Demonetisation’s negative impact on economy is not done yet, it will continue; be warned

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In a few days, the first anniversary of demonetisation will be here. The Narendra Modi government will continue doing what it has done in the last one year—give demonetisation a positive spin.

But how can a decision which made 86.4 per cent of the currency in circulation, useless overnight, in a country where 80-98 per cent of the transactions were carried out in cash (depending on which estimate you would like to believe), be a positive one?

Let’s take a look at Figure 1. It basically plots the annual growth in non-oil non-gold non-silver imports.

Figure 1:
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What does Figure 1 tell us? First, it tells us that the annual growth in non-oil non-gold non-silver imports had been rather subdued since January 2015. In fact, it has been in the negative territory several times, especially in a few months before November 2016, when demonetisation was announced.

But after November 2016, the growth in non-oil non-gold non-silver imports simply took off and reached a peak of 42.5 per cent in April 2017. This basically means that these imports where 42.5 per cent higher in April 2017 in comparison to April 2016.

What does this tell us? It tells us that a significant portion of the consumer demand post demonetisation has been fulfilled through higher imports. So far so good.

Demonetisation basically disrupted and destroyed supply chains, both in the formal as well as the informal economy. With supply chains being destroyed, the supply of domestic goods has been replaced by imports and has not been fulfilled through the production of domestic firms.

It is worth remembering here that imports are a negative entry into the gross domestic product (GDP) formula.
Y = GDP
C = Private Consumption Expenditure
I = Investment
G = Government Expenditure
NX = Exports minus imports

Hence, if imports grow at a faster pace than exports, they pull down the GDP to that extent. Exports during this year (between April to September) have gone up by around 10.9 per cent in comparison to last year. Imports are up by 22.3 per cent. Given this, it is not surprising that the economy has slowed down. The economic growth for the non-government part of the economy, which forms around 90 per cent of the economy, was around 4.3 per cent, for the period between April to June 2017. This was more than 9 per cent in early 2016.

Hence, demonetisation has played a huge role in slowing down economic growth. And this is tragic given that one million Indians are entering the workforce every month. In fact, it has also rendered a standard tactic in reviving economic growth, pretty much useless.

Allow me to explain. When countries are not doing well on the economic front, the standard prescription offered by economists is for the government to spend more. When the government spends more, the extra spending becomes somebody’s income. When that income is spent, businesses benefit, and the economy revives.

The trouble is that in the current situation if such a prescription is applied on India (actually to some extent it already has been), the government spending will eventually create consumer demand, a substantial portion of which will be fulfilled through imports. Imports, as we have already seen, are a negative entry into the GDP formula. Given this, a fiscal expansion instead (the act of government spending more) of creating faster economic growth might just slow it down.

The point being that we aren’t done yet with the negative effects of demonetisation. There’s more to come.

The column originally appeared on Firstpost on November 3, 2017.

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Fiscal stimulus is already on, why doesn’t the govt try lowering taxes?

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Media reports suggest that the central government is planning a fiscal stimulus. In simple English, what it basically means is that it is planning to spend more than what it had budgeted for, during this financial year.

Fiscal stimulus is an idea that politicians have latched on to for nearly eight decades since the British economist John Maynard Keynes published his tour de force The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money in 1936. What Keynes suggested in this book was that in a tight economic situation, cutting taxes, so that people would have more to spend, was one way out to revive economic growth.

But the best way was for the government to spend more money, and become the “spender of the last resort”. Also, it did not matter if the government ended up running a fiscal deficit in doing so. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends. When Keynes wrote this book, governments budgets used to be balanced (i.e. expenditure was more or less equal to revenue).

It wasn’t fashionable for governments to run a fiscal deficit back then, as it is now. Given this Keynes suggested that in a tight economic situation (the world was going through what we now call the Great Depression) it made sense for the government to spend its way out of trouble. And if that meant running a fiscal deficit, so be it.

Since then, it has been time honoured tradition for politicians and a section of economists to talk about the government spending more, in times of economic trouble. The idea being that with the private consumption slowing down, if the government spends more, incomes will go up, and this will help in reviving private consumption expenditure, which in turn will push up economic growth.

QED.

In fact, the government has already started providing a fiscal stimulus to the economy, during the first few months of this financial year. Take a look at Figure 1.

Figure 1:

Fiscal stimulus 1

Source: http://www.cga.nic.in and http://www.indiabudget.nic.in

What does Figure 1 tell us? It tells that between April and July 2017 of the current financial year, the government has already touched 92.4 per cent of the fiscal deficit target that it had set at the beginning of the year. As is obvious from Figure 1, this is way beyond what usually happens.
Now take a look at Figure 2. It plots the proportion of government expenditure carried out during the period April to July (the first four months of the financial year) against the total expenditure achieved/planned for the financial year.

Figure 2:

fiscal stimulus 2
Source: http://www.cga.nic.in and http://www.indiabudget.nic.in

What does Figure 2 tell us? It tells us that during a normal year, the government spends around one-third of the total expenditure during the first four months of the year. And this is a logical thing to do, given that four months constitute one-third of a year.
This time around, the government expenditure during the first four months of the year is at 37.7 per cent of the total expenditure that the government plans to incur during the year.

What Figure 1 and Figure 2 tells us is that the fiscal stimulus is already on. If the government continues to spend at the same rate as it is currently, it will end up spending 13 per cent more than it had planned at the beginning of the financial year. This will push up the budgeted fiscal deficit by around 51 per cent (assuming government revenues remain the same).

This will push up the fiscal deficit to 4.9 per cent of the gross domestic product(GDP) against the set target of 3.2 per cent of the GDP. Now what the government needs to decide is whether it should continue spending money at the rate that it currently is.
Also, what this means is that people who are now asking for the government to unleash a fiscal stimulus, probably do not know, that a stimulus is already on.

In fact, the government spending more than the usual, helped the GDP grow by 5.7 per cent during the period April to June 2017. In fact, if we leave out the government expenditure from the GDP, the non-government part, which constitutes close to 90 per cent of the GDP, grew by just 4.3 per cent. Hence, the impact of the fiscal stimulus is clearly there to see.

The trouble is that most fiscal stimuli flatter to deceive. It does help in pushing up economic growth initially, but ends up creating more problems, which the economy has to tackle in the years to come.

India’s last experience with a fiscal stimulus was disastrous. It was unleashed in 2008-2009. It propped up economic growth for a couple of years. But it also led to high inflation and high interest rates. It also led to banks going easy on lending and in the process ended up creating a massive amount of bad loans, which the system is still trying to come out from.

Also, it is worth remembering that the state governments run fiscal deficits as well. During 2016-2017, the combined fiscal deficit of the central government as well as the state governments had stood at 6.5 per cent of the GDP, down from 7.5 per cent, in 2015-2016. During this financial year, many state governments are expected to run higher fiscal deficits because they have waived off farmer loans. With the central government also spending more, the combined fiscal deficit will cross the 7 per cent level and that is not a good thing.

People in decision making should remember these points raised above. The trouble is politicians like to look up to the next election. And the fiscal stimulus that has been unleashed now is likely to keep perking up economic growth over the next year or two and this will help the incumbent government in the next elections. Having said that, as I mentioned earlier, it creates other problems in the time to come.

Also, it needs to be clarified here, that Keynes wasn’t an advocate of a government running high budget deficits all the time. Keynes believed that, on an average, the government budget should be balanced. This meant that during years of prosperity, governments should run budget surpluses. But when the environment is recessionary, governments should spend more than what they earn, even running budget deficits.

But over the decades, politicians have only taken one part of Keynes’ argument and run with it. The idea of running deficits during bad times became permanently etched in their minds. However, they forgot that Keynes had also wanted them to run surpluses during good times.

To conclude, other than the government spending more, Keynes also talked about lowering taxes. Why doesn’t the government try and lower the GST rates to start with?

The column originally appeared on Firstpost on September 23, 2017.

How Do You Solve a Super-Mess Like Jaypee Infratech

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The real estate company Jaypee Infratech will go through insolvency proceedings. Earlier, this week, the Supreme Court asked the insolvency resolution professional to take over the management of the company. The insolvency resolution professional has also been asked to submit an interim resolution plan within 45 days. This plan is expected to take into account the interests of homebuyers i.e. those people who paid Jaypee Infratech for homes that were never delivered. In doing this, the Supreme Court modified an earlier order.

Here is an excellent example of messy situation which has probably got messier.
Jaypee Infratech has defaulted on a loan of Rs 526.11 crore from IDBI Bank. At the same time, the company took money from 32,000 prospective homebuyers with a promise of delivering homes. How much money was raised from these homebuyers? The numbers in the media vary from Rs 17,000 crore to Rs 25,000 crore.

This basically means that an average buyer paid Jaypee Infratech anywhere between Rs 53 lakh to Rs 78 lakh. That is clearly a lot of money. The Bankruptcy and Insolvency Code in its current form does not leave anything for the buyers. The homebuyers are not on the list of entities that will be compensated for payment of what is due to them once the company is liquidated.

From the legal point of view this makes sense given that the money that the buyers had handed over to the real estate companies was basically an advance and not a loan. But then given that thousands of families are involved, should only the legal view prevail is a question even though tricky, worth asking. The Supreme Court now needs to decide whether the buyers are financial creditors or not.

Of course, the bureaucrats who wrote the bankruptcy code did not take the real estate sector and the way it operates, into account.

Let’s consider the situation with Jaypee Infratech. It has defaulted on a loan worth Rs 526 crore. The company would have offered an asset(s) as a collateral or a security against this loan. This asset can be sold and IDBI Bank can get the money, back. Of course, it may or may not get the entire defaulted loan amount back. This would depend on the current market value of the asset(s) offered as a collateral.

Of course, in the current scheme of things, the homebuyers are nowhere in the picture. The insolvency resolution professional has to come up with a plan that can correct for this scenario. One of the things that could possibly be looked at is to handover the project to another builder who can complete the project. But this builder would need more money for it. Where will this money come from? Will the buyers who have already paid anywhere between Rs 53 lakh to Rs 78 lakh on an average, be in the mood, to handover more money? More than the mood, will they have more money to handover? We aren’t talking exactly about small amounts here.

Further, if there is talk of compensation from selling the collateral, what sort of compensation can the buyers look at? The asset that Jaypee Infratech must have offered as a collateral was for a loan worth Rs 526 crore. How would that be enough to compensate 32,000 homebuyers who had invested anywhere between Rs 17,000 crore to Rs 25,000 crore in total, with Jaypee Infratech.

Another option is sell the half-built apartments (or in whatever shape they are in) to a new builder and then use that money to compensate the buyers. Of course, in this case, the buyers will have to take a haircut (i.e. they will not get their full money back). Also, will other builders be ready to buy in this environment where the real estate sector isn’t exactly going anywhere.

Jaypee Infratech defaulted on the loan it took from IDBI Bank. It also took a lot of money from homebuyers and did not deliver apartments. Where has all this money gone? Has it been siphoned off? Has it been used to build a landbank? Has it been used to complete previous projects? If it has been used to complete previous projects, then where did the money collected for those projects, go? Or has it been diverted to other group companies?

The bankruptcy and insolvency code in its current form does not allow for a forensic audit of companies which have defaulted on bank loans. But that is precisely what is required in case of Jaypee Infratech to figure out where did such a huge amount of money disappear. The amount that has been siphoned off from buyers is so huge that it cannot be repaid using the assets that may have been offered as a collateral against the bank loan which has been defaulted on.

Of course, any forensic audit will take time. But there is hardly any other market based solution that can be arrived at. Further, a situation as messy as this one is, cannot be set right in a short period of time. Also, it will set the tone for other similar cases, which are bound to come up in the days to come.

In the days to come, there will be great pressure on the government to bailout the homebuyers and if not that, at least compensate them to some extent. The government needs to resist this because if it doesn’t, it will send up setting a bad precedent.

The larger point here is that in this case the bank default is hardly an issue. The bigger issue is the fact that such a huge amount of money has been siphoned off from the homebuyers. The learning here is that the cases of bank defaults and homes not being delivered, are two separate cases and need to be considered separately as well. The central government now needs to work actively towards a market based solution.

Meanwhile many homebuyers will continue paying an EMI on the home loans they took to buy their dream homes. They would be paying money towards an asset which they won’t be getting their hands on, anytime soon. They will also have to continue paying a rent for the homes that they currently live in. Of course, this is not a great situation to be in.

But then that’s how big the mess in India’s real estate sector is. And that is not going to change anytime soon.

The column originally appeared on Firstpost on September 13, 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Reserve Bank of India

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

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

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

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

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

The column originally appeared on Firstpost on May 9, 2017

RERA: With state govts diluting key provisions, can the Act protect buyers at all?

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The Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Act, 2016, or RERA for short, has come into effect from May 1, 2017.

In large sections of the media, the RERA is being projected as a saviour for the home buyers. But will it turn out to be like that?

Will builders stop taking home buyers for a ride?

Will home buyers get the same home and facilities, which had been advertised, and which had been paid for?

Will the home buyers ever come to know what is the exact size of the home that they are paying for?

Will a builder still manage to not finish the project and disappear with the money he had taken from home buyers?

Will builders stop demanding black money?

The RERA is expected to make things better for the prospective home buyer, at least in theory. But in practice it’s off to a bad start.

While RERA is a central Act, land is a state subject. The Indian constitution divides legislative actions into three lists: a) union list b) state list c) concurrent list, on which both the state governments and the union government can legislate. Land is a state subject. Construction of homes requires land. And given this, the different state governments need to come up with the operational rules to implement RERA.

And this is where the entire idea of RERA protecting the interest of the home buyers seems to be going for a toss. First and foremost, even though the Act has come into effect from May 1, 2017, many state governments are yet to notify the operational rules in order to implement RERA.

A Crisil Research note titled Most states miss RERA deadline and dated May 2, 2017, points out: “Despite continuous monitoring and follow up by the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing, Government of India, only nine states (Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh) and six union territories (Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Chandigarh, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Daman and Diu, Lakshadweep, and National Capital Territory of Delhi) have notified their respective Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Rules, 2017.”

Given that Union Territories are largely in control of the union government, it isn’t surprising that the operational rules are in place. But only around one-third of the states have notified the operational rules of RERA. And this in itself shows how serious state governments are about implementing RERA.

Further, even those states which have passed operational guidelines have diluted the Act in the process. As per the RERA, an ongoing project  is basically a project “for which the completion certificate has not been issued” on the date of commencement of the Act. This basically makes sure that many home projects which are work-in-process come under the Act.

Several states have diluted this definition. Crisil Research points out: “Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh have altered this definition in their notified rules.” In case of Gujarat, the operational rules do not mention any definition of an ongoing project.

The operational rules of the Haryana government also dilute the definition by stating that projects which have applied for a part completion certificate or an occupancy certificate will not come under the RERA, if the certificate is granted. This has led to many builders rushing to get an occupancy certificate to ensure that their project does not come under the Act.

As a newsreport in The Economic Times points out: “Developers in Haryana are making use of the window provided by the draft state RERA rule, published on Friday [April 28, 2017], to get out of the ambit of the regulatory authority. On the first working day after the draft rule was announced, over 50 applications were submitted with the department of town and country planning (DTCP), seeking occupation certificates (OC).” In the days to come, many more applications are expected to be submitted. This has basically made a mockery of what RERA was trying to achieve.

There are other dilutions that have been made as well. As Crisil Research points out: “According to the central legislation, the model sale agreement is required to specify 10% advance payment, or charge an application fee from buyers, while entering into a written agreement for sale. In addition, in case of any structural defects arising within five years of handing over the possession of project to buyers, developers will be liable to rectify such defects without further charge. However, there is no clarity on these clauses in most states’ RERA notifications.”

Another important clause in RERA is the escrow account clause. As the Act states: “seventy per cent of the amounts realised for the real estate project from the allottees, from time to time, shall be deposited in a separate account to be maintained in a scheduled bank to cover the cost of construction and the land cost and shall be used only for that purpose.”

Hence, 70 per cent of the money taken from the home buyers by the builder needs to be maintained in a separate escrow account and needs to be used only for the purpose of building the homes. Also, this money needs to withdrawn in proportion to the percentage of completion of the project.

This is a key clause in RERA and was put in to stop the builders from raising money for a project and then using it for other things like completing an earlier project or paying off debt that was due.

The operational guidelines of many states are not clear on this. Like the operational guidelines of Gujarat, do not mention the norms for withdrawal of money from the escrow account of the project. The operational guidelines of Kerala state that “70% (or less, as notified by the government) of the amount realised by developers to be deposited in a separate account.” There is no clarity on withdrawal of money from the escrow account. This is true even for the guidelines issued by Madhya Pradesh.

Over and above this, RERA recommends imprisonment and fines for non-compliance with the Act. Several states have diluted this as well. Long story short—while the idea behind the RERA might have been noble to protect the buyers from the builders, but the state governments have managed to dilute that core purpose to a large extent.

The column originally appeared on Firstpost on May 3, 2017.

 

 

Will RBI’s Latest Rescue Act Clean the Mess in Public Sector Banks?

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Late last week, the Reserve Bank of India(RBI) unleashed yet another weapon to clean up the mess that India’s public sector banks are in. The RBI reviewed and revised the preventive corrective action (PCA) framework for banks.

At a very simplistic level, the PCA framework essentially will restrict the ability of any bank to go about their normal business, in case they don’t meet certain performance parameters. The idea is to ensure that banks do not get into a further mess.

The RBI has basically set three risk levels for the PCA framework to kick-in. Take the case of bad loans or net non-performing assets(NPAs) of banks. (NPAs are essentially loans which borrowers have defaulted on and are no longer repaying. These NPAs are referred to as gross NPAs. Against, the gross NPAs, the banks set aside a sum of money referred to as provisions. Once these provisions are subtracted from gross NPAs what remains are net NPAs).

Let’s say the net NPA of a bank is greater than or equal to 6 per cent but less than 9 per cent. In this case, the bank will face a restriction on dividend distribution. This is the first risk level of the PCA framework. In case, the net NPA is greater than or equal to 9 per cent and less than 12 per cent, along with dividend restrictions the bank will also face a restriction on branch expansion and at the same time will have to increase its provisions or the money it sets asides against gross NPAs. This is the second risk level of the PCA framework.

If the net NPA is greater than or equal to 12 per cent, then along with the dividend restrictions, restrictions on bank expansion, greater provisioning, the banks will have to limit the management compensation and directors’ fees. This is the third risk level of the PCA framework.

Along with net NPAs, the other performance parameters that the RBI plans to take a look at as a part of the PCA framework are the capital adequacy ratio, return on assets and the leverage of the bank. If the bank does not meet the RBI set levels of these parameters, the actions highlighted above will kick-in.

Over and above this, there are other actions that can kick-in. These include:

  1. Special audit of the bank
  2. A detailed review of business model in terms of sustainability of the business model of the bank.
  3. RBI to actively engage with the bank’s Board on various aspects as considered appropriate.
  4. RBI to recommend to owners (Government/ promoters/ parent of foreign bank branch) to bring in new management/ Board.
  5. RBI to supersede the Board.
  6. Reduction in exposure to high risk sectors to conserve capital.
  7. Preparation of time bound plan and commitment for reduction of stock of NPAs.
  8. Preparation of and commitment to plan for containing generation of fresh NPAs.
  9. Strengthening of loan review mechanism.
  10. Restriction of staff expansion.
  11. Restrictions on entering into new lines of business.
  12. Restrictions on accessing/ renewing wholesale deposits/ costly deposits/ certificates of deposits.
  13. Reduction in loan concentrations; in identified sectors, industries or borrowers.

If you look at the above actions, other than the RBI superseding the board of the bank, the other steps are more or less what any bank which is in trouble would undertake. The question is will the PCA unravel the mess that the Indian banks, in particular the government owned public sector banks, are currently in.

The biggest problem for the public sector banks has been the fact that their gross NPAs have been increasing at a very rapid rate. Between December 2014 and December 2016, the gross NPAs of public sector banks increased by 137 per cent to Rs 6.46 lakh crore.

What is the reason for this huge and sudden increase in gross NPAs? A major reason lies in the fact that banks have been recognising their bad loans as bad loans at a very slow speed. The question is the recognition of bad loans as bad loans over? Have all bad loans been recognised as bad loans? Or are banks still resorting to accounting gimmicks and postponing the recognition of bad loans? This is a question which only the banks or the RBI can answer.

The most important step in cleaning up the balance sheets of Indian banks is ensuring that all the bad loans have been recognised as bad loans. A problem can be solved only after it’s properly identified. The tendency not recognise bad loans as bad loans and project a financial picture which is incorrect needs to end.

The second biggest problem for Indian banks has been the poor recovery rate of bad loans (i.e. net NPAs in this case). Data from RBI shows that in 2015-2016, the recovery rate fell to 10.3 per cent of the net NPAs. In 2014-2015, it was at 12.4 per cent. In 2013-2014 and 2012-2013, the recovery rates were even better at 18.4 per cent and 22 per cent, respectively.

This basically means that the ability of banks to recover bad loans has gone down over the years. Will the PCA framework be able to help on this count? It doesn’t seem so. A greater portion of the bad loans need to be recovered from corporate India. As the Economic Survey points out: “The stressed debt is heavily concentrated in large companies.” Hence, any major recovery from large companies will need a lot of political will something, which is something the RBI cannot do anything about.

The PCA framework will kick-in depending on the performance of banks as on March 31, 2017. But taking the net NPA numbers as on December 31, 2016, how does the scene look like for public sector banks? There are 21 public sector banks which currently have a net NPA ratio of greater than 6 per cent. Hence, the PCA framework will apply to all of these banks. The first risk level of the PCA framework will apply to all these banks.

Of these ten banks have an NPA of greater than 9 per cent. The second risk level of the PCA framework will apply to these banks. Two banks have an NPA of greater than 12 per cent. The Indian Overseas Bank is the worst of the lot at 14.3 per cent. The State Bank of Patiala came in next as of December 2016. This bank has since been merged with the State Bank of India.

The PCA framework will essentially limit the ability of these banks to carry out business and hence, limit further damage to the bank and the financial system.

Nevertheless, there is no way the framework will clear up the mess that these banks are in. For that what is needed is a lot of political will to go after corporates and recover the bad loans that are outstanding. The question is do we have that kind of political will?

The column originally appeared on Firstpost on April 19, 2017 

EPF issue: Why protests against rate cut show cussedness of trade unions

EPFOLogo

The interest on the Employees’ Provident Fund(EPF) for the year 2015-2016 has been set at 8.7%.

The Central Board of Trustees(CBT) of the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation(EPFO) had proposed an interest of 8.8%, when they had met in February earlier this year. The ministry of finance finally decided on an interest rate which is 10 basis points lower at 8.7%, than what the Trustees of EPFO had proposed. One basis point is one hundredth of a percentage.

This hasn’t gone down well with the trade unions and they have decided to protest. Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), the trade union closest to the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party, given its affiliation to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh(RSS), has decided to hold protests across the country.

As its general secretary Virjesh Upadhyay told PTI: “BMS strongly condemns the cut in EPF interest rates and will hold demonstrations at EPF offices on April 27,” Sangh general secretary said, adding, the Fund is managed by the Central Board of Trustees (CBT), an independent and autonomous body.”

Other trade unions have also come out strongly against the move. But the entire thing is quite bizarre. The question is what are they protesting about? It seems the ministry of finance’s decision of cutting down the interest rate offered by 10 basis points to 8.7%, from the 8.8% proposed by the CBT of EPFO, hasn’t gone down well with the unions.

As AK Padmanabhan, board member of the CBT of EPFO and the president of Centre for Trade Union Congress told The Indian Express: “It’s unusual that after the CBT recommendation, the finance ministry has decided to cut interest rate.”

Maybe, the move is unusual, but are the trade unions also totally jobless? Allow me to explain. How much difference does the 10 basis point cut actually make? On a corpus of Rs 1 lakh, it makes a difference of Rs 100.

Also, the interest rate paid on EPF in 2014-2015 and 2013-2014 was 8.75%. In comparison to that, the interest for 2015-2016 will be lower by Rs 50 per lakh.

Is it worth protesting on something like this? What are the trade unions actually trying to achieve by doing this? Or since they are trade unions, they need to protest against everything?

Also, don’t the trade unions know that 8.7% interest being paid on EPFO, is the highest interest rate being offered by the government across all its schemes? It is sixty basis points more than the 8.1% per year interest currently being offered on the Public Provident Fund and the National Savings Certificate(NSC).

It is ten basis points more than the 8.6% on offer on the Senior Citizens’ Savings Scheme and Sukanya Samriddhi Account Scheme. Even the senior citizens who typically get paid more otherwise, are being paid lower than the interest being paid on EPF. So what are the trade unions protesting about?

The government is trying to move the country towards a lower interest rate regime. Fixed deposit rates are down by more than 100 basis points in the last one year. In comparison, the EPF interest rate has been slashed by just 5 basis points. Further, interest earned on fixed deposits is taxable. Interest earned on EPF is not.

If all these reasons are taken into account, the planned protests of the trade unions essentially look very hollow.

Also, what is the government trying to achieve by cutting the EPF interest rate by 10 basis points? In an ideal world, the government would have wanted to cut the EPF interest rate much more, to bring it in line with the other prevailing interest rates. But given all the hungama that has recently happened whenever the government has tried to bring any change to the EPF, it basically wasn’t in the mood to take on any more risk.

Having said that a 10 basis point cut in the EPF interest rate essentially achieves nothing.

Further, it needs to be asked, why a provident fund as big as EPF is, is not professionally managed? As on March 31, 2015, the EPFO managed funds worth Rs 6.34 lakh crore in total. Provisional estimates suggest that in 2015-2016, the EPFO saw Rs 1.02 lakh crore being invested in the three schemes that it runs. Of this around Rs 71,400 crore was invested in the EPF. This means as on March 31, 2016, the EPFO managed funds worth Rs 7.36 lakh crore in total.

This is a huge amount of money. The question is why is this money not being professionally managed. The CBT of EPFO essentially comprises of the labour minister, a few IAS officers, a few businessmen and a bunch of trade union representatives. Which one of these categories of people has some the expertise to manage investments?

Further, why does a committee need to meet to decide on an interest rate for EPF? Why can’t it simply be declared on the basis of returns on the investments made? Why can’t returns on EPF investments be declared on a regular basis? Why is there so much opaqueness in the entire process?

The only possible explanation is that if things do become transparent, then the trade unions controlling the CBT of EPFO, will essentially become useless. When it comes to transparency, it’s the same story everywhere.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

The column originally appeared on Firstpost on April 26, 2016