Thursday, December 22, 2016

Demonetisation could transform Indian banking

Demonetisation, in my view, is not primarily about black money and corruption nor  about moving to cashless economy. It's about financial deepening. This could transform Indian banking and boost the Indian economy.

Here's my article in today's BS, 

Since the article is behind a pay wall, it's reproduced below:

Way back in 1969, Indira Gandhi decided to nationalise private banks.  She summoned I G Patel, then special secretary in the ministry of finance, and gave him 24 hours to prepare a Bill for Parliament, a Cabinet note and a speech Mrs Gandhi would make to the nation. Patel dutifully carried out madam’s orders.

In his memoirs, Patel records that he would have liked the move to have been better planned. Nationalisation should have been accompanied by restructuring to produce  one or two large national banks and multiple regional banks. Little of this has happened to this day. Mrs Gandhi judged correctly that planning every detail would take her nowhere.

Mrs Gandhi’s detractors denounced the move as politically motivated. They saw it as part of her battle against the old guard in the Congress and an attempt to weaken the Swatantra Party which was backed by the private owners of the banks. They said it was an effort on Mrs Gandhi’s part to portray herself as pro-poor and anti-rich — exactly what Prime Minister Modi’s critics are saying today.

All this was, of course, true. But, then, politicians will always be driven by political motives. The most important motivation is to acquire and hold on to power. The right question to ask is whether their political motivations are married to the larger good. Bank nationalisation passes this test — and there is every prospect that so will demonetisation.

Bank nationalisation marked a watershed in India’s post-independence history. Government-owned banks spread their branch network into the interior and mopped up small savings of millions. As a result, the household saving rate jumped from 8.1 per cent of GDP in 1968-69 to 14.4 per cent in 1978-79, causing the overall saving rate to jump from 12 per cent to 21 per cent. The rise in the saving rate set the stage for an increase in the growth rate from the Hindu rate of 3.5 per cent of the previous decades to 5.5-6 per cent in the eighties.

Public sector banks’ (PSBs) access to low-cost savings in the seventies and eighties enabled them to become profitable in the post-liberalisation era. Exposing PSBs to private competition while keeping over 70 per cent of banking in the public sector allowed efficiency to improve while maintaining banking stability.

Mrs Gandhi thus created a serious disruption that yielded benefits over a long period, thanks to financial deepening. Mr Modi has done exactly the same with demonetisation — and the outcomes are likely to be very similar.

Demonetisation is not primarily a drive against black money or even a change to a less-cash economy, although it has been packaged as such. Observers are right to be sceptical on both counts. Without follow-up measures, demonetisation is unlikely to make a big dent on black money. The role of cash can come down only over a long period.

Demonetisation is best seen as carrying forward the agenda of financial deepening that commenced with bank nationalisation. The gains to banking  promise to be  substantial.

Bank nationalisation brought a large number of individuals into banking on the liabilities side. It also brought in SMEs on the asset side. Demonetisation promises to deepen individual relationships on the liabilities side. It also promises to bring a large number of merchants, traders and SMEs into banking on both the liability and asset sides. It’s a great leap forward in terms of financial inclusion.

This has the potential to transform Indian banking and revitalise it precisely at a time when a large chunk of it is moribund. Banks will have access to more deposits and a larger proportion of low-cost deposits. This should cause interest rates to decline. The fall in interest rates will be gradual, given that we cannot afford a flight of foreign funds invested in the financial markets.

Once cash flows of small businesses begin to get routed through the banking system, their accounts will become far more transparent. This will translate into more lending to small businesses which carries higher yields than corporate loans. Banks have already woken up to the potential of microfinance. The two together will give a big boost to profitability in banking.

The decline in interest rates will lead to capital gains on banks’ holdings of government securities and help recapitalise PSBs. K V Kamath estimates that the banks have gained ~1 lakh crore in the last quarter. He thinks they will gain another ~1.5 lakh crore through a one per cent decline in interest rates in the next six months. This seems too optimistic but the basic point is valid: A fall in interest rates makes the job of recapitalising PSBs easier.  No wonder bankers are upbeat about demonetisation even as economists are divided on it.

Mr Modi’s critics say he should have planned better: More notes printed in advance, more of small-denomination notes, faster recalibration of ATMs, etc. Many of the criticisms are valid. The short-term distress is very real.

But the critics miss the larger point: The most serious distress the nation faces today is not creating new jobs. Two of the most important constraints to job creation are global economic conditions and the state of Indian banking. There isn't much we can do about the first. By revitalising banking, demonetisation promises to ease the second constraint and open a path to faster growth in the medium term.

For some two-and-a-half years now, Mr Modi has proceeded cautiously, allowing himself to be guided by those familiar with the Delhi durbar. He seems to have sensed that plodding along the familiar path would not yield much — in political or economic terms. A game-changer was required. This is the risk-taking Mr Modi of the Gujarat days.

The insight of the gifted politician can often bring about a transformation in ways that cannot be arrived at through a strictly analytical process. So it was with Mrs Gandhi and bank nationalisation. So it could well turn out to be with Mr Modi and demonetisation.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Demonetisation and interest rates

Demonetisation was widely expected to bring about a sharp fall in lending rates on account of the surge in deposits in the system. The RBI's move to impound 100 per cent of incremental deposits starting from September 16 to November 11 has raised doubts over such a decline.

The RBI has said it will review its decision on December 9 (when it announces its quarterly monetary policy). The removal of currency is hugely deflationary and the economy could do with a monetary stimulus. However, we're seeing an exit of FIIs from the debt market and the currency has fallen. Given the knock to GDP and earnings and a forecast increase in the Fed rate mid-December, the RBI will have to be careful about dropping the policy rate. It would be a surprise if it cut the rate by 50 basis points as analysts had forecast and it would not surprise me if held firm.

Over a long period, however, we can expect demonetisation to usher in lower rates. Various other benefits will also kick in, notably greater financial inclusion and a reduced use of cash. I cannot resist noting how many respected bankers are upbeat about the  move in a way in which economists are not.

My guess is that more measures to attack black money will be forthcoming after December 31. What's being attempted is a paradigm shift- or, if you like, Big Bang reform. This is what economists have long been clamouring for but they couldn't have imagined it would happen this way.

More in my article in the Hindu, Dashed expectations.