Why the weak spin on demonetisation is still going strong

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On August 30, 2017, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), published its much-anticipated Annual Report. Up until last year, only journalists who covered the banking beat, economists and analysts, kept track of the RBI Annual Report.

But this year, many more people were interested. This was primarily because the Annual Report would finally reveal what portion of the demonetised Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, made it back to the banks.

And why was this of interest? After demonetisation had been announced, many people including government ministers and several leading economists, had hoped that a large portion of the demonetised notes won’t come back to the banks. This was because those who had black money in the form of cash wouldn’t want to deposit it into banks, and reveal who they are to the government. In the process, a lot of black money held in the form of cash would be destroyed.

But nothing of that sort happened. The RBI Annual Report revealed that Rs 15.28 lakh crore of the Rs 15.44 lakh crore that was demonetised, made it back into the banks. This meant that nearly 99 per cent of demonetised notes made it back to the banks, and almost no black money was destroyed. Other than not achieving its major goal of destroying black money, demonetisation has also hurt India’s economic growth in general and manufacturing and industrial growth in particular, very badly.

After this, the government as expected has been offering multiple reasons in favour demonetisation. In a press release the ministry of finance offered this reason: “The fact that bulk of specified bank notes (SBNs) have come back to the Banking system shows that the banking system and the RBI were able to effectively respond to the challenge of collecting such a large number of SBNs in a limited time.

What does this even mean? If paper money is made useless overnight, it is bound to come back to the banks. Where else will it go? Another reason offered to show demonetisation as a success is that Rs 3 lakh crore of the Rs 15.28 lakh crore that has come back is black money. No explanations have been offered on how the Rs 3 lakh crore number was arrived on.
But even if we assume that it is black money, the holders of this black money aren’t exactly waiting to hand it over to the government. They have access to chartered accountants as well as lawyers and are ready for a long-drawn battle, if needed.

The weak government spin on demonetisation has continued. The question is why? The answer lies in the fact that a section of the population is still buying this spin on the social media. As Evan Davis writes in Post Truth: “In social media, our disposition to believe things is something a form of bonding. Not only do we tend to reside in echo chambers online, but we actively enjoy becoming closer to our friends by sharing views and agreeing with them. The act of consenting to someone else’s beliefs, and have them consent to ours, is satisfying; and because it is so, it stops us questioning the nonsense that others post.”

This is one explanation for the rather weak defence of demonetisation that is still being put out by the government. Then there is the problem of the narrative, or the prevailing interpretation of a pattern of events. There is a section of population which really wants to believe that demonetisation worked. It’s their narrative.

As Evans writes: “Like-minded groups of individuals share a narrative about many things… These narratives are sometimes true, sometimes not, but they are often like stereotypes… Once embedded in our minds though, they can easily gain excessive traction and trample over truth as willing believers put too much weight on propositions that conform to their narrative without looking for evidence in support of them.

And that explains why the weak spin on demonetisation is still going strong.

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on September 20, 2017.

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Gold Imports Surge: Are People Hedging the Risk of Another Demonetisation by Converting Black Money into Gold?

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The impact of demonetisation has played out in many ways. Here is one more way: The gold imports between April and July 2017 have been nearly 2.7 times the gold imports during the same period last year.

Let’s take a look at Figure 1 which plots gold imports (in Kgs) over the last few financial years.

Figure 1: 

It is clear from Figure 1 that the gold imports have jumped up big time between April to July 2017, in comparison to last year. In fact, they are the second highest in the last five years. Take a look at Figure 2. Figure 2 plots the money spent on importing gold over the last five years.

Figure 2: 

Even in value terms significantly more gold has been imported this year than last year. The price of gold during the period April to July 2017, averaged at $1257.9 per ounce (one troy ounce equals 31.1 grams). During the same period last year, the price of gold had averaged at $1291.3 per ounce, which was slightly higher.

How do things look if we look at the calendar year instead of the financial year? Between January and July 2017, the total amount of gold imported stands at 6, 61,836 kgs. Between January and July 2016, this had stood at 3,11,938kgs. There is a clear jump in this case as well. In fact, the interesting thing is that the import of gold has been concentrated during the first five months of the calendar year, immediately after demonetisation.

What does this tell us? When and why do people actually buy gold?

The history of economics tells us that people buy gold when the faith in official paper money (in this case the Indian rupee) is low. Take the case of the period between April to July 2013. A lot of gold was bought during this period. The rate of consumer price inflation was at 9-10 per cent. Given this, a section of the population had lost faith in the Indian rupee and was hedging against inflation and buying gold.

What is happening this time around? This time around Indians are buying gold because in the aftermath of demonetisation which was carried out in November 2016, there is a feeling that the government might do it again. Given this, a portion of the black money which was held in the form of cash earlier, is now simply being converted into gold. This seems like the most logical explanation for this surge. The lower price argument doesn’t really hold because prices this year have been more or less similar to prices last year.

Of course, gold is easy to store and has never gone out of fashion. Hence, it can easily be converted into cash at any point of time.

In 2013-2014, people had lost confidence in paper money because of extremely high inflation. This time around, people have lost faith in paper money because of demonetisation. Hence, they are buying gold.

As Indians bought gold in 2013-2014 and a lot of it (close to 4,20,000 kgs, during the first four months of that financial year, as Figure 1 suggests), the demand for dollars went up. India imports almost all of the gold that it consumes. Hence, it buys gold internationally in dollars. As the demand for dollars went up, importers sold rupees and bought dollars. In the process, the rupee lost value rapidly against the dollar.

In April 2013, one dollar was worth Rs 54.23. By August 2013, it was worth Rs 67.4. The rupee simply crashed during the period. It is worth asking here that why a similar situation does not prevail right now. Why hasn’t the rupee crashed like it did when people bought lots of gold between April and July 2013?

This is because while Indians are buying gold, a lot of dollars continue to come to India through the foreign institutional investors route. These investors continue to invest in the Indian stock market and the debt market. Between April and July 2017, the foreign institutional investors have invested a little over Rs 95,000 crore in the stock and the debt market. The foreign institutional investors sell dollars and buy rupees in order to invest in the stock and the debt market. This demand for the Indian rupee has ensured that the dollar has remained stable against the rupee at around Rs 64. Hence, the demand for rupees among these investors is negating the demand for dollars among gold importers. This has led to a stable value of the rupee against the dollar.

What had happened between April and July 2013? While, the demand for gold was very high, the foreign institutional investors were selling out of India. During the period, they encashed close to Rs 27,000 crore from the stock and the debt market. In fact, the foreign institutional investors sold stocks and debt worth over Rs 60,000 crore between June and July 2013.

In order to repatriate this money abroad, they had to sell these rupees and buy dollars. This along with heavy gold buying, which was accompanied by selling of rupees and buying of dollars, pushed up the demand for the dollar, and drove down the value of the rupee.

This essentially explains why the value of the rupee had crashed in 2013-2014, and has remained stable during this financial year. Nevertheless, people are buying gold because their faith in the Indian rupee has gone down and they clearly want to hedge against the risk of another round of demonetisation.

(The column was originally published on Equitymaster on September 19, 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.

Viewpoint: Why Modi’s currency gamble was ‘epic failure’

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.

The devil, as they say, is in the detail.

On Page 195 of the Reserve Bank of India’s latest annual report released on August 30, 2017, lies the answer to the question, a large part of India has been asking for close to ten months.

Has demonetisation been a success or a failure? As per the RBI data released in the annual report, it is safe to say that demonetisation has been a failure of epic proportions.

On November 8, last year, the Narendra Modi government decided to demonetise Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, which were worth Rs 15.44 trillion notes in total. The idea was to attack both fake currency as well as black money or unaccounted wealth. The prime minister said so in his address to the nation announcing the demonetisation decision.
This was backed up by the government press release accompanying the decision. Black money is essentially money that has been earned but on which taxes haven’t been paid.

From the midnight between November 8 and November 9, 2016, the Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, were not worth anything. The people holding these notes had to deposit them in their bank accounts. This money could later be withdrawn, though there were restrictions on the amount of the money that could be withdrawn immediately.

The hope was that black money held in the form of cash wouldn’t be deposited into banks, given that people holding this money wouldn’t want to be identified. In the process, a humongous amount of black money would be destroyed.

The RBI Annual Report on Page 195 says that demonetised notes worth Rs 15.28 trillion 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.

The conventional explanation for this is that most people who had black money found other people, who did not have black money, to deposit money into the banking system.

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 24.02 billion. 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.

The funny thing is that there were no estimates of how much of black money was held in the form of cash. The government admitted to the same as well, after having made the decision to demonetise. The finance minister Arun Jaitley said so in a written reply to a question in the Lok Sabha (one of the Houses of the Indian Parliament) on December 16, 2016, where he said: “There is no official estimation of the amount of black money either before or after the Government’s decision of 8th November 2016 declaring that bank notes of denominations of the existing series of the value of five hundred rupees and one thousand rupees shall cease to be legal tender with effect from 9th November 2016.”

The search and seize operations carried out by the Income Tax Department (popularly referred to as Income Tax raids) suggested that people tend to hold around 5 per cent of their black money in the form of cash.

But even this lack of data in public, did not stop economists from coming up with their own set of numbers, trying to defend this decision of the Modi government. Leading this charge was Columbia University economist Jagdish Bhagwati (along with two co-authors), who in a column in the Mint newspaper on December 27, 2016,  wrote: “Suppose we accept the estimate that one-third of the approximately Rs15 trillion in demonetised notes is black money.” These economists did not bother to explain, what logic did they base their assumption on.

Demonetisation has badly hit India’s large cash economy. As per the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (the labour wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which currently governs the country): “As many as 2.5 lakh units in unorganised sector were closed and the real estate sector was badly affected where a large number of workers got unemployed.”

Agriculture trade, a sector which largely operates on cash, has been badly impacted as well, with farmers not getting adequate compensation primarily for vegetables and pulses, they had grown. This has led to farmers protests across the country, which has in turn led to several state governments waiving off farm loans.

Over and above this, demonetisation caused a huge cash shortage with people having to spend many days standing in ATM lines trying to withdraw their own money. Many people even died in the process.

As far as the Modi government is concerned they are unlikely to admit that demonetisation was a big mistake and will continue to put a positive spin around it, as they have from November 2016. Things will not change on that front.

To conclude, no relatively healthy economy in the past, has carried out demonetistaion. As the latest Economic Survey of the government of India points out: “India’s demonetisation is unprecedented in international economic history, in that it combined secrecy and suddenness amidst normal economic and political conditions. All other sudden demonetisations have occurred in the context of hyperinflation, wars, political upheavals, or other extreme circumstances.”

And the real costs of this unprecedented event are only just starting to come out.

A slightly shorter version of this column appeared on BBC.com.

 

The DeMon is in the details

rupee

The Narendra Modi government has unleashed a whole host of numbers on us, the citizens of this country, to prove how demonetisation has led to a huge increase in the number of returns filed. Different numbers have been offered by the prime minister, the finance minister, the finance ministry and the chief economic adviser to the finance ministry. Recently, there was even a clarification put out by the finance ministry regarding how to read these numbers.

This piece is not about how to read the different numbers put out by the government. For that you can read this excellent piece by James Wilson. I try and answer a different question here: Has this increase in the number of tax returns being filed ultimately led to a substantial difference in the total amount of direct taxes being collected by the central government as a proportion of the size of the Indian economy?

If it hasn’t, then the increase in the total number of returns being filed has basically meant more work and more money for the chartered accountants, and nothing else.

So, let’s take a look at Figure 1, which maps the direct taxes collected by the central government as a proportion of size of the Indian economy — that is, its gross domestic product or GDP. Direct taxes essentially consist of corporation tax, personal income tax, income tax paid by firms other than companies, security transaction tax, hotel receipts tax, etc. Corporation tax and personal income tax form a bulk of direct taxes.

The exercise has been carried out for the financial years between 2011-2012 and 2016-2017. This has been done because the GDP data is available only from 2011-2012 onwards. Also, while carrying out the calculations wealth tax has been ignored because it was abolished in the budget speech the finance minister Arun Jaitley gave on February 28, 2015. (To be honest, the collections were so small that even if they had been included, it wouldn’t have made any difference to the overall result.)

Figure 1:

(Source for Direct Taxes data: Indiabudget.nic.in Source: Press Information Bureau, April 4, 2017. Source for GDP data: Reserve Bank of India)

Now what does Figure 1 tell us? There has been a slight improvement in the direct taxes to GDP ratio between 2015-2016 and 2016-2017. But at 5.58 per cent of the GDP, it is still trying to play catch up with the earlier years.

Also, it is worth reminding the readers here that in 2016-2017, the government got a declaration of  Rs 65,250 crore through the Income Declaration Scheme, a voluntary income disclosure scheme. If we adjust for the taxes collected under this scheme, the direct taxes to GDP ratio falls to 5.48 per cent. This scheme was launched before demonetisation happened. This changes things. And this is how the real scenario looks like (See Figure 2).

Figure 2:

What Figure 2 tells us is that demonetisation basically led to a slowdown in the economy where lesser tax was paid than in the past. The direct taxes to GDP ratio of 5.63 per cent was achieved in 2013-2014 without demonetisation.

Also, how do things look if we ignore corporation tax (i.e. corporate income tax) and look at the remaining direct taxes. This primarily comprises of personal income tax. Let’s take a look at Figure 3, which plots the ratio of direct taxes other than corporation tax as a proportion of the GDP.

Figure 3:

(Source for Direct Taxes data: Indiabudget.nic.in. Source for GDP data: Reserve Bank of India)

Figure 3 tells us that the direct taxes other than corporation tax as a proportion of GDP has jumped by 23 basis points to 2.33 per cent in 2016-2017, in comparison to 2015-2016. One basis point is one hundredth of a percentage.

Again, the question to ask here is: Has this jump happened because of demonetisation? It has happened primarily because of the money collected as taxes and fines under the Income Disclosure Scheme. Once the tax collected under the Income Declaration Scheme is adjusted for, the ratio falls to 2.23 per cent of the GDP. And this is how Figure 3 now looks like (See Figure 4).

Figure 4:


How do things look if we were to simply look at the corporation tax to GDP ratio? Take a look at Figure 5.

Figure 5:

As can be seen from Figure 5, the corporation tax to GDP ratio has been falling for a while, and it continued to fall in 2016-2017 as well.

All this analysis was for 2016-2017. How do things look in the current financial year i.e. 2017-2018? We do not have the GDP data for that, so calculating the direct taxes to GDP ratio is not possible. Nevertheless, there are other ways to analyse this issue.

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 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 the point is that as far as the actual direct tax collections are concerned, demonetisation has clearly had a negative impact. This also explains why the government media releases tend to focus on the number of returns filed and not the tax that is being collected. More returns being filed without any increase in taxes collected simply means more work and more money for chartered accountants — and nothing else.

One argument that can be made here is that as the income earned by those who are filing returns now (but not paying taxes) goes up, they will pay taxes as well. But this argument rests on the assumption that the minimum taxable limit to pay income tax will continue to remain where it is and will not be increased in the years to come. If one looks at the history of income tax, this has clearly not been the case. The minimum taxable limit keeps going up every few years and at a rate faster than the growth in per capita income.

Of course, given that we live in an era of post-truth, all this data and analysis doesn’t really matter. What matters is who is presenting the data, even if it is incomplete and leads to wrong inferences being made. As Evan Davis writes in Post Truth—Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About It:

[The] argument that who you are matters more than the substantive point you are making is especially true about politicians. Voters focus on character rather than policy partly because they are better able to judge character and are relatively uninformed on policy… So, for a politician, having a good reputation is worth a hundred quick victories in specific arguments.

The moral of the story is that it doesn’t matter if the right data is not being presented, because people will believe what is being presented.

The column originally appeared on Thinkpragati.com on August 24, 2017.

How I Knew Demonetisation Was Going To Be A Disaster Right From Day 2

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The recent past has seen even the biggest supporters of prime minister Narendra Modi concede that demonetisation was a disaster that the country could have done without. A major reason for this has been the gross domestic product (GDP) data for the year 2016-2017, which was published on May 31, 2017.

As per this data, the growth for the non-government part of the economy crashed to 5.6 per cent in 2016-2017, after having grown by 8.5 per cent in 2015-2016. In fact, even the 5.6 per cent growth might be an overstatement given that the GDP data does not capture informal sector data well enough. And the informal sector has been in a large mess post demonetisation.

The trouble is that anyone who had any basic understanding of economics or had read up on some economic history, would have known this from day one. And if not from day one, at least from day two.

I wrote my first piece on demonetisation within hours of the announcement to demonetise the Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes. As a freelance writer, I am expected to react to things as soon as they happen. The first piece I wrote had a neutral tone to it, where I tried to explain as to why the government had done what it had done.

With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that the first piece was written too quickly and at the same time was highly influenced by the government’s press release explaining the decision. But from Day 2 onwards, I went back to basic economics to essentially say that demonetisation would turn out to be bad for the Indian economy as it eventually has.

After the first piece was published I happened to remember a story that was a part of my first book Easy Money–Evolution of Money from Robinson Crusoe to the First World War.
The story was about cigarettes being used as money in the prisoner-of-war camps that cropped up all over Europe during the Second World War. The prisoners used to receive standard food parcels from the Red Cross during the war. The parcels included biscuits, butter, cigarettes, canned beef, chocolate, jam, milk, sugar, etc.[i]

As soon as the rations arrived, prisoners used to start exchanging them. One of the earliest transactions used to be nonsmokers exchanging their cigarettes for chocolates that the smokers had got. Sikhs, who had been fighting for the British Army, used to exchange their allocation of beef for other goods like butter, jam, and margarine. But gradually cigarettes went way beyond the status of a normal commodity and became the standardized medium of exchange. A prisoner of war even recalls exchanges like “cheese for seven cigarettes” happening in the camps. He also recalls an individual who sold coffee, tea, or hot chocolate at the rate of two cigarettes a cup. This individual eventually scaled up his business but failed, making losses of a few hundred cigarettes.[ii]

Sometimes, the weekly Red Cross parcels which had cigarettes in them, did not arrive. At other times, the stress of heavy air raids near the camps made peo­ple smoke away their money, that is, cigarettes.[iii]

In such situations, there was not enough money (i.e., cigarettes) going around in the prison economy and led to a situation where prices fell. Since people did not have cigarettes to buy goods, those who were hoarding food, toiletries, and so on, had to cut prices in the hope that they are able to make a sale.

This story tells us a lot about how demonetisation has played out.

Money basically has three functions. It is a medium of exchange, a unit of account and a store of value. It’s function as a medium of exchange is its most important function. People use money to buy and sell things i.e. to carry out economic transactions, with the buyer paying money to the seller every time he sells a product or a service.

In the above example cigarettes were used as money. And when a war camp ran out of cigarettes, or there was a shortage, the economy inside the camp collapsed or slowed down considerably.

How is this relevant to demonetisation? Any economy needs a certain amount of money to function properly. Demonetisation at one go rendered 86.4 per cent of the currency useless. While currency is not the only form of money in India, it is the major form.
Like with cigarettes at prisoner-of-war camps, suddenly there wasn’t enough currency going around post demonetisation. Hence, the rupee’s function as a medium of exchange came to a standstill.

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has replaced this money at a very gradual pace. In fact, even now the currency in circulation is at 84 per cent of the currency in circulation that prevailed before demonetisation. This shortage of currency over the last seven months has led to a slowdown in the buying and selling of things i.e. people haven’t been able to carry out economic transactions.

The slowdown in economic transactions has ultimately led to a slowdown in economic growth. In fact, when there weren’t enough cigarettes going around, prices collapsed in the prison economy. Along, similar lines prices of agriculture produce, have collapsed since demonetisation, as cash in agriculture trade has dried up. This has led to the farmers protesting across the length and breadth of the country.

Anyone who had studied some economic history would have known from the beginning that demonetisation would turn out to be a disaster that it has. Anyone who understood the functions of money, would have argued along similar lines.

But that is not how it has turned out to be. Economists have gone on and on, about how demonetisation will prove beneficial to the nation, especially in the long run. Some have even built models to show the success of demonetisation.

But the fact of the matter is that you can keep building models to justify demonetisation but that doesn’t change the basic fact that with less money going around an economy contracts or grows at a slower pace.

Because with less money people cannot carry out economic transactions of buying and selling things. And without that economy grows slower or contracts.

Yes people can move onto digital payments. But digital payments haven’t grown fast enough to be able to bring down the influence of cash in the Indian economy. This means people still prefer cash or they are simply not confident about spending money in any form at this point of time.

[i]  C. Desan. Coins Reconsidered: The Political Alchemy of Commodity Money (The Berkeley Electronic Press, 2010).

[ii] R.A. Radford, “The Economic Organisation of a P.O.W. Camp,Economica 12 (1945): 189–201.

[iii]  Desan 2010

The column originally appeared in the Huffington Post on June 17, 2017.

Why Demonetisation Did Not Hurt Modi

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Later this week, the prime minister Narendra Modi will complete three years in office. In the recent past, there have been a spate of articles analysing the performance of the Modi government.

The general conclusion seems to be that the prime minister continues to remain politically popular. The recent wins of the Bhartiya Janata Party in the Uttar Pradesh state assembly elections and the Delhi municipal elections, is evidence of the same.

Over and above this, there has been a lot of analysis around the impact of demonetisation, as more data becomes available. Most data show that the economic impact of demonetisation has been negative. For all the trouble that people were put through, the income tax department hasn’t been able to identify much of black money.

Further, barely any fake currency was identified during the process of demonetisation. Digital transactions peaked in December 2016 and have fallen since then. Hordes of informal businesses were shut down and many people lost their jobs, in the process. And if all this wasn’t enough, on some days ATMs still run out of cash.

Nevertheless, despite all this Modi continues to be a popular prime minister. What is happening here? The negative economic environment created in the aftermath of demonetisation hasn’t impacted the prime minister.

Narendra Modi is what political scientists call a populist leader. What is the definition of a populist leader? Jan-Werner Müller, a professor of politics at Princeton University, defines this in his book What is Populism?

First and foremost “it is a necessary but not sufficient condition to be critical of elites in order to count as a populist”. Over and above this, there are other factors that go into the making of a populist leader like Modi is.

As Müller writes: “Populists claim that they, and they alone, represent people… The claim of exclusive representation is not an empirical one; it is always distinctly moral. When running for office, populists portray their political competitors as part of the immoral, corrupt elite; when ruling, they refuse to recognise any opposition as legitimate. The populist logic also implies that whoever does not support populist parties might not be a proper part of the people—always defined as righteous and morally pure.”

A populist leader also likes cutting out the middleman. This means relying as little as possible on party organisations and the media, which acts as intermediaries between party organisations and the people.

This explains why Modi chose to directly address the nation on Doordarshan while announcing demonetisation on November 8, 2016. He spoke to the nation through the mann ki baat programme on radio on November 27, 2016. He addressed the nation again on December 31, 2016.

The focus of the message delivered was on how black money of the morally corrupt elite was hurting India big time and how important it was to tackle this problem on a war footing on an immediate basis. By doing this a situation of a crisis was created.

As Müller writes: “A “crisis” is not an objective state of affairs but a matter of interpretation. Populist will often eagerly frame a situation as a crisis, calling it an existential threat, because such a crisis then serves to legitimate populist governance. Put differently, a “crisis” can be a performance, and politics can be served as a continuous stage of siege.”

And this direct talking by populists attacking the so called morally corrupt elite goes down well with the true people, something which all the data and the numbers offered against decisions made by them can’t do anything about.

As Müller writes: “Populists ultimately appeal to a certain symbolic rendering of the “true people,” the appeal of that image will not vanish automatically when voters are presented with a some set of correct statistics about a particular policy area”.

And that best explains why demonetisation was a politically popular decision though numbers clearly show that it hurt the Indian economy.

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on May 24, 2017