India Has 8.4 Crore More Workers in Agriculture Than is Economically Feasible

One of the themes that I have often explored in my columns and discuss in detail in my book India’s Big Government, is that India has way too many people working in agriculture. Or as economists like to put it, we have huge disguised unemployment in agriculture.

A new discussion paper titled Changing Structure of Rural Economy of India Implications for Employment and Growth, authored by Ramesh Chand, SK Srivastava and Jaspal Singh, and published by the NITI Aayog, makes a few interesting points on this front.

As per this discussion paper, the rural economy in 2011-2012, formed 46.9 per cent of India’s economy, though it employed 70.9 per cent of its workforce.

Most people tend to believe that India’s rural economy is primarily concerned only with agriculture. Agriculture contributes around 12-13 per cent of the overall Indian economy.

Given that, the rural economy contributes 46.9 per cent to the overall Indian economy, it basically means that there are other areas that the rural economy is contributing to as well. And some of the findings of this discussion paper may surprise many people. Let’s look at them one by one.

1) One of the misconceptions that prevails is that rural India is totally dependent on agriculture. The discussion paper sets this right. As it points out: “Contrary to the common perception about predominance of agriculture in rural economy, about two third of rural income is now generated in non-agricultural activities.” This was clearly not the case earlier.

2) This is primarily because agriculture as a profession is nowhere as rewarding as it used to be. As the discussion paper points out: “In year 2011-12 per worker income varied from Rs. 33,937 for agricultural labour to Rs.1,71,836 for rural non-farm workers.” The ratio of rural non-farm rural income to income of agricultural labour has increased over the years, though it has fallen in the recent past.

Take a look at Figure 1. It plots the ratio of non-farm rural income to income of agricultural labour over the decades.

Figure 1: 

Take a look at Figure 2. It plots the ratio of average urban income to that of average income of an agricultural labour.

Figure 2: 

Figure 2 clearly explains why people migrate from rural areas to urban areas. As the discussion paper clearly points out: “Between 2001 and 2011, India’s urban population increased by 31.8 per cent as compared to 12.18 per cent increase in the rural population.

Over fifty per cent of the increase in urban population during this period was attributed to the rural-urban migration and re-classification of rural settlements into urban.” There is a clear economic incentive for people to move from rural areas to urban areas.

3) With two-thirds of rural income now being generated from non-agriculture activities, the rural economy as a whole when it comes to income is moving away from agriculture, but that is not true when it comes to employment. This is something that I have been talking about for a while. Indian agriculture employs way too many people in comparison to what it needs.

The discussion paper points out that in 1970-1971, agriculture formed 72.4 per cent of India’s rural economy, and employed 85.5 per cent of the rural workforce. By 2011-2012, the size of agriculture had nearly halved, and it formed 39.2 per cent of India’s rural economy, but it still employed 64.1 per cent of the rural workforce. This data points shows that agriculture continues to employ many more people than it should.

4) Having said that, there is another point that needs to be made here. While, the overall employment in agriculture given its share in the rural economy remains high, it has fallen dramatically between 2004-2005 and 2011-2012. In 2004-2005, agriculture formed 38.9 per cent of India’s rural economy, while employing 72.6 per cent of the country’s rural workforce. By 2011-2012, agriculture formed 39.2 per cent of India’s rural economy, and at the same time employed 64.1 per cent of the rural workforce.

Hence, there has been a fall in the total number of people dependent on agriculture. But is this goods news?

5) As the discussion paper points out: “Sizable occupational shifts in workforce were also observed between 2004-05 and 2011-12. Out of 33 million workers who left agriculture 27 million (81%) were female and 6 million (19%) were male. Further, outgoing workforce from agriculture comprised both cultivators and agricultural labours with their respective shares of 56 per cent and 44 per cent. It is worth mentioning that out of 27 million female workers who left agriculture, only 5 million joined non-farm sectors and rest withdrew from labour-force itself.”

So, the point is that while lesser proportion of the workforce is now dependent on agriculture than was the case in the past, many of the women who have dropped out of agriculture, have stopped working all together. Indeed, this de-feminisation of the workforce, is a very disturbing trend.

6) The takeaway from the NITI Aayog discussion paper is that in 2011-2012, agriculture employed 64 per cent of the rural workforce and produced only around 39 per cent of its economic output. In an ideal world, a sector producing 39 per cent of output, should employ 39 per cent of the workforce.

For something like this to happen, nearly 8.4 crore agricultural workers need to be shifted to sectors other than agriculture. As the discussion paper points out: “This amounted to almost 70 per cent increase in non-farm employment, which looks quite challenging.” It also amounts to around one-fourth of the rural workforce of 34.2 crore as of 2011-2012. Chances are the 8.4 crore number would have grown between 2011-2012 and now.

Over and above this, the bigger challenge is the agriculture workforce lacks skills to do anything else. As per the discussion paper: “Only 1.3 per cent of the rural workforce of the age group 15-59 years possessed technical education. Similarly, only 14.6 per cent of the rural workforce of age group 15-59 years received vocational trainings, which aim to develop competencies (knowledge, skills and attitude) of skilled or semi-skilled workers in various trades.”

These skills cannot be improved overnight and jobs be created. Hence, the fear is that the current generation of Indians still largely dependent on agriculture, are going to lose out in the process. As time goes by, this looks more and more likely.

7) One area which has added to employment is construction. Construction formed 3.5 per cent of the rural economy in 1970-1971. This increased to 10.5 per cent by 2011-2012. The share of the sector in rural employment in 1972-1973 was at 1.4 per cent. This jumped to 10.7 per cent in 2011-2012.

One area where agricultural workers can be nudged towards is construction. As the discussion paper points out: “Rural areas are characterised by poor infrastructure and civic amenities. Similarly, a large per cent of houses are in need of upgradation. These facts indicate considerable scope for growth of construction sector in rural areas.”

Over and above this, the real estate sector in urban areas can be a huge employment generator. But for that to happen, the prices need to fall, and more than a few real estate companies need to go bust.

While the role of the government in India to be able to achieve anything significant is limited, this is something where both the state governments and the central government, can have a major role to play. Road construction is one area where many jobs can be generated. This can then act as a multiplier for the services sector as well. As people earn more they are likely to spend more.

To conclude, the fact that India has way too many people employed in agriculture, is probably the country’s biggest social and economic challenge. The trouble is no one really is even talking about it, let alone working towards a solution. The first step towards solving any problem is acknowledging that it exists.

The column originally appeared in Equitymaster on Dec 13, 2017.


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

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.

Shutting Out Chinese Products is Not Going to Create Jobs

Public rallies against imported Chinese goods are held quite regularly these days, across different parts of the country. India’s dependence on Chinese goods has only grown over the years. This can be made out from Figure 1, which plots India’s imports from China every quarter, for the last few years.

Figure 1 tells us very clearly that India’s imports from China have grown over the years. Having said that, it doesn’t make sense to look at imports in isolation given that India exports stuff to China as well. Hence, Figure 2 plots India’s trade deficit with China (i.e. the difference between our total imports from China and our total exports to it).

Figure 1:
Figure 2 clearly shows that India’s trade deficit with China has grown over the years. This means that we import much more from China than we export to it. A major reason for this lies in the fact that most of the Indian firms are small in size. Take a look at Figure 3.

Figure 2:
What does Figure 3 tell us? It tells us very clearly that close to 85 per cent of Indian manufacturing firms are small. They employ less than 50 workers. In case of China, only around 25 per cent of the manufacturing firms are small. Also, in case of China, more than 50 per cent of manufacturing firms are large i.e. they employ more than 200 workers. In the Indian case, around 10 per cent of the manufacturing firms are large. And India has very few middle-sized firms which employ anywhere between 50 to 200 workers.

Figure 3: Distribution of manufacturing workforce among small,
medium and large firms in India and China
Given this small size, Indian firms lack economy of scale, which is basically a proportionate fall in costs gained with increased production. Hence, Indian products are costlier than Chinese products. In a recent newsreport, Blooomberg quotes a small shopkeeper as saying: “India-made lights cost twice as much… Customers aren’t willing to pay that.”

The other factor that helps make Chinese imports cheaper is the huge fall in international shipping costs over the years. This is a point that Tim Harford makes in his new book 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy: “Goods can now be shipped reliably, swiftly and cheaply: rather than the $420 that a customer would have paid… to ship a tonne of goods across the Atlantic in 1954, you might now pay less than $50 a tonne.”

This has had a major impact on the way goods are manufactured and business in general is carried out. As Harford writes: “Manufacturers are less and less interested in positioning their factories close to their customers – or even their suppliers. What matters instead is finding a location where the workforce, the regulations, the tax regime and the going wage all help make production as efficient as possible. Workers in China enjoy new opportunities; in developed countries [and developing countries] they experience new threats to their jobs; and governments anywhere feel that they’re competing with governments everywhere to attract business investment. On top of it all, in a sense, is the consumer, who enjoys the greatest possible range of the cheapest possible products – toys, phones, clothes, anything [emphasis added].”

The point is that the Chinese factories operate on a very large scale and that makes their products cheaper than the ones being made in India. The fact that transportation costs are low, helps as well.

Those against Chinese products want this dominance of Chinese products on India to end. As Arun Ojha, national convener of Swadeshi Jagran Manch recently told Bloomberg: “Our youth are losing jobs and we are becoming traders of Chinese products.”

It is important to dissect Ojha’s statement. What he is essentially saying is that because Indians are buying Chinese products, Indian industry is shutting down and the Indian youth are losing jobs. So, what is the way out? The way out is that we stop buying Chinese products and start buying Indian ones. Will this help?

This is where things are no longer as straightforward as they seem. The straightforward interpretation here is that, as Indians stop buying Chinese goods and start buying Indian goods, Indian industry will flourish, and Indian youth will find jobs. Now only if it was as simple as that.

Henry Hazlitt discusses a similar situation in his brilliant book Economics in One Lesson, in the context of United Kingdom of Great Britain and United States of America. As he writes: “An American manufacturer of woollen sweaters… sells his sweaters for $30 each, but English manufacturers could sell their sweaters of the same quality for $25. A duty of $5, therefore, is needed to keep him in business. He is not thinking of himself, of course, but of the thousand men and women he employs, and of the people to whom their spending in turn gives employment. Throw them out of work, and you create unemployment and a fall in purchasing power, which would spread in ever-widening circle.”

An American manufacturer of sweaters can sell his sweaters for $ 30 per piece. At the same time, an English manufacturer can sell the same sweater for $25 per piece. Hence, the American manufacturer charges $5 or20 per cent more for the same product than the British one. Of course, if both the products are allowed into the American market, the consumer will buy the cheaper one. This would mean that the British manufacturer would flourish. In the process, the American manufacturer might have to shutdown and this would mean a loss of a huge number of jobs.

The American government would obviously be bothered about the American manufacturer and the American jobs. Given this, to ensure that the American manufacturer can compete, the American government needs to impose a duty of $5 on the British manufacturer. This will mean the British manufacturer will also sell sweaters for $30. In the process, the American manufacturer would be able to compete, and jobs would be saved.

This trouble with this argument, as convincing as it sounds, is that it does not take the point of view of the consumer buying the sweater into account. As Hazlitt puts it: “The fallacy comes from looking merely at this manufacturer and his employees, or merely at the American sweater industry. It comes from noticing only the results that are immediately seen, and neglecting the results that are not seen because they are prevented from coming into existence.”

If the consumer ends up paying $30 per sweater, he would be paying $5 more. This basically means that he would have $5 less to spend on other things. As Hazlitt writes: “Because the American consumer had to pay $5 more for the same quality of sweater he would have just that much less left over to buy anything else. He would have to reduce his expenditures by $5 somewhere else. In order that one industry might grow or come into existence, a hundred other industries would have to shrink. In order that 50,000 persons might be employed in a woollen sweater industry, 50,000 fewer persons would be employed elsewhere.”

If the British manufacturer was allowed a level playing field and sweaters continued to sell at $25 per piece, the American manufacturer would soon have to shutdown. The loss of these 50,000 jobs would be noticed. This would be the seen effect of letting the British sell in the American market.

If these jobs are to be protected, then even the British sweaters would have to sell at $30 per piece. This would leave the consumer with $5 less, which he could have spent on something else, otherwise. This lack of spending would impact other industries and jobs would be lost there. It’s just that the loss of these jobs would not be so visible as was the case with the American sweater industry. This is the unseen effect.

Now replace the United States with India and the United Kingdom with China in the above example, the entire logic remains the same. If Indians move towards buying more Indian goods than Chinese, they will end up paying more for those goods. This will leave them with less money to spend elsewhere. This would impact other industries, where jobs would be lost. It’s just that these job losses won’t be so obvious.

This is a rather obvious point that most people miss out on while analysing this issue. There is a certain opportunity cost of money. As Dan Ariely and Jeff Kreisler write in Dollars and Sense-Money Mishaps and How to Avoid Them: “The opportunity cost of money is that when we spend money on one thing, it’s money that we cannot spend on something else, neither right now nor anytime later.”

Given this, shutting out Chinese products is not going to create jobs in India. The only way jobs can be created is if Indian industry can compete with China. Right now, it doesn’t.

The column originally appeared in Equitymaster on Nov 27, 2017.

One Example of How a Good and Simple Tax Should Work

Late last week I was paying the Goods and Services Tax (GST) I had collected on behalf of the government, to the government.

In the process of payment, I made a mistake, which, with the benefit of hindsight I can say was a rather silly one. Basically, the entries for the state GST and integrated GST got interchanged. In the process, I ended up paying more integrated GST than I had to and less state GST than I had to.

Integrated GST is a tax which the seller must collect from the buyer on the inter-state supply of goods and services. State GST and central GST are taxes which the seller must collect from the buyer on the intra-state supply of goods and services.

Let’s understand this through an example. I am based out of Mumbai in the state of Maharashtra. I write a column for a magazine, which is based out of New Delhi. In this case, when I bill the magazine (the buyer), I will raise an invoice with an integrated GST of 18 per cent.

If I write a column for a website (it could even be a magazine/newspaper) based out of Mumbai, then I will raise an invoice with a central GST of 9 per cent and a state GST of 9 per cent. The point to be noted here is that the overall rate of tax in both the cases (interstate and intrastate) is the same. Only the division is different.

Anyway, getting back to my story. Given that I hadn’t paid the right amount of state GST, this meant that I had logon to the GST portal once again and pay the state GST I hadn’t. The integrated GST I had already paid will now get adjusted against the payments that I will make in the months to come. The money is safe. There is nothing to worry on that front.

Of course, I didn’t realise I had made a mistake while paying the GST. It was only when my chartered accountant started filing the GST return, this mistake was noticed. After this, I frantically logged on to the GST portal in order to pay the state GST, I hadn’t. In fact, I almost ended up paying the integrated GST all over again. Thankfully, I noticed the mistake this time around.

In the process of making this mistake I had a rather obvious realisation. As someone who is collecting GST on behalf of the government, it doesn’t matter to me whether I am collecting state GST or central GST or integrated GST. This is something that should work at the backend of the system that has been created to implement GST.

How the GST collected by the government is split between the different governments (central and states) is not something I am really bothered about. Once I have upload my returns and have paid the right amount of GST, the system should be able to figure out, using GST numbers which have state codes and the PAN number of buyer as well as the seller built into it, what proportion of the GST should go to the central government and what proportion should go to the state governments.

Given this, I as a user should simply be making an entry for the total GST that I need to pay. The GST system can then easily figure out, the various kinds of GST, given that each buying-selling transaction along with the value, is reported as well.

But that is not how the current GST system works. The backend has become the front end as well. That is how the system has been designed.

It is well worth asking why? Dear Reader, if you have ever filed an income tax return form on your own even once, you would already know the answer. When the government designs these forms, it does not keep the ease of use of the end user in mind. That’s the idea with which the government has always operated. This has seeped into the GST system as well.

The success of any government system (or for that matter any system) also depends on how easy it is to use. This ease of use will make GST a good and simple tax, which it currently isn’t. In case of the GST, the government has just made the laws. The actual taxes need to be collected by the seller from the buyer. The seller then needs to hand the tax over to the government. The seller also needs to file returns. Currently, this entire process that has been made extremely cumbersome.

I am no GST expert, but I am sure that if some thought was given to the entire process of filing GST returns and paying GST to the government, it could be simplified. But for that to happen, first and foremost what is needed is bureaucratic will, even more than political will.

Indian bureaucrats have never liked to make things simple for the citizens of this country, because a simple system would discourage rent-seeking, which many of them excel in. And therefore, I feel that the GST will continue to be as complicated as ever.

The column originally appeared on Equitymaster on November 21, 2017.



The Govt Can’t Do Much, If Restaurants Don’t Pass on Benefits of Lower GST

Dear Reader,

If you are on WhatsApp, I am sure you would have got a forward by now, which basically shows that eating out at a restaurant hasn’t become cheap, after the Goods and Services Tax (GST) was cut to 5 per cent.

In fact, there has been a lot of hungama (for the lack of a better word) around this issue, with people demanding that the government take action against the restaurants. Let’s try and understand this issue in detail.

The GST on restaurant bills was recently cut to 5 per cent. Earlier it was 18 per cent or 12 per cent depending on whether the restaurant was air-conditioned or not. Hence, the expectation was that the cost of eating out will come down, with the rate of tax being slashed. Nevertheless, nothing of that sort has happened in many cases. Hence, people have taken to WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook to highlight this issue.

Before going further, it is important to understand that there is one basic difference between the new GST rate and the earlier GST rates of eating in a restaurant.

The new rate is a flat tax of 5 per cent (and that makes me wonder as to why is it still called GST). This means that no input tax credit is allowed. In case of earlier rates, the tax was a value added tax i.e. input tax credit was allowed. This basically meant that restaurants could claim a set off for the goods and services tax they had paid on their inputs. The inputs in this could be tax paid on dairy products, meat, vegetables etc.

But input tax credit is not allowed now. Hence, the new 5 per cent GST is not a value added tax. It’s just another tax.

Now with the input tax credit not allowed, some restaurants are claiming that the cost of running their business has gone up. This has meant that the pre-GST price of the food products they sell, needs to go up, and in the process, there is not much of a difference in the end price that the consumer is paying for the food products.

McDonald’s India says that with the input tax credit being withdrawn their operating costs have gone up by 10-12 percent. And after taking this increase in cost into account, the effective tax benefit due the lower tax rate of 5 per cent, “would have been less than a per cent.” As the Business Today magazine puts it: “A few restaurant owners… pegged a spike between 7 per cent and 10 per cent in costs.”

The fact that input tax credit is no longer available, hence, there can’t be much of a difference in the final price paid by the consumer now, as against earlier, is a perfectly valid argument to offer, on parts of the restaurants.

This hasn’t gone down well with many people and they have taken to the social media urging the government to take action. They are not convinced about the validity of the input tax credit argument. They feel that this is just an excuse on part of restaurants not to cut prices and increase their profitability. Hence, the government needs to investigate and take action.

The trouble is that the capacity of the Indian government to do anything is fairly limited, let alone going around investigating so many restaurants. Also, it has other more important things to do. Given this, it is not in a position to check the books of accounts of the large number of restaurants. And more than that, it should not even try to entertain any thought of doing this.

What I am saying is that if a restaurant chooses not to decrease price now, it can always offer this explanation of lack of availability of input tax credit, and there is no way to contest the explanation. The government cannot go into the accounts of each and every restaurant in the country in order to establish whether the explanation holds in their case or not. Of course, many restaurants obviously will look at this as an opportunity to make more money and which is precisely what they will do. There is no denying that.

So, what is the solution to this? If you as a consumer feel a restaurant is expensive simply don’t go there. If enough people do that the restaurant will automatically have to cut prices. If people continue going, then the higher price doesn’t really matter to them and they shouldn’t be really complaining.

Also, these are the unseen effects of starting with high tax rates. The trouble with bad economic policy (while GST is not bad policy per se, but its implementation clearly is) is that its ill effects are not always clear from the very beginning. This is now starting to come out in case of GST.

The column originally appeared on Equitymaster on November 20, 2017.

Of Falling Real Estate Prices, Dr Arvind Panagariya and the Art of Continuing to Suck Up


Dr Arvind Panagariya, the former vice-chairman of the Niti Aayog, today in a column titled Demonetisation: Evaluating the Critics, in the Business Standard, writes: “The second avenue through which demonetisation has directly expunged unaccounted wealth is real estate…Unsurprisingly, an attack on unaccounted cash struck at the heart of this black wealth by cutting real estate prices by a quarter.”

There are multiple questions that this statement raises:

1) What is the source for this data? This isn’t exactly a conversation between two property dealers, or two prospective real estate buyers, who can quote any offhand numbers, while having a conversation. This is a statement being made by someone who was at the top of an economic institution run by the Indian government. This is a statement by an economist working in a top university in the United States.

Also, if real estate prices have fallen by 25 per cent after demonetisation, why isn’t this visible in official data sources. Take the case of Reserve Bank of India’s All India House Price Index, which has been plotted as Figure 1.

Figure 1: 

Figure 1 clearly shows that housing prices across the country have been on their way up. There has “clearly” been no dip, as Dr Panagariya claims. How do things look if we plot one-year return instead of index values? Let’s take a look at Figure 2, which does that.

Figure 2: 

Figure 2 tells us clearly that the one-year return in real estate has been falling over the last six and a half years. This trend started much before demonetisation took place. Also, how have the returns been post demonetisation? Between the end of December 2016 and June 2017 (the latest data available), real estate prices as per the All India House Price Index have gone up by 4.3 per cent. The returns between September 2016 and June 2017, have been 6.9 per cent.

Other than RBI’s All India House Price Index, there is NHB’s Residex. As of now this index has data only up to March 2017. And the one year median return between March 2016 and March 2017, as per this index, across 49 cities, was 2.8 per cent. This is very low. But where is the 25 per cent fall that Dr Panagariya has written about?

2) For a moment let’s assume that Dr Panagariya is right and real estate prices have fallen by 25 per cent. If real estate price all across the country have fallen by 25 per cent on an average, then there will be cities/town/localities where the price has fallen by more than 25 per cent. Which are these places? Can Dr Panagariya provide us with a list? This would make for a super investment right now.

Let’s say there is this town where real estate prices have fallen by 50 per cent post demonetisation. It is worth remembering that a 50 per cent loss wipes off a 100 per gain. (If the price of an asset moves from Rs 50 to Rs 100 that makes for a 100 per cent gain. When it falls back to Rs 50 that is a 50 per cent loss). If there exists such a town, it would make for a great real estate investment right now. Can Dr Panagariya provide us with names of a few such places?

3) Also, if prices have fallen by 25 per cent, why are real estate transactions not happening? Why has the total number of unsold homes of real estate companies, only continued to grow? It is worth remembering here that a 25 per cent fall within a time period of a year, is a huge fall. Falls like these in case of real estate, only happen once in a few decades. And if something like this has happened, as Dr Panagariya claims, then why aren’t people buying? Interest rates on home loans have also fallen post demonetisation.

Take a look at Figure 3. It plots the growth in home loans outstanding with banks.

Figure 3: 

Figure 3 clearly shows that the growth in home loans outstanding has fallen post demonetisation. What this means is that people are not buying as many homes as they were in the past. If prices have fallen by 25 per cent post demonetisation, people would have bought homes and the curve in Figure 3 would slope upwards i.e. people would take on more and more home loans to buy homes.

4) Further, if real estate prices have fallen by 25 per cent, as claimed by Dr Panagariya, it is time that the state governments cut the ready reckoner rates on which stamp duty needs to be paid, by a similar proportion. This should be fairly easy given that BJP governments govern most of the big states across India and a direction from the PMO should be suffice to get them to do the needful. But nothing of that sort has happened. Why hasn’t this been done till date, is a question that only Dr Panagariya can answer.

5) To conclude, it is safe to say that Dr Panagariya has just made up this data, in order to justify demonetisation. It’s a sad day today, when an Indian economist, working in one of the best American universities has had to fudge data in order to please his former political bosses.

The irony is that Dr Panagariya is no longer a part of the government. And he doesn’t really need to say things which do not hold up against data, unless, he is looking for another stint with the Modi government. That changes things.

The column originally appeared on November 13, 2017.

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

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.