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

Arvind_Subrahmaniyam

“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.

Arghhh, Mr Jaitley it’s still not about cutting interest rates

Fostering Public Leadership - World Economic Forum - India Economic Summit 2010
The finance minister Arun Jaitley is at it again. A recent report in the Business Standard suggests that Jaitley is scheduled to meet public sector banking chiefs on this Friday i.e. June 12, 2015, and ask them why they haven’t cut interest rates in line with the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) cutting the repo rate.
The RBI has cut the repo rate by 75 basis points (one basis point is one hundredth of a percentage) to 7.25% since the beginning of this year. Repo rate is the rate at which RBI lends to banks. In response banks have cut their lending rates by only 30 basis points.
The finance minister wants to know why banks have not matched the RBI rate cut when it comes to their lending rates even though they have cut their deposit rates by close to 100 basis points over the last one year.
The finance minister believes that at a lower interest rate people and companies will borrow more, and banks will lend more. But as I have often said in the past this is a very simplistic assumption to make.
First and foremost a cut in the repo rate does not bring down the legacy borrowing costs of banks. Hence, lending rates cannot always fall at the same speed as the repo rate. Further, data from the RBI shows that as on May 15, 2015, nearly 29.9% of aggregate deposits of banks were invested in government securities. This when the statutory liquidity ratio or the proportion of deposits that should be invested in government securities, stands at 21.5%.
So what does this mean? Banks have way too much investment in government securities. In fact, as on May 15, 2015, the total aggregate deposits of banks stood at Rs 87,39,610 crore. Of this amount around 29.9% or Rs 26,14,770 crore is invested in government securities.
As things currently stand, banks investing Rs 18,79,016 crore in government securities would have been suffice to meet the regulatory requirement of 21.5%. What this means that banks have invested Rs 7,35,754 crore more than what is required in government securities.
Why is that the case? The answer could be lazy banking or the lack of decent loan giving opportunities going around. Clarity on this front can only come from banks doing the necessary explaining.
There are other things that Jaitley needs to consider as well. The bad loans or gross non-performing assets of banks have been going up. As on March 31, 2014, they had stood at 3.9% of their total advances. By March 31, 2015, the number had shot up to 4.3% of the total advances.
The situation is worse in case of public sector banks. As on March 31, 2015, the stressed asset ratio of public sector banks stood at 13.2%. The stressed assets ratio of public sector banks as on March 31, 2014, was at 11.7%. The stressed asset ratio of the overall banking system was at 10.9% as on March 31, 2015 and 9.8% as on March 31, 2014.
The stressed asset ratio is the sum of gross non performing assets(or bad loans) plus restructured loans divided by the total assets held by the Indian banking system. The borrower has either stopped to repay this loan or the loan has been restructured, where the borrower has been allowed easier terms to repay the loan by increasing the tenure of the loan or lowering the interest rate. Hence, a stressed assets ratio of 13.2% essentially means that for every Rs 100 given out as a loan, Rs 13.2 has either been defaulted on or has been restructured.
What this clearly tells us is that the situation of the public sector banks has gone from bad to worse, over the last one year. In this situation it is hardly surprising that the banks have cut their fixed deposit rates but haven’t cut their lending rates by a similar amount.
With increased bad loans, they need to earn a higher margin on their good loans, to maintain or increase the level of profits. This scenario has arisen primarily because many corporates have been unable to repay the loans they had taken on.
Banks have not been able to recover these loans. A newsreport in The Economic Times yesterday, pointed out that the RBI is mulling a new rule that will give lenders a 51% equity control in a company, which fails to repay a loan even after its loan conditions have been restructured. Whether this happens remains to be seen. Further, many companies which failed to repay loans belong to crony capitalists who continue to be close to politicians.
Also, it needs to be pointed out that the corporate profits as a share of the gross domestic product is at 4.3% of the GDP, which is the lowest since 2004-2005. (I would like to thank Anindya Banerjee who works with Kotak Securities for bringing this to my notice).
What this tells us is that corporates as a whole are still not earning enough to be able to repay any fresh bank loans that they may take on. In this scenario insisting that the banks cut interest rates and lend is not the most suitable suggestion to make.
The Economic Survey released earlier this year had a very interesting table, which I have reproduced here.

Top Reasons for stalling across ownership

Source : CMIE

What the table clearly shows is that a lack of funds is not one of the main reasons for the 585 stalled projects in the private sector. In case of the 161 stalled government projects, the lack of funds is the third major reason. Hence, there are other reasons which the government needs to tackle, in order to get these projects going again. Lack of finance is clearly not a main reason.
Further, the high interest rates on post office savings schemes put a floor on the level to which banks can cut their fixed deposit rates and in the process their lending rates. This is something that the public sector banks can do nothing about.
To conclude, what all these reasons clearly suggest is that Arun Jaitley and this country would be better off if we got rid our fixation for lower interest rates being a solution to reigniting economic growth. There are other bigger things that need to be sorted out first.

The column originally appeared on The Daily Reckoning on June 9, 2015