Dear PM Modi, India is Already Land of Self-Employed, and It Ain’t Working

narendra modi

The prime minister Narendra Modi in his Independence Day speech made last week said: “The Government has launched several new initiatives in the employment related schemes and also in the manner in which the training is imparted for the development of human resource according to the needs of the 21st century. We have launched a massive program to provide collateral free loans to the youth. Our youth should become independent, he should get the employment, he should become the provider of employment. Over the past three years, ‘Pradhanmantri Mudra Yojana’ has led to millions and millions of youth becoming self-dependent. It’s not just that, one youth is providing employment to one, two or three more people.”

Adding to this, the Bhartiya Janata Party president Amit Shah recently said: “the youth have turned into job-creators from job-seekers“. Dear Reader, I would request you to keep these points in your head, while I set the overall context of this piece. As I have written on several previous occasions in the past, one million Indians enter the workforce every month. That makes it 1.2 crore Indians a year. There is not enough work going around for all these young individuals entering the workforce every year.

While, it is not possible for the government to create jobs for such a huge number of people, it is possible that the government makes it easier for the private sector to create jobs. (I will not go into this, simply because this is a separate topic in itself and I guess I will deal with this on some other occasion).

Take a look at Table 1. This is a table that I have used on previous occasions as well. But I need to repeat it, in order to set the context for this piece.

Table 1: Percentage distribution of persons available for 12 months 

What does Table 1 tell us? It tells us that only 60.6 per cent of the individuals who were looking for work all through the year, were able to find it. This basically means that nearly 40 out of every 100 Indians who are a part of the workforce and were looking for work all through the year, could not find regular work. In rural India, around half of the workforce wasn’t able to find regular work through the year.

This table is at the heart of India’s unemployment problem. Actually, we do not have an unemployment problem, what we have is an underemployment problem. There isn’t enough work going from everyone who joins the workforce. The solution that prime minister Narendra Modi has to this is that India’s youth should become self-dependent and seek self-employment. In the era of post-truth, this sounds like a terrific idea. But this is nothing more than marketing spin.

Let’s look at some data on this front. As the Report on the Fifth Annual Employment-Unemployment Survey, 2016, points out: “At the All India level, 46.6 per cent of the workers were found to be self-employed… followed by 32.8 per cent as casual labour. Only 17 per cent of the employed persons were wage/salary earners and the rest 3.7 per cent were contract workers.”

The point being that nearly half of India’s workforce is already self-employed. And they aren’t doing well in comparison to those who have regular jobs. Take a look at Table 2.

Table 2: Self-employed/Regular wage salaried/Contract/Casual Workers
according to Average Monthly Earnings (in %) 

What does Table 2 tell us? It tells us very clearly that self-employment is not as well-paying as a regular salaried job is. As is clear from the table nearly two-thirds of the self-employed make up to Rs 7,500 per month. In case of the regular salaried lot this is at a little over 38 per cent. Clearly, those with regular jobs make much more money on an average.

Further, only 4 per cent of the self-employed make Rs 20,000 or more during the course of a month. In comparison, more than 19 per cent of individuals with jobs make Rs 20,000 or more during the course of a month.

What Table 1 and Table 2 tell us is that India’s youth have already taken to being self-employed. Hence, there is nothing new in Narendra Modi’s idea. Further, it is clearly not working.

As Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo write in Poor Economics: “The sheer number of business owners among the poor is impressive. After all, everything seems to militate against the poor being entrepreneurs. They have less capital of their own (almost by definition) and… little access to formal insurance, banks and other sources of inexpensive finance…. Another characteristic of the businesses of the poor and the near-poor is that, on average, they are not making much money.”

The point here is that a large part of the workforce is not self-employed by choice but are self-employed because they have no other option. Banerjee and Duflo call them ‘reluctant entrepreneurs’. The phrase summarises the situation very well.

Other than the reluctant entrepreneurs, more than 30 per cent of the workforce comprises casual labourers, who seek employment on an almost daily basis. The reluctant entrepreneurs and casual labourers looking for daily work essentially tell us that no one can really afford to stay unemployed.

Hence, the problem is not a lack of employment but a lack of employment which is productive enough.

Prime minister Modi talked about his government launching, “several new initiatives in the employment related schemes and also in the manner in which the training is imparted for the development of human resource according to the needs of the 21st century.

How good does the data look on this front? As the Volume 2 of the Economic Survey of 2016-2017 points out: “For urban poor, Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana National Urban Livelihoods Mission (DAYNULM) imparts skill training for self and wage-employment through setting up self-employment ventures by providing credit at subsidized rates of interest. The government has now expanded the scope of DAY-NULM from 790 cities to 4,041 statutory towns in the country. So far, 8,37,764 beneficiaries have been skill-trained [and] 4,27,470 persons have been given employment.

The annual report of 2016-2017 of the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship of the government of India makes an estimate about the number of people trained by different ministries during the course of the financial year. For the period April to December 2016, the number is at around 19.59 lakh. The annual target was set at 99.35 lakh. Given this, the gap between the target set and the target achieved is huge.

Another way of looking at this is that 1.2 crore Indians are entering the workforce every year. They have had an average education of around five years (i.e. they have passed primary school). Given this, they really don’t have any work-related skillset. At best, they can add and subtract, and perhaps read a little.

Hence, they need to be trained or there need to be enough low skill jobs going around. Real estate and construction, the two sectors that can create these kind of jobs, are in a huge mess. This is something that can be sorted, but in order to do that some serious decisions on black money need to made. This includes cleaning up of political funding and the change in land usage regulations at state government level.

Take a look at the following graphic (Figure 1) reproduced from the annual report of the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship.

Figure 1: 

What Figure 1 tells us very clearly is that the scale that is needed to train people is simply not there. And this will lead to a substantial chunk of individuals entering the workforce looking for low end self-employment opportunities anyway, as has been the case in the past. Or people will continue to stick to agriculture.

Prime Minister Modi in his speech further said: “Over the past three years, ‘Pradhanmantri Mudra Yojana’ has led to millions and millions of youth becoming self-dependent. It’s not just that, one youth is providing employment to one, two or three more people.”

Let’s look at this statement in some detail. Between April 2015 and August 11, 2017, the government gave out Mudra (Micro Units Development and Refinance Agency Bank) loans worth Rs 3.63 lakh crore to 8.7 crore individuals. This works out to an average loan of around Rs 41,724. There is no evidence until now whether this is working or not. Can a loan of a little under Rs 42,000 provide employment to one, two or three more people, is a question which hasn’t been answered up until now.

The CEO of Mudra was asked by NDTV recently, as to how many jobs had the Mudra loans created. He said: “We are yet to make an assessment on that… We don’t have a number right now, but I understand that NITI Aayog is making an effort to do that.”Given this, Mudra loans making millions of youth self-dependent is presently nothing more than something that prime minister Modi likes to believe in.

While he is entitled to his beliefs, I would like to look at some data before concluding that Mudra loans are the answer to India’s job crisis.

The column was originally published on Equitymaster on August 21, 2017.

Farm Loan Waivers: Why Bad Economics Makes for Good Politics

Farm_Life_Village_India

Several state governments have waived off farm loans over the past few months. The second volume of the Economic Survey released late last week analyses the economic impact of this phenomenon. Here are the points that the Survey makes:

a) What farm loan waivers basically do is that they transfer debt from the level of individuals and households to that of the state governments. When a state government waives off farm loans it needs to compensate the banks which had originally given the loans to farmers. Hence, it ends up with the debt of the farmers.

The Economic Survey expects the farm loan waive offs to cost anywhere between Rs 2.2 lakh crore and Rs 2.7 lakh crore. As the Survey points out: “It is assumed that waivers will apply at the loan rather than household level, since it will be administratively difficult to aggregate loans across households. It is also assumed that other states will follow the UP model. On this basis, an upper bound of loan waivers at the All-India level would be between Rs. 2.2 and Rs. 2.7 lakh crore.”

This is simply because the demand for waive offs will come from other states as well and the state governments are expected to comply. The Survey points out that “the widespread demand for loan waivers could simply be a demonstration effect from the UP loan waiver.”

b) The Survey believes that waivers will reduce demand in the country to that extent of Rs 1.1 lakh crore or 0.7 per cent of the GDP. This will be a huge deflationary shock to the economy. c) The farmers will benefit from the waive off and increase their consumption, the Survey says. While, this sounds true in theory, the actual evidence from 2008-2009 when the central government had announced farm loan waivers, is different. Research found that actual consumption did not go up after the farm loan waivers.

d) The state governments will have to borrow more in order to compensate the banks which have given loans to farmers. A part of the compensation for the banks will also come from the governments having to cut their expenditure in other areas. Since the governments will not be in a position to cut their regular expenditure like salaries, repayment of interest on the outstanding debt, etc., it will have to cut the asset creating capital expenditure. As the Survey points out: “a recent illustration is Uttar Pradesh which has slashed capital expenditure by 13 per cent (excluding UDAY) to accommodate the loan waiver.”

This is a point that the latest monetary policy statement of the Reserve Bank of India, also made: “Farm loan waivers are likely to compel a cutback on capital expenditure, with adverse implications for the already damped capex cycle.”

e) Also, the state governments are yet to clearly define who will benefit from the waivers and who won’t. This essentially leads to two points. One, it is difficult to come up with the overall cost of the waivers. Two, in order to implement the waivers, the state governments need to come up with clear definitions. This basically means that any implementation will take time and the benefits won’t be immediate.As the Survey points out: “Three states have been specific about the waiver schemes: UP has announced waivers of up to Rs. 1 lakh for all small and marginal farmers; Punjab’s limit is Rs. 2 lakh for small farmers without defining who these are; and Karnataka has limited the waiver amount to Rs. 50,000 (Maharashtra’s waiver terms are still unclear). The waiver announcements also do not make clear whether the amounts will apply to households or loans: typically, a household will have more than one loan.”

f) There are other negative effects of the waiver as well. Credit discipline (or the basic idea that loans need to be repaid) goes for a toss. Further, it benefits only those who borrowed from formal sources. Also, a “World Bank study found that lending increased following the 2008-09 waiver even if not in the districts with greater exposure to the waiver.”

Given these negatives on the economic front, it is important to ask why are farm loan waivers being made. The reason for this is fairly straightforward: the gains of farm loan waivers are more visible than losses.

When farm loan waivers are announced in one state, a large section of the farmers in that state who had taken on loans from the banking system, benefit from it. This is a clear visible effect, which the governments like to cater to. The negative effects are not so visible.Now take the case of a state government which needs to borrow more in order to pay off the banks which had made the farm loans in the first place. It will end up paying a higher rate of interest on its increased borrowings because at the end of the day the financial system has only so much money that can be borrowed. And any increased demand leads to higher interest rates.

As the Economic Survey points out: “Demands for farm loan waivers have emerged at a time when state finances have been deteriorating. The UDAY scheme has led to rising market borrowings by the states, expected soon to overtake central government borrowings. As a result, spreads on state government bonds relative to g-secs have steadily risen by about 60 basis points.”

The UDAY scheme was basically debt restructuring scheme which moved debt from the balance sheets of power companies run by state governments to that of the balance sheets of the state governments. Due to this the interest paid by state governments on their debt is around 60 basis points higher than that paid by the central government on its debt. The extra borrowing because of the farm loan waivers will only push up this rate of interest for state governments, making things even more difficult for them.

At the same time, states will also have to cut down on their capital expenditure in order to finance a part of their waiver. The deflationary shock because of this will be spread across the length and breadth of the country. Hence, each individual will have to take on only a small part of the pain. And he or she may not even feel it in the first place.

These are negative impacts of farm loan waivers, which are not as clearly visible in comparison to the direct benefit to farmers whose loans have been waived off.

Or take the case of the government of Maharashtra charging a drought cess of Rs 9 every time one litre of petrol is bought in the state. Why is this cess even there during a time when there is really no drought in the state? It is there so that the government can meet its expenditure on account of farm loan waivers and other expenses.

The question is how many people even know that such a cess exists, in the first place. The point is that there no free lunches when it comes to economics. It’s just that their cost is not visible many times and politicians simply make use of that.

(The column originally appeared on Equitymaster on August 14, 2017).

The Retail Investor in the Stock Market Continues to Remain a Sucker

The National Stock Exchange’s Nifty index recently crossed the 10,000 mark for the first time and a lot of song and dance was made around it. Human beings really love big round numbers and that explains our fascination for stories around stock market indices crossing certain levels.

The much older BSE Sensex also has remained above the 32,000 levels for the last 10 days.

The bigger question is whether the retail or small investor has made money in the stock market or not? One good way to figure out is to look at the total number of mutual fund folios. Take a look at Figure 1. It plots out the total number of mutual fund folios as well as retail mutual fund folios since March 2008.

Figure 1: 

Figure 1 plots the mutual fund folios. The first two entries are for as of March 2008 and March 2009. After that the figure plots six monthly data up until September 2014. It then plots quarterly data for mutual fund folios. The blue line plots the total number of mutual fund folios and the orange line plots the total number of retail mutual fund portfolios. Figure 1 makes for a very interesting reading. The total number of retail mutual fund folios had stood at 4.69 crore as of September 2009. They fell by 19.1 per cent to 3.8 crore portfolios as of the end of September 2014. During the same period, the Sensex gave an absolute return of 55.5 per cent (or 9.2 per cent per year). But these returns were not enough to lead to an increase in interest of the retail investor in committing his money to equity mutual funds. This, for the simple reason that he or she was nursing the losses he had made by investing in equities through the direct as well as the indirect route, after the stock market crash of 2008-2009.

Since September 2014, the total number of retail mutual fund folios started to rise again. Take a look at Figure 2. It plots the yearly increase in retail mutual fund portfolios since March 2011.

Figure 2: 

What does Figure 2 tell us? It tells us that the rate of increase of retail mutual fund folios has gone up in the last two years. Between March 2016 and March 2017 grew by 15.2 per cent on a much larger base. Take a look at Figure 3. It plots the quarterly increase in retail mutual fund folios, since December 2014.

Figure 3: 

What does Figure 3 tell us? It tells us that the rate of quarterly increase in mutual fund folios has been the highest in the last quarter between April and June 2017.

Between September 2014 and June 2017, the period during which retail mutual fund portfolios have risen dramatically, how well has the stock market done? The Sensex has given an absolute return of 16.1 per cent (around 5.6 per cent per year). Now compare this to the situation between September 2009 and September 2014, when the Sensex went up by 55.5 per cent and retail mutual fund portfolios fell by a fifth.

What does this tell us? It tells us that the retail investors need a lot of validation before committing their money to the stock market. It tells us that the marketing spin of the Modi government about the economy being in a reasonably good shape, seems to be working with the investors. Further, it tells us that the returns from other forms of investing from fixed deposits to gold to real estate, have been abysmally low, leading to money finding its way into the stock market. It also means that the investors who have invested after September 2014 have missed out on the bulk of the rally. It also tells us that retail investors look at stock market levels before committing money to the stock market rather than past returns.

Of course, the stock markets might continue to rise and all the investors who have come in late, might also get to party. We live in the era of easy money and the astonishing amount of money created by the Western Central Banks can keep fuelling stock market bubbles till kingdom come.

But if the rally does not continue, the world will need to learn an old investment lesson all over again-the retail investor continues to remain a sucker.

The column originally appeared in the Equitymaster on July 31, 2017.

What a Slowdown in Retail Loans Tell Us About a Slowing Economy

In the recent past a lot has been written about the overall slowdown in bank lending. Take a look at Figure 1. It essentially tells us about the loans given out by banks during the period between May 2016 and May 2017, and May 2015 and May 2016, before that.

Let’s start with non-food credit. These are the loans given out by banks after we have adjusted for food credit or loans given to the Food Corporation of India and other state procurement agencies, for buying rice and wheat directly from farmers at the minimum support price (MSP) for the public distribution system.

Figure 1:

Type of Loan Total Loans Given Between May 2016 and May 2017 (in Rs Crore) Total Loans Given Between May 2015 and May 2016 (in Rs Crore)
Non-Food Credit 4,22,001 6,25,975
Loans to industry -56,455 24,383
Retail Loans 1,94,553 2,27,863

Source: Reserve Bank of India 

The total amount of non-food credit given out between May 2016 and May 2017 is down by 33 per cent to Rs 4,22,001 crore, in comparison to the period between May 2015 and May 2016. Hence, there has been a huge overall slowdown in the total amount of loans given out by banks over the last one year, in comparison to the year before that.

Why has that been the case? The major reason for the same are loans to industry. Banks are in no mood to give out loans to industry. During the period May 2016 and May 2017, the total loans to industry actually shrunk by Rs 56,455 crore. This basically means that on the whole the banks did not give a single rupee of a new loan to the industry. During the period May 2015 and May 2016, banks had given fresh loans worth Rs 24,383 crore to industry, overall.

This is happening primarily because banks have run a huge amount of bad loans on loans they had given to industry in the past. As on March 31, 2017, the bad loans ratio of public sector banks when it came to lending to industry, stood at 22.3 per cent. Hence, for every Rs 100 of loan made to industry by public sector banks, Rs 22.3 had turned into a bad loan i.e. the repayment from a borrower has been due for 90 days or more.

Not surprisingly, these banks are not interested in lending to industry anymore. This has been a major reason behind the overall slowdown in lending carried out by banks, as we have seen earlier.

But one part of lending that no one seems to be talking about is retail lending carried out by banks. This primarily consists of housing loans, vehicle loans, consumer durables loans, credit card outstanding, loans against fixed deposits, etc. The assumption is that all is well on the retail loan front.

As far as bad loans are concerned, things are going well on the retail loans front. But what about the total amount of retail loans given by banks? Between May 2016 and May 2017, the total amount of retail loans given by banks stood at Rs 1,94,533 crore. This was down by around 15 per cent to the amount of retail loans given by banks between May 2015 and May 2016. This, despite the fact that interest rates on retail loans have come down dramatically in the post demonetisation era. You can get a home loan now at an interest of as low as 8.35 per cent per year.

A major reason for this slowdown in retail loans are housing loans, which form the most significant part of retail loans. Between May 2016 and May 2017, the total amount of housing loans given by banks stood at Rs 92,469 crore down by 22 per cent in comparison to the housing loans given out by banks between May 2015 and May 2016.

Lower interest rates on home loans haven’t helped much. The only explanation of this lies in the fact that high real estate prices continue to be the order of the day across the country. How do things look with vehicle loans which form a significant part of the retail loans? Between May 2016 and May 2017, banks gave out vehicle loans worth Rs 18,447 crore, 26 per cent lower than the vehicle loans given out by banks between May 2015 and May 2016.

What does this tell us? It tells us very clearly that things have deteriorated even on the retail loans front. People take on retail loans only when they are sure that they will be able to continue repaying the EMIs in the years to come (unlike corporates). The fall in the total amount of retail loans lent by banks over the last one year clearly tells us that the confidence to repay EMIs, is not very strong right now.

This is another good indicator of the overall slowdown in the Indian economy, which has happened in the post demonetisation era.

The column originally appeared in Equitymaster on July 24, 2017.

The Real Returns from Real Estate Have Been Very Low

250px-Underconstruction_Building

The best way to challenge myths is to look at data. The trouble is that India’s real estate sector is very opaque and does not give us enough data points to do a proper job of analysing it. In the process, the myth that any real estate investment yields massive amounts of returns at all points of time, continues to persist.

Thankfully, now we have some data which we can use. Sometime back, the National Housing Bank (NHB), the regulator of housing finance companies, launched a revamped RESIDEX, a housing price index. The index claims to offer home prices of 50 cities across the nation though I could find data for only 49. In this column, I look at data referred to as HPI@Assessment Prices based on the information furnished by banks and other lending agencies regarding home prices.

This should help us get some idea about which way the real estate prices have gone over the last few years. And for the first time we should be able to calculate the actual city wise returns. This should give all the real estate bhakts out there some idea of how their investments have done over the years.

As I said at the beginning, the NHB RESIDEX has price data for 50 cities. Let’s take a look at Table 1. It shows the per year returns of these cities between June 2013 and March 2017. It also shows the one-year return between March 2016 and March 2017. While the NHB RESIDEX claims to have data from 50 cities, I could find data only for 49 cities.

Also, even though it has data from 50 cities, it can’t claim to be a pan India index given that many of the cities represented separately are essentially the satellite cities of some of the bigger cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata. Further, some of the bigger cities in states haven’t found representation in the index. These include Jamshedpur in Jharkhand, Madurai in Tamil Nadu, Jalandhar in Punjab, Allahabad and Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh.

Nevertheless, the index is a good start which can give us a good sense which way the real estate market in India is headed. Also, it will give us a good idea of how well or badly has the real estate market in India performed, over the last few years. Typically, this sort of information is rarely available in the public domain and will allow us to settle once and for all, how good an investment real estate has been over the last few years.

Table 1: 

Name of the city Return per year between June 2013 and March 2017 (in %) One-year return between March 2016 and March 2017 (in %)
1 Mumbai 6.7 2.8
2 Delhi -2.6 5.8
3 Bengaluru 7.3 7.5
4 Kolkata 6.5 2.9
5 Chennai 7.1 10
6 Pune 7.2 9.5
7 Nagpur 5.6 11.2
8 Nashik 2.5 -0.25
9 Kalyan Dombivali 8.6 7.4
10 Mira Road-Bhayander 5.11 2.9
11 Navi Mumbai 3.4 -8.9
12 Panvel 2.9 -7.1
13 Thane 7.1 2
14 Vasai Virar 3.2 2.3
15 Chakan 6 0.7
16 Pimpri Chinchwad 5.2 3.5
17 Coimbatore -0.8 -10.5
18 Ahmedabad 0.5 6.8
19 Surat 3.5 3.6
20 Vadodra 1.6 7.9
21 Rajkot 2.5 0.3
22 Gandhinagar -7.8 -11.1
23 Kanpur 8.3 11.3
24 Lucknow 4.7 1.9
25 Meerut 13.5 6
26 Ghaziabad 2.9 9.7
27 Greater Noida 4.3 0
28 Noida 2.7 0
29 Howrah 10.5 15.6
30 New Town Kolkata 4.2 -7.8
31 Bidhanagar excluding Rajarhat 5.4 -1.8
32 Chandigarah(Tricity) 2.1 -5.4
33 Ludhiana 4.8 0
34 Faridabad 3.7 12.3
35 Gurugram 4.8 7.4
36 Jaipur 5.2 -1.5
37 Bhiwadi 1.6 -14
38 Indore 6.2 6.9
39 Bhopal 3.2 0.4
40 Vizag 10.3 24.7
41 Vijaywada 8.8 1.2
42 Kochi 6.8 4.1
43 Thiruvananthapuram 7.7 -0.5
44 Hyderabad 4.1 2.2
45 Patna 2.6 -7.1
46 Guwahati 4 8.2
47 Dehradun 0 4.8
48 Ranchi -2.6 -17.7
49 Bhubaneswar 1.5 7.5

Source: Author calculations on data obtained from https://residex.nhbonline.org.in/NHB_Residex.aspx 

Table 1 makes for a very interesting reading. If we look at returns per year across different cities from June 2013 onwards, very few cities have given a return of greater than 10 per cent year, which is what is needed, in order to meet the regular expenses for upkeep of real estate, along with beating the rate of inflation. Regular expenses would include the maintenance charge that needs to be paid to the housing society every month and a property tax that needs to be paid every year. Of course, the home could be put on rent, the rental yield would work out to around 2 per cent per year. (rental yield is essentially annual rent divided by the market price of the home). If you had bought the home on a loan, then interest would have to be paid on the loan. But a tax deduction would also be available.There are only three cities which have given a return of greater than 10 per cent per year (Meerut, Howrah and Vizag), since June 2013.

In fact, the median rate of return on real estate investment across the 49 cities is 4.3 per cent per year. As John Allen Paulos writes in Beyond Numeracy: “The median of a set of numbers is the middle number in the set.”

Hence, it is easy to see that unless a massive amount of black money has been invested in real estate, the returns have been meagre across the country since June 2013. This is the point from which the NHB RESIDEX data is available, in case you are wondering, dear reader, as to why have we taken this as a cut off.

The situation has gotten worse in the one-year period between March 2016 and March 2017. The median rate of return has fallen to 2.8 per cent. In fact, if we remove Vizag where one year return has been close to 25 per cent return during this period, the median rate of return falls to 2.55 per cent. Money in a savings bank account would have yielded more.

This basically means that real estate returns across the country have been subdued lately. In fact, between March 2016 and March 2017 prices have fallen in 13 out of the 49 cities under consideration. This is if we just look at prices. If we take other expenses into account (maintenance charges, property tax, interest paid on a home loan after adjusting for the tax benefit and inflation etc.) into account, the real returns would be negative in many other cases.

Of course, this logic works on weighted average prices for cities and individual experiences may have been different. Also, the logic could have been completely different if black money was being invested to buy real estate.

Hence, real estate as an investment hasn’t gone anywhere in the last four years and the situation has only worsened in the last one year. Having said that prices are not falling. This, despite the sales crashing in the aftermath of demonetisation.

Recently, the real estate consulting firm PropEquity released some interesting data. As per the data, for the period between January and May 2017, the housing sales fell by 41 per cent to 1.1 lakhs, across 42 major cities. During the same period in 2016, the housing sales had stood at 1.87 lakh.

But as we have seen the median price hasn’t really fallen between March 2016 and March 2017. While, real estate hasn’t made for a great investment for a while now, it hasn’t reached a stage where those actually wanting a home to live in, can buy one, in most cities. What are the reasons for the same?

a) Those who have already invested in real estate have a substantial amount of black money invested in it. The trouble is that if they sell right now, there isn’t much they can do with the black money that they will get in the form of cash after the sale. This is because black money generated by real estate finds its way into real estate all over again. But given the very low returns that real estate has given over the last few years, there is no point in doing that.

b) In some cases, the investors are sitting on losses and they are waiting for prices to rise before they will sell. As Richard Thaler writes in Misbehaving-The Making of Behavioural Economics: “Roughly speaking, losses hurt about twice as much as gains make you feel good.” This basically leads to a tendency among investors who are facing losses on their investment to continue to hold on to the losses, until they reach the positive territory again. This leads to a slow correction in prices.

c) In some other cases, investors are anchored on to the high returns that their friends, relatives and acquaintances, had made during the go go years of real estate between 2002 and 2011. They are waiting for that era to return. We wish them luck.

d) Up until last year, home loans taken to finance self-occupied homes, were allowed a deduction of up to Rs 2 lakh for the interest paid on the home loan against taxable income.

For home loans taken to finance non-self-occupied homes, any amount of interest on the home loan could be deducted to arrive at taxable income. This was allowed as long as the real rent (if the home was rented out) or the notional rent (if the home wasn’t rented out, but the rent the home owner was likely to earn if he would rent it out), was adjusted against it.

Typically, given the high home prices, the interest paid on a home loan these days, is many times the rent a home is likely to earn, if rented out. This essentially ensures that by buying a second home (or a third or a fourth or fifth home…), individuals could create a massive tax deduction and bring down their taxable income dramatically. The corporate crowd used this anomaly with great success by buying second and third homes, as they went up the hierarchy.

This basically ensured that even if the investment was not yielding any returns in terms of price increase, the tax arbitrage available was good enough to stay invested.

In his budget speech, the finance minister Arun Jaitley limited all such deductions (for self-occupied as well as other homes financed through home loans) to Rs 2 lakh. This has basically ensured that the market for homes to be create a tax deduction has now effectively come to an end. Whether this has an impact on prices remains to be seen.

To conclude, without a genuine price correction the mess in the real estate sector is likely to continue. Investors have sustained the sector for many many years now. It’s time the real estate companies realised this. If they want to continue to make money in the years to come, it’s time they addressed the genuine home buyers as well.

Until that happens, we don’t see any acche din for this sector.

Note: This originally appeared as a part of the Vivek Kaul Letter on July 14, 2017.

The column originally appeared on July 17, 2017, on Equitymaster.

Post Demonetisation Real Estate Sales Have Collapsed, But Prices Haven’t

250px-Underconstruction_Building

It has been a while since I wrote anything on real estate and the only reason for it is the sheer lack of data on the sector.

Recently, the real estate consulting firm PropEquity released some interesting data and that gave me sufficient reason to write one more piece on real estate.

As per the data, f or the period between January and May 2017, the housing sales fell by 41 per cent to 1.1 lakhs, across 42 major cities. During the same period in 2016, the housing sales had stood at 1.87 lakh.

The interesting thing is that the launch of new homes has also come down considerably. For the first five months of the current year, which are under consideration here, the launch of new homes fell by 62 per cent to 70,450 units. During the same period in 2016, the launch of new homes had stood at around 1.86 lakh.

The new home launches are a good indicator of the appetite investors have for real estate. And that has clearly come down big time. So, what is happening here? One, people are not buying ready to move in homes from builders. And two, they aren’t interested in under-construction property, where investment returns tend to be very high, either.

Why has that been the case? Typically, a significant portion in any real estate deal tends to be carried out in black. When going about a real estate deal, a significant part of the transaction is in the form of cash which changes hands, and for which there is no record. This cash may be black money where no taxes have been paid. Or it could even be white money, where taxes have been paid, but which is now becoming black.

For most of the period January to May 2017, there wasn’t enough sufficient cash going around in the financial system. This was because of the demonetisation announced on November 8, 2016, by the prime minister Narendra Modi.

Take a look at Figure 1. It plots the gap between the currency under circulation as on November 4, 2016 (a few days before demonetisation) and at the end every week between January and May 2017.

Figure 1:

What does Figure 1 tell us? On January 6, 2017, the currency in circulation was around 50 per cent of the currency in circulation as on November 4, 2016. This meant that the gap was also around 50 per cent. Since then, the currency in circulation has kept increasing every week, as the RBI has printed and pumped money into the financial system, and this has led to the gap coming down. Hence, as on May 26, 2017, the currency in circulation was at around 83 per cent of the currency in circulation as on November 4, 2016. Given this, the gap had come down to around 17 per cent.

So, what does this tell us? It tells us that there wasn’t enough cash going around in the financial system for people to carry out transactions in cash. Given this, people were not in a position to pay the black part of any real estate transaction in cash. This essentially meant that real estate transactions collapsed and were down by 41 per cent during the first five months of the year.

It also tells us that many of those who wanted to sell real estate just sat on it, instead of carrying out the transaction in 100 per cent white amount, as was the hope post demonetisation.

By the end of March 2017, the financial system had nearly 75 per cent of the currency in circulation as on November 4, 2016. The point being that there was enough money to go back to making black payments as a part of real estate transactions. But that doesn’t seem to have happened, with new home launches down by a whopping 62 per cent during the period.

One answer for that might lie in a change that finance minister Arun Jaitley made in this year’s budget. Up until last year, home loans taken to finance self-occupied homes, were allowed a deduction of up to Rs 2 lakh for the interest paid on the home loan against taxable income.

For home loans taken to finance non-self-occupied homes, any amount of interest on the home loan could be deducted to arrive at taxable income. This was allowed as long as the real rent (if the home was rented out) or the notional rent(if the home wasn’t rented out, but the rent the home owner was likely to earn if he would rent it out), was adjusted against it.

Typically, given the high home prices, the interest paid on a home loan these days, is many times the rent a home is likely to earn, if rented out. This essentially ensures that by buying a second home, individuals could create a massive tax deduction and bring down their taxable income dramatically. The corporate crowd used this anomaly with great success by buying second and third homes, as they went up the hierarchy. And after buying these homes, they kept it locked, thus creating a shortage for homes available for rent.

In his budget speech, the finance minister Arun Jaitley limited all such deductions (for self occupied as well as other homes financed through home loans) to Rs 2 lakh. This has basically ensured that the market for homes to be create a tax deduction has now effectively come to an end.

This is another factor which has basically ensured that the demand for finished homes as well as under-construction property has come down dramatically during the first five months of this year.

Regular readers would know that I have been recommending this for a few years now. In an era of exceptionally high home prices, why should the government be encouraging people to buy homes in order to benefit from a massive tax deduction. Also, those who buy more than one home, aren’t exactly poor. Hence, why pander them like this? So, finally after many years this anomaly has thankfully been done away with.

This brings us to the last and the most important point of the piece. While, the sales and prospective sales of real estate have come down dramatically, what has the impact been on the prices front?

The National Housing Bank relaunched its real estate index RESIDEX yesterday. As per the press release: “NHB RESIDEX for January-March,2017 revealed that price indices for residential properties based on actual market prices for ongoing construction prices have increased over the previous quarter in 24 of the 47 cities covered in the Index including in Jaipur, Chennai, Lucknow, Guwahati, Howrah, Hyderabad, Bidhannagar etc. In Delhi, Faridabad, Chandigarh, Patna and Nashik etc, prices have come down.”

What this tells us is that the broader trend in prices across India hasn’t gone anywhere post demonetisation. On the whole prices haven’t changed much What does this tell us? It tells us that builders have great staying power. The amount of money that they have made and stashed away in the real estate bull run between 2002 and 2011, allows them a tremendous staying power.

Also, many real estate companies are fronts for politicians and there is no point for them in annoying politicians by cutting prices and selling homes. Instead of selling homes at lower prices, the builders would rather sit on it, and which is what they are doing.

The trouble with this is that the longer they do this, the longer the time correction of prices will last i.e. the prices may not go down in nominal terms, but if we take inflation into account over the years, they would have gone down substantially.

The thing is that this time correction is not enough. If the real estate market has to revive, actual real estate prices need to fall. Yeah, I know I have been repeating this like a cuckoo clock over the years, but that is the only way out of the mess that prevails.

Postscript: In the next edition of the Vivek Kaul Letter, I will be discussing the newly launched NHB RESIDEX index in detail. For the first time, there is some detailed price data that has been made available across multiple cities. And that should make for an interesting piece of analysis and reading. Do keep a lookout.

The column originally appeared on Equitymaster on July 11, 2017.

 

The ‘convoluted’ economics of pulses in India.

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The kharif crop sowing season is on. The ministry of agriculture declares regular data on this front every week. The latest data suggests that as on June 23rd 2017, the area sown under pulses stood at 5.97 lakh hectares. By the same time last year, the area sown under pulses had stood 9.01 lakh hectares. Hence, this year has seen a drop of close to 34 per cent, as far as area sown under pulses is concerned. The question is why? While deciding on how much area to allocate to a particular crop, farmers basically look at the price they received for it, the last time they produced and sold it. On that front, the record of pulses hasn’t looked good in the recent past. Look at Figure 1.

Figure 1: 

lefttop00Figure 1 plots out the inflation and recent deflation (a fall in prices) of pulses over the last few years. In December 2015, the price of pulses had gone up by 49 per cent in comparison to December 2014. This rate of price rise fell in the months to come, but remained in and around 30 per cent. While this made pulses unaffordable for the common man, the indication it sent out to farmers was to plant more pulses because that is where money was to be made. Take a look at Figure 2. It plots the total production of pulses over the years.

Figure 2: 

In 2016-2017, the production of pulses went up by 37 per cent to 22.4 million tonnes. This was the highest production of pulses in India ever. The farmers were expecting a good price for it, but what they got was exactly the opposite. The price of pulses crashed. Take a look at Table 1. It has the details of the prices received for different kind of pulses across different mandis in India.

Table 1: Price Movement for major pulses in Major Domestic Markets (in Rs/gtl) 

As is clear from Table 1, the price of different kinds of pulses except for chickpeas, has fallen in comparison to the last year. Tur dal or pigeon pea has been hit in particular, with prices in March 2017, falling by close to 45 per cent across different mandis.

This is not surprising given that Tur dal production went through the roof this year. Take a look at Figure 3, which plots the production of Tur dal over the years.

Figure 3: 

As can be seen from Figure 4, the production of tur dal in 2016-2017 jumped by close to 80 per cent to 4.6 million tonnes. This massive increase in production was primarily in response to a massive jump in price in 2015-2016. With the massive increase in supply in 2016-2017, the prices of tur in particular, and pulses in general, have crashed.

The central government declares the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for 23 crops, including rice and wheat. While the government declares the MSP for 23 crops, it procures only rice and wheat directly from the farmers, using the Food Corporation of India as well as state procurement agencies. Recently, the government has started to procure pulses as well, in the hopes of being able to offer a reasonable price to farmers.

But given the poor procurement mechanism in place, the price of pulses in many places, fell below its MSP. As a February 2017 report in The Times of India points out in the context of the state: “The MSP for tur dal is Rs 5,050 per quintal, but farmers are getting only Rs 4,200-4,300 per quintal.”

Some sort of stability could have been provided to these falling prices, if the government through its various agencies would have bought pulses at the MSPs it had announced. But given the recent start in procurement of pulses, the government agencies are not in a position to procure much. In 2016-2017, the total procurement of pulses by various government agencies stood at 1.1 million tonnes. This amounted to around 4.9 per cent of the total production of pulses. As the Price Policy for Kharif Crops-The Marketing Season 2017-18 points out: “Procurement of pulses is about 1.1 million tonnes as on 21.03.2017, much higher than earlier years but market prices are still ruling below MSP in some states. Therefore, there is a need for effective involvement of states in procurement of pulses. However, infrastructure of NAFED and SFAC [two of the agencies that procure pulses] needs to be strengthened with administrative and financial support to take up procurement of pulses on a substantial scale throughout the country.”

NAFED has had multiple problems regarding procurement of pulses, from a shortage of gunny bags, to running out of space due to a bumper crop. Having said this, procurement by the government isn’t really a long-term solution. What is needed is the development of a proper market system, where farmers can get the best prices for their crops. This of course, is easier said than done. While, Indian politicians like to flirt with market economics in many areas, the moment it comes to agriculture, they tend to clamp up.

Also, what has not helped is the fact that imports of pulses have continued unabated. Between April 2016 and January 2017, a total of 6.1 million tonnes of pulses had been imported. In 2015-2016, a total of 5.8 million tonnes of pulses had been imported. Hence, more pulses were imported in the first nine months of 2016-2017 than the year before that. The trouble was that in 2016-2017 along with a jump in imports, the production of pulses also went up by 37 per cent. If the import of a commodity is allowed, it’s export should be allowed as well.

While this brought down the price of pulses in the short-term, it sent out the wrong economic signals to farmers who had planted pulses in 2016-2017. And given this, the current financial year has seen the area sown for pulses fall dramatically by more than a one-third, in response to the recent crash in the price of pulses. As far as the plantation of pulses in kharif season goes, there is still some time to go and these numbers can change.

But if they don’t, then the total production of pulses through 2017-2018, will be lower than the bumper crop in 2016-2017. This, of course, will send the prices of pulses up all over again. Indeed, this is worrying for a nation where the consumption of protein is going up. Pulses remain the best source of protein for the vegetarian part of the population.

This pretty much summarises the way the ‘convoluted’ economics of pulses works in India.

The column originally appeared on Equitymaster on June 27, 2017