Why the weak spin on demonetisation is still going strong

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On August 30, 2017, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), published its much-anticipated Annual Report. Up until last year, only journalists who covered the banking beat, economists and analysts, kept track of the RBI Annual Report.

But this year, many more people were interested. This was primarily because the Annual Report would finally reveal what portion of the demonetised Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, made it back to the banks.

And why was this of interest? After demonetisation had been announced, many people including government ministers and several leading economists, had hoped that a large portion of the demonetised notes won’t come back to the banks. This was because those who had black money in the form of cash wouldn’t want to deposit it into banks, and reveal who they are to the government. In the process, a lot of black money held in the form of cash would be destroyed.

But nothing of that sort happened. The RBI Annual Report revealed that Rs 15.28 lakh crore of the Rs 15.44 lakh crore that was demonetised, made it back into the banks. This meant that nearly 99 per cent of demonetised notes made it back to the banks, and almost no black money was destroyed. Other than not achieving its major goal of destroying black money, demonetisation has also hurt India’s economic growth in general and manufacturing and industrial growth in particular, very badly.

After this, the government as expected has been offering multiple reasons in favour demonetisation. In a press release the ministry of finance offered this reason: “The fact that bulk of specified bank notes (SBNs) have come back to the Banking system shows that the banking system and the RBI were able to effectively respond to the challenge of collecting such a large number of SBNs in a limited time.

What does this even mean? If paper money is made useless overnight, it is bound to come back to the banks. Where else will it go? Another reason offered to show demonetisation as a success is that Rs 3 lakh crore of the Rs 15.28 lakh crore that has come back is black money. No explanations have been offered on how the Rs 3 lakh crore number was arrived on.
But even if we assume that it is black money, the holders of this black money aren’t exactly waiting to hand it over to the government. They have access to chartered accountants as well as lawyers and are ready for a long-drawn battle, if needed.

The weak government spin on demonetisation has continued. The question is why? The answer lies in the fact that a section of the population is still buying this spin on the social media. As Evan Davis writes in Post Truth: “In social media, our disposition to believe things is something a form of bonding. Not only do we tend to reside in echo chambers online, but we actively enjoy becoming closer to our friends by sharing views and agreeing with them. The act of consenting to someone else’s beliefs, and have them consent to ours, is satisfying; and because it is so, it stops us questioning the nonsense that others post.”

This is one explanation for the rather weak defence of demonetisation that is still being put out by the government. Then there is the problem of the narrative, or the prevailing interpretation of a pattern of events. There is a section of population which really wants to believe that demonetisation worked. It’s their narrative.

As Evans writes: “Like-minded groups of individuals share a narrative about many things… These narratives are sometimes true, sometimes not, but they are often like stereotypes… Once embedded in our minds though, they can easily gain excessive traction and trample over truth as willing believers put too much weight on propositions that conform to their narrative without looking for evidence in support of them.

And that explains why the weak spin on demonetisation is still going strong.

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on September 20, 2017.

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Economic Lessons from a Computer Printer

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A few years back when I quit business journalism to write fulltime, one of the first things I did was to buy a computer printer. This was primarily to help my reading habit, given that I can’t read long documents on a computer. Also, it helped me to print and send out invoices conveniently, instead of having to visit a shop every time I needed to send out an invoice.

Like any good Indian, I bought the cheapest branded printer that was available. It cost just Rs 3,000. It was only when I started printing stuff did I realise how expensive the printer really was. While, the printer cost just Rs 3,000, every time I bought a cartridge, it cost Rs 800-900. And cartridges kept running out at a very fast pace. At best, I could print around 130-150 pages with a single cartridge. It was only then I realised that the printer was just something the company sold, so that they could get the consumers to buy cartridges, which is where the actual money was made.

As Even Davis writes in Post Truth—Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About it: “By keeping a headline price low, the hope is that we assume that the overall price is low… We judge the cost of a product on the headline price, so the headline price will be kept low… There are the up-front prices versus the ongoing charges. Teaser mortgage rates that become expensive later, cheap printers with expensive cartridges and cheap razors with expensive blades are all examples of the same thing.”

In fact, in some cases the consequences can be dire. One of the reasons behind the current financial crisis was the bursting of the home price bubble in the United States and other parts of the Western world. A major reason behind the bubble was the fact that the EMIs that needed to be paid on home loans had crashed dramatically because of teaser rate mortgages (or home loans as we call them in India). In a teaser rate home loan, the interest rate is much lower in the initial years, after which it goes up dramatically.

This led to a lot of people who shouldn’t have gotten a home loan in the first place getting one. The trouble was that once the high EMIs kicked in (remember it was a teaser loan with low EMIs initially) the borrowers simply did not have the money to keep repaying the loan. So, first the teaser loans led to the home prices going up. Once the EMI defaults started, it led to a price crash, which was one of the reasons which fuelled the financial crisis.

What is the bigger lesson here? As Davis writes: “We tend to make important judgements on the basis of a few key indicators, and so by manoeuvring those indicators our perception can be controlled.” Like anyone buying a printer for the first time looks just at the price (and possibly the brand). He or she doesn’t bother about the cost of running the printer over the longer term. Companies manufacturing the printer manipulate the situation by selling printers for low prices. This basically leads to people buying the printer.

Such manoeuvring also happens in other areas. As Davis writes: “We think that good magazines have good covers, so when we observe a good cover we infer that the magazine underneath will be worth buying. As long as editors understand this rule of thumb, then you can expect inordinate effort to go into the design of the cover, even to the possible detriment of the rest of the magazine.”

Anyone who has read Indian magazines over the last two decades would know that while magazine covers have improved dramatically, the same cannot be said about the articles being published.

The moral of the story is “that as long as we come to a judgement based on only a selection of the available evidence, canny communicators will have a disproportionate impact on our thinking by being selective in the evidence they put forward.”
As the old adage goes, what you see is what you get.

(The column was originally published in the Bangalore Mirror on July 26, 2017).