V Kumaraswamy, CFO, JK Paper Ltd says the new indirect tax law will bring rural economy into the formal fold and, thus, help create an inclusive economy
V Kumaraswamy, CFO, JK Paper Ltd says the new indirect tax law will bring rural economy into the formal fold and, thus, help create an inclusive economy
An edited version has appeared in Financial Express on 13 Oct 2017
Currency Correction or Fiscal Stimulus?
The feeling of sluggishness is palpable everywhere. There are talks of stimulating the economy by fiscal incentives etc. This can be a very innocuous medicine for reasons of (i) dosage, (ii) potency, and (iii) long lead time.
First the dosage. The government may throw Rs 50-60K crores as fiscal stimulus. This is about 0.4% of our GDP. Given the current moribund state of economy with 25-30% underutilised capacities it is too tiny to have any impact. The current closure of capacities or lack of investments have not become so for 1-2% poorer realisations or profitability. While the figures vary for different industries, it is substantial – more in the range of 10-20%. We need a correction of this magnitude. The gaps in our competitiveness with countries exporting to us like China, ASEAN and Korea is 10-15%; not a 1-2% pittance.
Next the potency and wastage. Any incentive will reach both Units operating at full capacity and units with low utilisation and poor profitability. Units which are closed or NPA currently could hardly be revived with a small ‘spread thin’ incentive. The incentives reaching units operating at full capacity will neither create incremental growth nor new employment. There will be a lot of wasted (applying where not needed) efforts.
Finally, the lead time. If stimulus is by way of Income Tax rebates, it will be a year or many quarters before the recipient feels it and reckons it in his decisions. If it is by way of Indirect tax cuts, the recipient knows that it is for a limited period and will not motivate him for taking a long term investment decision. We need some immediate actions and most fiscal measures take a long lead time to get results. It may be well beyond 2019 that one would see perceptible results.
The current problem
The economy is stuck at a low and unresponsive equilibrium. The current economic impasse is born out of 3 main factors (i) high internal value of currency (low inflation targets resulting in high real interest rates), (ii) may be partially from it, high external value of Rupee and high real interest rates attracting too much forex flows which are beyond the capacity of economy to absorb and (iii) free trade with ASEAN which kicked in from Jan 2014 in full.
ASEAN FTA did increase supplies and kept prices under check. It made import parity as the main basis of price determination for many manufactured goods. But it also eroded domestic industry’s profitability since manufacturing prices have hardly risen to cover inflation of inputs in wages and inputs from agriculture. It delivered customer stable or reduced prices but took away their jobs. India’s growth is creating Jobs but in other countries!
Somehow inflation control has become the focal point of our monetary management in recent years just like fiscal deficit is for our Union Budgets. While the fiscal deficit control is understandable, in an open globalised economy when product of every description could be freely imported, supply shortfall induced inflation is out of question. From Pulses and rice, to apparels, to electronics and Ganesha and Navrathra idols everything can be imported these days. So supply constraint induced inflation is the least that RBI or the Government needs to worry about.
Ways to correct imbalances
The main contributory reason for our lack of competitiveness with other regional players is the high external value of our currency. The sooner it is corrected the better, either by devaluation or dis-incentivising inflows. But devaluation can cause inflation. As is reasoned out below inflation can be phantom enemy if things are calibrated well.
The first thing is to reduce debt limits available to overseas investors and strictly adhere to such limits. There is nopoint accumulating reserves to earn 1-2% returns by paying 4-5% overseas as interest in $ terms.
Secondly, there could be a temporary tax on overseas investments into India. This can be even for ECBs, investments into government debt and all inflows which are not required for physical imports. Taxing interest on GOI bonds will lower their yields and contain inward flows. There could be a surcharge on inflows till the related imports also take place. These could be used for re-capitalising our banks.
As a corollary, Government can mandate that fresh foreign investments can only be in new government bonds issued, on which the GOI can offer much less interest rate. Such an exercise will help the GOI as well. Such issuances can be allowed for secondary trades may be a separate bond segment with lower interest will develop as a result.
Containing Resultant Inflation
The Government should bite the bullet like it did with GST and correct the near 22% over valuation in one substantial go. It can reset $=Re at Rs 71-72, which is 11% correction.
Monsoon is good throughout the country and agricultural inflation may not be a risk. If in fact there is excess production, a good forex rate might help evacuate some surplus so that domestic prices don’t crash due to oversupply.
In the long term, a 11% devaluation is about $ 40 billion in added inflation. This on a GDP of approx. $ 2400 is about 1.6% – may not be unbearable. But it’s the short temr effect on imported products and their immediate derivatives and next level products.
Oil is the largest at 25% of import bill. Government (state and Central) should put a price cap. Their duties (customs, Excise and VAT together) account for a third of final price. There can be a freeze for 12-18 months in Re-terms on these. Oil marketing companies which have expanded their margins in the last few months can be told to absorb a third and the rest can be passed on. An additional 3.7% inflation on oil will amount to about a 1% on final inflation. Gold and Diamonds are next. We should not bother with Gold (the costlier it is, the better) and Diamond is largely for processing and hence related exports will make up for the input inflation.
That will confine inflation largely to manufactured goods. Most prices today in manufacturing sector are determined by import parity prices. A 10-11% correction would most likely translate into a similar uptick in their prices, which could help several factories (most especially textiles) to start chugging again. In any case, buyers of manufactured goods have had it too good for the last 5-6 years without much inflation.
Protecting the pensioners and interest earners needs to be balanced with the interest of freshers in the job market. The total interest paid on all bank deposits and Small savings and MFs is less than 5.5% of GDP. If we remove the government pensioners and those who have not yet retired from this, it would not be more than 1-2%. The number of those entering the job market and finding themselves without jobs will far outnumber those surviving solely on interest.
Currency correction will also solve a lot of NPA issue. A 10-12% increase in industrial realisations will turn many industrial units from potential NPAs to preforming ones.
Superiority over fiscal stimulus
Currency correction will hit the problem where it is. The dosage at 11% on the total value of trade (both imports and exports) is huge. It will alter the domestic profitability substantially and have an immediate impact – from the following day morning.
Sure forex borrowers will suffer. But those who have covered their exposure need not worry. For those who have not covered or partially covered, they have made good gains for the last 12 years on the trot. Why should not they not be made a pay some back now?
An equilibrium cannot be corrected by fiscal stimulus which will be better for rectifying confidence issues.
(The writer is the author of Making Growth Happen in India, Sage Publications).
this artcile of mine has appeared in Financial express today (29/sept, 2017). Link below.
RBI’s Interest Rates can trip Modi in 2019
Ask any shop keeper, or the lonely looking private security guards, unemployed youth in urban slums or interior towns, or the taxi drivers as to what their main issue today is and pat comes the reply: be rozgari
Not many expected Vajpayee to lose 2004 with the groundswell of national passion over Kargil, Golden Quadrilateral, relative peace and quiet in domestic scenario, great government finances and the political networking he cultivated. Yet he lost.
The voter at the booth is not going to be thankful for how much wholesale corruption has come down (retail is still alive and throbbing), degree of digitisation India has achieved, how benign inflation is, etc. These are at best hygiene factors which can easily be washed away if joblessness persists. Without a job, a stable one at that, he can’t proposer.
High Manufacturing Real Interest Rates (RIRs).
If more people have to be converted from being losers during the on-going reforms to gainers, we need rapid job creation. Services sector (IT, BPOs, Call Centres, and Telecom) created jobs by the buckets till about 2011-12 but have reached stagnation now and have even started becoming uncompetitive now threatening imminent job losses. Agri sector is just incapable of creating further jobs; rather it would release lots that need to be absorbed.
Employment should come from only manufacturing and here is where the real interest rates facing Indian industry is proving an insurmountable barrier not just a hurdle. The accompanying chart compares the Real Interest Rates (RIRs) between China and RIRs facing Indian manufacturing. Manufacturing RIRs are derived by deducting manufacturing inflation from the nominal interests facing manufacturing sector. For the last over a decade Indian Mfg RIR is about 7.21% versus China’s 2.92% – (i.e 4.29% over China’s) a huge hole for anyone to be interested in investing in Indian manufacturing.
It is a mistake to compare the general RIR which is just 2.04% over China, the country with which we have maximum non-oil trade deficit. The General inflation is contaminated by Fuel oil, Food which have no bearing whatsoever for studying manufacturing investment competitiveness.
Why has it become important now?
Just but for one year, Indian Manufacturing RIRs have been higher than China since 1991. So why has it started affecting investment sentiments now. Starting Jan 2014, duties for imports from ASEAN has become Zero virtually (S Korea is not far behind) making India’s trade borders completely open. China (even with import duties) has cost structures lower than ASEAN for several commodities.
India’s capital account has also been steadily opening up and for practical purposes it is completely open. Even the per annum limits on debt are periodically reviewed and enhanced without even waiting for the year turns.
With open trade and capital flows one has to be more sharply competitive. Added to this is the 25-30% overall surplus capacity in Industry. Who would dare to invest with a huge handicap on interest rates and surplus capacities. It is better to source goods from China or set up facilities there and sell in India, which exports jobs.
Sources of competitiveness
As mentioned earlier, agriculture and services look spent forces as far as employment creation goes. It rests on manufacturing to create jobs, for which it needs to be competitive, which has to come from any of the 4 factors of production or natural resource endowments (part of Land).
India has tied itself up in knots where land is concerned. Our socialistic mindset has made a grand backdoor re-entry through LARR and a plethora of court rulings, restriction on land transfer and change in usage, etc. Any acquisition takes 5 years – far beyond the patience time for an entrepreneur to keeping waiting with his ideas. India has 375 people per sqkm where China has 142 (2015), increasing the pressure on land. So land as a source of competitive strength is ruled out.
Labour can be a source of strength given the wage levels now. But for that to happen we need to repurpose our education. Instead of (or perhaps alongwith) BE(Mechanical) and B Tech (Chemical) we need 8th Std (textile printing), 10th std (BPO assistant), 12th std (Source coders), etc. i.e. fit for purpose specialisation kicking in at far younger ages. This can perhaps reduce capital invested for turning an unemployed into productive force as well supply the skills that would increase productivity. Such increased productivity can make the labour cheap per output unit.
That leaves Interest rates. Even enterprise is a function of interest rates beyond a point, where it translates entrepreneurism into investments. With excess capacities and high RIRs in Manufacturing, no one will feel tempted to invest in India.
High real interest rates (when the whole of rest of world is underperforming) and an increasingly politically stable India is attracting excess of $s, that cannot be absorbed by a stalling investment economy. Oversupply / unutilised $s in the forex market causes its prices to decrease. With it, it brings down import prices and makes our exports un-remunerative. This causes imports to flare up. Sure we are also gaining in petrol, prices of Chinese goods, goods from ASEAN, etc. But then the jobs in making them is happening overseas. What’s more important now – employment or lower inflation? People who are gloating at low inflation are looking at just one side of the equation
In the last 6-7 years our Monetary economists have been failing their equilibrium mathematics exams, with their highly out of context imported monetary theories. But the political student to be detained may be Modi’s Government in 2019.
(The writer is the Author of Making Growth Happen in India (Sage Publications))
Vietnam’s Sensible Communism Vs India’s Dysfunctional Democracy
I started following Vietnam with my 1st visit to that country. Brief comparison of Per capita income (current $) with India between then and now is below:
I would attribute Vietnam’s faster progress to the following:
Respect for the government,
Fear/respect for law,
Better road discipline and public order,
Its sensible and sensitive communism,
Pragmatic Economic planning and policies – no dogmas and every regulator is sub-ordinate to the government, and
Focus on a select few industries.
I am not sure if our Democratic rights is worth this kind of price (if indeed the difference is due to this factor). I would largely prefer getting rid of our poverty first before aspects of freedom we are supposed to be enjoying. As a nation we spend so much to elect our representatives but tether them in every which way and make them as constrained, dysfunctional and impotent as possible. The judiciary, NGT, Johnny-come-lately Regulators, Independent Monetary agencies, NGOs, PILs, and of course the Opposition and the media which is answerable to none all play their part to this collective coma and inertia.
And of course ‘We the People’. We are perhaps the most argumentative and critical people on planet Earth. We mistakenly celebrate a right to abuse as right to criticise. I would think criticism to be constructive should exhibit the following characters:
You may say I am a dreamer… but so be it.
Vietnam has not lost its energies in vague policies and utopian and unpragmatic copycat controls like tight monetary and fiscal policies, demo, or swatch bharat, digitisation, corruption eradication, ease of doing business, etc. It just focussed on 4-5 industries where it had /developed cost competitiveness.
Like Textiles, Electronics, Tourism, Wood plantation, select spices. It reversed the conventional approach of economists and started at the delivery end. Wood plantation created 2 million jobs in remote rural areas, in textiles it zoomed past India in just 7 years (its current output of textiles is capable of generating 2.2 cr jobs by India’s standards of mechanisation) much of which has come at the expense of India’s unpragmatic approach in textiles…nose to the ground politicians engaged in job creating in select few industries.
I personally feel that we have more to learn from Vietnam (or South Korea, China, or Taiwan) than the stupid West (I mean West is not stupid, we are… in aping them) as far as it concerns Economics of development and salvation from Poverty.
I would think that PILs should be asked to prove their Public interest character. They should be made to submit signatures of at least 1000 people or 1% (some such thing), who shall be made to deposit a bond of Rs 1000 each. Select few should be called to testify in the Court. The lead sponsor should be made to deposit 10% of the likely damage being suffered by the Society (or some lumpsum amount which can be a % of what the Government alleges is the cost of delaying). This should be forfeited if the case is not admitted or dismissed.
I would also think an independent body should verify the proofs of news and broadcasts by Media and if found insufficient, the concerned channel should be made to show blackout of related programmes for 3 days. Unbridled criticism in our society has only been an invitation to chaos.
(the picture shows the Visiting Dy PM – HE Pham Binh Minh).
Singapore’s Economic Recession
Roads and Connectvity alone may not deliver rural development.
Got 2 days to drive around in Rayagada district in Southern Orissa, amongst the poorest 3-4 districts in India. One could not but admire the great strides Roads have made in the region. Govt also seems to have made a lot of progress thru residential school for tribal children which seem well maintained (I saw 3 of them within 20 km stretch). A few takes and lessons.
1 Our first stop was a plantation nearby under the aegis of co-operative group. while the increase in tree growth was visible due to better farm practices, what was not visible was the government funding agencies which recoil at the first sign of trouble. If risk aversion is the primary motive, development initiaves in such societies at the brink of economic existence will all fail. The Government has to take a more sanguine view – the farmers are never going to take advantage of legal loopholes a la a kingfisher nor dodge a bank manager, if he is solvent. if he has the money he will pay. counter party moral hazard is likely to be the lowest.
2 I met the farmers (slide 11) but it was a difficult conversation. My Hindi was not good currency; the accompanying colleagues’ local oriya was only a passable currency. Thank god we have one language across India. I asked the farmer in saffron T-shirt upto which class he has studied. He prevaricated but signalled something to the locals which was translated to Sixth Standard. (But barely convincing). The man in green T shirt seemed to own 2 plots. With some difficulty we could figure out it must have totalled 3 acres. I asked him what class he has been upto. He signalled to the first one and said something to the effect – to the same extent. (I couldn’t believe him either).
3 Visited the training centre of local SHG which had trained itself in book binding hoping to get some contract jobs in the local banks, factories and shops. (see the videos and the group conversation). We are not just short in financial inclusion alone. Of the sample of 20 i saw, none had been inside a train, only one had been upto class 10, 19 out of 20 did not know 3rd table, only one had gas. Surprisingly none of them had worked in NREGA. 2 claimed to own cell phones (but they all knew what i was talking about) and 2 others cycles. All had electricity and claimed that they toilets.
But i was deeply touched by their guilelessness and genuine warmth. The meeting had been arranged with just 15 minutes notice. They gave a locally made flower bouquet and coca cola (to everyone).
4 Many villages seem to be independent land locked republics within India. I could only with difficulty hold myself from asking if they knew that they belonged to a country called India or that it was once ruled by Moghuls or british and that it has got its freedom. (I did not know if it is lawful or will be deemed instigative; hence i stopped). But as you can see from the video they had very little to do with India or its development. The only ‘Indian’ they seemed to know was Naveen Patnaik.
Villagers (see slide 5) in this tiny hamlet had erected a bamboo toll gate and refused entry or exit unless we paid their toll. Toll collectors were 2 young girls of may be 9-10 yrs. There were chawls on the side each having rows of houses sharing walls with others on both sides. each such house would have been around 10ft by 10. I could see 3 or 4 ladies sitting inside and 1-2 hanging outside besides the children baking themselves in the sun. I could see a solitary hand pump, the cemented platform around which served as a open bathing spot for a village adult in full view of all those who cared to see.
5 We wanted to visit the solar pumpset which was to be inaugurated to supply water from below 200 ft to some 26 acre of land. we reached the spot at around 5 pm but found a group of people (nearly the population of the entire village) walking towards a spot very near the solar system, with 2-3 of them carrying what looked like spears. Later i learnt/saw that it was for the pre-marital prayer to thier chief temple/diety (see slide 3). After their modest prayers were over they perhaps ascertained from our guide the purpose of our visit. (Our guide knew the villagers since we had sponsored the project). There was quick confabulation amongst the villagers. They took some time off their routine to give me a ululating welcome (local custom) and performed an impromptu folk dance for me. (see video). Meaning i was told ‘bahooth dhoor se aaye hai our guest; lets welcome him’. Nice of them.
6 On the way we stopped by a hostel schooling tribal children. (see slide 4). I started asking the most grown up looking amongst them (the one to my right and the one in yellow T-shirt). But they were hardly able to speak but were stoic. the care taker intervened to say that it was their first day in the school and where they have come from and circumstances; I had difficulty preserving my tears within the countours of my eyes.
1 The region is poor and crop mainly cotton, hurhur, millets and in some places Rice. Recently they have added tree plantation to their kitty. Area is rain fed which imposes its own limitations.
2 False pride is good: Although efforts from several CSR activities, govt initiatives, etc seem to be on the area is largely illeterate. You can get a sense of what they mean by literacy in the video of SHG group. The men in slide 11 claimed they had done upto class 6 or 7 before dropping out. I doubted both. But on reflection found that kind of ‘false pride’ a welcome sign. It only indicated that thay have accepted that education is a desirable end state and they are craving for a better end state than they currently were in; this desire and higher aspiration is a prime requirement for any development initiative to succeed.
3 Thank God for Hindi: The areas were hardly 12-30 kms from the district headquarters. Imagine that we had not integrated India with one language formula – with every district and sub district speaking different dialect or variations and so much time and effort lost in translation -it would have been a massive waste of national energy. (Thank God we have saved ourselves this much at least due to proper actions on independence). Our politicians have done somethings right.
4 Can Roads and Connectivity alone achieve progress: I have been visiting nearby places for the last decade. The roads have come up very well. Most village roads are concretised. The times on most roads, district, sub district and state highways have become 1/3rd and it is much more certain and lot less damage on your spine and vehicle parts. Communication connectivity has also improved greatly. Most villages have someone or the other with cell phones. The progress in literacy and living standards seem nowhere commensurate with the progress in govt infrastructure. (guess not even 15-20%). We seem to be miscalculating the linkages between the 2. (I am not saying these are not important; but how much they are able to use them at this stage is questionable. Looks like a 25 terminal airport for 2 flight landings a day). Roads in most parts seem ready for the next 25 years. (see the photos).
Government may need to work on assessing the skill levels of each village and work on each village to boost their income. The focus has to be on increasing their ‘marketable surplus’. (elaborated later).
TV in each home (still a pipedream in many villages) and programmes for social change, advisories on agriculture, personal health and hygiene will all serve great purposes.
Gas seems economically misplaced. The payment for Gas goes out of the village system whereas the fire wood they were using was ‘manufactured inside’ the village boundaries. (this needs to be studied and validated)
5 There is great potential in increase in crop yields. Our scientst told me that soil should be so prepared that the loosened soil should just about envelope the aura of the root system. It will enable the root system in absorbing the nutrients and fertilisers without running off. Tight soil wastes them on top and loose ones enable run off. There is different requirements for different plant species but most places in India resort to uniform ploughing. Soil nutrients are different from place to place – may be even within the same village. Fertiliser and nutrients have to be adjusted accordingly. He claimed that such care alone can improve the crop yields (physical or financial) by about 60% in India.
The villagers also require better linkages to the markets (for many of them the universe ends at the village boundaries and their Government is the Village headman). Such increased linkages with partner end user corporates will bring them better technology, softer credit, better information, opportunity to add more value (like sorting and grading, washing and preparing them for markets and these can sometimes be significant 30-40% of mandi values) at village level itself. Government need not relax land ownership rights at all; just more facilitative of contract kind of farming will do.
6 Corruption to me seems a secondary issue in these places. For most of their transaction with the ‘outside’ world they need transactional interpretors who can (and do) take them for a ride in every possible way – be it in religious conversion, NREGA money distribution, freebees from government, etc. It is this that they have to be liberated from first even before corruption.
7 Trapping more income inside is essential at this stage: One of the villages had an electrical repair shop repairing fans, TVs, motors and pumpsets, and lighting earning Rs 4-5k per month. In most other villages this amount is paid to external people. Govt has to analyse such possibilities of retention of income within village as well enhance values of what they sell outside and prepare them for newer activities like vegetable growing, fishing, water harvesting, solar panels, sanitary pads making (may be for a few villages in the nearby areas), poultry and milch cow raising. This requires external help and may be investments. Government can rope in retired civil servants, local students, corporate and wealthy individuals as Village development sponsors and draw up a village level development plans and guide these villages along the path of development. India has just 6,00,000 villages.
8 Compared to what the individuals, NGOs, judiciary and media and voluntary systems have achieved, the work of the government in these areas is so far starkly ahead, at least in the last 10 yrs. The remedy of our constant carp may be redesigning the election systems so that it becomes lot less expensive and faster administration of punishment for political misadvantures. What can u achieve from a justive system which passes judgement on disproportionate wealth accumulation after 20 years and after the person has died). If these 2 can be addressed and we give the politicians some space, perhaps we can make faster progress.
If judiciary and Lawyers can together ensure that delivery is not derailed and delivered within 2-3 months for cirmes, crimes and thefts etc might even vanish. Even Politics will become a lot cleaner. Will our Lawyers accept the challenge. In fact the media should also concentrate on exposing lawyers who delay justice infinitely by misuing their priveleges.
9 India should perhaps have gone for European type co-operative model of corporate existance than English and American type Limited liability company types. We are high social animals and more susceptible to social policing and peer pressures than top down relatively more impersonal legal governance, audit and rules based systems, court trial and punishment systems. social pressures would have achieved the end result at a far reduced cost. (may be, I am foolish, but when no one can prove it otherwise let me take some liberties in being expansive).
(Sorry no videos in this piece)
An edited version of this article appeared in Financial Express today. Link: http://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/note-ban-lesson-from-brazil-best-way-to-demonetise-is-not-to-have-one/472432/
Public policies are best when a lot of reason goes into their formulation and passion into their implementation.Those looking for an effective recipe for formulation could learn a lot from Brazil. It has demonetised its currency 8 times since 1942 and thrice simply knocked off the last 3 digits of its currency overnight i.e. like a 10,000 Cruzeiro (then Brazilian currency) will be 10 Cruzeiro from next day morning.
Lessons from 1830s to 1942.
Even before from 1830s it has been compelled to experiment with its currency due to evolving politics. The early experiments are to do with metallic convertible bases like silver and gold, metallic copper coins, birth of parallel paper money, etc.
In early 1830s in order to stabilise the external value of Mil-Reis (then currency), the centre starved supply of currencies reducing the circulation of copper coins in the provinces. The provinces responded by issuing their own notes to neutralise demonetisation. Promissory Notes issued by Commercial banks valid for 15 days by law began to be accepted far beyond their due dates. (Source: Page 39-43, Monetary Statecraft in Brazil: 1808–2014, Kurt Mettenheim)
Some other time commercial banks were allowed to issue bank notes (like in Hong Kong where currencies were issued by Standard Chartered and HSBC till accession). This led to loss of control of central authority and dilution of monetary policies.
Brazil through its history has clearly proved that no one can ‘starve’ the people of currency for far too long.
This period was mostly about high government expenditure, unbridled fiscal gaps and high inflation. Brazil demonetised 8 times before the last one in 1994.
It has had to change its currency, the ultimate form of demonetization for every conceivable reason – to tackle black money (Indian objective), to tackle hyper inflation, tackle daily cumulating interest rates of 3% (which is nearly 50,000% p.a.), base erosion, commodity price volatilities especially in Copper or just to avoid confusion (if Brazil had retained its currency same as in 1942, it would be 1 US $ = 2750 followed by 18 zeros, a nightmare for the accountants). They have been far deeper than t he Indian type demonetisation – the entire spectrum was replaced and the currency itself renamed.
The last in 1994.
The most recent in 1994 seemed Quixotic. It was aimed more at breaking the psychology of inflation. With 100% inflation consistently for 14 preceding years (in 4 years over 1000%), shops had to revise prices 3 times everyday. That is when the government decided to use two currencies simultaneously – one virtual for counting the real value of currency and another for payments and settlement – and every shop having to display its prices in both and revise it 3 times a day.
But unexpectedly, people started anchoring their values against the real value (which was set near 1 Real Value unit = 1 US$). Within a quarter or so, it was clear people were not rushing any longer to shops to avoid their currency buying less than when they started from home. Inflation abated and the real value became the Real the official unit. It was perhaps one of its most successful experiments that has lasted till date.
Lessons from Brazil
People will seek ways to settle transactions in the most cost and effort efficient ways. For many transactions in much of India, using currencies across the counter is still the most efficient option. In 1970s and 80s, when there was a coin shortage of sorts, Chintamani co-operative superstore in Coimbatore used to issue their own tokens. These slowly gained acceptance with public so much so that even government owned busses and offices used them.
The parallel systems will start issuing notes and IOUs which will be strictly ‘enforced’ amongst its members through extra legal authorities.
One thing Brazil has always got right (between 1942-1994) is to have the 1,2,5,10,20,50,100 note sequence – considered the most friendly from transaction settlement point of view.
Currencies are as much about psychology and convenience as values for accounting and transaction, as the 1994 experiment so decisively proved.
The best way to demonetise is not to have one – avoid inflation, avoid unjustifiable or un-implementable tax systems, and not to issue too much of it anyway. Brazil has about 3% as currency/GDP whereas India’s is11-12%. Government should have incentivised and reduced it by 1% every year rather than force it in one lump.
A parade of demonetisations has not exactly curbed either parallel economy or corruption in Brazil. Corruption and black money is so rampant, their President was recently impeached for corruption, their biggest real estate tycoon is behind bars and may have to spend the rest of life there if not politically rescued.
Why black money or parallel economy, there is a near parallel administration being run by the mafia through drugs, extortion, violent thefts (one murder every 10 minutes i.e 140 a day, down of course from 600 a day not so long ago), etc. none of which will be happening through tax paid cheque money transfers.
In summary Brazil offers 3 ground rules (perhaps not with successful examples as much as negative narratives):
One would definitely give credit to both the government and RBI for curbing state populism within FRBMs. But given the levels of corruption in tax collection systems itself, black money curbing through demonetisation seems an ill fitting solution. Unemployment is rampant and growing due perhaps to highly overvalued Rupee and extra terrestrial real interest rates.
The daily dose of RBI circulars does indicate that someone is extremely alert at the wheel but whether he knows the destination and if it will deliver enough gains for the pains people are experiencing, time alone will tell.
The writer is CFO and author of ‘Making Growth Happen in India’ (Sage Publications)