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

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

There are multiple questions that this statement raises:

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

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

Figure 1: 

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

Figure 2: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 3: 

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

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

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

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

The column originally appeared on November 13, 2017.

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A Real Estate Story That Everybody Should Read

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I am in Delhi these days.

And Delhi and the National Capital Region around it, as you would know, dear reader, have their share of real estate stories.

There are stories of builders who have taken the money from prospective buyers and not delivered.

There are stories about builders who have taken the money from prospective buyers and simply disappeared.

There are stories about builders who have taken the money from prospective buyers and abandoned construction midway.

There are stories about prospective buyers continuing to pay their EMIs with no idea of when their dream home will be delivered. Meanwhile, they also continue to pay rent.

There are stories about builders now demanding a bailout from the government.

All in all, the overall real estate story in Delhi and the National Capital Region, is a mess.
Nevertheless, recently I came across a slightly different sort of story, which tells us the different kind of problems that people face with real estate and why sometimes there are really no solutions to a problem.

One of my relatives, who are now very old, have lived a good part of their lives in a DDA colony in South Delhi. The flat was bought in the early 1980s at around Rs 2.5-3 lakh and is now worth close to Rs 3 crore. Of course, South Delhi is a great place to live.

All the everyday amenities from banks to vegetable vendors to milk booths to medicine shops etc., everything is within walking distance and almost everything you can think of is home-delivered.

But the relatives I am talking about here are now old and want to move to a different part of Delhi, to be close to their immediate family, which stays there. That part of Delhi is much cheaper than South Delhi. A similar sort of flat can easily be bought at around 40-50 per cent of the price in South Delhi.

If things work as smoothly, as they are supposed to in theory, this would mean selling the flat in South Delhi for around Rs 3 crore, buying a new one for around Rs 1.5 crore and paying a capital gains tax on the remaining Rs 1.5 crore. And then, they can live happily ever after.

Now only if things were as smooth as that.

As I well known, no real estate transaction can happen in Delhi-National Capital Region in full white money i.e. the full payment is made through a cheque, demand draft, bank transfer etc. A part of the transaction will always have to be carried out in black, which means a payment needs to be made in cash.

How would a Rs 3 crore sale go? Around Rs 1-1.3 crore would be paid in black. The remaining would be in white. Typically, when this happens, the black money is then used to buy more flats, and this is how the vicious cycle of black money continues.

In this case, the flat in the new locality costs around Rs 1.5 crore. Of this around Rs 50 lakh will have to be paid in black. And the remaining in white. This means that of the Rs 1-1.3 crore of the original black money received, around Rs 50-80 lakh will remain.

This is a lot of black money for someone who has never really dealt with black money. What does he do with this black money? At his age, there is no point in investing in more flats (given that the real estate sector is down in the dumps and also the fact that more money would be needed to do the same) or buying gold for that matter.

Given this conundrum, the sale is stuck. At his age, there is no possibility of a home loan as well.

In fact, this is an excellent example of a situation where an individual is asset heavy and liquidity light. Of course, in this case, he didn’t arrive at this situation because of the choices he made. Over the years, that is exactly how the situation turned out to be.

A part of Delhi, which no one really wanted to go and live in, turned out to be its most posh part, over a period of three decades and more. And given, this real estate prices sky-rocketed. A flat which cost Rs 3 lakh, was worth 100 times or Rs 3 crore, nearly 35 years later. This means a whopping return of 14 per cent per year (without taking any maintenance cost into account). In fact, at its peak price nearly five years back, the flat would have gone for anywhere between Rs 3.5-4 crore.

Of course, from the investment point of view, it has been a superb investment. But 35 years later, the situation is such that the flat cannot be sold. And this is a lesson for everyone who believes that real estate is the best way to invest.

The biggest problem with real estate is that it lacks the liquidity of other forms of investment, even though the returns might be superb. While, in this case my relatives can continue to live in this flat, so it doesn’t matter much. But there are other cases when people need liquidity to meet expenses, like the higher education of their children, their weddings, a medical emergency, and so on. In a real estate market like the one that exists today, selling a property quickly at the right price (if at all there is anything like that in Indian real estate) is never easy.

Of course, one can always take a loan against property, but then even that has to be repaid and the regular income may not be good enough to repay that loan.

This is something that everybody who swears by real estate as the best form of investment, should keep in mind.

Real estate may not have the liquidity, when you need money the most.

What happens then?

The column originally appeared on Equitymaster on October 24, 2017.

 

 

The Orwellian Economics of Modi Govt

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Almost, every other day I get an email or an sms from banks asking me to link my accounts and my Aadhar number.

The email typically says: “The Prevention of Money Laundering (Maintenance of Records) Rules, 2005 (“PML Rules 2005”) have been amended with effect from June 1, 2017 to require Aadhaar for every bank account. All existing Bank accounts have to be verified with Aadhaar by the banks by 31st December,2017, failing which the accounts will become inoperative.”

At the same time, a mobile phone company also sends out reminders at regular intervals asking me to link my phone number with my Aadhar number. The couple of times I visited their office in the recent past, I have been reminded of the same.

The last time I logged on to an airline website to carry out a web-checkin, I was asked for my Aadhar number, though this was optional.

When I applied for an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) for my last book, I was asked for my Aadhar number. An Aadhar number is now required for access to a whole host of government welfare programmes. The idea is to ensure that only those who genuinely qualify for the programme have access to it.

On the whole, the idea seems to be to use Aadhar to identify those people who are not paying their share of income tax, by figuring out their spending patterns.

On August 23, 2017, a notification was introduced which brought jewellers with a turnover of more than Rs 2 crore, under the Prevent of Money Laundering Act.

The limit for reporting transactions under the Act is at Rs 50,000. Basically, anyone using cash to buy gold jewellery over Rs 50,000 had to show his or her PAN card. Before this, since December 2015, anyone buying gold above Rs 2 lakh, had to show a PAN card.
With the August notification, the limit for showing the PAN card was lowered from Rs 2 lakh to Rs 50,000. Recently, the August 23 notification was rescinded. In doing so, the limit till which gold could be bought in cash without providing any identification jumped up again to Rs 2 lakh.

This, brings multiple questions to the fore. First and foremost, when every bank account holder needs to link his bank account to the Aadhar number, why doesn’t the same rule apply to anyone buying gold using cash. When every mobile phone user is being pestered to link his mobile number to his Aadhar number, why doesn’t the same rule apply to anyone buying gold using cash.

If it is important to clearly identify bank accounts and mobile numbers, it is also important to clearly identify who is buying gold. The question that arises here is that who buys gold in cash.

As the report titled A Study in Widening of Tax Base and Tackling Black Money produced by the business lobby FICCI points out: “The black money holders invest in bullion and Jewellery to protect the value of their black money from inflationary depreciation. Cash sales in the gold and Jewellery trade gives the buyer an option to convert black money into gold and Jewellery, while it gives the trader the option of keeping his unaccounted wealth in the form of stock, not disclosed in the books or valued at less than market price.”

The point being those who have black money like to buy gold in its various forms, using cash. If cash sales of gold need to be attacked it is important that some sort of identity of the individual buying gold be established.

Nevertheless, the Narendra Modi government doesn’t seem to think like that. Different rules for different people. As George Orwell writes towards the end of his brilliant book Animal Farm: “There was nothing there now except a single Commandment. It ran: All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

The column was originally published in the Bangalore Mirror on October 11, 2017.

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

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

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

Figure 1: 

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

Figure 2: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(The column was originally published on Equitymaster on September 19, 2017).

The Final Nail in the Demonetisation Coffin…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Provisional figures upto 31st October, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Now let’s look at the third objective of demonetisation. In the original scheme of things increasing cashless transactions wasn’t on the table at all. It came into the scheme of things once prime minister Modi talked about it in the Mann ki Baat programme on radio on November 27, 2016, where he said: “The great task that the country wants to accomplish today is the realisation of our dream of a ‘Cashless Society’. It is true that a hundred percent cashless society is not possible. But why should India not make a beginning in creating a ‘less-cash society’? Once we embark on our journey to create a ‘less-cash society’, the goal of ‘cashless society’ will not remain very far.”

How have we done on this front? Let’s take a look at Figure 1 and Figure 2. These figures plot the total number of cashless transactions through the years in terms of volume (i.e. number) and value of the transactions. I have ignored the Real Time Gross Settlement (RTGS) mode of transferring money because it can be used only for transactions of Rs 2 lakh and over. Hence, it clearly does not fall in the retail domain.

Figure 1: 

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

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

Now take a look at Figure 2.

Figure 2: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 3: 

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

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

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

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

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

 


Why I continue to write about demonetisation

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

I am not a dolt I understand that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As far as detecting fake currency is concerned, nothing much seems to have happened on this front. Data from the RBI annual report tells us that the number of fake Rs 500 (old series) and Rs 1,000 notes detected between April 2016 to March 2017 was 5,73,891. The total number of demonetised notes stood at 24.02 billion. This basically means that as a proportion the fake notes identified between April 2016 to March 2017 stands close to 0 per cent of the demonetised notes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Of “Shaky” Demonetisation Statistics, Arun Jaitley and Black Money

We don’t live in a perfect world. And given this, governments like to showcase the positive impact of the decisions they make, all the time. Sometimes, they get very desperate in the process.

Take the case of the economic impact of demonetisation. Most data now coming out clearly shows that the decision did not have a positive impact on the Indian economy. It might have helped the Bhartiya Janata Party to win the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a right decision on the economic front.

Nevertheless, the Modi government would like us to believe that demonetisation has helped the country on the economic front. Early last week the finance minister Arun Jaitley said that “more than 91 lakh people were added to the tax base due the result of the actions taken by the income tax department.”

It was later clarified that 91 lakh people were added to the tax base in 2016-2017(i.e. between April 1, 2016 and March 31, 2017). As per Jaitley’s statement 91 lakh individuals were added to the tax base post demonetisation, which is incorrect.

Meenakshi Goswami, Income Tax Commissioner and the official spokesperson of the Central Board for Direct Taxes (CBDT), told NDTV later in the week that91 lakh was the total number of new taxpayers enrolled in the financial year 2016-2017.”

Now this makes things interesting. On the face of it, the addition of 91 lakh individuals to the income tax base sounds like a huge number. But when we are talking about any increase or decrease, a number should never be viewed in isolation.

The trouble is that we don’t have long term data on this front because of a change in the definition of “tax base” and “new tax payer added during the year”. The annual report of the ministry of finance for 2015-2016 points out that new taxpayers “added during the year 2014-15 is 76,04,154”. This basically means that 76 lakh new taxpayers were added during 2014-2015. I couldn’t find any data for 2015-2016. Now compare the 91 lakh additions in 2016-2017 to 76 lakh additions in 2014-2015, and suddenly the number doesn’t seem too high, given that no demonetisation was carried out in 2014-2015.

Even if the government doesn’t do anything, taxpayers get added every year, especially when the minimum tax slab continues to remain the same. In 2014-2015, the minimum tax slab was Rs 2,50,000, which is where it continues to be. This basically means that inflation alone would have ensured that more people came into the tax bracket and thus increased the tax base.

Over and above this, as the economy grows and people earn more, more people come into the tax bracket.

Once we take these factors into account, the addition of 91 lakh taxpayers suddenly doesn’t sound much, especially taking into account the disruption that demonetisation caused through the length and the breadth of the country.

Further, Sushil Chandra, chairman of CBDT said that between November 2016 and March 2017, the search actions of the income tax department revealed an undisclosed income of Rs 16,398 crore. On the other hand, the surveys had led to a detection of Rs 6,746 crore during the same period.

Again, if we look at these numbers in isolation, they sound like a lot of money. But that doesn’t turn out to be the case if we look at numbers over a period of time. Take a look at Table 1. It shows the undisclosed income admitted to and detected during the search operations as well as surveys conducted by the income tax department over the last few years.

Table 1: Undisclosed income

Financial Year Number of groups searched Undisclosed income admitted (in Rs Crore) Number of surveys conducted Undisclosed income detected (in Rs Crore) Total undisclosed income (in Rs Crore)
2012-2013 422 10,291.61 4630 19,337.46 29,629.07
2013-2014 569 10,791.63 5327 90,390.71 1,01,182.34
2014-2015 545 10,288.05 5035 12,820.33 23,108.38
2015-16 445 11,066.24 4422 9,654.8 20,721.04
2016-17* 222 6,304.71 977 17,62.51 8,067.22

*Up to September 2016 in case of search numbers and August 2016 in case of survey numbers
Source: Ministry of Finance Annual Reports and the Press Information Bureau
The numbers for 2016-2017 are incomplete. But there is enough detail that lets us analyse the issue. Between April and September 2016, the total undisclosed income (or black money) admitted through search operations of the income tax department stood at Rs 6,304.71 crore. The undisclosed income detected through surveys conducted between April and August 2016 had stood at Rs 1,762.51 crore. If we add these numbers we get Rs 8,067.22 crore.

Between November 2016 and March 2017, the search actions of the income tax department revealed an undisclosed income of Rs 16,398 crore, as pointed out earlier. On the other hand, the surveys had led to a detection of Rs 6,746 crore during the same period. Adding both these numbers we get Rs 23,144 crore. Adding this to the earlier Rs 8,067.22 crore, we get around Rs 31, 211 crore.

This is the total undisclosed income identified by the income tax department during the course of 2016-2017. The number is incomplete because the information for the month of October 2016 is missing in case of search operations and information for the months of September-October 2016 is missing in case of survey operations.

Nonetheless, it is a good ballpark number to work with. Hence, the total amount of undisclosed income or black money identified by the income tax department in 2016-2017 stood at more than Rs 31,211 crore.

Is it such a big deal? Look at Table 1. The total amount in 2012-2013 had stood at Rs 29,629 crore. This amount hasn’t been adjusted for inflation. It is safe to say that in inflation adjusted terms more undisclosed income was identified by the income tax department in 2012-2013 than in 2016-2017. In 2013-2014, the number stood at Rs 1,01,182 crore, which is significantly more than 2016-2017. And it is worth remembering here that these numbers happened without demonetisation. In fact, as the numbers clearly show the efficacy of the income tax department when it comes to identification of black money has come down since 2014-2015.

To conclude, the rosy picture of demonetisation that the government is trying to paint, is really not true. The more data we look at the clearer this becomes.

Postscript: I recently did a podcast with the writer Amit Varma who is currently the editor of the Pragati magazine, on the Right to Education and how it has screwed up our education system. Most of what I spoke was based on my new book India’s Big Government—The Intrusive State and How It is Hurting Us. You can listen to the podcast here.

The column originally appeared in Equitymaster on May 22, 2017.