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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[iii]  Desan 2010

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

Digital Transactions Were Growing Faster Before Demonetisation

The finance minister Arun Jaitley recently said: “Through demonetisation, the government created a new normal, with a big step in removing the earlier scenario of cash economy and shadow economy.”

If this is true then there should have been a substantial jump in digital transactions in the recent past. If people are not carrying transactions in the cash economy, then they should be carrying out transactions digitally. But is that true?

Let’s first look at the number of digital transactions (i.e. volume of digital transactions) that have happened every month between November 2016, when the demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes was announced, and May 2017, the latest monthly data available. All the digital data used in the column deducts the transactions carried out through Real Time Gross Settlement system simply because it is not a retail mode of digital transactions, which is primarily what we are looking at here. The minimum amount that can be transferred through this mode is Rs 2 lakh.

Take a look at Figure 1. This basically plots the total number of digital transactions that have happened between November 2016 and May 2017.

Figure 1: 

As is clear from Figure 1, the volume of digital transactions peaked in December 2016, when the impact of demonetisation was at its peak. With very little currency available to carry out transactions, people had no option but to use digital modes of settling transactions. In May 2017, the total number of digital transactions was down by 11.4 per cent in comparison to December 2017. This clearly tells us that fewer people are using digital modes of transactions in comparison to the period right after demonetisation.

Now take a look at Figure 2. In this we look at the total value of digital transactions carried out every month between November 2016 and May 2017.

Figure 2: 

From Figure 2, it is clear that the total value of digital transactions peaked in March 2017, and has fallen by 20.2 per cent since then. Past data shows that the digital transactions tend to increase in the last month of the financial year as people settle their dues and pay their taxes. Having said that, the total value of digital transactions in May 2017, was higher than that in December 2016. But with volume of transactions being lower, what this means that people who were already on the digital bandwagon are spending more digitally. And that is one piece of good news for a government looking to increase the proportion of digital transactions in the overall economy.

This comparison just tells us how things have evolved on the digital front after demonetisation. How do things look, if were to stretch the timeline a little more? Let’s compare May 2017 data with May 2016 data (In this case I have ignored the data for United Payments Interface and Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD). I could not find this data for May 2016 and May 2015. This will not have any impact on the overall result because the USSD form of digital payment is close to zero and can be effectively ignored.

When it comes to UPI even in May 2017 with all the push and promotion by the government, it made up for 1.1 per cent of the total digital transactions by volume and 0.1 per cent by value (of course we have ignored RTGS here).

Take a look at Table 1. It has the total digital transactions both by volume and value, over the years.

Table 1:

Digital transactions May 2017 May 2016 May 2015
Volume (in millions) 831.5 726.3 491.2
Value (in Rs billion) 20,901.5 15,364.6 12,173.9

Source: Author calculations on Reserve Bank of India data 

What does Table 1 tell us? Between May 2016 and May 2017, the total number of digital transactions (i.e. volume) went up by 14.5 per cent. In value terms, the digital transactions jumped by 36 per cent. So, doesn’t this tell us that demonetisation had a positive impact on the digital transactions? Before we jump to that conclusion, let’s look at how the situation was between May 2016 and May 2015, when there was no demonetisation to contend with.

Between May 2015 and May 2016, the total number of digital transactions grew by 47.9 per cent in volume terms, which was significantly faster than the increase between May 2016 and May 2017. Of course, the low-base effect is at work, but even with that the jump in percentage terms was significantly more last year.

This also tells us clearly the negative effect that demonetisation has had on the overall economy, with the larger section of the economy going slow on spending. This ultimately reflects in the slower jump in digital transactions.

How do things look in terms of value? In terms of value, the jump between May 2015 and May 2016 stood at 26.2 per cent, which is lower than the jump between May 2016 and May 2017. (I did not look into data from May 2014 and before, because the structure of the digital data changes dramatically, with the importance of ECS increasing in comparison to NACH today).

What does this tell us? It tells us that demonetisation has led to those who were already on the digital mode to spend more digitally. It also tells us that the better-off haven’t been impacted much by demonetisation. Nevertheless, the main aim of demonetisation was to increase the total number of digital transactions (the dream of a cashless society i.e.), which was happening anyway and seems to have slowed down after demonetisation.

The fact that digital transactions in India were growing at fast pace even before demonetisation, isn’t surprising given that India is one of the youngest nations in the world. More than 54 per cent of India’s population is under 25 years of age. Youth take on to new technology faster than others. Hence, the digital transactions in India will continue to grow in the years to come, as they had before demonetisation.

This brings us back to the question was demonetisation necessary? The useful idiots of Narendra Modi (with due apologies to Thomas Sowell who coined the term for a different context) through their WhatsApp forwards and analysis in the media, would like us to believe that. But as more and more data comes out, it is becoming more and more clear that demonetisation was a more or less whimsical decision carried out without any due-diligence. Of course, it needs to be defended now.

The column originally appeared on Equitymaster on June 12, 2017.

Why Demonetisation Did Not Hurt Modi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

New IIP Shows Demonetisation Slowed Down Indian Manufacturing Growth Big Time

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India has a new Index of Industrial Production (IIP). It is bigger and according to economists who track such things, it is better than the previous one. The IIP basically gives growth estimates of three sectors-manufacturing, mining and electricity. The manufacturing sector forms more than three-fourths of the IIP.

The base year for the new IIP has been changed to 2011-2012 from the earlier 2004-2005. This has been done to capture the changes in the industrial sector that have happened over a period of time and “to also align it with the base year of other macroeconomic indicators like the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Wholesale Price Index (WPI)”.

Like any other index, the IIP tracks various items that make for the manufacturing, mining and electricity sectors. These items need to be changed or relooked at from time to time in order to ensure that the IIP continues to maintain a representativeness of the manufacturing, mining and electricity sectors in particular and the industry as a whole in general.

The new IIP has a total of 809 items in the manufacturing sector. The earlier one had 620. While, the number of items which constitute the manufacturing part of IIP have gone up, 124 items have been removed as well. These include items like gutka, calculators and colour TV picture tubes. Items like cement clinkers, medical and surgical accessories, refined palm oil etc., have been added. Along similar lines, the electricity sector now includes data from the renewable energy sector as well.

Over and above this, there has been an increase in number of factories in panel for reporting data and closed ones have been removed. All in all, these steps have been taken in order to ensure that the new IIP is a better representation of industry than the old one was.

Given that, items that constitute IIP have change majorly, it is not surprising that the growth figures of IIP have changed as well. Take a look at Figure 1. It plots both the new IIP and the old IIP growth rates over the last half decade, April 2012 onwards.

Figure 1: 

One look at Figure 1 is enough to tell us that the old IIP and new IIP are different beasts altogether, though both are very volatile. Now take at data from March 2013. As per the old IIP series, the growth was at 3.5 per cent. The new IIP series puts the growth at 15.1 per cent. That’s how different the old and the new IIP are.

In fact, as per the new IIP, the industrial growth stood at 3.3 per cent in 2014-2015, the last year of the Congress led UPA government. As per the old IIP the growth had stood at – 0.1 per cent. Hence, we can conclude that the state of the industry in the last year of the Congress government wasn’t as bad as it seemed at that point of time. It’s just that the old IIP may have no longer remained a good representation of the Indian industry.

In fact, the new IIP shows that industrial growth picked up in 2016-2017, the last financial year. The growth stood at 5.1 per cent. As per the old IIP the industrial growth was at 0.6 per cent, during the course of the year. What this also tells us is that the two IIPs are as different as chalk and cheese.

There is an interesting trend that the new IIP catches on to in the manufacturing sector. Manufacturing makes up for 77.6 per cent of the new IIP as against the 75.5 per cent in the old one. Take a look at Table 1.

Table 1: Manufacturing Growth

Period Manufacturing Growth(in %)
Dec 2012 to Mar 2013 9.4
Dec 2013 to Mar 2014 3.7
Dec 2014 to Mar 2015 3.2
Dec 2015 to Mar 2016 4.9
Dec 2016 to Mar 2017 1.6

Source: Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

The manufacturing growth between December 2016 and March 2017 stood at 1.6 per cent. This has been the slowest in comparison to the same period in previous years. Why is this the case? The one word answer to this is demonetisation. The Modi government announced demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes on November 8, 2016, and sent the economy into a tailspin. The interesting thing is that the average manufacturing growth between April 2016 and October 2016 had stood at 6.9 per cent. This signalled the revival of the manufacturing sector after having grown by around 3 per cent in 2015-2016 and 3.8 per cent in 2013-2014.

Demonetisation managed to scuttle that revival in this growth. Also, it is worth pointing out here that the IIP data is collected from “entities in the organised sector units registered under the Factories Act, 1948”. This means that the unorganised sector is not covered. And as I have often written in the past, the impact of demonetisation on the unorganised sector has been far greater.

Up until now, the government has refused to admit that demonetisation has had a negative impact on the economy (Subscription Required). I guess it’s time it looked at the new IIP numbers to realise the obvious.

(The column was originally published in Equitymaster on May 16, 2017)

Mr Subramanian, Lower Interest Rates Do Not Always Lead to More Bank Loans

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“Lower interest rates lead to higher lending,” is something that most economists firmly believe in. The beliefs of Arvind Subramanian, the chief economic adviser to the ministry of finance, are not an exception to this rule.

Hence, not surprisingly in a lecture a few days back he came out all guns blazing against the Reserve Bank of India(RBI) for not cutting the repo rate. Repo rate is the rate at which RBI lends to banks and acts as a sort of a benchmark to the interest rates that banks pay for their deposits and in turn charge on their loan. We say sort of a benchmark here because there are other factors which go into deciding what rate of interest that banks charge on their loans.

Subramanian wants the RBI to cut the repo rate further from its current level of 6.25 per cent. As he said: “Inflation pressures are easing considerably… the inflation outlook is benign because of a number of economic developments… Against this background, most reasonable economists would say that the economy needs all the macroeconomic policy support it can get: instead, both fiscal policy and monetary policy remain tight.

The point here being that current inflation is under control and from the looks of it, future inflation should also be under control. And given this, the RBI must cut its repo rate. The RBI last cut the repo rate in October 2016. And as and when it cuts the rate further, the hope is that the banks will cut their lending rates. Only then will people and industries both borrow and spend more. This will give a flip to the economy. QED.
Subramanian’s point is well taken. Nevertheless, does it make sense? We will deviate a little here before we arrive at the answer.

The RBI Monetary Policy Report released in early April 2017 points out that the decline in the one-year marginal cost of funds based lending rates (MCLRs) of banks between April and October 2016 was just 15 basis points. This when the repo rate was cut by 50 basis points. Hence, even though the RBI cut its repo rate by 50 basis points, the banks cut their lending rates by just 15 basis points, a little under a one-third. One basis point is one hundredth of a percentage.

Post demonetisation “27 public sector banks have reduced their one-year median MCLR in the range of 50 to 105 bps, and 19 private sector banks have done so in the range of 25 to 148 bps.” This when the repo rate has not been cut at all. On an average the one year MCLRs of banks fell by 70 basis points to 8.6 per cent.

What has happened here? A cut in the repo rate barely makes any difference to the cost at which banks have already borrowed money to fund their loans. But demonetisation did. The share of the “low cost current account and savings account (CASA) deposits in aggregate deposits with the SCBs went up to 39.2 per cent (as on March 17, 2017) – an increase of 4.0 percentage points relative to the predemonetisation period”. This is because people deposited the demonetised notes into the banks and this money was credited against their accounts.

This basically meant that banks suddenly had access to cheaper deposits because of demonetisation. And this in turn led them to cut interest rates on their loans, despite no cut in the repo rate. The RBI’s repo rate continued to be at 6.25 per cent during the period.

A cut in lending rates is only one part of the equation. The bigger question has it led to higher borrowings? Are people and businesses borrowing more because lending rates are now lower than they were in the past? And this is where things become interesting.
The total deposits of banks between October 28, 2016 (before demonetisation) and December 30, 2016 (the last date to deposit demonetised currency into banks) went up by 6.41 per cent to Rs 10,568,17 crore. This was a huge jump during a period of two months. This sudden increase in liquidity led to banks cutting their deposit rates and then their lending rates.

Interestingly, the total deposits of banks have continued to remain stable and as of April 30, 2017, were at Rs 10,509,337 crore. This is a minor fall of 0.6 per cent since December 2016.

Between end October 2016 and end April 2017, only around 36 per cent of the incremental deposits raised by banks were loaned out. (We are looking at non-food credit here. The total bank loans that remain after we adjust for the loans that have been given to the Food Corporation of India and other state procurement agencies for the procurement of rice and wheat produced by farmers).

This means for every new deposit worth Rs 100, the bank loaned out just Rs 36, despite a cut in interest rates.

If we were to look the same ratio between end October 2015 and end April 2016, it projects a totally different picture. 116 per cent of the incremental deposits during the period were lent out. This means for every new deposit worth Rs 100, the bank loaned out Rs 116.  This means that deposits raised before the start of this period were also lent out.

Hence, a greater amount of lending happened at higher interest rates between October 2015 and April 2016. And this goes totally against Subramanian’s idea of the RBI needing to cut the repo rate. It also goes against the idea of banks lending more at lower interest rates.

Given this, low interest rates are only a part of the story. If that is not leading to higher lending, it doesn’t help in anyway. Lending isn’t happening due to various reasons, which we keep discussing. Demonetisation has only added to this issue.

Also, a fall in interest rates hurts those who depend on a regular income from fixed deposits to meet their expenditure. It also hurts those who are saving for their long-term goals. In both the cases, expenditure has to be cut down. In one case because enough regular income is not being generated and in another case in order to be able to save more to reach the investment goal. And this cut in spending hurts the overall economy. Interest rates are also about the saver and depositor.

We are yet to see a professional economist talk from this angle. To them it is always a case of garbage in garbage out i.e. lower interest rates lead to increased lending. This is simply because most professional economists these days get trained in the United States where the system is totally different and lower interest rates do lead to a higher borrowing by businesses and people.

But that doesn’t necessarily work in India. It is a totally different proposition here.

The column originally appeared in Equitymaster on May 15, 2017.

The State of Real Estate, Six Months After Demonetisation: Falling Prices, Desperate Builders & Return of Black Money

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Housing and real estate is one area in India where writing anything is very difficult given the lack of data. Nevertheless, a few inferences can be made from the little data that is available.

In the last edition of the Letter we unveiled the Indian Economic Thermometer (IET). One of the inputs into the IET was retail loan growth. A major constituent of retail loans are housing loans. As of March 2017, housing loans formed around 53 per cent of the total retail loans given by banks.

By tracking the total amount of housing loans given by banks, we can make a few inferences regarding the state of the real estate sector in India. So, let’s take a look at Table 1. It shows the total amount of home loans given by banks during the course of a year, over the last few years.

Table 1:

Total Home Loans (in Rs crore) Increase/Decrease with respect to the previous year
2012-13 59,647
2013-14 81,900 37.3%
2014-15 89,935 9.8%
2015-16 1,18,245 31.5%
2016-17 1,13,323 -4.2%

Source: Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

Table 1 makes for a very interesting reading. For the first time in five years, the total amount of home loans given by banks during the course of a year, has fallen. The total amount of home loans given out in 2016-2017 was around 4.2 per cent lower than the total amount of loans given out in 2015-2016. This is another data point that shows the largely moribund state of the real estate sector in India.

One point that needs to be kept in mind is the fact that home loans are also given out by housing finance companies. The trouble is that regular data on the home loans given by housing finance companies is not available. And this is ironical because housing finance companies are regulated by the National Housing Bank(NHB), which is a 100 per cent subsidiary of the Reserve Bank of India(RBI). It is worth asking that when the RBI can put out month on month data on loans given by banks, what is stopping the NHB?

The latest data I could find on this front was as of March 31, 2015 and that is really not of much help more than two years later, given that we are trying to look at the current state of home loans. In 2014-2015, housing finance companies gave out home loans worth Rs 75,488 crore. During the same year, banks gave out home loans amounting to Rs 89,935 crore. This means that in 2014-2015, housing finance companies gave out around 45.6 per cent of the total home loans. In an ideal world, this data should not be ignored. But given that we don’t have access to it, there is nothing really that we can do about it.

Getting back to the point. Let’s get into a little more detail into the home loans given by scheduled commercial banks during 2016-2017. Let’s look at March 2017. During the course of the month, banks gave out total home loans of Rs 39,952 crore. This basically means that 35.3 per cent of the total home loans given out during the course of the year, got disbursed during one month, which happens to be the last month of the financial year.

What is happening here? Before March 2017, Rs 18,900 crore worth of home loans were disbursed in September 2016. This amounted to 17 per cent of the total home loans disbursed during the course of the year. Hence, between the two months, more than half of the home loans disbursed during the year, were disbursed.

It is well known that builders have got a huge amount of unsold inventory with them. This inventory has been in various stages of construction. At the same time, the builders have been trying to sell this inventory for a while now, by offering a better price as well as goodies on the side.

As some of this inventory has achieved completion stage, it has become slightly attractive for homebuyers given that people prefer buying finished homes these days in comparison to under-construction ones. Also, with builders wanting to show good year end numbers they have gone easy on the price in the month of March 2017, is what bankers tell me.

There is another phenomenon at work. These days people don’t apply for a home loan just at the point of time short-listing and buying a home. They apply for it in advance and get the loan sanctioned but not disbursed. The moment they get a good price for a home, they get the loan disbursed. That is another explanation for a jump in home loan numbers in March 2017.

Also, once people buy a ready to move in new home, there is activity in the secondary home market as well. They may want to sell the homes they were living in, and that also leads to more people taking on home loans. This phenomenon is likely to play out more in the coming months, if the basic assertion I am making turns out to be correct.

Another point mentioning here is that between November 2016 and February 2017, banks barely gave out any home loans. During the period, the banks gave out home loans worth Rs 8,851 crore. In March 2017, they gave out total home loans of Rs 39,952 crore, which was 4.5 times the home loans given out in the previous four months.

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

By March 2017, nearly three-fourths of the demonetised currency was replaced.

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

This availability of currency ensured that the black part of any real estate transaction could be easily paid, which had become difficult between November 2016 and January 2017. Once the black transactions became possible, real estate started getting bought and sold again, and this in turn ensured that home loans started to be disbursed again.

Between builders desperate to end the financial year on a good note and currency finding its way back to the financial system, people started taking on home loans again. The interesting question is whether this revival in home loans will continue. For that we will have to wait for the home loan data of April 2017.

The big question here is that are real estate prices falling? If you listen to what the real estate industry has been saying you would feel that real estate prices have either not been falling or will not fall more.

Ashutosh Limaye, Head-Research & REIS, JLL India, told ET Now thatprices have come down but by and large prices are holding.” Or as Getamber Anand told Moneycontrol.com:  “I feel prices in most markets have bottomed out and stabilised with little or no margin for further reduction.”

Let’s look at some data to see if this is true. As I mentioned earlier, real estate data is not easy to get. The simple way to figure out whether prices are going up or down or are flat, would be to look at the prices at which deals are happening. But given that there is no such data at an agglomerated level, one has to try and look at this in a slightly different way.

Every bank has to carry out what the RBI calls priority sector lending. What kind of lending gets categorised as priority sector lending in case of home loans? As per a RBI circular dated April 23, 2015, a priority sector housing loan is defined as: “Loans to individuals up to Rs 28 lakh in metropolitan centres (with population of ten lakh and above) and loans up to Rs 20 lakh in other centres for purchase/construction of a dwelling unit per family provided the overall cost of the dwelling unit in the metropolitan centre and at other centres should not exceed Rs 35 lakh and Rs 25 lakh respectively.”

This is how priority sector home loans continue to be defined. Hence, housing loans of up to Rs 28 lakh in a city with a population of Rs 10 lakh or more, and financing the purchase of a home with a price of up to Rs 35 lakh, is categorised as a priority sector housing loan. In other centres, a priority sector housing loan is a loan of up to Rs 20 lakh used to finance the purchase of a house with a price of up to Rs 25 lakh.

Let’s look at Table 2. It shows the priority sector loans as a proportion of total home loans given by banks.

Table 2:

Total Home Loans (in Rs Crore) Priority Sector Home Loans (in Rs Crore) Proportion
2012-13 59,647 1,349 2.3%
2013-14 81,900 34,800 42.5%
2014-15 89,935 20,386 22.7%
2015-16 1,18,245 19,890 16.8%
2016-17 1,13,323 26,082 23.0%

Source: Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

What does Table 2 tell us? We are interested only in the years 2015-2016 and 2016-2017, when the definition of priority sector housing loans was the same. What we can see is that in 2016-2017, nearly 23 per cent of the loans given out were priority sector home loans. In 2015-2016, this figure was at just 16.8 per cent. In absolute terms, 31.1 per cent more priority sector home loans were disbursed in 2016-2017 than in 2015-2016.

What does this mean? It means that banks have financed more homes with an official registered price of Rs 35 lakh or lower in metropolitan cities and Rs 25 lakh or lower in other centres. We use the term official registered price, simply because a black component always gets paid in cash, over and above the official price.

With banks financing more homes of Rs 35 lakh or lower in metropolitan cities and Rs 25 lakh or lower in other centres, it basically means that either prices have come down or more homes have been built in that segment (which builders like to call affordable housing). Hence, more homes have become available in the sub-Rs 35 lakh segment in the metropolitan centres and in the sub-Rs 25 lakh segment, in other centres.

In fact, in the month of March 2017, when the maximum amount of home loans were given out in comparison to any other month during the last financial year, 28 per cent of the loans were priority sector home loans.

Given this, home loan data does suggest that home prices have fallen. Of course, there is no way of figuring out to what extent have the prices fallen. The answer would be different for different parts of the country.

But how does all this work at a personal level? One technique of driving down the price is to keep talking to the representative of the builder over a period of time, keep him interested and keep driving down the price. Of course, this needs a lot of patience and depends on how desperate the builder is to sell what he has already built.

The column originally appeared on Equitymaster on May 10, 2017