Saturday, July 15, 2023

Central bank autonomy

This is now an old debate. But it's worth getting the perspective of Y V Reddy on the subject in India Forum. 

Reddy begins by noting that the RBI is a full service bank. It appears that bank regulation was added to RBI's mandate down the road along with various functions:

The important functions of the RBI include issue of currency, monetary management, banker to banks and the government, management of public debt, and management of foreign exchange reserves. Over a period, it has subsumed and assumed powers to regulate money, securities and foreign exchange markets, regulation of banks and non-banks and payment and settlement systems. In serving the public good, the RBI has traversed a long distance and faced many challenges. In the process, it has evolved into a full-service institution encompassing regulatory and developmental roles in the financial system, besides partnering with union and state Governments as their fiscal advisor in domestic and external sector policies.

Reddy gives the arguments for and against central bank autonomy. For autonomy:

The first is what is called time inconsistency. Essentially, it means that the time horizon of democratically elected government is short-term and hence they may favour growth over price stability. However, on matters relating to money, actions have to be taken keeping a long-term view. The central bank is expected to take a longer-term view......There is a second reason: that there are political cycles and there are business cycles, which do not coincide. For instance, elections will encourage politicians to have expansionary policies at that time... The third reason is that governments have a tendency to spend more money than appropriate and some limits have to be put on the spending. These can be put in the Constitution. This can also be enforced by independent central banks.

Against autonomy:

There is no democratic legitimacy for a technocratic body to decide on the important matter of money...Second, the independence of central bank may result in friction between fiscal and monetary authorities. Third, a central bank may 'impose' its outlook and preferences on the people, contrary to democratic preferences.

The tricky question is how to enforce accountability. Reddy gives some suggestions:

They should provide regular reports on their policy decisions and the economic outlook and be subject to external audits. Transparency helps build credibility and public trust in the central bank's actions. 

I have advocated external audits for all autonomous government institutions, including RBI. But hardly any of it happening.  It happens rarely and when it does happen, it is perfunctory.

Moreover, central bank autonomy can be largely in respect of the conduct of monetary policy. On various other matters that the RBI handles, such as bank regulation, foreign exchange and management of public debt, there has to be close consultation with the government. Autonomy cannot be sought across the entire range of a full-scope central bank's activities because ultimately the government is accountable for outcomes in a way in which the central bank is not.


Thursday, July 13, 2023

NATO will give Ukraine arms but no membership

The NATO meeting at Vilnius in Lithuania failed to produce the outcome that Ukrainian President Zelensky was looking for. Zelensky is desperate for NATO membership because that would automatically confer on Ukraine the defence cover that NATO nations are entitled to.

The US and others are in no mood to oblige. They refused also to commit to a time-frame for Ukraine to get NATO membership. There was only a vague promise to consider NATO membership once Ukraine had met “conditions” that were left delightfully unspecified. What NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg spelt out would be of no comfort to Ukraine:

We will provide support to Ukraine for as long as it takes. Because unless Ukraine wins this war, there's no membership issue to be discussed at all.

NATO clearly does not want to be drawn into a direct conflict with Russia because it knows very well that that could lead on to a nuclear exchange. What NATO is happy to do is to continue to arm Ukraine as much as it can. Ukrainians will perish in large numbers in a war that Ukraine cannot win. But Ukrainian lives will help bleed Russia militarily and economically. There is a fond hope in Western capitals that a prolonged war may create enough discontent in Russia to dislodge President Putin. That hope has been belied in the past eighteen months.

It looks as though the stalemate in the conflict will continue. The Ukrainian forces will hurl themselves at Russia in a counter-offensive that produced little thus far. The Ukrainian army has not been able to cross the buffer zone and reach the Russian defense lines. Fresh supplies of arms are unlikely to materially change the situation. More Ukrainian and Russian lives will be lost while NATO cheers from the sidelines.

The problem is that matters may not end there. There is always the risk of a serious provocation from the Ukrainian side. That will draw a severe response from Russia. We cannot be sure that the escalation will not then draw NATO into direct conflict with Russia – with perilous consequences for the world at large.  

Wednesday, July 05, 2023

C Rangarajan and India's economic reforms

 C Rangarajan was one of the principal figures in the making of India’s economic policies from the 1980s onwards. His memoir, Forks in the Road, should be compulsory reading for those who want a deeper understanding of the reform process.

It will interest IIMA students and alumni to know that Dr Rangarajan was a professor at the Institute for more than a decade and a half. He was at New York University School of Business (now Stern School) when Ravi Matthai, the then director, offered him a job at IIMA.

Dr Rangarajan’s course in Macroeconomics was hugely popular with students. He was entrusted with the task of launching IIMA’s doctoral program. In 1981, he was appointed Deputy Governor of RBI. Thereafter, there was no looking back.

Dr Rangarajan went on to don several hats: Member, Planning Commission; RBI Governor; Chairman, 12th Finance Commission; Chairman, PM’s Economic Advisory Council. He was also Governor of two states and member, Rajya Sabha. A life of rich accomplishment!

My review article on the book in BS today.

It's behind a pay well, so here is the full text:


 The ideas of economists

 Former RBI governor C Rangarajan’s memoir is a testament to the crucial role economists can play in shaping policies and people’s lives

T T Ram Mohan

Do economists matter? Can they make a big difference to public policy? Economists will find answers that are gratifying in Forks in the Road, the memoir of C Rangarajan ( ‘Ranga’ to old-timers at IIM Ahmedabad, with which he had a long association in its formative years). Yes, they do. And, yes, they can make a big difference to public policy, provided they can get political masters to align with their thinking. 

Dr Rangarajan’s memoir is about the economic events and decisions in which he was an active participant for nearly three decades, starting in the early 1980s. He wore several hats: Deputy governor and governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI); member of the Planning Commission; chairman of the Twelfth Finance Commission; and chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council (with Cabinet rank). Somewhere in between were stints as governor of two states and member of the Rajya Sabha.

Unlike most memoirs, Dr Rangarajan’s is less about himself and more about issues. It is replete with tables and statistics. But it doesn’t just tell us what transpired. It examines the alternatives that were open to policymakers and explains why a particular course was chosen and what outcomes followed. The result is a fascinating piece of economic history. 

Dr Rangarajan joined the RBI in 1981. As deputy governor and governor (with a break in between), he dealt with two of India’s biggest balance of payments (BoP) crises,  the overhaul of monetary policy and banking reform. 

The first BoP crisis, in 1981, was handled largely within the then economic paradigm. Yet, operating  within the paradigm, Dr Rangarajan and his colleagues at the RBI managed a steady depreciation of the rupee in both nominal and real terms. They were very clear that it would be difficult to manage the current account deficit without boosting exports and curtailing imports.  The economists at RBI seem to have had a free hand in managing the exchange rate even before the reforms of 1991. 

Another significant reform in the 1980s arose from the Sukhamoy Chakravarty report of 1985. Following the report, monetary targeting or setting a money supply target consistent with output growth and prices came into vogue. This was the first attempt to tackle “fiscal dominance” over monetary policy. Here again, the political authority went along with the recommendations of the economists. 

The BoP crisis of 1991 required far more drastic measures. An immediate step was the raising of a foreign currency loan by pledging some of our gold reserves. The Chandra Shekhar government gave the go-ahead, and the Narasimha government that followed raised no objection. Again, a steep depreciation in the exchange rate of the rupee was required. This was done in two stages with the approval of the government. Yet another win for economists.

The achievement of the time, as is well known, was the radical break with the past that finance minister Manmohan Singh pushed through. Dr Rangarajan highlights the three significant breaks that are now part of economic lore: The dismantling of licenses, the reduction in public ownership of business enterprises, and the move away from the inward-looking trade policy of the past. All of this was possible only because of the backing of the political authority. Dr Rangarajan notes wryly that Narasimha Rao was able to rally his party behind him by talking of “continuation” in economic policy when there was really a break. At the time, Dr Rangarajan was at the Planning Commission.

Returning to the RBI in the early 1990s, Dr Rangarajan set in motion reforms in monetary policy and banking at a breath-taking pace. The phasing out of ad hoc Treasury bills; market-determined rates for government borrowing; the dismantling of the administered structure of interest rates in banking; the reduction in  the Statutory liquidity ratio and cash reserve ratio; licensing of new private banks; and a great deal more was done. The chapter is titled “The beginnings of autonomy” but  but the freedom given to the professional economists at RBI was not inconsiderable.

In the management of the external sector, the RBI worked closely with the finance ministry. Far-reaching reforms happened: Foreign institutional investors were allowed into the Indian stock market; foreign direct investment (FDI) norms were liberalised; and the exchange rate became largely market-determined. The framework for management of external capital flows was put in place. There was clarity that long-term equity flows should be preferred to short-term debt flows. These and other measures taken at the time have since become pillars of Indian economic policy. 

On all these, the political authority had no difficulty in heeding solid professional advice. There must have been occasions when the economists couldn’t quite have their way. Perhaps those occasions were not so consequential. At any rate, there is little indication in the memoir of any serious confrontation between economists and the government. On the major issues of policy, once the politicians had decided on a fundamental change of course, they didn’t interfere with the work of economists. On lesser, more technical matters, they always left it to the professionals to do what was required.

The big area of failure for economists has been the fiscal deficit or the savings-investment balance. Dr Rangarajan highlights the point in his concluding chapter, “Ruminations”, where he ponders the long-term outlook for the economy. Over the past three decades, it is an issue that has not proved amenable to the persuasions of economists, no matter what the complexion of government. We have since arrived at times when the global consensus on keeping public debt relatively low has been undermined. Economists themselves seem resigned to greater levels of public debt than they have been comfortable with in the past.

Not pushing through “big-bang” reforms— such as aggressive privatisation, including bank privatisation, land acquisition, and the freedom to hire and fire labour — is seen as a big political failure. Dr Rangarajan doesn’t seem to think so.  He makes little mention of these. “The reform regime,” he writes, “will be incremental in character. It has to be”. That is also the political consensus on reforms.  

Working quietly within the system, Dr Rangarajan was able to make a difference. His place as one of the principal architects of economic policy from the 1980s onwards is secure. For his compelling chronicle of the economic history of the period as much for his many contributions, he deserves a bouquet of the choicest roses.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Rethinking fiscal rules

Public debt ratios have risen since the Covid shock as governments sought to cushion the impact of the shock. Global debt to gdp averaged 96 per cent in 2021. The average for advanced economies was 120 per cent. In 2008, after the Global Financial Crisis, the numbers were 64 per cent and 79 per cent.

The general view, articulated by the IMF, is that the rise in public debt was inevitable and desirable. But… it needs to be brought down quickly. That is, of course, the received wisdom taught in all Macroeconomics courses, namely, the lower the public debt, the better.

It is refreshing to hear a different view from Andy Haldane, former Chief Economist of the Bank of England. Haldane makes two interesting points. One, over centuries, global debt to gdp has tended to rise as governments respond to the need to create more and more public goods. Two- and this is very interesting- even as public debt has risen, the interest costs have fallen. Not quite what you the Macro course would tell you.

How do you explain these? Well, public debt is used often to create assets. These assets generate streams of income over time that can service the debt. So lenders to government look, not just at the debt, but at the assets that the debt creates. What matters thus is not public debt per se but net worth of government, that is, assets minus debt.

Recognising those assets would give us a measure of the true net worth of the government. Just as a company or household would look at their net worth when making investment choices, so too should government. Countries with high net assets have been found to have lower borrowing costs. Bond market vigilantes target poor ancestors, not borrowers.

Moral of the story? The need to create important public goods remains, perhaps, including those relate to climate change. No need to panic over rising debt levels- focus on debt sustainability. As long as debt creates productive assets, physical or human, chances are debt will be sustainable.


Friday, May 19, 2023

India's growth prospects in FY 2023-24


Growth projections for India for FY 24 show wide divergence.

  •  The RBI Governor recently threw his weight behind the RBI forecast of 6.5 per cent
  • The Chief Economic Advisor estimates growth at 6-6.8 per cent with downside risks being greater, meaning growth will be closer to 6 than to 6.8 per cent
  •  The IMF has scaled down its growth forecast for India to 5.9 per cent
  • Dr C Rangarajan, former Chairman, PM’s Economic Advisory Council, thinks we will end up with 6 per cent
  • Many private sector forecasters see growth below 6 per cent, some peg it close to 5 per cent  

What do we make of these forecasts? I guess much depends on whether or not the downside risks materialise. A big one is an escalation in the conflict in Ukraine. Another is further bouts of banking instability in the US and elsewhere. The IMF mentions several other downside risks: higher than expected real interests at a time when debt levels are high; stickier inflation; sovereign debt distress in emerging and developing economies (already seen in Sri Lanka and Pakistan); faltering growth in China; greater retreat from global integration.

The IMF estimates that the probability of global growth going below 2 per cent in 2023 is 25 per cent- this has happened only five times since 1970. (The IMF’s baseline forecast is for 2.8 per cent). That will happen if many of the downside risks materialise. 

My guess is that we will be lucky if India’s growth rate exceeds 6 per cent in FY 24.  

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Interpreting Karnataka poll results



We are seeing all commentaries about the decisive victory score by the Congress in the Karnataka Assembly polls. We need to be careful in interpreting the results. Going by the seats secured by parties in elections, we know, can be deceptive. Small swings in votes can result in disproportionate changes in seats won.

A better gauge of a party’s popularity is vote share. The BJP vote share in Karnataka remains what it was in 2018- 37 per cent-, going by this article. It appears that the BJP lost marginally in some areas, gained massively in Bengaluru and held on to its vote share in the coastal regions. The marginal losses in some places sufficed to change the outcome in terms of seats. What brought about the small change in votes in areas where the BJP lost needs to be analysed.

It does seem that the theories for the outcome that are being put forward- polarisation gone wrong, developmental story winning, leftist orientation of Congress going down well, etc- are premature. We need a rigorous analysis of the outcomes in various regions to tell a convincing narrative.


Saturday, May 13, 2023

FRB review of the failure of Silicon Valley Bank

The US Federal Reserve Board has published a review of the failure at SVB. The lessons are pretty straightforward. Regulation and supervision have to get tighter. Boards have to do a better job. Managerial incentives need to be aligned to risk-adjusted returns, not nominal returns. With respect to boards, I would add: we need an overhaul of the mechanism of independent directors- we can’t leave it to promoters and CEOs to decide who the ‘independent’ directors should be.

The RBI may want to commission a similar review of the failures at IL&FS and Yes Bank. Regulators unilaterally subjecting themselves to public scrutiny is good for good for the regulator’s credibility and standing- and good for bank stability in the long run.

My article in BS, Anatomy of a bank failure

Anatomy of a bank failure

A radical change is necessary in the appointment of independent directors in India in light of the extensive failures in oversight and management of banks in the US




Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) and its holding company, Silicon Valley Bank Financial Group (SVBFG), failed last March. This resulted in the immediate failure of Signature Bank and, with a lag, of First Republic Bank. More mid-sized banks may follow.


The US Federal Reserve Board (FRB) has been quick to commission and publish a review of the failure of SVB. Even more creditable, the review pulls no punches in apportioning blame. The bank’s management failed. The board of directors failed. The supervisor failed. Regulations turned out to be inadequate. Everything that could go wrong went wrong.


The Fed review should be compulsory reading for bankers, bank boards, regulators and supervisors. The report will help drive home an important point: It is futile to expect “market discipline” by itself to take care of banking stability.


Let us begin with management and board failures. SVBFG’s assets tripled in size between 2019 and 2021. Deposits flowed in. The technology sector was booming, so lending expanded rapidly. Any growth in loans that is way above average loan growth in the sector is a recipe for trouble, a point often lost on managements as well as boards. Management does not have the bandwidth to assess risk properly. Internal controls and systems cannot keep pace with runaway growth.  Reliance on volatile wholesale deposits tends to increase. 


Managerial incentives are often linked to profits without adjusting for risk. For CEOs, the temptation to quickly grow the loan book is irresistible. The onus is on the board of directors to apply the brakes.  Rarely does this happen. Boards tend to be mesmerised by CEOs who show dazzling performance for a few years. They find it hard to tell a performing CEO, “Sorry, this is not on.”  


At SVBFG, the board was not even responsive to supervisory warnings. The FRB report remarks acidly, “Moreover, the board put short-run profits above effective risk management and often treated resolution of supervisory issues as a compliance exercise rather than a critical risk-management issue.” That could be said of many boards. 


Starting in July 2022, SVBFG failed its liquidity stress tests repeatedly. Management moved to increase funding capacity but the necessary actions were not executed until March 2023 when it was too late. Management chose to mask liquidity risks by changing the stress test assumptions. 


Interest rate risk too was poorly managed. The bank had breached its interest rate risk limits on and off since 2017. Instead of reducing dependence on short-term deposits, management fiddled with assumptions about the duration of deposits. Hedges on interest rate risk were removed in the interest of boosting short-term profits. Management was massaging earnings by hiding the underlying risks. The Risk Management Committee of the board should have picked up these lapses. It failed to do so, again not a huge surprise. 


The supervisors did not cover themselves with glory either. For governance, SVBFG got a “Satisfactory” rating, despite repeated supervisory observations about inadequate oversight.  The bank had large, uninsured deposits that were volatile, yet managed a “Strong” rating on liquidity. Despite breaching interest rate risk limits repeatedly, it got a ‘Satisfactory’ rating on the item.  Clearly, supervisors in the FRB set-up were hard to displease. Banks in India must pine for such a supervisor; they find the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) almost impossible to please. 


What accounts for these supervisory failures? The report says joint oversight by the FRB and the 12 Federal Reserve Banks is a factor. The Board delegates authority to the Reserve Banks, but Bank supervisors look to the FRB for approval before making a rating change. Getting a consensus is time-consuming. 


But that was not the only reason. In 2018, heightened supervisory standards were made applicable only to banks with assets of more than $100 billion. Moreover, supervisors were under pressure to reduce the burden on banks and to exercise greater care before reaching conclusions or taking action


Finally, there were the failures of regulation. The Dodd-Frank Act, passed after the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), provided for stiffer prudential standards for banks above a threshold of $50 billion. In 2018, the Act was amended to raise the threshold to $250 billion. For banks in the range of $100-$250 billion in assets, the Fed was given the discretion as to what standards to apply. When SVBFG reached the threshold of $100 billion, it was subjected to less stringent regulations than would have applied before 2019. Had the dilution in regulations not happened, SVBFG would have been compelled to enhance liquidity and capital before it was too late. 


The problem is fundamental. The philosophy of “light touch” regulation and supervision hasn’t quite lost its hold on the US system. Multiple regulators and supervisors are another problem. There is also the “revolving door” syndrome -- regulators join private banks, then jump back to the regulator in a senior capacity. The relationship between regulator and banks is too cosy for comfort, which may explain the kindness shown to SVB. 


The RBI, as your columnist argued last month, is well ahead of the regulatory and supervisory curve in the West. Its intrusive approach is a better safeguard for banking stability than the light touch elsewhere. However, supervision can only be a third layer of defence against bank instability. Regulations are the primary layer, followed by the board. The RBI must find ways to get bank boards to do a far better job.   


A radical change would be to alter the way independent directors are appointed at banks. At present, the promoter or CEO has the dominant say in the appointment of independent directors (at both private and public sector banks). The RBI may want to insist that, for instance, one independent director be chosen by institutional investors and another by retail shareholders (from a list of names proposed by the Financial Services Institutions Bureau). Until we have independent directors who are distanced from the promoter and management, it’s unrealistic to expect board oversight to improve. 


The RBI is hosting a conference for bank directors later this month. Here are two suggestions.  One, in the interests of transparency and accountability, the RBI may want to commission a review of the failures at IL&FS and Yes Bank. Two, it may prescribe the FRB’s review of SVB’s failure as one of the “readings” for the conference. It may also include the report of the UK's Financial Services Authority on the failure of Royal Bank of Scotland during the GFC. At least, bank directors can’t say they weren’t warned.