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

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

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

Figure 1:

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

Source: Reserve Bank of India 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bank Ponzi Scheme

RBI-Logo_8

Every six months the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) publishes a document titled the Financial Stability Report . In the December 2011 report, it pointed out that at 55 per cent, loans to the power sector constituted a major part of the lending to the infrastructure sector. It further said that restructured loans in the power sector were on their way up.

Restructured loans are essentially loans where the borrower has been given a moratorium during which he does not have to repay the principal amount. In some cases, even the interest need not be paid. In some other cases, the tenure of the loan has been increased.

This was nearly five and a half years back, and the first time the RBI admitted that there was a problem in the bank lending to the power sector. In the December 2012 report, the RBI said: “There are also early signs of corporate leverage rising among the several industrial groups with large exposure to infrastructure sectors like power.”

When translated into simple English this basically means that many big industrial groups which had taken on loans to finance power projects had borrowed more money than they would be in a position to repay.

In the years to come by, other sectors along with the power sector also became a part of the RBI commentary on loans which were likely not to be repaid in the future. In the June 2013 report, the central bank said: “Within the industrial sector, a few sub-sectors, namely; Iron & Steel, Textile, Infrastructure, Power generation and Telecommunications; have become a cause of concern.”

In the December 2013 report, the RBI said: “There are five sectors, namely, Infrastructure [of which power is a part], Iron & Steel, Textiles, Aviation and Mining which have high level of stressed advances. At system level, these five sectors together contribute around 24 percent of total advances of scheduled commercial banks, and account for around 51 per cent of their total stressed advances.”

Dear Reader, the point I am trying to make here is that the RBI knew about a crisis brewing in the industrial sector as a whole, and power and steel sector in particular, for a while. In fact, in the June 2015 report, the RBI pointed out: “the debt servicing ability of power generation companies [which are a part of the infrastructure sector] in the near term may continue to remain weak given the high leverage and weak cash flows.”

The funny thing is that while the RBI was putting out these warnings, the banks were simply ignoring them and lending more to these sectors. Between July 2014 and July 2015, banks gave out Rs 86,500 crore, or 71.5 per cent, of the Rs. 1,20,900 crore that they had lent to industry to the two most troubled sectors, namely, power and iron and steel.

What was happening here? The banks were giving new loans to the troubled companies who were not in a position to repay their debt. These new loans were being used by companies to pay off their old loans. A perfect Ponzi scheme if ever there was one. If the banks hadn’t given fresh loans, many of the companies in the power and the iron and steel sectors would have defaulted on their loans.

Hence, the banks gave these companies fresh loans in order to ensure that their loans didn’t turn into bad loans, and so, in the process, they managed to kick the can down the road. In the process, the loans outstanding to these companies grew and if they were not in a position to repay their loans 2-3 years back, there is no way they would be in a position to repay their loan now.

Many of these projects, as Raghuram Rajan put it in a November 2014 speech, “were structured up front with too little equity, sometimes borrowed by the promoter from elsewhere. And some promoters find ways to take out the equity as soon as the project gets going, so there really is no cushion when bad times hit.”

The corporates brought in too little of their own money into the project, and banks ended up over lending. Over lending also happened because many promoters in these sectors were basically crony capitalists close to politicians to whom banks couldn’t say no to.

Over and above this, the steel producers had to face falling steel prices as China dumped steel internationally. In case of power producers, plant load factors (actual electricity being produced as a proportion of total capacity) fell. Along with this, the spot prices of electricity also fell. This did not allow these companies to set high tariffs for power, required for them to generate enough money to repay loans.

All these reasons basically led to the Indian banks ending up in a mess, on the loans it gave to power and iron and steel prices.

The RBI has now put 12 stressed loan cases under the Insolvency Bankruptcy Code, in the hope of recovering bad loans from these companies. Not surprisingly, steel companies dominate the list.

The column originally appeared in the Daily News and Analysis on June 23, 2017.

 

The Banking Ordinance is no magic pill for ailing banks

RBI-Logo_8

Recently, the government promulgated the Banking Regulation(Amendment) Ordinance, 2017, to tackle the huge amount of bad loans that have accumulated in the Indian banking system in general and the government owned public sector banks in particular. Bad loans are essentially loans in which the repayment from a borrower has been due for 90 days or more.

This Ordinance is now being looked at the magic pill which will cure the problems of Indian banks. Will it?

The Ordinance essentially gives power to the Reserve Bank of India(RBI) to give directions to banks for the resolutions of bad loans from time to time. It also allows the Indian central bank to appoint committees or authorities to advise banks on resolution of stressed assets.

The basic assumption that the Ordinance seems to make is that the RBI knows more about banking than the banks themselves. This doesn’t make much sense for the simple reason that if the RBI was better at banking than the banks themselves, it would have been able to identify the start of the bad loans problem as far back as 2011, which it didn’t.

Over and above this, this is not the first time that Indian banks have landed in trouble because of bad loans. They had landed up in a similar situation in the early 1980s and the early 2000s as well, and the RBI hadn’t been able to do much about it.

In fact, at the level of banks, many banks have been more interested in postponing the recognition of the problem of bad loans. This basically means they haven’t been recognising bad loans as bad loans. One way of doing this is by restructuring the loan and allowing the borrower a moratorium during which he does not have to repay the principal amount of the loan. In some cases, even the interest need not be paid. In some other cases, the tenure of the loan has been increased. In many cases this simply means just pushing the can down the road by not recognising a bad loan as a bad loan.

Why have banks been doing this? The Economic Survey gives us multiple reasons for the same. Large debtors have borrowed from many banks and these banks need to coordinate among themselves, and that hasn’t happened. At public sector banks recognising a bad loan as a bad loan and writing it off, can attract the attention of the investigative agencies.

Also, no public sector banker in his right mind would want to negotiate a settlement with the borrower who may not be able to repay the entire loan, but he may be in a position to repay a part of the loan. As the Economic Survey points out: “If PSU banks grant large debt reductions, this could attract the attention of the investigative agencies”. What makes this even more difficult is the fact that some of defaulters have been regular defaulters over the decades, and who are close to politicians across parties.

Hence, bankers have just been happy restructuring a loan and pushing the can down the road.

Over and above this, writing off bad loans once they haven’t been repaid for a while, leads to the banks needing more capital to continue to be in business. In case of public sector banks this means the government having to allocate more money towards recapitalisation of banks. There is a limit to that as well.

Also, a bigger problem which the Economic Survey does not talk about is the fact that the rate of recovery of bad loans has gone down dramatically over the years. In 2013-2014, the rate of recovery was at 18.8 per cent. By 2015-2016, this had fallen to 10.3 per cent. Hence, banks were only recovering around Rs 10 out of the every Rs 100 of bad loans defaulted on by borrowers. This is clear reflection of the weak institutional mechanisms in India, which cannot change overnight.

Also, many of the companies that have taken on large loans are no longer in a position to repay. As the Economic Survey points out: “Cash flows in the large stressed companies have been deteriorating over the past few years, to the point where debt reductions of more than 50 percent will often be needed to restore viability. The only alternative would be to convert debt to equity, take over the companies, and then sell them at a loss.”

The first problem here will be that many businessmen are very close to politicians.
Hence taking over companies won’t be easy. Over and above this, it will require the government and the public sector banks, working with the mindset of a profit motive, like a private equity or a venture capital fund. And that is easier said than done.

The column originally appeared in the Daily News and Analysis on May 22, 2017.

Viral Acharya is Right About Re-privatising Public Sector Banks

vacharya

Late last week Viral Acharya, a deputy governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), said: “Perhaps re-privatising some of the nationalised banks is an idea whose time has come … this would reduce the overall money government needs to inject as bank capital.”

Regular readers of the Diary would know that we have said several times in the past that public sector banks should be privatised and the government should get out of the banking business, which it is clearly inept at.

Of course, the question is why has Acharya used the term re-privatising rather than privatising. Indira Gandhi nationalised 14 private banks on July 19, 1969. These banks had deposits of Rs 50 crore or more and among them accounted for 90 per cent of the banking business in the country. The funny thing is that at the time this happened, the then RBI governor LK Jha had no clue about it.

As TCA Srinivasa Raghavan writes in Dialogue of the Deaf—The Government and the RBI: “Volume three of RBI’s official history says that on July 17 she [Indira Gandhi] asked LK Jha, the RBI governor to come over to Delhi. Jha thought he was being asked to discuss social control and he took with him a comprehensive note on the subject. When he offered it to Mrs Gandhi she told him ‘that he could keep the note on her table and go to the next room and help in drafting the legislation on nationalising the banks.’”

In 1980, six other private banks were nationalised. This time the recommendation came from the then RBI governor, IG Patel.

Now getting back to what Acharya said, re-privatising is something we have advocated in the past. And it makes sense at multiple levels. We now have nearly two decades of evidence that suggests that the new generation private sector banks which were first set up in the mid-1990s, are much more efficiently run than their public-sector counterparts. Yes, there have been cases like the Global Trust Bank, but on the whole private banks are better run than their public sector counterparts. Even the old generation private sector banks, which are very small, are reasonably well run.

Take the case of the bad loans situation that currently plagues the Indian banking sector in general and the public sector banks in particular. As on December 31, 2016, the total bad loans of the public sector banks (gross non-performing assets (NPAs)) had stood at around Rs 6.46 lakh crore.

For the private sector banks, the same number stood at Rs 86,124 crore. Of this, two banks, ICICI Bank and Axis Bank, accounted for bad loans of Rs 58,184 crore. Of course, given that public sector banks give out more loans, it is not surprising that their bad loans are more.

The total loans of public sector banks are 2.9 times the total loans of private sector banks. But their bad loans are 7.5 times that of private banks. If both these set of banks were equally well run, then the two ratios just referred to, wouldn’t have been different.

Between 2013-2014 and 2015-2016, the total net profit made by the public sector banks stood at Rs 56,567 crore and that of private banks stood at Rs 1,13,801 crore. This, even though public sector banks are significantly bigger than India’s private banks.

These data points tell us that India’s public sector banks are inefficiently run. And this inefficiency has cost the government a lot of money over the years. Between 2009 and March 2017, the government has had to invest close to Rs 1.5 lakh crore in these banks to keep recapitalising their capital, in order to keep them going.

Indeed, this is a lot of money and could have gone towards other worthy causes. The basic problem with public sector banks is political meddling. Every government has its favourite set of industrialists and this ultimately leads to the public sector banks and in the process the taxpayer, picking up the bill for this politician-businessman nexus.

As Acharya writes in a paper titled Is State Ownership in the Indian Banking Sector Desirable?: “One, state ownership creates severe moral hazard of directing bank lending for politically expedient goals and of bailouts when such lending goes bad. Second, state ownership restricts the ability of state-owned banks from raising arm’s length capital against state’s stake, strangling their growth and keeping these banks—and certainly their private capital base—smaller than it need be.”

What does this mean in simple English? The economist Alan Blinder in his book After the Music Stopped writes that the “central idea behind moral hazard is that people who are well insured against some risk are less likely to take pains (and incur costs) to avoid it.” Hence, managers of government owned banks know that if loans given to businessmen close to politicians go bad, the government will ultimately pick up the tab by recapitalising the public sector bank to an adequate extent. Hence, they go easy on giving loans to borrowers who are likely to default. Of course, there is always the threat of transfers, which works very well. This has happened for years at end.

Secondly, given that the government has to continue owning a certain proportion of shareholding in these banks, the banks cannot raise as much capital as they require. They have to continue to be dependent on the government for capital. And the government of course does not have an unlimited amount of cash. This limits the ability of the government owned banks to raise as much capital as they may require at any point of time.

So, what are the actual chances of the government re-privatising some of the public sector banks, as suggested by Acharya? Zero. While Acharya, I and others, might think that the basic problem with public sector banks is government ownership, politicians don’t think so. This comes from the belief that if you own banks then you can direct lending to areas that you want to. But this as we have seen comes with its own set of costs.

The column originally appeared on Equitymaster on May 3, 2017.

Is Reserve Bank of India a Subordinate Department of the Finance Ministry?

RBI-Logo_8

The Reserve Bank of India(RBI) released the latest monetary policy report on April 6, 2017. In this report, the RBI said that: “In Q4[January to March 2017], remonetisation progressed at an accelerated pace.” It also said: “To sum up, economic activity should recover in 2017- 18 on the back of the fast pace of remonetisation“.

Remonetisation essentially refers to the RBI printing currency and pumping it into the financial system, in order to replace the currency rendered useless by demonetisation. Notes of Rs 500 an Rs 1,000 denomination were demonetised on November 8, 2016. Since then the RBI has been replacing the demonetised notes with new notes of Rs 500, Rs 2,000 and notes of other denomination which continued to remain legal in the aftermath of demonetisation.

In the monetary policy report India’s central bank claims that the remonetisation has happened at an accelerated/fast pace between January and March 2017. The trouble is that its own data shows otherwise. Take a look at Figure 1. It shows the weekly rate of increase in currency in circulation from mid-January 2017 to mid-March 2017.

Figure 1:

As can be seen from Figure 1, the weekly increase in currency in circulation has been slowing down since early January. How is the weekly increase in currency in circulation obtained? The currency in circulation as on January 6, 2017, was at Rs 8,98,017 crore. This jumped to Rs 9,50,803 crore as on January 13, 2017. This meant an increase of Rs 52,786 crore or around 5.9 per cent (Rs 52,786 crore divided by Rs 8,98,017 crore). A similar calculation is carried out for every week since then. This is how the weekly increase in currency in circulation is calculated.

In fact, by the end of the March 2017, the weekly increase in currency in circulation was at a three-month low, since January 6, 2017. This explains why there has been a shortage in currency in the recent past, with the ATMs running out of money time and again.

In April 2017, the weekly increase in currency in circulation has recovered a little than in comparison to the past. Nevertheless, we need to remember that the total currency in circulation is still a long way away from where it was at the beginning of November 2016, before demonetisation happened.

On November 4, 2016, the total currency in circulation had stood at around Rs 17.98 lakh crore. On April 14, 2017, the latest data that is available from the RBI, the total was at Rs 13.9 lakh crore. The gap between then and now is still at 22.7 per cent. In the pieces that I wrote on demonetisation I had said that the total currency in replacement would be replaced by May 2017. But the pace at which the RBI is currently going, it seems it will take more time than that.

Also, the RBI in the monetary policy report claims that the remonetisation happened at an accelerated/fast pace. This as we can see from Figure 1 is clearly not the case. The rate of weekly increase in currency in circulation at the beginning of January was close to 6 per cent. By end of March this had dropped to 1.7 per cent.

Of course as any base gets bigger, its rate of increase is likely to fall. But in this case, it is worth remembering that we are still nearly 23 per cent down from where the currency in circulation was before demonetisation.

One argument that has been finding favour is that the government needs to bring down currency in circulation so that people move towards digital forms of payment. While there is no denying digital is good, it is not going to happen over a period of a few months. Human habits ingrained for decades don’t change that fast. And given that the government will need to maintain the currency in circulation where it was before demonetisation was carried out. Every economy needs a certain amount of money to function and given the recent currency shortage we are nowhere near that.

The question is why has the weekly rate of increase in currency in circulation slowed down. Are the RBI and the government printing presses not working three shifts a day, like they were doing earlier? Is there a shortage of paper and ink? This is something only the RBI or the government can answer. The funny thing is that the banking journalists covering the RBI as a beat, haven’t put this question to the central banker as yet.

And what explains the RBI’s statement saying that the process of remonetisation or the weekly increase in the currency in circulation, is happening at a fast/accelerated pace. Why is the RBI saying something which its own data does not bear out?

Since the beginning of demonetisation, the communication of the government has been to make it look like a success and that is understandable. A similar bug seems to have bit the RBI as well when it has used words like accelerated and fast, when the weekly increase in currency in circulation has actually slowed down.

This brings me to something that TT Krishnamachari (TTK), who was the finance minister of the country, between 1957-1958 and 1964 and 1964, once said about the RBI. As TCA Srinivasa Raghavan writes in Dialogue of the Deaf-The Government and the RBI: “TTK’s view, expressed forcefully… [was] that the RBI was no more than a ‘subordinate department of the finance ministry’.”

In the case of demonetisation, the RBI is clearly behaving like a subordinate department of the finance ministry. And that does not bear well for the Indian economy.

The column originally appeared on April 24, 2017, on Equitymaster

Is the RBI Telling Us Something That the Govt Isn’t?


One of the things that we have learnt in the business of economic forecasting is to highlight the forecasts that we get right and tom-tom about it. The new Reserve Bank of India deputy governor Viral Acharya said something two weeks back that we seemed to have missed (you know with the media expanding at the rate it has, it is difficult to keep track of everything).

Nevertheless, here we go. Acharya said on March 6, 2017, a few days after his birthday: “I think everyone should keep in mind that the remonetisation is taking place at a very fast pace. We have some way to go, but I think we expect that within two to three months we will reach full currency in circulation. It will be slightly lower, but it is in that ballpark (number).”

What Acharya was basically saying was that by May 2017, the currency in circulation will come to a level around what prevailed before demonetisation rendered Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes useless. This is something we have maintained from the very beginning, even though we have been ridiculed about it more than once, as we have gone along. (You can read the pieces here and here).

In fact, if the Modi government is to be believed there was never any problem because of demonetisation. In fact, the finance minister Arun Jaitley, said in early February: “At no point of time, not for a single day, was the currency inadequate.” Around the same time the economic affairs secretary Shaktikanta Das, who reports to Jaitley, said something along similar lines when he said that the remonetisation process was complete. Remonetisation essentially refers to the process of printing money and pumping it into the financial system.

We live in Mumbai and not in Delhi. And we don’t know Das. But if we did, we would have definitely asked him, if the remonetisation was almost complete in February, why is the RBI deputy governor, who knows a thing or two about such things, saying that remonetisation will be completed only in May 2017.

Now let’s get back to look at what Acharya is saying. Take a look at Figure 1. It shows the currency in circulation every week, through late January 2016 to March 10, 2017, the latest data point that is available.

Figure 1Figure 1

What does Figure 1 show us? It shows us that the currency in circulation fell dramatically in the aftermath of demonetisation. This is not surprising given that more than 86 per cent of the currency in circulation was rendered useless overnight. And it has been rising since early January 2017, as the RBI prints and pumps more new currency into the financial system. The average increase in currency in circulation per week since January 6, 2017, has been Rs 38,645 crore.

At this pace of increase, over a period of 10 weeks, i.e. two and a half months (the average of two to three months that Acharya said), the total currency in circulation by May 19, 2017 (10 weeks after March 10, 2017), will stand at Rs 16.32 lakh crore (Rs 12.46 lakh crore as on March 10, 2017 + Rs 3.86 lakh crore added over the 10 week period). If we go for the full three months, then the total currency in circulation as on June 2, 2017(12 weeks after March 10, 2017) will stand at Rs 17.10 lakh crore.

The currency in circulation before demonetisation was announced stood at Rs 17.98 lakh crore (as on November 4, 2016). If we end up with a currency in circulation of Rs 17.10 lakh crore after remonetisation is complete, the total currency in circulation would have fallen by around 4.9 per cent. If we end up at Rs 16.32 lakh crore, then the currency in circulation would have fallen by around 9.2 per cent.

If the currency in circulation is expected to come down by around 5-9 per cent, then what was the point in disrupting the economy in such a big way, is a question worth asking. Of course, the way things are these days, we won’t get answers. All we will be told is that in the long term, demonetisation will be beneficial.

Further, in this age of relentless media, people have forgotten by now that going digital wasn’t on the original list of aims of demonetisation. It was subtly introduced only once the original aims of tackling black money and fake notes, went out of the window.

What does Acharya’s comment and our analysis accompanying it, tell us? It tells us, something we have been saying recently, that Indians are going back to cash. The brief spurt in digital transactions has been reverted and this shall become more and more obvious as we go along. It also means that the RBI will have to print and remonetise a greater portion of the demonetised currency. If it does not do that then there is the risk of not enough currency going around in the economy and that will have an impact on the total number of economic transactions.

The RBI of course recognises this. It recognises the fact that an adequate amount of currency is needed in the economy. It also recognises that digital transactions despite all the hype around them haven’t really taken off. In this scenario, more and more new currency will have to be introduced into the economy.

Having said that the RBI, under the new dispensation of Urjit Patel, can’t say this in a very direct way. Nevertheless, sometimes we do have to read between the lines to understand the real message behind what is being said.

The column originally appeared in Equitymaster on March 21, 2017.

As Digital Transactions Fall, Indians Are Going Back to Cash

Sometime last week I had asked the question, whether Indians were going back to using cash. And I had offered some evidence regarding the same. I had concluded by saying that “there is not enough data to say that Indians have totally gone back to cash, but the data that is available does suggest that they are moving towards it”.

In this piece, I will look at the same question by using a different set of data. On March 10, 2017, the Reserve Bank of India(RBI) released a document titled Macroeconomic Impact of Demonetisation- A Preliminary Assessment.

One of the things that the RBI document discusses is the usage of different digital modes of payment in the aftermath of demonetisation. As the RBI document points out: “After the announcement of demonetisation, digital activity levels were low in the initial weeks as people were busy depositing/exchanging SBNs (specified bank note). However, in December 2016, digital payment activity increased alongside progressive remonetisation.

 

How does the data look? Let’s first take a look at Table 1, which has the total number of digital transactions for various modes of payment.

Table 1

Volume (in Crore) Nov-16 Dec-16 Jan-17 Feb-17
National Electronic Funds Transfer 12.30 16.60 16.40 14.80
Cheque Truncation System 8.70 13.00 11.80 10.00
Immediate Payment Service 3.60 5.30 6.20 6.00
Unified Payment Interface 0.03 0.20 0.42 0.42
Unstructured Supplementary Service Data 0.00 0.01 0.03 0.02
Debit and Credit Card Usage at Point of Sales 20.60 31.10 26.60 21.20
Prepaid Payment Instrument 5.90 8.80 8.70 7.80
Total 51.13 75.01 70.15 60.24

Source: Reserve Bank of IndiaTable 1 tells us that digital payments went up in the aftermath of demonetisation and peaked in December 2016. Now take a look at Figure 1, which basically plots the total number of transactions.

Figure 1

What does Figure 1 tell us? It tells us that the total number of digital transactions in the aftermath of demonetisation did go up by around 50 per cent in December 2016 in comparison to November 2016, but has fallen since then. In February 2017, the number of transactions (i.e. the volume of transactions) had come down to a little over 60 crore from a peak of around 75 crore in December 2016.

Now take a look at Table 2, which basically shows the total value of transactions carried out through the different modes of digital payments.

Table 2

Value (in Rs billion) Nov-16 Dec-16 Jan-17 Feb-17
National Electronic Funds Transfer 8,808 11,538 11,355 10,878
Cheque Truncation System 5,419 6,812 6,618 5,994
Immediate Payment Service 325 432 491 482
Unified Payment Interface 0.9 7 16.6 19
Unstructured Supplementary Service Data 0.007 0.104 0.382 0.357
Debit and Credit Card at POS 352 522 481 391
Prepaid Payment Instrument 59 88 87 78
Total 14,964 19,399 19,049 17,842

Source: Reserve Bank of IndiaThis again shows that the digital transactions rose dramatically in December 2016, in comparison to November 2016. This basically tells us that with very little currency being available in the financial system due to the demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, people resorted to digital modes of payment. Having said that the use of digital mode of payment has fallen since then.

The fall in value of digital payments between December 2016 and February 2016 is 8.02 per cent. In comparison, the total number of digital transactions fell by 20 per cent from around 75 crore in December 2016 to 60 crore in February 2017.

As the RBI document quoted earlier in the piece points out: “The catalytic push from demonetisation hastened migration towards digital payments in November and December 2016. However, ease in availability of cash by progressive remonetisation impacted the pace of growth of digitalisation in February 2017.” This is basically the RBI’s way of saying in a very euphemistic way that Indians are going back to using cash.

One of the aims of demonetisation was to ensure that a greater part of the economy becomes digital i.e. people use digital modes of payments while carrying out economic transactions, instead of using cash. The initial evidence on this front is not very good. Nevertheless, as I said in my last piece on this issue, more data is needed to conclusively say that Indians have gone back to cash, though they are currently heading in that direction.

The question is what more needs to be done to keep encouraging people to move towards digital transactions. As the RBI document points out: “Further efforts are essential to enhance the use of digital payment going forward such as: (i) continued efforts to incentivise digitalisation; (ii) removing roadblocks in penetration of payment technology; (iii) handholding of new users to bring in behavioural shift; and (iv) providing an environment for development of a robust and easily scalable payment ecosystem that benefits from the advancements in technology. This will facilitate adoption of digital payments on a sustained basis and help in substantial savings for the country in terms of reduction in cost of cash in the system18; and an increase in accountability and tractability of transactions, thereby circumscribing tax avoidance.”

The column was originally published on March 16, 2017, on Equitymaster