a Mix of Inflation and devaluation could tame Covid financial losses.

Overcoming Covid created financial crisis with a mix of devaluation and Inflation

V Kumaraswamy

The financial jolt from Covid virus should surely count as 3-sigma event or perhaps even 6-sigma. The global meltdown 2008, East Asian Crisis and Dotcom bubble seem to stand nowhere near this. They didn’t chock the physical economy as much as Covid. While the final loss count would depend on how long Covid continues, assuming it continues till end of September at the very minimum it is likely to shave off our GDP by 10-12% compared to previous year, leave alone the lost growth. That’s is a whopping Rs 20-25 lac Crores. RBI’s recently announced onetime restructuring addresses the liquidity issue but laves open the solvency issue completely open.  

Who should bear the Loss?

There is a huge systemic economic loss during Covid19 and we have to devise the least harmful way to share it between government, business, banks and people.

The Government bearing the losses will amount to about 3-4 years’ fiscal deficit in one go – simply too disastrous to the fiscal health. Government should focus more on revival through new investments and bail out others only to the extent it helps it in its effort of revival: it should limit its support to only the vulnerable sections of people (say income-wise bottom 20%) and firms. It would do well not to aggregate all the losses of private individuals with itself by bailing them out. Where would it load such losses? It ultimately has to load it back on the citizens through GST or Income taxes. The Government should therefore focus on the poor mainly by way of food security and medicare.

Businesses – both big and small – have accumulated a more than fair share of the losses and it will soon transmit to banking system thru credit downgrades. Many of them will become economically viable once the economy gets going, but have to service the additional losses accumulated during Covid period with their existing assets. When this inevitably transmits to the lenders, many a bank will suffer and the financial system might be too debilitated to support the revival investments required.      

We need to find novel ways of spreading the losses over a fairly long time. Examined below is one such measure of using a mix of devaluation and inflation by using forex reserves which is built for extreme contingencies but remains side-lined due to oppressive orthodoxy and perhaps lack of boldness.   

Suggested way by using Forex Reserves

India should de-value its currency by 12-15%. There will be a huge valuation gains on Forex reserves to RBI – may be $ 50-60 Billion in INR equivalent (say 3.5 to 4 lac crores). As law stands today, this unrealised valuation gain cannot be distributed as dividends to Central Government. But if we can be bold like US Fed Chairman and Treasury Secretary during 2008 crisis, and say what is not expressly prohibited is deemed permitted, the gains can facilitate RBI investing an equivalent amount as Equity in banks upto 15%. The banks can be permitted to buy back the equity so issued whenever Banks meet some designated criteria in the next 5-7 years. SEBI norms should be relaxed to facilitate this.

Alternatively, RBI can directly liquidate 10-15% of its forex $ assets and subscribe to the banks’ equity. The level of one year’s imports is too wasteful earning 1-2% returns (much below their costs) and if it is not used at this 6-sigma like crisis, what is its use!  

Use by Banks

This equity to banks can be used to write off (or provision) 10-15% of loans to all MSMEs, Mudra loans, and select other segments the criteria for which can be defined by a reputed committee following of whose directions can absolve the bank officials of any wrong doing and post retirement raids. Alternatively, the interest for one year can be written off for qualifying units – may be for all those who are paying the salaries as evidenced by withdrawals or interest for 12 months from date of restart, thus incentivising restart. The amount so written off can be recovered by hiking interest rates by about 1-2% over the next 5-7 years, enabling the banks to return the equity to RBI.  

Hopefully the Rs 3-4 lac crores write offs if properly targeted will save many bankruptcies. This in turn may save banks thus avoiding chain defaults and degrades both at corporate and bank levels leading perhaps to India country downgrade.

The central government’s efforts for avoiding downgrade by keeping a tight fist on stimulus spends as is seen now, can come to naught if many businesses go belly up leading to bank downgrades. So better to save the situation even if unorthodox.

Thus RBI can front end the losses through valuation gains. Banks can carry the write offs temporarily. And recover through 1-2% additional interest and ½% additional interest towards Covid interest fund. This will compensate the banks for their one time write off and the banks can pay back RBI with the money so recovered, thus completing the cycle over 6-7 years.    

Government has enough firepower to spend its way out of recession

Government is needlessly self-shackled.

V Kumaraswamy

The Government looks like a batsman wanting to play only copy book orthodox shots in death overs of a T20 cricket match. The wherewithal and the government’s ability to spend are far better than when we faced sub-5% growth last. Yet the government seems morally shackled and too ideologically paralysed and unaware of its fiscal strengths.

The virtuous looking dogmas that is sustaining the present pall of gloom are (i) that the fiscal deficit targets given are inviolable and the present situation does not call for any counter cyclical action due to shortcomings in FRBM Act or the Review Committee, (ii) the Inflation Targets (4 +/- 2%) developed by the RBI are a kind of moral or constitutional obligation, (iii) better prices mean better welfare for the people and (iv) the masochist pride over currency values – an overvalued currency is a sign of strength.

The assumptions behind false prides attached of currency values and welfare effect of cheaper prices needs to be shed. But here we will see how despite the vastly superior financial fire power at its disposal, the economy is unable to take benefit of it – rather such inaction seems to be the root cause of the problem. The assumptions concerning fiscal and inflation bounds need to be revisited by more pragmatic economists.

First the monolithic way Inflation targets have been prescribed. It will be tough to find in economic history how a fledgling economy trying to graduate from lower income to low middle contained its inflation at 3-4% or those who grew at 7-8% with such low inflation consistently. Any growth will expand demand which will mostly increase the prices while interacting with an upward sloping supply curve. Even if the current excess capacities, will require better prices to restart. There are no flat supply curve commodities especially with people’s growing quality and brand consciousness. The more the demand growth fuelled by growth in economy the more the inflation is likely to be. To prescribe a 4% central rate and follow it up with hysterical reaction even when the economy gets close to it is a sure way of supressing demand. It appears that over the last 3-4 years the low target of 4% has pulled down our growth rate to 4-5%.

No doubt the poor need protection. But when the same poor is borrowing at 3.5% per month and in some daily loan cases that much for a day, to target interest rates’ closest economic cousin inflation at 4% to protect them seems absurd and ill conceived.

Second, the fiscal deficit targets. The dissent note of the former CEA points out several lacunae in the approach and final recommendations of the recent FRBM review Committee. The report is not comprehensive nor does it deal with appropriate counter measures for various contingencies. The 3% wait either ways before Government can act is far too wide and as the ex CEA points both magnifies over heating and further depresses an economy in distress.

The government has to be complemented for the way it has built the Balance Sheet strengths of the economy but the costs it is paying is too much in current terms. Chart 1 calculates the revenue receipts, expenditure and subsidies as a % to GDP for the period 2008-09 to 2018-19 and compares how these % measure up if 2008-09 is the base year.  As can be seen, revenue receipts of the central government have fallen by 5% but the expenditure has fallen by 20% and subsidies by 32%. Even if the fall in subsidies is due to plugging of leakages, it still means contraction of government expenditure going into private hands. Moral issues aside, it will still have its economic impact. The Central Government’s capital expenditure have moved but in narrow range (albeit downwards) and have not compensated for it. Government’s fiscal rectitude has of course brought down the CG’s debt as % to GDP from 56.1% to 47.8% and the fiscal deficit from a high of 6.46% to 3.34% today. It has been commendable but it has also taken its toll.

The difference between the nominal growth rate (g) and the (nominal) interest rates that the government (r) borrows is an important measure of how sustainable the deficits can be, and ‘g’ is most likely higher than ‘r’. The government’s ability to raise taxes is a function of nominal GDP but it has to pay only ‘r’ to sustain such deficits. But as Chart 2 shows despite our great fiscal restraints, this gap has been on continuous decline, reflecting an unexplained inability to use its strength to bring down yields on government securities.

One reason may be the ‘black’ fiscal deficits – amounts parked outside through extra budgetary resources or instruments issued by CG allied institutions which compete for the same kitty as CG’s debt on eligibility criteria and hence are having their impact. And if there are multiple agencies placing essentially the same instrument, the pricing power of the central government takes a beating. Even if in the short run, it may be irksome it may be more prudent to consolidate the black and white fiscal deficits and manage them as one.

Given its enormous strengths the Government should be bold enough to cast aside (at least for sometime) the needless and contextually out-of-sync inflation and fiscal targets and spend its way to revive the economy. The government can as a first measure raise upto 1-2% of GDP and firstly clear all its pending bills (to NHAI contractors, Fertiliser subsidies and capital expenditure payments for railways and defence) that every Govt does to manage fiscal numbers. Since these expenditures have already been incurred in the past most likely there won’t be inflation from these. The balance can be for newer capital expenditure or paying off state GST dues.

I hope the government overcomes academic impositions with practical actions.

frbm 1

frbm 2

Macro Imbalance and the need for a new framework agreement

My article in Businessline today.

The chorus for reduction of Real interest rates as the panacea for the current economic stall is getting louder. From commentators to administrators to economists that seems the only item in the menu these days.

Interest rates (nominal and real), Inflation, Forex rates and Reserves, Investments, Capital Account convertibility and Foreign Investment Flows (all from the input or causative side) and Growth, Output and Employment on the resultant side are all intricately interconnected. There seems a need to look at things comprehensively and evolve a framework agreement between RBI and the Government reflecting this reality.

Illustration of Inter connectedness and imbalance

People buy things in advance if either it is likely to be costlier in the future when they need it or for de-risking (like Gold and Real estate). But what if the realized prices later consistently prove to be less? Would people still buy upfront or would it indicate some discrepancy? Lets see it in the context of forex rates.

The actual rates post facto have consistently been lower (far lower) than the Forward rates (rates quoted today for $ that will be delivered say 3, 6 months later).

The first one is determined based on the difference in inflation rates and the second one based on difference in nominal interest rates. If the Real Interest Rates are deducted from nominal, then the movement in both should be determined by difference in inflation. This should hold but for changes in outlook and situational factors and the policy induced difference in Real interest rates.

The persistence of actual rate being way less than Forward rate represents a serious imbalance and causes plenty of problems in domestic competitiveness, flow of foreign currency, investment absorptive capacity, etc. For example, if apples (representative of a basket of goods) are selling at Rs 50 in India and $1 overseas, then exchange rate should be ideally 1$ = Rs 50. Say, next year Indian apples have suffered an inflation of 10 per cent and have gone up to Rs 55. But apples overseas have suffered an inflation of 2 per cent and gone up to $1.02. Then the exchange rate should be Rs 55/1.02 = 53.93. But if the exchange rate is kept at say Rs 51, then the Indian exporter will get 1.02$ X 51 = 52.02 Rs /apple while he is able to get Rs 55 selling it domestically. Why would he export? To overcome this, we should allow the Re to correct. This will happen if we match the $ supplies into India with its net imports

Contours of a new framework agreement 

The framework agreement between the Government and RBI should cover all the essential variables not just one or two in isolation. Such an agreement should cover the following.

Limits on Forex Inflows: The inflows should be calibrated to match the absorptive capacity of the economy and its investment needs.  While Capital account convertibility can remain, RBI has to limit the quantum either at total levels or under each major sources of inflow. Reserves are a costly loss making insurance asset (much like Gold in individuals’ hands) whose cost are far more than the difference between interest earned and paid. It has effect on the real economy. The limits can be +/- 1-2% of what is required to plug the CAD or 6 months imports +/- 2 weeks.

Maintenance of Competitiveness: Competitiveness comprises two elements – the physical and the currency. Physical competitiveness comes from technology, scale, skills, IPRs, and natural resource endowments over which neither RBI nor Government may have control. Currency needs to stay competitive which can be achieved only if it floats freely to reflect the inflation differential.

Forex rates: RBI should be mandated to maintain the REER values within 2/3% of Re’s REER value after correcting the massive divergence now on a one-time basis.

Recalibrating REER Values: Again instead of using the general inflation numbers of the countries it should be the inflation of major input costs (including interest costs) of goods and services traded between India and its major trading partners. This basket may keep changing but there are real dangers of monolithic baskets or even currencies as a whole which are governed by many factors other than what determines competitiveness.

Real interest rates – Real interest rates should be mandated to be within 5-10 bps spread over interest rates in competing countries and those investing into India. High real interest rates and overvalued currency may encourage debt flows more than investments in real assets and FDIs.

Inflation: Divergence between estimated actuals and realized actuals after the end of period is difficult to control even for items like Forex rates where almost all participants are educated, trained and hence rational. It becomes even more hazardous in inflationary expectation. It’s time we move on to inflation targets for 3-4 major groups. Food inflation is far more politically sensitive and socially damaging than perhaps white goods or real estate.

Stability of Laws:  The last 4-5 years have seen sudden sharp changes in rules governing provisioning, NPAs, default status, etc. and levels of support to distressed assets even those which are clean but facing stretched cash flows. Changes should factor in reasonable adjustment period.

Quid Pro Quo

If these are corrected, governments should undertake to do the following:

  • To stay within the 3-4% fiscal deficit targets,
  • To smoothen MSP increases based on fundamentals rather than subject to political whims and fancies,
  • To curtail interest declared on mandated savings like PF, PPF etc.,and
  • Not to announce arbitrary minimum wages.

The current economic impasse is arising out of highly overvalued currency, uncompetitive real interest rates, inflows far in excess of absorptive capacity and inflation which looks more western and 1st world’s. The entire burden of causing growth and employment hence falls on the elected Government which has to substitute for the private sector which has been rendered uncompetitive due to these imbalances.

A comprehensive agreement on the above lines would go very far in kick starting growth and employment once again.

Flexibility and Agility are Virtues

Ironically almost a century ago, as the noted economist Irving Fisher in his The Money Illusion quotes Reginald McKenna, Chancellor of Ex-chequer UK as follows: “Since the War, central bank reforms have been instituted in Albania, Austria, Chile, Colombia, Germany, Hungary, …India, Russia, South Africa. In all these countries, except India, not one central bank has copied the Bank Act of England; but with that exception, all have adopted some system which is similar to the Federal Reserve Act” which provides for an ‘elastic currency’… the greater elasticity of the Federal Reserve System (is) the main reason for the higher prosperity of America”.

What was true then of America is true today of China which has proved far more nimble footed and what was true of Bank of England is true of RBI, which treats cast in stone monolithic approach as a virtue.

(The writer is the author of Making Growth Happen in India, Sage Publications).

 

A Contrarian Monetary Policy

Indian industry has been sluggish for a fairly long time, and all our orthodox monetary policies have not been able to make it come alive, grow and deliver employment of any great proportion. Democracy does not seem to be the villain, as much as unimaginative policies. Opportunity costs for experimenting with an alternative policy are very low now, as never before.
The key cornerstones of such a policy would be as follows:

  •  No FDI/FPI or FII targets: Just maintain the rupee within -4%/+1% of REER values. This will be pre-fixed with a one-time readjustment to correct the current overvaluation.
  • No inflation targeting: Target industry/economic activity-specific interest rates based on supply gaps or potential. Debunk general purpose credit measures.
  • Switch from price-based (repo and bank rate) money volumes to volumes-based price (interest rate) discovery.
  • These monetary measures have to be garnished with two fiscal actions—bringing petroleum under the ambit of GST (28%), and aligning all export incentives with the ‘best of ASEAN’ incentive package.

Let’s see how these contrarian measures are better suited to kick-start industrial revival and help in the creation of employment. First, a recapture of changes in business behaviour especially with respect to the main policy tool, i.e. interest rates.

Interest on working capital should count as variable cash costs (marginal cost to economists). An increase across the board for all players would only push up the supply curve and result in inflated prices—quite contrary to the effect desired. In any case, due to advances in communication, payment systems, ‘as and when needed door delivered’ systems, optimisation algorithms in stock keeping, etc, businesses are working with a lot less working capital and some enterprises even on negative working capital.

The ability of long-term interest rates to influence investment decisions is fast dwindling over time. Most of the new economy is funded by equity capital and sweat equity. In conventional manufacturing, gone are the days of 4 or 3:1 debt equity structures. Credit rating agencies frown at 1.5X debt levels now. Investments in new economy areas like Google, Ola, Paytm, IPL, casinos, Reliance Jio and space travel are more an outcome of guts and vision, rather than RoI and IRR-based like automotive sector, consumer products and street corner restaurants. And the new economy’s share in investments is overshadowing that of the traditional economy’s. These have reduced the potency of some of the monetary tools. More savings are also finding their bypass route to investments than through conventional banks and financial institutions, i.e. through private equity, VC, HNI, PMS systems, etc. Interest can affect consumer demand and have some effect on savers conduct, and this could be used for maximum impact.

The Indian context
The general capacity utilisation in industries is stuck at less than 75%—a level that will hardly inspire any investments. A great proportion of consumption growth has been met through imports from more cost-competitive nations. A few relatively better cost-competitive players have seen their capacity utilisation grow to fuller levels.

There are some industries (such as telecom) that have seen investment, but these are largely in the nature of ‘overtaking’ investments, i.e. fresh investments with superior offerings, driving customers away from existing players, thus rendering already standing investments to lower capacity utilisation levels. Some such industries (such as modern retail and banking) have also destroyed jobs through the use of technology.

A contrarian approach
Working capital interest rates for manufacturers with fuller utilisation should discourage stocking. Credit flow for downstream distribution and trade for such industries may be either curtailed using physical norms or prohibitive interest rates. But long-term interest rates should be kept lower to encourage quick capacity additions. Industries which see low capacity utilisation need lower working capital and export-facilitating interest rates, but long-term loan rates should ideally dissuade fresh capacity additions.

Overtaking investments should be mandated to raise a greater proportion of funds through own or equity funds. Besides being risky themselves, they also create systemic risks for all the existing players and their financing banks, and hence the whole industry should be charged risk premiums and far tighter debt/equity targets (<0.5 maybe), which would slow down such investments.

The above clearly indicates a need to junk the current general purpose credit policies and adoption of a sector-specific approach, with working capital and capacity addition loans being priced differently—risk premiums on one end and incentives on the other.

The 2008 meltdown could, in large measure, have been avoided by controlling just one industry—construction and mortgage-backed securitisation. Industry-focused approach produces results faster, is focused on the causes, and avoids unnecessary spillages and unintended harmful side-effects on other industries.

Sticking to the REER corridor of -4%/+1% on a yearly basis will help in competitive (to the rest of the world) inflation anchoring (of traded/tradable goods and services and thus overall), unless, of course, we import a large portion from the Venezuelas of the world. A 4% undervaluation will somewhat neutralise the loss/lack of competitiveness due to our infrastructural bottlenecks, substandard scales and bureaucratic bottlenecks. Such REER targeting will also determine levels of FPI/FII targets and portfolio investments.

Even if we want to anchor inflation, 6% makes sense, but giving the same width on the underside at 2% does not make sense. Any growing economy needs higher inflation and the corridor for an anchor of 4% may even be 4-6%, instead of 2-6%. Or even just 6% maximum, like highway speed limits.

Inflation, interest rates and volume of credit all have their influence on economic activity with varying degrees, with inflation being the least direct and perhaps most loose, and the volume of credit most direct and perhaps more immediate. Moderating through a more direct tool can be more effective. Interest rates can be the resultant, than being a determinant.
Fuel oil has the largest influence for a single item and should perhaps be under the central control of the GST Council, rather than be a matter of political Centre-state slugfest. Proper control of a few such items could moderate inflation to the desired levels. Indian incentives as well infrastructure are way too uncompetitive, and even as physical infrastructure takes time, one can work with export incentives.

Monetary policies increasingly look like wet blankets to suppress high fever. Without redressing the causes, we will only reap the harmful side-effects. Monetary policies do not seem to have rediscovered themselves in the last several decades with advances in behavioural economics, not even business behaviour.

Make in India spoilt by persistent low manufacturing inflation

A Copy of this appeared in Financial Express on 12-03-2018. Link: http://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/make-in-india-delivery-patchy-heres-why-rethinking-is-needed/1094828/

V Kumaraswamy

Make in India is one of the key cornerstones of the current government to raise growth rates and create employment. It has been almost 4 years since the Make in India was launched with much hope and fanfare. The Government has initiated several useful steps and reforms to actualise it. The most recent upgrade in credit rating and 30-odd points jump in Ease of Doing Business will get us some mileage.

But it is clear that the delivery of Make in India is rather patchy. Several reasons have been advanced for its lacklustre show – highly overvalued currency, unfavourable ASEAN FTA, tight and unyielding monetary policies, very high real interest rates, high logistics costs etc. All of them have a degree of truth.

But it has to be recognised that beyond all these, an entrepreneur or corporate will invest only if they get remunerative prices returns are competitive to what the other sectors yield. This last aspect has not been addressed at all by the Government or inflation conscience keepers. Had this single factor been corrected, Make in India would have had a far better report card to show.

Nature of Indian Manufacture

Indian manufacturing is not high tech where heavy engineering, high end electronics, aircraft and space crafts, ship building etc. dominate. It is relatively low to medium grade in its maturity. It has a heavy dominance by industries which prepare or convert produce from agriculture for domestic consumption.

To give a few examples: Textile sector (the biggest industry by employment) is dependent on agriculture for cotton supplies and silk which can account for about 60% of final product costs, Sugar industry on sugarcane, Cigarette on tobacco, Beedi industry on Tendu leaves and tobacco, Vegetable/ cooking oil industry on sunflowers, groundnut, sesame, Food processing industry on wheat, maize, fruits, fish, poultry and Dairy industry on milk. Roughly 40-45% of Indian manufacturing sector depend on agricultural for their inputs. And a few more for inputs from Mining.

It is important to maintain a balance between input and output prices in these sectors and they should ideally move in tandem, if the manufacturing sector has to stay attractive for investments.  In India since agriculture feeds industry and industrial final goods are sold to those in rural and agriculture areas, any persistent imbalance could hurt both.

Our Manufacturing Prices are down 41% since 2004-05 in relative terms.

Terms of trade in international trade means the prices a country gets for its basket of export goods versus what it pays for its imports and how the relative price moves over a period of time. In domestic trade it means how the prices which a sector gets for its output moves in relation to the prices it pays for its inputs from other sectors.

From 2004-5, the terms of trade have been relentlessly moving against Manufacturing. If the manufacturing sector has had to pay 165% more for its key inputs from agricultural sector, it has been able to recover just about 57% from its customers. If Agricultural input prices are taken as the base, the manufacturing sector is getting nearly 41% less today for what it sells to other sectors compared to what it pays for agri inputs. (see Chart)

WIN_20180312_21_17_06_Pro

At one level it helps transfer of income from non agriculture sectors to rural and agriculture sector and thus corrects income skewedness. But a consistent increase of this magnitude has continuously eroded the margins of the manufacturing sector to unattractive and unsustainable levels leading to lack of enthusiasm in investing.

Reasons

Year on year for almost a decade and half, Agri inflation has been more than parity. This has come about by steep and arbitrary increases in Minimum Support Prices (MSP) announced by the Centre for many crops, especially in 2009-10, 10-11, 12-13 and 13-14 possibly due to electoral compulsions (see Table). Although MSPs are restricted to certain crops, farmers tend to gravitate towards higher MSP yielding crops till the yield per hectare for other crops equalises with those under MSP. Thus MSPs impact transmits with a lag on other crops as well. One has witnessed a similar phenomenon in rural wages consequent upon implementation of NREGA.

On the other hand,  ASEAN FTA agreement has more or less put an effective ceiling on the prices that manufacturing can recover for its end products. Free trade has more or less made recovering cost inflation through domestic price increases an impossibility over the years. India’s over-valued currency has played a spoil sport on top of these.

Need for Correction

India’s growth story to continue requires Indian manufacturing to expand and diversify and create employment for those released from rural and agri sector. As the sector saddled with the responsibility of creating jobs for those entering the market, it should be the one which is relatively more attractive. Unfortunately, things are exactly the opposite for the last decade and a half relentlessly.

Ease of doing business can contribute to encourage entrepreneur by making the state machinery less intimidating but it cannot alter the base investment arithmetic of Return on Investments (ROIs).

Year Wise Inflation for Mfg and Agri Products                     (2004-05 = 100)
Year Mfg Inflation Agri Inflation Agri Inflation / Mfg Inflation
2005-06 2.4% 3.4% 140.3%
2006-07 5.7% 8.8% 155.4%
2007-08 4.8% 8.0% 167.0%
2008-09 6.2% 9.9% 160.9%
2009-10 2.2% 13.1% 589.6%
2010-11 5.7% 17.0% 297.9%
2011-12 7.3% 7.8% 107.6%
2012-13 5.4% 10.0% 185.5%
2013-14 3.0% 11.2% 370.7%
2014-15 2.4% 4.7% 195.8%
2015-16 -1.1% 3.4% NA
2016-17 2.6% 5.0% 195.0%

 

The approach announced in the recent Budget for MSP fixation might lend stability and certainty. If the MSPs are linked to the input prices which should include manufactured items like fertilisers, pesticides, seeds, etc. the inflation of manufactured products would have a decisive say in the agri inflation and hence MSPs. They would get inter locked.

Details are awaited on the exact scheme. Even if a margin of 50% is built in (which should take care of imputed interest, rent and profit besides inflation of inputs), it would build some parity and hence rein in persistent deterioration of adverse terms of trade against manufacturing.

Even so the heavy backlog built up since 2004-05 would need to be corrected if manufacturing is to see green shoots again. The States also should have a say in the future FTAs; they should have a choice of what industries and products to offer for free imports and what products to seek exemption from our overseas importers. States should also have a say in the fixation of MSPs.

With Due Apologies to Pensioners

This appeared in Financial Express on 13th December, 2017 http://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/myths-on-pensioners-busted-check-out-the-real-and-false-arguments/971509/

Inflation Proofing Pensioners – the real and the false arguments

V Kumaraswamy

Our tight inflation targeting in the last 6-7 years are sought to be justified on (i) stable prices being a pre-requite for sustained growth and (ii) that pensioners who largely on interest income should be protected. Such targeting is being achieved by RBI through higher interest rates regime. Similar argument is advanced against correcting our over valued currency.

That the pensioners have suffered in the last few years and will suffer heavily if we loosen controls on interest is a big myth at this point in time when coming out of low growth inertia and near nil new employment creation seems so vital.

Have they suffered in recent times?

The main argument is that the pensioners with fixed income will suffer capital erosion through inflation and will have less and less real capital base to earn their future incomes. If interest income remains constant but expenditure keeps going up year on year due to inflation, progressively they will be left with smaller amounts to consume.

Table 1 clearly shows that this argument is clearly overdone in the last 4-5 years. Ever since the 4% CPI inflation target has been articulated and rather doggedly pursued by maintaining higher interest rates, inflation has fallen steeply whereas the interest rates have not traced the same trajectory.

From 2005-06 till 2011-12, the interest on Bank Term deposits were 1.5% more than the WPI inflation and 0.7% less than Consumer Price inflation. Since then, interest earners have had it good and the interest rates have been more than both – by a whopping 5.6% over WPI and 1.5% over Consumer Inflation.

 

Table 1: Interest Rates and Inflation – Pre & Post 2012
Period WPI Inflation @ Inflation Consumer Prices # Interest on Term deposits @
Ave 2005-06 to  2011-12 6.6 8.8 8.1
Ave since 2011-12 2.3 6.4 7.9

Source: @ from RBI; # from World Development Indicators.

But why the all-round feeling of being left out by the Pensioners now as the social media would have us believe when in real terms their income is 3 times compared to the period before 2012. In the years since 1991 except for a brief period between 1998 to 2002 asset prices have always been going up, in many years faster than inflation. When there is asset price inflation there is the wealth effect which makes us feel wealthier and prone to spending more, as articulated by economists. But once again in the last 3 years, real estate prices have hardly gone up. Without this illusory wealth effect backing, pensioners may be feeling poorer off.

Class of Interest Earners and Pensioners

People in agriculture tilling the land are unlikely to be living on interest income. They till as long as they can and then reply on family as the social security net on reverse mortgage of sorts – family supports them on the understanding that on death, his property will pass onto them. This is 50-60% of rural population. Landless labour are unlikely to be hit due to interest rate variations; they would need a safety net of a different kind. Non- farm rural labour is unlikely to be living off bank deposits.

People who are largely living on interest income are most likely urban or middle class. Most of them hedge their bets and have houses, gold etc. as safety nets and only a portion of their savings is in interest bearing instruments.

Amongst these are retired Government employees, whose pension is adjusted for inflation from time to time if they have been in service before 2004. They are a substantial proportion among pensioners. Those who joined after 2004 are unlikely to have retired by now.  Those who are most likely sufferers are those who retired from private service. Let’s see what proportion these are.

The total term and savings deposits of the banking system as of Sept 2017 is about Rs 114 lac crores and with the MF, Small savings and Public deposits it would be about Rs 130-135 lac crores, which is about 80% of our GDP. The comparative figures for US is more than 150%.  At an average rate of 6.6% this would give an income of Rs 8.91 lac crores or 5.5% of GDP.

From the above, we have to deduct the interest accruing to people still in service and Government pensioners. The income accruing to those who are surviving on interest alone is likely to be less than 2% of population.

Effect of Currency Devaluation

One of the strident and stubborn arguments against correction of our overvalued currency is that it will lead to inflation and hurt the interest of pensioners. The Urjit Patel Committee has summarised the several studies (see Table 2) on India estimating the inflation over the short term and the long term from a 10% movement in Rupee versus USD. With the singular exception of Ghosh and Rajan, the resultant incremental inflation (from currency alone) is likely to be 0.6% in the short term to about 1.5% over the long term. This is hardly worth the scare given the real income of pensioners have risen 3 times since 2012.

 

Table 2: Impact from 10% Depreciation of Re vs US $
Author Period Covered Short Term Inflation Long Term inflation
Khundrakpam (2007) 1991 – 2005 0.5% in WPI 0.90%
Kapur and Behera (2012) 1996 – 2011 0.6% in WPI 1.20%
Patra and Kapur (2010) 1996 – 2009 0.5% in one qtr WPI 1.5% in 7 qtrs
Patra et al (2013) 1999 – 2013 1.5% before 2008 crisis 1% after Crisis – WPI
Ghosh and Rajan (2007) 1980 – 2006 4.5%  to 5% in CPI  
Bhattacharya et al (2008) 1997 – 2007 1% – 1.1% in CPI 0.4% to 1.7% in CPI
Source: RBI – Urjit Patel Committee Report

 

Pensioners Vs Job Seekers 

Should our monetary system be so sensitive to such a small proportion of GDP and the group of people behind that (less than 2%). A 2-3% drop in interest rate in line with inflation would help the investment climate substantially especially in utilising capacities lying idle. The number of new job seekers is about 0.75 – 1% of total population each year.  For years on end the job creation has suffered and they will far outnumber Pensioners and its time their aspirations are also met.

Deposits till death.

If term deposit interest rates spread inflation had been same post 2012 (as between 2005/6 to 2012), Banks would be now saving Rs 164,000 crores on the incremental deposits of Rs 40-odd lac crores. If similar reduction had accrued on Central Government’s net additional borrowings, it would be an additional Rs 74,000 crores. These amounts saved would be sufficient to take care of those who purely depend on interest for survival.

The real sufferers can be taken care of by special deposits which can yield 2 % over CPI inflation s.t minimum of 5%. The deposits can be on joint names of spouses and on death of the latter to die, the deposits can be given over to the designated nominees after deducting tax. If prematurely withdrawn by depositors, the interest can be recalculated as per past prevailing interest rates and the balance of deposit paid to the depositor. Those who are entirely dependent on interest alone could be easily taken care through this mechanism from the potential savings as earlier estimated.

The writer if CFO of JK Paper and Author of Making Growth Happen in India (Sage).   

 

Shape of Economy – Interview with CFO Magazine

 

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

Is it Time to rework our Monetary Policy Framework?

http://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/what-should-rbi-give-weightage-to-decide-policy-rates-all-you-want-to-know/941225/

My article with the title above (different in title between the Print version and e-paper version) appears in Financial Express today.

 

The government seems to be in a bit of bind over both employment and growth, not for all its as own making. One of the chief contributory to this morass is the inappropriate way the objectives of our monetary policy have been fixed or evolved over the last 6-7 years. The Chart shows clearly the increasing misalignment between the inflation, external value of Rupee (as reflected by REER) and the interest rates caused by the recent shifts in our monetary policy. The Chart uses the WPI instead of the new found CPI which is 57% out of control of RBI’s policies as the report itself admits.

Two main components as it operates in our Monetary Policy Framework are (i) to target a consumer price inflation of 4% with a tolerance of 2%. Both the variable and its levels are recent developments, and (ii) to aim at orderly conduct of the forex markets without seeking to target any particular rates.

Fundamental flaws

Firstly, in both these, the targets are fixed without reference to any end goals in mind. As if these are desirable self-actualising end-goals in themselves. In economics everything is interconnected – inflation, interest rates, growth, employment, productivity, cost competitiveness, etc. To seek a deterministic nominal goal in a web of influences looks naïve at best.

Secondly, the objective that the economy desires to achieve may vary depending upon the stage of growth. It can vary for the same economy from time to time. For EU it is kick-starting growth now, for China is to stabilise it at a high rate, for Japan it is to grow – any growth – even if very low by international standards. For US it was achieving any growth after the meltdown but now slowly crossing over to stabilising inflation. A nominal fixed target does not address these contextual concerns.

Thirdly, economics is mostly about balance and trade-offs between what in general are opposing interests – buyers and sellers, producers and consumers, workers and producers, savers and investors, inflation and growth and so on. One isn’t sure how a nominal deterministic inflation number can work towards an optimal or at least desired equilibrium between savers and investors, between domestic investments and imports at all times even in the medium term.

Lastly, as is explained below, there is excessive and suicidal reliance on the nominal rather than real variables, which is what may be causing the current problem.

No basis

There seems no theoretical basis for the inflation targeting or its levels – not from IMF, not from Basle norms which aims at financial stability or RBI. While nothing can be exact about economics and hence a band is necessary for targets, a 2% tolerance on 4%, is like permitting Usain Bolt to run on his track or the adjacent tracks on either side and the penalties for trespass being imposed 2 Olympics away.

Just orderly movement of forex rates is no policy. When it is clear that it has a significant impact on domestic capacity utilisation, jobs and growth to just aim to only curb the volatility but not be concerned with the values is naïve shirking, much like driving without violating any traffic guidelines or speed limits but towards a wrong destination. By keeping the currency over valued for far too long (over a decade now), we are re-creating conditions of 1991 crisis.

Way forward

Keynes had brought out the true nature of the real and the nominal economy, the rigidities exhibited by the real and how to tweak it by using the nominal to achieve real goals. The current constant 4% inflation (nominal) target can in no way balance the interests between savers and investors, forever. The government should move to a 2% +/- 0.25% real interest rate regime. Whether the inflation is 4% or 9%, such a real interest spread of 2% will be a fair compensation to savers. It will also not curb investment urges if what investors have to pay out is in line what they recover from the market through inflation in prices. This is a sort of inflation proofing both savers and investors.

Such a floating nominal interest (but largely fixed real interest rates) regime will largely ensure that fresh investments and savings do not grind to a halt.

But the existing outstanding stock of savings are in fixed nominal interest regime, which poses problems. It is therefore necessary to move to a floating nominal rate regime and increase its proportion. In the last few years, Bank loans have largely become floating rate with optional repayment and a significant progress has been achieved. It is necessary to increase the proportion of floating rate bank deposits from the savers side as well.

The second thing that is capable of derailing growth and employment in an open economy is the forex rates. An overvalued currency makes imports cheaper, exports far less remunerative which affects domestic employment and growth. A 20-22% overvalued currency as on date is a killer. Government should mandate RBI to walk it along in an orderly manner along the real values. RBI and Government should agree to maintain exchange rates within a band of 97 -103 REER. This REER should be calculated on a base year that is sound when most economic parameters (CAD, fiscal deficit, inflation, growth, etc.) are as close to our desired objective. As it stands now, 2004-05 is one such year. The government should also tailor its inward investment policies accordingly and the degree of capital account convertibility tuned appropriately.

Currently policy rates it appears are decided mostly or solely on inflationary expectations. This can result in fear mongering. In deciding the policy rates, perhaps the actual for the past 2 quarters should be given equal weightage.

By moving to the real from the nominal on both interest and forex accounts, we may have learnt the right lessons from Keynes. Excessive reliance on the nominal on both accounts have made India underperform its potential in the last 4-5 years.

 

 

Way to kick start economy – Currency Devaluation or Fiscal Stimulus?

An edited version has appeared in Financial Express on 13 Oct 2017

Currency Correction or Fiscal Stimulus?

V Kumaraswamy

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).

How high Real Interest Rates can trip Modi in 2019

this artcile of mine has appeared in Financial express today (29/sept, 2017). Link below.

http://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/here-is-what-can-trip-narendra-modi-in-general-elections-2019/875051/

Unedited Version:

RBI’s Interest Rates can trip Modi in 2019

V Kumaraswamy 

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))