Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Moody's upgrade of India

Most analysts think that Moody's upgrade is merited by the raft of reforms we have seen under the Modi government. I disagree. It's certainly true that the reforms have improved India's economic fundamentals. They have brightened the prospects of India growing at over 7.5%. But, I would argue that, even without the reforms, India's ability to service its debt has not been in doubt. In 2007- 17, which is a period consequent to the global crisis, we have seen a decline in India's debt to GDP ratio in the face of an adverse external environment. I would, therefore, argue, that this record merited an upgrade even without the reforms we have had recently.

More in my BS article, Rating upgrade was long overdue.

Bank recapitalisation is the right fiscal stimulus at the moment

If there is one economic measure which will make a difference to India's growth prospects in the near future, it is the massive bank recapitalisation package. Demonetisation will yield results but only over a long period. GST is hugely positive but only over the medium term. With bank recapitalisation, we can almost see an "announcement effect"- an impact almost immediately after announcement. One obvious impact is the rise in the prices of public sector bank shares. But also, as the package gets finalised, we can see a little more boldness in lending on their part.

The package is indeed massive and it required guts for the Modi government to announce something of this magnitude. My only regret is that it didn't happen much earlier.

More in my article in the Hindu, A bold step in bank reform.

Interview with the Hindu on bank recapitalisation package

I return after a long time... various personal commitments have kept me away from my blog. Hope to be a little more regular hereafter.

The Hindu carried an interview with me on the bank recapitalisation package last Sunday.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Raghuram Rajan back in the news

Raghuram Rajan was in India recently and he hold forth on a wide range of subjects in numerous interviews. Many interviewers tried hard to to get him to say that his differences with the government on demonetisation caused his exit from RBI. Rajan didn't quite oblige.

He was also asked if he would have resigned if demonetisation had been pushed in his time as Governor. He said he could have answered the question only if he had been confronted with the proposition when he was Governor. All he could say now was that if a civil servant did not want to go along with any government measure, the only option was resignation.

I thought his views on the banking sector deserved more coverage than those on demonetisation- he didn't really have much to add to the latter.

My column on this subject in BS is reproduced below:

Rajan in the limelight again
 
T T Ram Mohan
 
Former Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor Raghuram Rajan came, he saw, he conquered the media. For a year following his exit as RBI governor, Dr Rajan had chosen to maintain silence on the Indian economy. During his recent visit to India, it was hard to open a newspaper or switch on a channel without seeing an interview with him.

The interviews covered pretty much the same ground, with the focus always on demonetisation. Dr Rajan said many things that would have gladdened the hearts of those critical of the initiative. Yes, he had expressed his reservations when the proposal was put to him. And, yes, he thought the short-term costs were steep  he mentioned estimates in the range of 1-2 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP). And, yes again, he wasn’t sure the long-term benefits justified the costs. It’s fair to say that Dr Rajan hasn’t added anything to the debate on the subject. We do not have a handle yet on either the costs or the benefits of demonetisation.

The focus on demonetisation was a bit unfortunate as it overshadowed some pretty strong remarks Dr Rajan made about the banking system. Dr Rajan expressed reservations about mergers of public sector banks (PSBs). He warned that it would be unwise to attempt mergers at a time when PSBs were weak and wrestling with the problem of high levels of non-performing assets. One hopes the finance ministry is listening.

Dr Rajan was equally forthright on the need to do what it takes to recapitalise PSBs. He went so far as to say that the government should provide the necessary capital to PSBs even if it meant cutting allocations on other heads. The government and the top brass at the RBI have been telling us that some PSBs are so hopelessly deficient in managerial capabilities that putting more capital into them is money down the drain. Rajan clearly doesn’t think so.

We have thus far got banks to clean up their balance sheets without providing them the necessary capital. By many estimates, PSBs would require another ~1 lakh crore in order to meet the regulatory capital requirement. The Budget for this year has provided for just ~20,000 crore. Dr Rajan believes this is a sure recipe for holding up growth in credit and private investment.

Dr Rajan’s views on reform of governance at PSBs are rather more debatable. He wants the Banks Board Bureau (BBB) to have greater autonomy from the government. He would like the Department of Financial Services (DFS), whose job is to monitor PSBs, to be closed down. He wants PSBs to be monitored entirely by independent boards, presumably appointed by a truly independent BBB.

These views have wide currency today. However, the notion that PSBs should be freed from the supposed tyranny of the DFS is conceptually flawed. It overlooks a crucial fact about the governance model that obtains in India: Ownership of enterprises, whether in the public sector or the private sector, is not widely dispersed, as it is in the Anglo-Saxon model. We have instead a dominant owner in either the government or in industrial houses.

Where there is a dominant owner, the role of the board is rather more limited than in cases where ownership is widely dispersed. It is natural for the dominant owner to call the shots. The government cannot be expected to adopt a hands-off policy towards PSBs any more than Tata, Birla or Ambani can in their enterprises.

Moreover, it is possible to overstate the effectiveness of “independent” boards. Boards the world over are notoriously ineffective, which is why corporate governance is still work in progress more than two decades after the movement began. Those familiar with the working of PSBs would know that it is the government director and the RBI director who often make the most meaningful interventions.

Leaving matters at PSBs entirely to independent directors could, therefore, create a dangerous governance vacuum. There remains a case for the DFS to play a monitoring role. What is undesirable is that the DFS should issue directives to the CEOs of PSBs. Instead, the DFS should communicate its views through its nominee directors on boards, thereby strengthening the effectiveness of boards.

What Dr Rajan did not say is also significant. Dr Rajan is no foe of the private sector. Yet he made no mention of privatising any of the PSBs. Dr Rajan’s silence on privatisation at a time when “strategic sale” is the buzzword should make the finance ministry sit up and take note.



Thursday, August 10, 2017

Foreign trained economists

Newly appointed chief of Niti Aayog Rajiv Kumar's article about foreign-trained economists exiting their plum posts in the Indian government one by one has sparked a controversy. Kumar wrote:
A key transformation taking place on the policy front in the current central government led by Narendra Modi, is that the colour of foreign influence, especially Anglo-American, on the Indian policy making establishment that came in the last few decades, is fading away. Raghuram Rajan has already left. Now, Arvind Panagariya has also announced his resignation from his post ahead of his term being completed. If Lutyen’s Delhi rumours are to be believed, more such resignations can come. In their place, we may see experts being posted who understand India’s ground realities in a much better manner, and who can commit to stay and work till their term ends.
I guess the point is not just about whether those parachuted into top positions from abroad understand the Indian ground reality well enough. There's also the question of whether they can work with the bureaucracy and Indian businesses to produce acceptable solutions to problems. Another issue is whether they have the commitment to complete their tenure. Panagariya has quite after two years because he doesn't want to lose his tenure at  Columbia. Did he not think of this when he accepted the assignment?

The problem is not confined to economists. Former IIM Bangalore director Sushil Vachani quit two years into his job when he found the ministry was not willing to relax the retirement age of 65 for him. Those hiring from abroad should make one thing clear to prospective hires: if you don't have it in you to complete your tenure, please do not accept the position.

The best part of the controversy is that it has spawned some excellent versification:

Bibek Debroy: “The foreign influence wanes, So read the weather vanes. Filthy lucre of a foreign land/ Has sullied many a hand/ And fogged the brains,” 


Sadanand Dhume: “All this is very well/ But it’s hard to sell/ as a native school/ as a gurukul/ How some manage, pray tell.”

Author Ravi Mantha, “Rushed back from distant shores / to join the rushing tide./ Stepped into manure for an uncertain tenure./ But luckily kept our foreign sinecure.”

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Business Standard reviews my book on bank regulation

BS carries a review today of my book, Towards a safer world of banking: bank regulation after the sub-prime crisis

Options on the future of banking
Book review of 'Towards a Safer World of Banking'
Udit Misra July 04, 2017 Last Updated at 22:41 IST
Towards a Safer World of Banking
Bank Regulations after the Subprime Crisis
T T Ram Mohan
Business Expert Press
149 pages; Rs 2,396

Towards a Safer World of Banking by T T Ram Mohan, who is a professor of finance and economics at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, is a nifty little book aimed at students of business management and bank executives. It makes sense to take a relook at the world of banking since it is almost a decade since some of the biggest banks in the financial world such as the Bank of America, the Royal Bank of Scotland, the Citigroup as well investments banks such as Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers either failed or nearly did. Since then, governments and taxpayers have been bailing out the troubled banks in the hope that doing so would be, in the long run, cheaper than the cost of letting such entities sink. But this process has been arduous, with massive and unsavoury political and social repercussions. Not surprisingly, there is considerable interest in ensuring that
such a contagion does not recur. This book, then, is an appropriate read for anyone wanting to understand whether we have done enough to ensure that.

The book is divided into five chapters. In the first two, the author discusses the financial and banking crisis that started in 2007 and the causes for the subprime crisis. Now, there is no dearth of reasons advanced for the meltdown. In fact, depending on who you might have read and what you do for a living, you could choose from the long list of causes and not be entirely wrong. This is known as the “MurderontheOrientExpress” theory of the crisis. But therein lies a problem. Unless one can zero in on the exact problem you cannot even begin to provide a lasting policy solution. So the author helps the reader tussle with questions such as: Does an economic contraction cause a banking crisis or the other way round?

Similarly, the author analyses each of the 12 broad reasons given for the subprime crisis, such as the existence of  a housing bubble in the US and elsewhere, loose monetary policies, greedy consumers, excessive financialisation or the global macroeconomic imbalances, to name a few. But many of these factors existed in the past and in other places without causing a global crisis. For instance, there have been periods of low and falling interest rates or instances of housing bubbles in several other countries. In the end, though, the author settles for “regulatory failure” as the principal culprit. According to him, there were “serious failures in relation to banks” such as lowering of loan writing standards, a focus on trading income by holding securitised assets and low amount of equity capital in relation to assets and so on. The author takes into account the analysis by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi in their book, A House of Debt, which gives primacy to the excessive buildup of
private debt. But Professor Mohan Ram argues that this, too, only shows that the ambit of regulation should have been much broader.

The third chapter focusses on regulatory reforms since the crisis. Much has been done, from increased capital  requirements and far more stringent norms for liquidity to tighter norms for securitisation and macroprudential regulations. This has yielded results. As of 2015, in the US, for instance, the top five banks had a common equity Tier 1 ratio that was higher than that specified by Basel III and all but one bank surpassed higher  requirements imposed by the US Federal Reserve. There have been similar improvements in the Europe as well. And yet, chapter four argues, not enough has been done to deal with the key problem that still exists: Banks being too big to fail. There is growing concentration in the banking sector, which, in turn, makes the whole sector more vulnerable.

Chapter five is about solutions. The author is among those who thinks that radical and outofthebox
ideas are needed to disasterproof the banking system. Some of the ideas discussed include the “sharedresponsibility mortgages” proposed by Messrs Mian and Sufi. In such a mortgage, the lender offers downside protection to the borrower while the borrower agrees to give 5 per cent capital gain to the lender on the upside. Also discussed is the chairman of the Institute for New Economic Thinking Adair Turner’s even more radical suggestion to limit the amount of debt creation itself.

But perhaps the most unusual solution is the one proposed by the author: India’s experience with public sector banks (PSBs). These last 10 pages of the book are likely to elicit far more interest among the Indian readers who  are at present witnessing an embarrassing bloodletting in India’s PSBs. The author argues that the Indian experience, where PSBs account for 70 per cent of the banking system, as well as the Chinese setup, where similar entities account for 90 per cent of the system, are responsible for these countries being the world’s fastest growing economies.

But it is all too clear that Indian PSBs are holding back growth instead of delivering it. The author offers a spirited defence for the PSB functioning — but stops at 2013-14. That is exactly the point at which the problems starting showing up. The author’s argument that PSBs’ troubles in the past two or three years are the result of structural failings of a developing country (such as the lack of a well developed bond market) is not entirely convincing. The truth is that the deep rot in Indian PSBs highlights the risks associated with government ownership of banks.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Banking fragility remains an issue

A certain complacency seems to have set into the banking sector following the reforms put in place after the financial crisis of 2007. Bank managers especially think that banks are safe now, thanks to the combination of higher capital requirements and living wills. Jamie Dimon, chairman of J P Morgan Chase, typies this point of view.

I am among those who would beg to defer. Banks may be better placed than before but banking systems remains fragile. Regulators need to raise the capital requirements even further. The minimum leverage ratio (the ratio of equity to assets) for banks is general is 3%; for systemically important banks, it's 5-6%. The US Congress has a proposal which would give banks a choice of going with Basel 3 and the Dodd-Frank provisions or having a leverage ratio of 10%. The latter is indeed the way to go.

More in my EPW article, Are banks safer today than before the crisis.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Watch it: the wrong joke could cost your your job

A joke deemed sexist has cost a board member of Uber his place on the board, FT reports. Board member David Bonderman, had to quit after he interrupted Ms Arian Huffington, fellow member on the board, with a remark that was considered inappropriate:
As Ms Huffington was telling staff that research showed boards with one female director were more likely to appoint a second, Mr Bonderman interjected: “Actually what it shows is that it’s much more likely to be more talking.”
Ms Huffington laughed awkwardly and said it would be his turn to talk soon. After the meeting, Mr Bonderman emailed Uber employees to apologise — and later announced he was resigning from the board. 

The problem, of course, is that the remark could not have been made at a worse time. The board of Uber is dealing with serious cultural issues, including issues of harassment, highlighted by a report commissioned by the board. The report has led to the exit of several senior executives and the founder and CEO, Travis Kalanick, has proceeded on indefinite leave, although it appears he will still be involved in strategic decisions and key leadership appointments.

The refreshing takeaway from the turmoil at Uber is that the world is no longer going to accept a firm just because it has a great valuation. Culture matters. Which means how you create value is also important. It's hard to beat a quote the FT carries on the subject:
“The spoiled brats of Silicon Valley don’t know the basics,” said Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at the Rock Center of Corporate Governance and author. “It is a revelation for Silicon Valley: ‘duh, you have to have HR people, you can’t sleep with each other . . . you have to be respectful’.”
 

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Tech firms' cash pile

Infosys, TCS, Cognizant and other Indian IT firms have had to take tough questions from investors on the cash pile they have been sitting on for years. This pile produces low returns from investment in bank deposits and the rest. Investors think if the firms have no investment avenues for the pile, they should return much of it to investors. At long last, the tech firms have said yes.

Huge cash piles are not limited to Indian tech firms.Schumpeter points out that the top five tech firms of the world- Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook- are sitting on a net cash (cash minus debt) pile of $330 bn, twice their gross cash flow. This is set to touch $ 680 bn by 2020, three times their cash flow.

One reason for the cash pile is that much of it is stashed away abroad and not brought back to the US in order to avoid tax. But the tax bill by itself does not justify the cash hoard. Another reason is having to making large investments in R&D. The five tech firms spent $100 bn on investment last year. For them not to grow their cash pile, Schumpeter estimates that investment would have to rise to $300 bn. That is a staggering figure by any reckoning:
That is over twice what the global venture-capital industry spends each year. It is 51 times the annual cash burned up by Netflix, Uber and Tesla, three firms famous for being cash hungry. And it is 37 times the average annual amount of cash the five firms have in total spent on acquisitions to gain new technologies and products, such as Facebook’s $19bn purchase of WhatsApp, a messaging service in 2014, or Google’s $3.1bn acquisition of DoubleClick, an advertising firm, in 2007.

What could be the reason then for the cash pile? Schumpeter reckons that uncertainty about future profit could be a factor. The tech firms probably reckon that the cash pile may not grow as much as projected now, given that various threats could emerge. But if they do manage to add on to their cash they may diversity in a big way into cars, media or hardware firms.