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“Demonetisation” as a morality play

The politics around “demonetisation” — a misused term for what happened on November 8, 2016 — has taken centerstage in the run-up to the Assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh (that voted yesterday) and Gujarat (which goes to the polls in December). Finance minister Arun Jaitley has added “morality” to the cluster of objectives, that seemingly justified compulsorily replacing 86 per cent of our currency with new notes over a short period of just two months last year.

Whose morality?

Morality is a slippery slope to tread in public affairs. It’s certainly an individual virtue, but at a societal level it’s difficult to define. Consider the moral conundrums that arise while enforcing a law which doesn’t have widespread local acceptance. Rebels with a cause see themselves as morally-elevated outliers. Not so long ago, our freedom fighters were feted for disrupting the peace, assassination or damaging public property. Even today in areas like Kashmir or the Maoist belt in central India, it’s tough to apportion the balance of morality between those who violate the law and others who seek to enforce it.

Our Constitution, quite properly, is silent about “morality”. A quasi-moral concept of “socialism” was introduced in 1976 into the preamble, by former PM Indira Gandhi, as a populist measure. But it sits incongruously with the otherwise liberal slant of the document.

Corruption is patently immoral as it saps national wealth. Measures to fight corruption are part of public dharma. The real issue is: was demonetisation essential to end corruption?

Demonetisation to identify counterfeit money like using a hammer to kill a bug

If the objective was to weed out counterfeit money, which can fund terrorism or even legal transactions, there was no need to impose a tight timeframe of two months. This is what caused widespread panic and disruption. It would have been enough to alert the public to the menace; provide markets (banks already have them) with testing devices to weed out “compromised” notes over time. This is an ongoing activity, that all central banks do routinely, because any note (besides crypto currencies) can be counterfeited.

Better policing can identify & capture the stocks of black cash

If the objective was to capture the stocks of “black” money, held as cash, in one fell swoop, this was better done by making known “havens” of “black” cash — apparently entire warehouses — unsafe for storage through effective enforcement, coupled with strong incentives to come clean. Note that “black” money hasn’t gone away.

Black money was generated even as the notes were being replaced

Demonetisation can do very little to stop generation of black money. The government knows this. It intends to use “big data” for surveillance of potential evaders; embed governance systems with enhanced oversight and enhance transparency. Only improved technology and perpetual, intensive oversight can starve this hydra.

Was it political?

Not least the timing of the move, just before the elections in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, which sends the largest number of members to the Rajya Sabha, where the BJP didn’t have a majority, could indicate the compulsion to play to the gallery. If this was the motive it worked very well politically — not least, because UP is a poor state with low governance indicators and high levels of inequality. Hitting the rich is a tested populist strategy, perfected by former PM Indira Gandhi, and still held dear by our antiquated Communist parties.

Would Gandhiji have approved?

But demonetisation doesn’t align with Mahatma Gandhi’s precept that “means matter as much as ends”. Hitting tangentially at corruption, at the cost of scorching even the law-abiding, is unacceptable. Anti-corruption measures which ignore the social and economic collateral cost of implementation are suspect. The State has an asymmetric, fiduciary relationship of trust with citizens. Did it live up to its dharma of insulating the honest from State-induced actions intended to harm the corrupt?

Some positives – nudged people towards digital and banked transactions

Undoubtedly, demonetisation did accelerate a shift towards banked transactions and boosted digital payments. Both outcomes are winners. But it’s also true that it put a temporary brake on economic growth by disrupting business and inducing job losses, mostly in the informal sector, where workers and the self-employed are less well paid, and less well-endowed to absorb the cost of a disruption.

Means matter as much as ends

Seemingly desirable steps to make the system honest can have grossly inequitable outcomes, which Gandhiji would have termed “immoral”. It’s possible to reduce corruption by replacing income-tax with a “head tax”. Citizens are more easily identifiable than their income, so very few would be able to escape this tax. If a “head tax” were to replace income-tax, each citizen would pay Rs 3,600 per year. But consider, for 40 per cent of the population, which is vulnerable to poverty, the head tax would be a minimum 12 per cent of even the poverty level income of $1.90 per day. Currently, even an income of Rs 10 lakhs (Rs 1 million), or 22 times the poverty level income, attracts a low effective tax rate. Protecting the weak is cumbersome. It creates tax escape routes, which need to be plugged with minimum collateral damage to the weak and the honest.

GST the first efficient, corruption buster

The good news is that the Narendra Modi government has got it bang-on with its second major corruption-busting initiative: the Goods and Services Tax (GST). Implemented from July 1, 2017, it has also disrupted business and compounded job losses, arising from the shutting down of businesses, which relied on the illegal competitive advantage of avoiding tax. GST is a potent standalone, medium-term winner. This expectation mitigates the interim economic “amorality” arising from the collateral harm to innocent workers and suppliers to such businesses. The proactivity of the GST Council in correcting mistakes and acknowledging errors has only deepened its credibility and conveyed a sense of responsible stewardship. This is welcome.

Compensate for the distress & dislocation

cashless

Demonetisation was misguided even if it had “moral” end-objectives. One-fifth of our population, which suffered the most, is in the income segment of Rs 50,000 to Rs 5 lakhs (0.5 million) per year, being workers and those self-employed in the informal sector. They have still not been compensated. Hopefully, the finance minister will apply some balm in his 2018-19 Budget and bring this tragic “morality play” to a happy end.

Adapted from the author’s opinion piece in The Asian Age, November 10, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/101117/end-morality-play-its-a-misfit-in-eco-policy.html#vuukle-emotevuukle_div

FM Jaitley’s press meet – more lobs than ground strokes

Jaitley lobs

What was Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley’s press conference on Tuesday all about anyway? If the intention was to gain eyeballs, it succeeded. But if it was to allay fears about the Indian economy, it failed. Here is why.

Misguided choice of communication medium

First, the optics were all wrong. The finance minister had just returned from the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in Washington. The timing required talking up the economy in a more artful way, drawing on international trends, in rethinking the role of the State in development. Instead, the assembled press corps got drab statistics. The naysayers remain unconvinced that the economy is doing fine. Presenting alternative indicators — other than those already in the public domain — could have helped. For example, the government has reduced risk by conferring residency tax benefits for local administrative offices of multinational companies. Similarly, GST revenue is marginally more than the targets for the first quarter.

Recycled “kosher” ideas for fudging data on the fiscal deficit

Second, the key “announcement” was a proposed outlay of `2.1 trillion for recapitalising public sector banks over two years. This was presented as a “bold” step. But how is it going to be achieved without relaxing the fiscal deficit target of 3.2 per cent of GDP this year and 3 percent next year? The budgeted outlay, for capital support to publicly-owned banks is just Rs 200 billion till FY 2019. Where will the “additional” resources come from? The how and when remains a mystery – though speculation, some of it inspired by the views of Chief Economic Adviser, Arvind Subramanian, abound.

FM Jaitley unhappy at being trapped

The finance ministry has a long, credible tradition of technical expertise. The Prime Minister can get away with making generic promises, as he has done in Gujarat, of a tax amnesty for small business, for past misdeeds. But finance ministers are required to be very precise. They can’t waffle. They must not seem to be led by advice, whispered into their ears, while a press conference is on. This, unfairly, makes the finance minister look feeble, or worse, being led by the nose.

arvind subramanian and jaitley

Mr Jaitley fell squarely into these traps. To his credit, he looked decidedly unhappy and uncomfortable while doing so. It is inconceivable that this media jamboree was his idea. Just back from Washington, where “best fit” fiscal practices are the main discourse, resorting to fuzzy announcements, which create high expectations and uncertainty, is not par for the course.

It’s the politics stupid

So what explains Mr Jaitley going down this route? After all, the Budget is just three months away. The sanctity of placing new budgetary proposals before Parliament, prior to revealing them to the public, is a sound convention. The only explanation is that the press meet was convened to boost the feel-good factor prior to the Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat elections, due over the next two months. Recapitalising banks sounds good. Building infrastructure sounds even better. If this was the intention, Mr Jaitley was right to look uncomfortable. Nothing stops the Union government from doing its job, even as state elections are being held. But a red line must be drawn at presenting significant new fiscal proposals, that are not already embedded in the existing fiscal roadmap.

Stick to your instincts Finance Minister

Mr Jaitley’s instincts remain sound. He will try hard not to breach the fiscal deficit target. He will resist reducing the capital outlay. He must also resist forcing cash-rich, listed publicly-owned companies to subscribe to the special recapitalisation bonds proposed to be floated by public sector banks. Listed, publicly-owned companies must be managed by their boards, and insulated from politics, at least with respect to their investments. Anything else is very unfair for the minority shareholders and the Securities and Exchange Board of India is duty-bound to resist such moves — however bizarre that may sound!

Deepen equity divestment in publicly owned banks & companies

Generating Rs 580 billion by selling-off government equity held in excess of 51 per cent in banks is a good idea for a start. A better idea is to dilute government equity even further to 26 per cent without relinquishing effective control. The government does not need more equity to ensure that the public interest continues to be served. We must resolve the legal obstacles which prevent such dilution of equity.Using disinvestment proceeds to inject public finance into private companies, which create growth and jobs, is a great idea. But doing so via the chosen long route of public sector bank recapitalisation is worrisome. Unless management systems are restructured, politicised loans and NPAs will persist. This cannot be achieved by 2019.

Use equity divestment proceeds to refinance private NBFCs for MSME business

What can be done is to use disinvestment resources to refinance private banks and non-banking finance companies, who in turn finance end-use borrowers, including small and medium enterprises (SME), to scale up operations. The unmet financing needs of SMEs are estimated at Rs 65 billion. But this could be an underestimate, not least because of their widespread use of cash or unbanked transactions. The share of manufacturing SMEs in GDP is seven per cent, or just under 50 per cent of total manufacturing GDP. Their most immediate financing need is to discount their invoices and thereby reduce the 60-to-90-day payment cycle which saps their cash reserves.

Scale up private, boutique, supply-chain finance providers

Private specialised companies offering boutique supply-chain financing already exist. The largest is reputed to be the New Delhi-based Priority Vendors Technologies Pvt Ltd. founded by Kunal Agarwal in 2015 (http://www.priorityvendor.com)But these early entrants tend to finance only the payables and receivables of large, star-rated corporates who buy from, or sell goods and services to, smaller ancillary firms. There are 5,000 large corporates. Compare this with 1.6 million registered SMEs.

We have barely scratched the surface of the potential for supply-chain financing. Saturation levels of financing can alleviate the cash crunch, at the firm level, caused by the GST regime of advance tax payments coupled with the delays, in “matching” tax credits, earned on purchases, before they can be used by firms, to pay taxes.

Jaitley ground strokes

India is replete with good ideas. The finance minister could have unleashed an array of nimble steps, which can lubricate the economy, reduce risk and create jobs. But, by not grounding Tuesday’s press meet around a friendly conversation about the nitty-gritty of unleashing private potential and mitigating the hardships arising out of GST, this opportunity was lost. There will surely be another time. But will we be prepared by then to grasp the tide at its flood?

Adapted from the authors article in The Asian Age, October 26, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/261017/wheres-the-big-idea-fm-got-optics-wrong.html

FM Jaitley, aim for the sweet spot

Manmohan Jaitley

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, recently released a book titled India Transformed — 25 years of Economic Reform, edited by Rakesh Mohan, at the appropriately historic Nehru Memorial Library. After the obligatory photo-op, Dr Singh turned to finance minister Arun Jaitley and with a beatific smile, handed the book over to him, as if, symbolically, he was satisfied that he could hand over trusteeship of the economy, to the three-year-old NDA government, and walked off, disregarding the speech he was scheduled to deliver.

The reform baton passes on

It was indeed a poignant moment and well chosen, for the economic baton to be handed over. The high-decibel criticism by Left-oriented, liberal public intellectuals of the economic vacuity of the BJP government’s economic policies continues. But the fact is that we are now at a cusp, an inflexion point. In all likelihood, we shall do substantially better on inclusive growth. This may sound incredulous at a time when growth, industrial investment and exports have fallen from the earlier upward looking trend line. But a dip in the industrial investment and growth rate are natural short-term consequences of the BJP having finally walked the talk on corruption.

Pressing the economic accelerator is not enough

Over the first three years, the NDA merely pressed the accelerator harder on the positive legacy of the UPA — rural unemployment support, fast-forwarding Aadhar, digitisation of commerce and banking, financial inclusion, space technology competitiveness, making electricity surplus, making access to telecommunications even more affordable, better transport and urban infrastructure, disinvestment of minority shares of state-owned entities, ensuring fiscal stability and progressively higher financial devolution to sub-national governments, including local governments.

Burying past negativities is good but not enough

It also did very well to bury the negative legacy of the UPA. The biggest achievement is in fast forwarding of expenditure programmes without the viral outbreak of corruption scandals seen earlier. More positively a three-pronged action plan is in place to make public systems resilient to corruption.

GST – the corruption buster

First, getting the GST is the biggest legislative and operational achievement to dampen corruption and enhance value addition by integrating the national market. Glitches remain due to poor drafting of rules which burden the small, honest taxpayer. Many such are the obsessive dedication to maximising revenue, even at the expense of simplicity. As usual the pain is being most felt by those least able to bear it — ragpickers — at the bottom of the urban food chain – their daily income have halved because the “kabadis” (junk yards) they sell plastics and glass to, are playing safe on the likely new tax liabilities. Small individual consultants or homeowners,  who live in one state but get work or rent from another, re similarly caught in a bewildering tax reporting spaghetti.

Bankruptcy & NPA resolution – The crony capitalism killer app

Second, is the frontal attack on crony capitalism — identifying the borrowers who have defaulted on Rs 12 trillion owed to banks, getting the Bankruptcy Act operational and signaling public sector banks that there will be no more “Mundra scam (1950s)” type telephone calls from the government. Reaffirming that sensible lending shall be rewarded and inept or corrupt lending punished.

Big brother must watch use smart analytics

Big data

Third, the proposed use of “big data”, including data from social media, to zoom in on potential tax evasion and crime. Taken together, these actions lay the systemic capacity for reducing corruption.

Aim for the sweet spot

cricket sweet spot

Whilst perfecting its drive at real sector reforms, here are the four “tests” the government must pass.

Defang the trade Unions

First, the unleashing of genuine privatisation (offloading of majority shares in a state-owned entity) as proposed in the long-delayed case of Air India is the winner. It sends the signal that India is open to efficiency enhancing financial restructuring. That it intends to free up existing public capital to create new public goods — jobs, physical infrastructure, improved social services, like health and education, whilst fresh private capital gets infused into the commercially viable supply of private goods — air and rail travel, steel, metals, petroleum and electricity. The Labour Unions are up in arms. This is where privatisation flagged in 2003 under Minister Arun Jaitley and Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee. Can the Modi-Jaitley team de-fang the inward looking, protectionist, labour “aristocracy” comprising the Trade Unions – the bedrock of the moribund CPI(M)?

TU

Grow private banking rapidly

Second, financial sector restructuring to make state-owned banks commercially viable. Uday Kotak, of the Kotak Mahindra Bank, surely over-stretches when he advocates the  wholesale exit of loss making public banks and their substitution by private banks. But clearly, the strategy of incremental privatisation, as done earlier to enhance telecom, aviation or electricity generation, will pressure state-owned banks to become competitive. This should also circumscribe the ability of the government to use banks like ATMs for populist goodies.

Nail large. serial loan defaulters as criminals 

Modi nail

Third, the strong action proposed for making collusive default on bank loans a criminal act is commendable. It brandishes a big stick for potential defaulters. The intention is virtuous. But experience shows that criminals, especially rich ones, find it easier to evade the law than poor innocents. To avoid this perverse outcome, criminal powers should not be delegated outside the judiciary. The record of tax tribunals and quasi-judicial agencies is not sanguine enough to empower them with criminal powers in addition to their economic mandates.

There is no option except to reform the judiciary through incentives and structural changes in judicial governance. This is a tough nut to crack, but shortcuts will give rise to the miscarriage of justice, vigilantism, and massive public resentment — specially in the middle class, which will be the most impacted in cases related to property and small business.

Remain a classic, fiscal fundamentalist

Lastly, the finance minister’s determination to maintain macro-economic stability has been amply demonstrated. This resolve must not weaken even during the run up to the 2019 general election. This will be the biggest economic win,lo if achieved. The report of the N.K. Singh Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Committee 2017 embeds too much flexibility to provide credible guidance for the future. Fiscal fundamentalism is better.

cricket defense

Good politics must also be good economics. There is an appetite now amongst voters for hard reform. This, by itself, is a tribute to the credibility of the NDA government. A populist pre-election budget would be seen by the voters as an early admission of defeat. That is not the winner’s way.

Adapted from the author’s article in The Asian Age, August 9, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/090817/hard-reforms-vital-nda-needs-to-shun-populism.html

Retribution – the missing R for resolving bad loans

Courtesy Arvind Subramanian, India’s Chief Economic Advisor, the 4R (reform, recognize, recapitalize, resolve) approach to manage the corporate bad loans problem, has captured public imagination. But he soft peddles a fifth R, that of retribution. The big stick must be wielded for reform to be credible.

jail2

Public sector banks – flabby, politicised ATMs providing easy money to elites

Banks are flush with money. But “liquidity” for borrowers, even those who have a “special relationship” with banks, is low. The shadow of stressed loans – missed loan repayments and interest payments- makes the usual, clubby way of doing business suspect. Banks operate on big margins – between interest paid on deposits and interest received on commercial loans – of up to 5 percent, in our cartelized banking architecture, dominated by publicly owned banks. But, despite high margins, public sector bank ratings suffer. The more loans they give, higher is the volume of bad loans.

Bad loans are an outcome of shoddy risk appraisal followed by poor loan account oversight. The ugly habit of kicking the can down the road by rolling over bad loans has been the norm.  On average, only around 26 percent of bad loans and accumulated interest are recovered. Using this metric, banks stand to lose around Rs 9 trillion (6 percent of our GDP) by recognizing and resolving bad loans of around Rs 12 trillion.

If corporate loans were recovered like consumption loans for cars, there would be no problem

Once a loan becomes stressed there is little a bank can do, except to recover as much as it can from the borrower; divert the proceeds to a better borrower and black list the delinquent borrower. But Indian banks rarely operate on this “sunk cost” principle. A long history of covert support to keep diseased loans and borrowers alive, under the guise of retaining jobs, has not helped. The spectacularly unsuccessful, Board of Industrial and Financial Reconstruction was still alive till January 2016. Unfortunately, so were hundreds of companies ripe for corporate euthanasia. We now have a new Insolvency and Bankruptcy Act, January 2016. But its effectiveness remains to be established.

RBI oversight of banks comes up short

Disappointingly, the Reserve Bank of India, instead of taking the bull by the horns and directing banks to start bankruptcy proceedings for bad loans, has taken the soft approach – giving banks time, till the end of 2017, to resolve the stressed loans themselves. Amusingly, to nudge bankers into doing unfamiliar, unpleasant things, extraordinary measures are being taken, to provide them administrative cover, from ex-post facto audit, vigilance and CBI investigations. Clearly, retribution against those bankers, who approved and over saw the dud loans, is not contemplated.

Loan waivers without retribution for the complicit create moral hazard

Economists, including RBI Governor caution against the problem of “moral hazard” that loan waivers create in the context of agricultural loans being written off by state governments. Apparently, forgiveness without retribution, is bad for rural borrowers, but ok for corporate borrowers. Sadly, retribution is sorely needed for commercial borrowers too, who account for 75 percent of the bad loans.

80% model borrowers, 20% delinquent addicts of “easy money”

home

The reality is even more nuanced. The bulk of borrowers, across sectors, are gold standard risks. Despite gross mismanagement of large corporate loans, 83 percent of the bank loans, valued at Rs 63 trillion, are serviced on time by borrowers. Moral hazard affects borrowers selectively in India. This is because retribution is also selective. Access to bank finance for small borrowers is cut off if they become delinquent and recovery proceedings are harsh. For large borrowers and the influential, more favourable terms apply.

Are only babus to be held to account?

handcuffs

Last month, a retired Secretary of the Coal Ministry and two other senior colleagues, were convicted for criminal conspiracy, by a trial court. The charge and the punishment meted out was completely out of proportion to their misdemeanors – less than adequate diligence in discharging their duties. Why this double standard for holding public officials to account? Rs 12 trillion of accumulated stressed loans against annual loan approvals of between Rs 3 to 5 trillion, indicates a deep rooted “conspiracy of silence” within public sector and co-operative banks; their patrons in government and the borrowers themselves.

These stressed loans, whether in industry or in agriculture, must be taken off the books of banks. But the concerned loan sanctioning and account oversight chain, whether present or retired, must be held to account on a standardized, transparent metric to establish active connivance to cheat the bank or lack of adequate diligence. This is the only way to delink quick resolution of the stressed loans from the problem of “moral hazard”.

Blacklist actively negligent founders

Second, deals need to be urgently struck with borrowers to resolve loans without access to the lengthy judicial review process. These can only happen if the big stick of sanctions is available to the negotiators. Founders, actively negligent in servicing loans, should be made to exit management positions, as a precondition for future access to bank finance. Delinquent individuals, who have been given opportunities earlier, to reform, via “greening” or rolling over of loans, should be debarred from access to bank finance.

Hold banks to account for bad loans

The argument against sanctioning bankers is bogus. It is feared bankers will stop taking decisions if sanctioned, thereby freezing the lending cycle. Till two decades ago, bank trade unions, routinely used the threat of striking work, to stop computerization or extract better wages. It was the Supreme Court which defanged them in 2003 by ruling that the right to strike is not absolute, particularly in the case of public services. No need to turn the clock back.

Stringent action against the bureaucracy has not adversely affected the functioning of government. Enshrined bureaucratic safeguards are most often the refuge of the incompetent or the corrupt. Those working transparently, in the public interest, rarely need such support. There is no reason why banks should be different.

Needed an empowered financial sector, “clean up” champion, to wield a long broom

Jaitley grimace

“Moral hazard” in bad loan resolution becomes a problem, only if we do not deal equitably and transparently. Elitist cliques, spanning politics, business and agriculture, must be weaned-off, the vice of bank financed “easy money”. Swift, impartial, standardized resolution of bad loans, with judicious retribution, can drain this vicious whirlpool, which saps national wealth and reeks of inequity.

Adapted from the authors article in TOI Blogs, June 23, 2017 http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/retribution-the-missing-r-in-resolving-bad-loans/

 

Needed paychecks not pink slips

Jobs 2

Photo credit: Zee news

Ask any of the 68 government departments in New Delhi, what they are doing about private sector jobs, and each will point at the other for an answer. The truth is that governments have not been held accountable for job creation since the 1980s, when neo-liberalism took root. No one advocates going down the horribly inefficient public sector job creation route again. So, it is up to the private sector and self-employment to absorb our surging army of millennials — almost 10 million strong annually — which is equal to the entire Australian workforce.

bot

Humans versus machines- who’s winning?

But does the private sector have incentives to produce jobs? Looking purely at the bottom line, machines are superior to humans. They also come with financial incentives for capital investment — cheap bank finance and accelerated depreciation for tax purposes — which boost the bottom line. Technology is fast eroding the capacity gap between the unique attributes of human labour and machines. Siri (Apple), Cortana (Microsoft), Google Now and the mellifluously named Maluuba are all cheaper than hiring a real-life assistant and are on call 24×7. Bots will progressively replace humans, more so in logically-executed routine jobs. Not only are human services more expensive, but they come with enormous social and economic costs for housing, transport, education, health and security.

Can government help preserve human employment?

highway

So, how can the government help create new jobs and preserve existing ones? Kickstarting infrastructure projects; promoting “Make in India” and resolving the bad loans burden of banks — are all great government initiatives for new employment. But their impact is medium term. In the near-term, the government needs to preserve existing jobs. Here are four options.

Market Indian skills in 34 “Aged”, rich, countries 

indian farmers

First, extend the H1-B strategy, used to great advantage in the US, for temporarily exporting Indian workers overseas. Rich countries, with ageing populations who need the workers, but fear the cultural dilution associated with permanent immigration would be the targets. Assign targets to our ambassadors posted in these locations to negotiate with their host countries to allow temporary immigration, lightly monitored by the government and directly supported, under the Skills India initiative, to acquire local language and cultural skills. The associated fiscal costs are outweighed by the social and economic benefits from repatriated earnings alone. A stretch target could be to export a million workers over the next three years.

Discourage the “paper chase” by avoiding “gold plated” human resources.

microsoft-employee

Second, build respect for skilled work by venerating those who have these skills. Our caste and hierarchy-ridden Brahmanical social norms devalue skills and overvalue “intellect” — both in the public and private sectors.  This unfortunate social milieu engenders “qualification creep”. Both Indian companies and the government routinely advertise for engineers even when an experienced mechanic is needed. Consider the irrational gap between the wage for a nurse versus a doctor. Good nursing vastly reduces the workload for doctors — specially in the emergency room for the care of trauma patients. But this noble, highly skilled profession is not a first choice today. Instead, there is a stigma attached to it, as being fit only for those who cannot afford the high cost and long incubation period for becoming a doctor. Why is a Bachelor of Arts degree needed to become a bank clerk — a high responsibility but a routine, people skills-oriented job? Only a select few, intending to teach at the college level or do research, should need a master’s degree. Tests and interviews for jobs should focus on personality and psychological attributes, rather than educational qualifications, which are rarely aligned with job skills anyway. Only when we consciously make the paper chase redundant will we value real-life skills accretion, where the maximum potential for human jobs exists.

Reward socially responsible business leadership which looks beyond the “bottom line”

murthy gates

Third, introduce disincentives for layoffs. Yes, flexibility in workforce management is a must for employers. But companies can be incentivised to be socially responsible employers. Those who go beyond watching their “bottom line” to retaining and growing their employees should be rewarded through tax breaks, access to cheaper finance and publicly recognised as nation builders. Why not devise an index to assess social leadership qualities of company honchos before they get awards and honours, get invited to Rashtrapati Bhavan; preferential access to our ambassadors overseas or get nominated on to government committees? We need to publicly distinguish between narrow-minded private employers who only watch bottom lines, and truly transformative business leaders, if the private sector is to lead in job creation.

Give incentives for digital/banked wage payments by individual employers

Around 300 million workers are employed in the agrarian and household sector as daily wagers or long-term help by individuals — farmers, rich and middle class urban households. Legislating minimum wages and benefits for this segment is lazy policymaking and can end up having a regressive impact due to weak oversight capacity. The Niti Aayog has taken the lead to plug the data gap on informal employment where most of the incremental jobs will be created. The government can step in with near-time transactional measures for light-handed regulation of such employment. As an initial step, the government should promote the payment of wages into bank accounts to generate big data on such employment. An incentive of Rs 5 credited back to the employer’s account for every Rs 1,000 paid into an employee account could help. If costs are shared between the bank and the government, a budget outlay of Rs 5,000 crores can pay for this incentive and bank annual wage payments of an estimated Rs 18 trillion, much of which is in cash today. Individual employers, with a track record of employing more than five workers and banking wages of more than Rs 10 lakhs per year, should be publicly recognised as “social growth enablers”.

Collaborative governance is key

bicycle with flag

Last, the optics must be right. The government needs to step away from the colonial pedestal of being the “mai baap” (supreme preserver). The “lal battis” (red beacons) have gone. It is time now to puncture some sarkari egos further and spread the accolades for social and economic achievements.

Adapted from the author’s article in The Asian Age July 16, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/160517/a-to-do-list-for-govt-to-create-more-jobs.html

Funding the Republic

tricolour

The tricolour flutters happily at the Peer Makhdum Shah Dargah in Mahim, Maharashtra, hoisted by the peer’s devotees, as a symbol of the Indian Republic being alive and well. 

India is a Republic. But often it feels as though only the Union government must carry the can for doing unpleasant things – like levying tax on those who have the surplus income to add to the national kitty or getting heavy with tax evaders. Of course it is a juggalbandhi. The Union government invariably wants to grand-stand and hang on to financial muscle power so necessary to play “big brother”. State governments are only too keen to accept the federal goodies being thrown at them and thereby avoid the pain of efficiency enhancing structural reform in politics and in government. To be fair, the financial and political firepower of the Union government and individual states is asymmetric in favour of the former. This makes it difficult for a state to chart a lonely, unique, development path. The good news is we may be coming to the limits of this asymmetric sharing of development responsibilities.

The Union lacks funds for its core functions

Consider that rapid infrastructure development and public investment to strengthen competitive markets have become the stepchildren of the annual Union Budget process. This continues a trend, started by the previous government, of shoring up state government finances, at the risk of being stingy on spending in areas of its own core, constitutional mandate.

The Economic Survey 2017 notes that state fiscal deficits reduced sharply from 4.1 per cent to 2.4 per cent of the gross state domestic product (GSDP) over the last 10 years, since state governments adopted the Fiscal Responsibility Act. Enhanced Central transfers to states and reduced interest payments, courtesy debt restructuring, benefited states to the extent of 1.8 per cent of GSDP. To their credit, most states used the additional fiscal space to cover the revenue deficit and lower the fiscal deficit to below the target of three per cent of GSDP.

But how long can the Centre play the role of a responsible elder brother, darning his own clothes, whilst buying new ones for his younger siblings?

India’s poor infrastructure constrains growth. Low spending on infrastructure also limits job creation — something India needs. The Union government expenditure on infrastructure has increased from 0.6 per cent of GDP in 2015-16 to an estimated 0.9 per cent of GDP in 2017-18. But it remains inadequate. Adding the state government and corporate — public and private — expenditure on infrastructure totals less than three per cent of GDP in 2017-18 versus the five per cent of GDP we should be spending.

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Dodgy infrastructure: the bane of the Republic. photo credit: indiamike.com

Repairing the broken system for bank credit and private investment

Bank and corporate finances are the second black hole which the Centre’s Budget was unable to address. Banks have accumulated bad loans to the extent of `12 trillion, or 17 per cent of their assets. The Economic Survey 2017 exhaustively discusses the “twin balance sheet problem” — of banks that must write down at least one half of the bad loans and of large private companies that face bankruptcy, for failing to use the loans productively over the past eight years.

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The finance minister has been explicit that the government should not bail out the private companies who made bad decisions. This is well-intentioned but difficult to implement.

There are 13 public sector banks that account for 40 per cent of these bad loans. Merging them with efficient banks can mask the problem for some more time. But such mergers can spread rather than contain the contagion. Selling or closing a failed public bank or enterprise requires courage and conviction. Our inclination is to retain the “crown jewels” no matter how tarnished they get. Air India has got a capital infusion of Rs 1,800 crores in 2017-18 on top of the Rs 5,765 crores over the last two years.

Fifty private companies account for 71 per cent of the bad loans. The public mood is for the government to go for their jugular. This will make it politically difficult for the government to fund write-downs of debt. But vigilantism against corporates can rock the growth story, which we can ill afford.

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A fast track quasi-judicial process must distinguish between “wilful” and unintended default, caused by systemic shock. Different rehabilitation regimes should be determined for the two categories of defaulters. Wilful defaulters should be pilloried. The downside is that picking and choosing defaulters, itself can perpetuate what this government abhors — crony capitalism.The finance minister has allocated Rs 10,000 crores in 2017-18 for recapitalising banks. This is a placeholder. All eyes are trained on the additional resources unearthed by demonetisation. The RBI is yet to disclose the value of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes which remain undeposited. This may be around Rs 1 trillion. Transferring the resultant excess sovereign assets, from the RBI to banks, can buy some breathing room.

Second, the incremental tax collection from demonetised “black money” deposited in banks, can fund infrastructure development or recapitalise banks, as it dribbles in over the next two years. This windfall was to be distributed to the poor as cash support. But recapitalising publicly-owned banks, albeit with more vigorous oversight and more transparent and intrusive stress tests, has a higher priority. More credit for corporates translates into more investments, more jobs and higher economic growth. These are the fundamentals that must accompany fiscal stability.

More “give” rather than just “take”, needed from States

We are in the middle of an incipient financial emergency, which can be triggered by a shock. The RBI cautions against thinking that inflation has been tamed. Other than food and oil, where prices remain low, inflation hovers just below the red flag of five per cent. This limits the headroom available to overshoot the fiscal deficit red flag of three per cent of GDP.

The Centre needs considerable fiscal slack to fund infrastructure development and recapitalise the banks. State governments can help by enhancing their own tax resources. Imposing income tax on agricultural income and vigorously collecting property tax are low hanging fruit available to them. These measures can add around one per cent of GSDP to their resources. This will enable the Union government to scale back the long list of Central sector schemes for human development and social protection and use the funds instead for its core mandate — developing infrastructure, markets and a competitive private sector.

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The Goods and Services Tax Council meets: State’s follow the take rather than give strategy. 

States may well ask why they should bother, since they were never partners in the illicit gains from mega crony capitalism. But this would be short-sighted. Faltering economic growth adversely affects all boats. An increase of six per cent in economic growth boosts state government tax revenue by one percentage of GDSP with more jobs in tow. But above all, cooperative federalism must have some give — along with the take. This is the time for states to give to the Republic, as equal partners in national development.

Adapted from the author’s article in the Asian Age, February 14, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/oped/140217/to-raise-resources-give-and-take-needed.html

How to junk cash and when

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Going cashless is a good idea. For the government, the biggest gain is an easy audit trail to assess individuals and businesses to tax and to ferret out illegal transactions like the financing of crime, terror, smuggling and drugs. For individuals, plastic (payment cards) and e-money provides far greater security, despite the risk from cybercrime. Businesses also gain. Studies of consumer behaviour show that paying by card or e-money encourages you to spend more than you would otherwise.

So it is no surprise that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a man in a rush, is pushing the country to abandon cash. But how far are we from the point where a cashless economy can kick in? A US study in California noted in 2012, that even in the case of those who state a preference for paying by card, there is a 49 percent probablity that they will settle payments less than $20 by cash. The probability drops to 8 percent  for payments above $20. In India the inverse is true. At least, 95 per cent of personal consumption related transactions in numbers (not volume) are in cash.

Access to bank accounts is key for going cashless 

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A 2015 World Bank survey established that increasing the number of banked adults in the economy is the most relevant intervention till one reaches the level of around 800 accounts per 1,000 adults. India stands at a ratio of 480 accounts per 1,000 adults. This is pretty far from the point after which increase in the number of bank accounts cease to matter. Nevertheless, the extension of banking services in India is impressive given the scale of poverty, illiteracy, gender discrimination and the sparse spread of bank branches, particularly in rural areas — just around 40,000 for six lakh villages and a population of 800 million or on average 1 bank branch per 20,000 people..

“Barefoot” banks

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The high level of poverty in rural areas; low savings and consumption levels make rural branches uneconomic. So innovative mechanisms should be developed to provide “barefoot” banking to the poor. This is virtually impossible via our clunky and inefficient public sector banking system. The Reserve Bank of India revolutionised the licensing of payment banks earlier this year by bringing in a “year-around”, entrepreneur-driven approach of welcoming proposals for opening payment banks -which provide less than the full range of banking services- without inviting proposals for bank licensing through formal rounds, as previously. We need to pursue this approach and establish at least a “payment only” bank branch for every cluster of 5,000 adults. But inevitably this will take time.

e-money is a low cost, “quick win”, to digitise payments

A faster way of displacing cash payments is to scale up the use of e-money. Across economies which do not have universal financial access, over the period 2010 to 2015, the number of e-money accounts have grown at the rate of an astonishing 63 per cent per annum — more than triple the rate at which bank accounts have increased over. Mobile money accounts comprise 55 per cent of such e-money accounts. But, in India, e-money continues to languish at merely 10 per cent of transactions.

Getting merchants digitally ready for Point of Sale applications.    

A more serious missing link for ramping up cashless transactions is the relative scarcity of point of sale (POS) acceptability of cashless transactions. Easy access to POS ready merchants and vendors is key for building the credibility of plastic money as an alternative to cash.

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Photo courtesy: thehindu.com

This is a chicken and egg situation. Merchants do not see the value of accepting e-money payments unless enoigh people want to use them. Also, mechants lose interest on the deferred payments into their accounts. On top of this card providers charge merchants upto 3 percent of the transaction value for the service. All this pushes up the prices of customer purchase price of products. Customers in turn, try and dodge the servive tax and additional charges which comes with buying digitally. No wonder then that a mere 1.5 million commercial entities accept cashless transactions in India. Compare this with the 44.7 million registered micro, small and medium enterprises (comprising industrial and service related businesses) with an investment ranging from Rs 1 to 50 million, estimated in India by the 2006 SMSE survey. Bringing all these service providers into the POS net expands the market by an order of magnitude. Why not start by first “Carpet bombing” commercial entities in the 50 largest cities in India, with assistance and persuasion to say no to cash? Lets start by making cities cashless first and let the smaller towns and rural areas follow in an orderly manner.

Make cash transactions more expensive than digital ones

One cannot develop an entire ecosystem for junking cash by fiat alone. The incentive structure, which today privileges cash settlement because of its lower transaction cost, must be reviewed and reversed. The government started the RuPay debit card in 2014 with the hope that it would compete with the international biggies in the business — MasterCard and Visa – and make them look more seriously at the potential fortune which lies at the bottom of the pyramid — the small transactions end of the market.

India has 26 million credit cards and 712 million debit cards. But their use is low at just 12 times per debit card every year at an ATM and barely two transactions per year per debit card at a POS. The corresponding numbers are less than 1 transaction for a credit card at an ATM and 38 at a POS. In comparison in high income economies cards or e-money options are used to conduct around 280 transactions a year per person. We are a long way off from the frontier of cashless transactions. The good news is that we are better off than low and middle-income countries, which averaged just 22 cashless transactions per year per person.

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Plastic money becomes expensive to use if the individual transactions are small. Typically, micro-transactions of less than $5 (Rs 340) are not viable through plastic money and would need to be cross-subsidised. This is where e-money becomes the most appropriate vehicle to mop up the micro-transactions market which could account for as much as two-thirds of the total transactions. After all, cigarettes are still sold as singles in India; a paan (betel) costs just Rs 20 and a street meal is Rs 100.

Build the eco-system for expanding payments beyond traditional banks

If the government is serious about junking cash it must engage with commercial entities which have a large , diversified customer base to leverage for diversifying into the payments space. Phone carriers, progressive electricity utilities and the Railways are some options. They can quickly scale up the use of digital money by their customers in collaboration with e-pay platforms and provide some assurance to merchants against the risk of not realising the payments from the e-pay platform. Developing a “reward” based strategy to move 50 per cent of commercial transactions above Rs 500 to digital settlement by 2020 is a reasonable target.

There are some limitations which need to be overcome or gone around- the poor quality of electricity supply, dodgy net connectivity and the additional cost that needs to be borne to digitise small-value transactions via POS arrangements. Regional hackathons to find solutions to specific barriers can pay rich dividends. They can create an ecosystem of innovative thinkers focused on solving the problem. The future is digital. Engage millennials to figure out how to fast forward us there, out of turn.

Adapted from the authors article in the Asian Age November 28, 2016 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/281116/in-rush-to-go-digital-dont-junk-cash-yet.html

 

Rexit technical brilliance, enter political economy expertise

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Rajan the thinking central banker: photo credit: bloomberg.com

Raghuram Rajan, India’s central banking czar, will be history by September 2016. He enjoys unprecedented popularity and near cult status as Governor of the Reserve Bank of India. Some of this has to do with his youthful looks and fresh demeanor — unusual in a profession peopled by dour old men. But much of his appeal is related to the confidence and skill he brings to the job, which he plunged into in weeks, rather than the months, which are the usual learning curve.

Even business — usually taciturn about rooting for bureaucrats, has also publicly supported his conservative strategy to keep the rupee stable; build foreign reserves; check inflation and ensure reasonable positive real interest rates, to protect the large mass of middle-class savers. International capital flows, which are as much about fundamentals as about the Iqbal — the credibility and charisma — of the central bank, responded well to his strategy for stability with fundamental reform.

Job specific technical brilliance and international standing matters

Rajan is the first RBI governor to came to the job with considerable experience in international finance (in the IMF) and even more significantly, a long spell in American academia, in the same area. To the billionaires who make the markets move, Rajan is a familiar face, with a track record of original thinking and practical foresight. He is best known for disagreeing with mainstream economists and foretelling the 2008 financial meltdown.

Rajan’s exquisite symphony- the “Dardnama” (book of pain)

In India, his legacy is the exquisite symphony, he wrote, of caution mixed with big-bang reforms. On interest rates, he was consistently cautious. His mantra was that flooding the economy with cheap money is not a quick-fix for growth. Instead, it can spark off high inflation, as in Brazil.

To the common man, this resonates well with the millennium’s continuing conundrum of jobless, inequitable, high growth. There are no quick fixes for these flaws in today’s post-industrial, service-oriented growth model. Rajan had no choice except to focus on keeping inflation low; preserving the real incomes of the disadvantaged who don’t have the luxury of inflation-indexed incomes and pushing banks and industry hard to become competitive.

His historic big reform was break with the past and publicly finger banks that had lent inefficiently, destroyed capital and most likely enhanced corruption — given the magnitude of bad loans accumulated by them since 2011.

He shone a bright light on the dodgy bank loans overburden- shockingly high at more than 12% of bank assets and 4% of GDP, rather than keeping them hidden under furtive, refinance Ponzi schemes. He was likened by “incremental reformers” to a bull in a china shop — pulling down both fraudsters and unlucky entrepreneurs with equal ferocity.

Admittedly, big-bang reforms shake up the cozy status quo and inflicts pain. But if followed through with decisive surgery, as Rajan recommended, it could have created sustainable wealth, in the medium term, rather than slowly bleed the financial system till it collapses, as happened in the developed world in 2008.

“Big bang” reforms too disruptive for India’s political economy

Will there ever be another Rajan as RBI governor? More importantly do we need another Rajan, given our political economy?

India is a conflicted society — at once eulogizing “savants” like Rajan, and yet shrinking away from the ripples they create in the village pond. It takes a lifetime of work in India to play the system harmoniously. Rajan came before India was ready for him. So while we may not be able to digest a Rajan today, there is unlikely to be a shortage of “suitable” talent. But the real pity is — why have we tried to “fix” a system that is not broken. Why not let the good work continue?

Tough global headwinds for the new Governor

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Grapic credit: janeaustenslondon.com

The irony is that by letting Rajan go in September this year, the government will actually be cementing his “rock star” legacy. The second half of 2016 is blighted by uncertainty and will be hell for the new governor. First, is the near-term question mark over Brexit on June 23. If the “Leavers” win, Europe is surely in for turbulent times. But this may not actually happen, as the British are far too practical to be brash and emotional.

Second, even without a Brexit, the economic outlook is gloomy. Protectionism is growing and geopolitical instability is getting worse. These are fertile grounds for a flight of capital to safety and away from emerging markets like India. A tightening by the US Federal Reserve in the second half of this year may convert the capital flight into an outward-bound tsunami, severely denting our foreign exchange reserves and importing instability.

Oily silver linings and political compulsions

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India’s largest state-Uttar Pradesh, votes in 2016: photo credit: teluguflavours.com

The only good news is that oil prices are likely to remain low. The low lead time for the mothballed 500-odd oil fracking rigs in the United States to return to work ensures that any uptick in price beyond $50 will deliver a supply response. Saudi Arabia, with nominal production costs, a deficit budget and a deficit current account and a proposed public listing for its oil company, is unlikely to rein in production or oil revenue. But low oil prices also depress incomes in oil-producing countries, which is bad for Indian exports and disastrous for inward remittances — that are largely dependent on the Gulf countries remaining lucrative employment sinks for Indian expatriates.

Low growth potential in the coming years, combined with the domestic compulsions of the largest state election in Uttar Pradesh in 2017 and three smaller states and a national election in 2019, are likely to strain the fiscal discipline, which the finance minister has assiduously built up since 2014. Rajan was lucky. But had yet to be “Indianised”. He would have got there. But time ran out.

Job description for applicants

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India financial leadership job vacant- only the best need apply: photo credit: blogs.wsj.com

Needed an RBI Governor with the political acumen to align with the government’s compulsions. Must be able to quickly improve the well-being of voters. Must also have the economic guile to minimize the resultant damage caused by politics to the economy. Must have his finger on the pulse of Bharat; the experience of having walked this tightrope earlier and the good fortune of being lucky. Must be able to strike practical deals — with big defaulters to ensure that capital starts getting rolled over; with banks so that interest rate cuts are passed on to borrowers; with the government so that Rajan’s “dosanomics” inspired efficiency enhancing incentives are carried forward: cut red tape and discretion in licensing of financial intermediaries; keep interest rates positive in real terms; exercise forensic oversight over banking discipline. Must be reconciled to the macro-economic ball being carried mostly by the government. Must have the access and ability to discreetly warn the government against scoring self-goals.

Adapted from the authors article in The Asian Age, June 19, 2016 : http://www.asianage.com/columnists/does-rbi-needs-political-governor-511

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