to bank with risky public sector banks, which includes IDBI Bank.

While, some people are simply stuck with IDBI Bank, there are others who can easily move their money to other public sector banks, like State Bank of India, Vijaya Bank, Indian Bank, Syndicate Bank etc., which are in a comparatively much better position.

But given that they have chosen not to, they are the real brave-hearts.

The column originally appeared on November 6, 2017.

If PM Modi could sell Notebandi why not Bankbandi? Many banks do not deserve fresh capital

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One of the examples of Big Government I have in my book India’s Big Government is that of government owned public sector banks. (The good news is that the book is available at a huge discount on Amazon till Friday, 27th October. The Kindle version is going at Rs 199, against a maximum retail price of Rs 749, and the paperback is going at Rs 499, against a maximum retail price of Rs 999).

When I wrote the book, the Indian government owned 27 public sector banks. As of April 1, 2017, the Bhartiya Mahila Bank and the five associate banks of State Bank of India, were merged with the State Bank of India. Due to this merger, the number of government owned banks fell to 21. This merger has pulled down the overall performance of the State Bank of India and is just a way of sweeping problems under the carpet. Over the years, the government plans to use mergers to reduce the number of banks it owns to anywhere between ten to fifteen. This as I have said in the past is a bad idea.

Yesterday afternoon, the finance ministry announced a plan to invest more capital in public sector banks, which are saddled with a massive amount of bad loans and restructured loans. The government plans to put in Rs 2,11,000 crore over the next two years, “with maximum allocation in the current year”.

Where will this money come from? Rs 18,139 crore has been allocated from the current financial year’s budget. Banks are expected to raise capital by issuing new shares. This is expected to raise around Rs 58,000 crore.

This leaves us with around Rs 1,35,000 crore. Where will this money come from? This money is expected to come in through recapitalisation bonds. How will this work? The government hasn’t specified the details of how these bonds will be issued. (This makes me wonder as to why have a press conference in the first place, when the most important part of the plan, has not been decided on).

From what I could gather speaking to people who understand such things, this is how it is supposed to work. The banks have a lot of liquidity because of all the money that has come in because of demonetisation. A part of these deposits will be used by public sector banks to buy recapitalisation bonds issued by the government.

The money that the government thus gets will be used to buy fresh shares that the banks will issue. Thus, the banks will be recapitalised.

Now on the face of it, this sounds like a brilliant plan, where money is moved from one part of the balance sheet to another and a huge problem is solved. But is it as simple as that?

a) By issuing recapitalisation bonds the debt of the government will go up. Over and above this, interest will have to be paid on these bonds. Both the debt and the interest will add to the fiscal deficit of the government.

b) Given that the debt of the government will go up, this would mean that the taxpayers will ultimately pick up the tab because the debt will have to be repaid. It makes sense to always remember that there is no free lunch in economics. The corollary to this is that there is no free lunch especially when something feels like a free lunch. Of course, the taxpayers aren’t organised and hence, they are unlikely to protest. And given that they finance all bailouts.

c) It remains to be seen what the banks do with this extra capital. Will they use it to write off restructured loans of corporates? Will this dull their enthusiasm (not that they had enough of it in the first place) to recover bad loans? As the situation changes, so will the behaviour of bankers.

This will also bring to the fore the issue of moral hazard. And what is 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 the government bails them around this time around, the banks know that they can count on the government bailing them out the next time around as well. And this means that they can follow fairly loose standards of lending, in order to lend money quickly.

d) As I keep saying, bank lending among other things is also a function of whether there is demand for such lending. The public sector banks have gone slow on lending to corporates (in fact they have contracted their loan book) because of a lack of capital. Or so we are told. But this lack of capital doesn’t seem to have hindered their lending to the retail segment. Now that they will have access to more capital, will this reluctance to lend to corporates go away? I am not so sure.

e) Also, some of the banks are in such a bad state, that they really don’t deserve this capital. They shouldn’t be in the business of banking in the first place. Take a look at Table 1. Table 1, lists out the bad loans ratio of all the public sector banks. Bad loans are essentially loans in which the repayment from a borrower has been due for 90 days or more.

Table 1:

Name of the bank Bad loans ratio (in per cent)
IDBI Bank 24.11
Indian Overseas Bank 23.6
UCO Bank 19.87
Bank of Maharashtra 18.59
Central Bank of India 18.23
Dena Bank 17.37
United Bank of India 17.17
Corporation Bank 15.49
Oriental Bank of Commerce 14.83
Allahabad Bank 13.85
Punjab National Bank 13.66
Andhra Bank 13.33
Bank of India 13.05
Union Bank of India 12.63
Bank of Baroda 11.4
Punjab and Sind Bank 11.33
Canara Bank 10.56
State Bank of India 9.97
Syndicate Bank 9.96
Vijaya Bank 7.3
Indian bank 7.21

Source: www.careratings.com 

As can be seen from Table 1, only two public sector banks have a bad loans ratio significantly lower than 10 per cent (Actually its four, but State Bank of India and Syndicate Bank are very close to 10 per cent).

Eight out of the 21 banks have a bad loans ratio of greater than 15 per cent. This basically means that out of every Rs 100 of lending carried out by these banks, at least Rs 15 is no longer being repaid.

Some of these banks with extremely high bad loans are way too small to make any difference in the overall lending carried out by banks. Take a look at Table 2.

Table 2:

Name of the Bank Total advances as a percentage of gross advances of banks (as on March 31, 2017) Bad loans rate (as on June 30, 2017)
United Bank of India 0.82% 17.17%
Dena Bank 0.90% 17.37%
Bank of Maharashtra 1.18% 18.59%
UCO Bank 1.48% 19.87%
Central Bank of India 1.73% 18.23%
Indian Overseas Bank 1.74% 23.60%

Source: Author calculations on Indian Banks’ Association data and www.careratings.com 

These public sector banks have now reached a stage wherein there is no point in the government trying to spend time and money, in reviving them. It simply makes more sense to shut them down and sell their assets piece by piece or to sell them, lock, stock and barrel, if any of the bigger private banks or any other private firms, are willing to buy them. But what the government is doing instead is using taxpayer money to maintain its control over banks.

f) Also, recapitalising banks does not take care of the basic problem at the heart of public sector banks, which is that they are public sector banks. Allow me to explain. Let’s take the example of the State Bank of India, the largest public sector banks. As of June 30, 2017, the bad loans ratio of the bank when it came to retail lending was 1.56 per cent. At the same time, the bad loans ratio when it came to corporate lending was 18.61per cent.This basically means that State Bank of India, does a terrific job at retail lending but really screws up when it comes to lending to industry. What is happening here? Thomas Sowell, an American economist turned political philosopher, discusses the concept of separation of knowledge and power, in his book Wealth, Poverty and Politics.

How does it apply in this context? In public sector banks, managers who have the knowledge to take the right decisions may not always have the power to do so. Take the case of retail lending. The manager looks at the ability of the borrower to repay a loan, and then decides to commission or not commission one. This explains why the bad loans ratio in case of retail lending is as low as 1.56 per cent (in fact, it was just 0.55 per cent before the merger). A proper process to give a loan is being followed in this case.

But when it comes to lending to corporates, there are people out there (or at least used to be) who are trying to influence the manager’s decision; from bureaucrats to ministers to politicians. In this scenario, the manager ends up giving out loans even to those corporates who do not have the wherewithal to repay it.

The separation between knowledge and power has led to a situation where bank loans were given to many crony capitalists who have defaulted, and what we are seeing now is a fall out of that. In many cases, the corporates have simply siphoned off the loan amounts by over declaring the cost of the projects they borrowed against.

Of course, as long public sector banks continue to remain public sector banks, this risk will remain. But this government (and the ones before it) likes the idea of owning banks, and because it gives some relevance to ministers and bureaucrats.

Also, the employee unions of public sector banks have a huge nuisance value. No government has had the balls to take them on, in the past. Neither does this one. And this basically means that taxpayers will have to continue rescuing the public sector banks.

The column originally appeared on Equitymaster The column originally appeared on Equitymaster with  a different headline on October 25, 2017.

The Final Nail in the Demonetisation Coffin…

narendra modi

The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi addressing the Nation on the occasion of 71st Independence Day from the ramparts of Red Fort, in Delhi on August 15, 2017.

On August 30, 2017, the Reserve Bank of India(RBI) published its annual report. The annual report had data points looking at which we can finally say that demonetisation has not met any of the objectives that it set out to achieve.

On November 8, 2016, the prime minister Narendra Modi in an address to the nation said that the notes of denomination Rs 500 and Rs 1,000, would not be legal tender from November 9, 2016, onwards. People in possession of these notes could deposit them in banks until December 30, 2016. In value terms notes worth Rs 15.44 lakh crore were demonetised.

As per the press release accompanying the decision to demonetise, there were two aims of demonetisation: 1) Eliminating Black Money which casts a long shadow of parallel economy on our real economy. 2) Eliminating Fake Indian Currency Notes (FICN).

Let’s look at how successful demonetisation has been in achieving these two main goals. The idea was that people who had black money in the form of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000, would not deposit it in the banks for the fear of being identified by the government and in the process black money would be destroyed.

This was a point that was made over and over again by those in favour of demonetisation. As finance minister Arun Jaitley said in an interview“Obviously people who have used cash for crime purposes are not foolhardy enough to try and risk and bring the cash back into the system because there will be questions asked.”

Niti Aayog Member Bibek Debroy was specific on the proportion of demonetised money that would not come back. As he said in an interview“Even now, Rs 1.6 lakh crore is what will be missing at the end of it all. Those are the figures. If I take a base of roughly rounding off demonetised currency around Rs 16 lakh crore, 10 per cent of it is about Rs 1.6 lakh crore.” Hence, Debroy felt that currency worth Rs 1.6 lakh crore would not come back and this would lead to the destruction of black money.

The American-Indian economist Jagdish Bhagwati (along with two co-authors) was even more optimistic on this front, and in a column in the Mint newspaper on December 27, 2016, wrote“Suppose we accept the estimate that one-third of the approximately Rs 15 trillion [Rs 15 lakh crore] in demonetised notes is black money.” These economists did not bother to explain, what logic did they base their assumption on.

The RBI Annual Report on Page 195 says that demonetised notes worth Rs 15.28 lakh crore were deposited into banks, up to June 30, 2017. This basically means that almost 99 per cent of the demonetised money was deposited into banks. Hence, almost all the black money held in the form of cash, also made it back into the banks and wasn’t really destroyed, as had been hoped.

Given this, instead of destroying black money held in the form of cash, demonetisation seems to have become a legal money laundering scheme, where people with black money have found ingenious ways to deposit it into the banking system. So, the first objective of demonetisation of eliminating black money has not been achieved.

Now we are being told that just because the money has been deposited into banks that does not mean it is not black money. And given this, the Income Tax department now has the data and will go after those people who have deposited their black money into banks. So far so good.

Let’s look at the past record of the Income Tax department when it comes to going after people having black money and achieving convictions. Take a look at Table 1.

Table 1: Year wise details of number of cases in which prosecutions were launched by the Income Tax Department.

Financial Year No. of cases in which presecutions launched Cases coumpounded No. of persons convicted
2013-14 641 561 41
2014-15 669 900 34
2015-16 552 1,019 28
2016-17* 323 404 13

* Provisional figures upto 31st October, 2016

What does Table 1 tell us? It shows the extremely limited capacity of the Income Tax Department when it comes to bringing tax evaders to book. Even if the Income Tax department improves on these numbers, there isn’t much hope on the tax collection front. The prime minister Narendra Modi in his Independence Day speech said: “More than Rs 2 lakh crore black money has reached banks.” An impression is being created that this money is just waiting to find its way into government coffers. The people who have this black money aren’t exactly stupid. They aren’t waiting to hand it over to the government. They have access to good lawyers and chartered accountants and they know how the Indian system works.

Looking at this, it is safe to say the government is just trying to defend a bad decision and it is highly unlikely that it will earn a significant amount from all this black money.

In fact, the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana, the income declaration scheme, launched by the government in the aftermath of demonetisation, failed miserably. The scheme which was launched on December 16, 2016, managed to collect all of Rs 2,300 crore as taxes. This tells us very clearly how much those who have black money fear the taxman in this country.

Now let’s jump to the second issue of eliminating fake currency notes. As far as detecting fake currency is concerned, nothing much seems to have happened on this front. Data from the RBI annual report tells us that the number of fake Rs 500 (old series) and Rs 1,000 notes detected between April 2016 to March 2017 was 5,73,891. The total number of demonetised notes stood at around 2,400 crore. This basically means that as a proportion the fake notes identified between April 2016 to March 2017 stands close to 0 per cent of the demonetised notes.

The total number of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 fake notes detected between April 2015 and March 2016, stood at 4,04,794. And this happened without any demonetisation. Hence, demonetisation has failed on its two major objectives.

Now let’s look at the third objective of demonetisation. In the original scheme of things increasing cashless transactions wasn’t on the table at all. It came into the scheme of things once prime minister Modi talked about it in the Mann ki Baat programme on radio on November 27, 2016, where he said: “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 have we done on this front? Let’s take a look at Figure 1 and Figure 2. These figures plot the total number of cashless transactions through the years in terms of volume (i.e. number) and value of the transactions. I have ignored the Real Time Gross Settlement (RTGS) mode of transferring money because it can be used only for transactions of Rs 2 lakh and over. Hence, it clearly does not fall in the retail domain.

Figure 1: 

What does Figure 1 tell us? It tells us very clearly that the total number of cashless transactions rose in the aftermath of demonetisation. They have fallen since then and are now more or less back on the trend growth line (i.e. the red line in Figure 1). The trend growth line has been plotted in order to take care of the fact that cashless transactions had been growing anyway, irrespective of demonetisation.

In fact, between March 2017 when cashless transactions peaked and June 2017, the total number of cashless transactions have fallen by 10.1 per cent.

Now take a look at Figure 2.

Figure 2: 

Figure 2 clearly tells us that the total value of cashless transactions is now below the trend line. As former RBI governor said in a recent interview“If you look at electronic transactions, you see that there was a blip-up when demonetisation happened but it has come back to broadly the trend growth line.”

One form of cashless payments which has seen good growth is the United Payment Interface. But it forms just 0.6 per cent of the overall cashless transactions and it will be a while before it forms a substantial portion.

Given this, the 2+1 original aims of demonetisation have flopped. The data clearly shows us that.

Of course, we are now being told of new benefits of demonetisation. Take the case of the number of returns being filed going up. Very true. But has it led to increased tax collections? A press release put out by the ministry of finance on August 9, 2017, states the following: “The Direct Tax collections up to July,2017[i.e. between April 2017 and July 2017] in the Current Financial Year 2017-18 continue to register steady growth. Direct Tax collection during the said period, net of refunds, stands at Rs. 1.90 lakh crore which is 19.1% higher than the net collections for the corresponding period of last year.”

Basically, direct tax collections have grown by 19.1 per cent during the first four months of this financial year in comparison to the same period in the last financial year. Hence, has demonetisation led to an increase in the growth of collection of direct taxes?

A press release put out by the ministry of finance on August 9, 2016, had this to say: “The figures for direct tax collections up to July, 2016 show that net revenue collections are at Rs.1.59 lakh crore which is 24.01% more than the net collections for the corresponding period last year.”

Hence, in the period between April to July 2016, the direct tax collections had grown by 24 per cent, without the demonetisation of currency which was carried out in November 2016. What this tells us is that direct tax collections grew faster before demonetisation than they are growing after demonetisation.

Personal income tax collections have grown by 15.7 per cent during the first four months of this financial year. They had grown by 46.6 per cent during the first four months of the previous financial year. So much for increase in taxes collected.

What this tells us is that demonetisation has slowed down the economy and given that the growth in direct taxes has slowed down as well.

Another point being made is that with all the money coming into the banking system, the interest rates have come down. Yes, they have. But has it led to increased lending, is a question no one is asking. Between the end of October 2016 and the end of July 2017, the total non-food lending carried out by banks stood at Rs 2,75,690 crore. The total non-food lending carried out by banks between end of October 2015 and the end of July 2016 had stood at Rs 3,43,013 crore. Hence, bank lending after demonetisation has fallen by close to 20 per cent, if we were to compare it to a similar period in the years gone by.

This is a point that I keep making. People and companies borrow when they are in a position to repay and not simply because interest rates are down. Demonetisation has had a negative impact on the ability of people to repay loans.

Another point that needs to be made here is that 62 per cent of household financial savings in India are invested in deposits. A fall in interest rates hurts people who invest in deposits. This includes senior citizens who use fixed deposits a generate a monthly income. It also includes people saving for the future for their wedding and education of their children. These people are many more in number than borrowers. With lower interest rates, they have to cut down on their current consumption expenditure. This hurts overall economic growth.

Demonetisation has also slowed down on overall economic growth. Take a look at Figure 3. It plots the GDP growth rate of India since March 2016.

Figure 3: 

As can be seen from Figure 3, the GDP growth rate between July and September 2016 had stood at 7.53 per cent. This was before demonetisation was announced in November 2016. It has since fallen to 5.72 per cent. This is clearly an impact of demonetisation. As Rajan said in an interview: “Let us not mince words about it – GDP has suffered. The estimates I have seen range from 1 to 2 percentage points, and that’s a lot of money – over Rs 2 lakh crore and maybe approaching Rs 2.5 lakh crore.”

He points out other costs as well: “The hassle cost of people standing in line, the printing cost that the RBI says is close to Rs 8,000 crore, the cost to the banks of withdrawing the money, and the time spent by their clerks, by their managers and by their senior officers doing all this, and the interest being paid on all those deposits, which earlier were effectively an interest-free loan to the RBI.”

An argument is being made that in the period April to June 2017 the growth fell because of the Goods and Services Tax which was supposed to be introduced on July 1, 2017. That is really not true. (you can read about it in detail here).

Also, even this fall in growth may not capture the situation completely given that the informal sector suffered the most because of demonetisation, and the GDP calculation does not capture that well enough.

All in all, demonetisation was a massive flop. It was an act of self-destruction that has hurt the Indian economy majorly and put us back by at least 1.5 to two years, on the economic growth front. This is something that India can ill-afford given the fact that 1.2 crore youth are entering the workforce every year.

 


Why I continue to write about demonetisation

People have been telling me the real aim of demonetisation was political, so why am I going on and on about the economic impacts.

I am not a dolt I understand that.

The subject of economics before it got hijacked by mathematicians was called political economy. The only place where economics and politics are different things are in an economics classroom or an economics textbook.

Hence, all political moves have economic impacts and vice versa, irrespective of what politicians and economists like to believe.

Also, will demonetisation negatively impact the Modi government, is a question I am being asked. I don’t know. But it has been a huge negative for the Indian economy, a problem which in the normal scheme of things, we wouldn’t have had to deal with.

And given that it needs to be highlighted and talked about, irrespective of whether it has made Modi politically stronger or weaker. That only time will tell. So, keep watching this space.

To conclude, I am a full-time writer and I am paid to write. I can’t do anything else. This is an honest way to make a living. So, I write.

The column was originally published on Equitymaster on September 4, 2017.