For the Poor Interest Rates are more a function of Culture; not arithmatics

https://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/a-poor-understanding-of-monetary-policy/1234554/

For much of poor – rural or urban – in many parts of the world, interest rates are not a monolithic price point balancing demand and supply of credit with variations mainly (if not solely) for credit risks and time duration.

Poor people have been observed to keep currencies for safe custody without any compensation with the same wealthy lender from whom they have borrowed money at  usuary rates of interest. This seems irrational but is compelling to the poor to ensure cashflows for upcoming events like marriage, funeral, school admission, or sowing. This perhaps addresses their ‘fear’ against an irresponsible husband or ‘lack of self control’ over competing short term spending itches.

Nothing can explain so many irrational practices (as formal system sees them) in South Africa surrounding funeral finances. A decent funeral is a matter of prestige and social standing (ranks perhaps number 1 in their Maslows hierarchy) and consumes about half/full years income. Years of zero interest (or even paying safe keeping fees), deposits with funeral societies defeats arithmatic rationality but addresses anxieties on maintaning social prestige.

As the book Portfolios of the Poor reports, moneylenders to the poor almost always collect interest rates in advance and don’t refund proportionate portion for unutilized period on any prepayment. Yet just to feel relieved from the burden/shame of indebtedness the poor pay up most loans ahead of time thus increasing the ex post interest rates by several % points – irrational arithmatic wise but rational mental relief wise. The book also observes practices where people borrow expensive monies leaving savings accounts intact due to a silo (usewise) mentality.

Just no commentator or official have understood the ‘Rs 10.50 in the evening for Rs 10 in the morning’ small trade finances. Simple arithmatic tells us it is more than 1800% per annum even without compounding. But the money lender apart from running counter party risks also knows the purpose and can get into such business himself or set up someone else who can. So why should he not get to share the spoils with the trader. In that sense it is more a share in the joint venture profits not interest. Its just dividends with a Cap in treasury managers parlance.

Surely in the ladder of social shame, borrowing ranks somewhere sub-ordinate to other social compulsions (gifts and donations in marriages, funerals, festivals, religious functions, etc), medical emergencies etc. Otherwise they wont be borrowing. Borrowing for economic purposes like for sowing, cattle buying, houses etc. may be justified on rational grounds. If Governments want the poor to become rational, they may have to invest a lot in social education and training to move up indebtedness and make other non economic needs less shameful than borrowing.

In fact this sense of indebtedness and shame from failures to meet obligations and social policing have induced repayment discipline amongst the poor. This is a great social collateral which the formal systems refuse to recognise or promote.

Most poor cannot count; even if they can, most don’t

Many studies indicate that in their decision on when to borrow, from whom (for some loans from next door neighbour is preferred, for some relatives but some other purposes it is considered shameful to borrow from them), and when to repay or prepay, the arithmatic of interest rates weighs far lower as compared to a rational person. Culture, social customs, peer pressure, shame and fear, family pressures decisively overshadow the arithmatic.

Thus when the RBI’s appointed committee put caps on the interest rates charged by MFIs as the main weapon to deal with some events in the erstwhile combined Andhra Pradesh, it only betrayed its lack of understanding of the financial culture of the poor. The arithmatics of interest rate may work better for formal systems, between banks and financial markets, in cities and amongst the rich and heavily banked but not amongst the poor.

The poor levels of financial integration and inclusion in india is the result of this lack or refusal to understand the culture. RBI (or its equivalent monetary authorities) should stop their colonising mindset: they should not  supplant the financial culture by dictating the price, acceptable instruments and institutions. Formal form over substance KYC’s can never match the KYC of the local moneylender whose self interest is locked in with his customers fortunes.

Establish the role of money first before seeking policy effectiveness

Before trying to establish the suzerinity of its policies over the rural and poor India, RBI should first establish the hold of our currency (Rupee) on the poor. For some of more important functions of money the poor trust its surrogates more. Gold (cows in Swaziland or cattle in many parts of Africa) has much more dominance in store of value function of money and to a limited extent even in liquidity and transaction demand. Policies and schemes about Gold over the years have been rather unimaginative. The high levels of informal economy does not help either.

Some aspects of the financial culture of the poor described above also come out of fear and anxieties, cashflow uncertainties, ill timed arrival of cultural exigencies, etc. These can be overcome to a large degree by appropriate insurance whose penetration is very poor now. Proper insurances on various cashflow risks that the poor face, will release a lot of gold and make the poor adopt a more ‘rational’ and self-optimal practices.

Indian authorities should subsume the existing system into its network by refinancing money lenders and accepting social collaterals, finance Nidhis and Chit funds, etc.; instead they erect barriers against such practices on institutions which seek to use the available conducive social infrastructure.

We should of course continue to educate the poor communities about the arithmatics so that wherever possible the poor could act rationally, including proper search of alternatives in their own ‘irrational’ markets.

A regulator who fails to have a grip of the market culture, market practices or interact with its participants continuously to gather market intelligence and spot any significant trends and shifts, is bound to falter. East Asian societies like Indonesia (as spread out), Malaysia, Vietnam (as dense as India) have not tried to supplant the local systems but have sensibly allowed them to co-exist and serve their societies.

 

Responsible Recovery of NPAs

Treating all debtors the same, including those with scope for turnaround, is bad for banks and the economy

There can be no doubt that banks need to go after the non-performing assets (NPA) vigorously so that the moral hazard of wilful default does not get hard-coded into the DNA of borrowers.

Banking thrives on the delicate psychological infrastructure of public confidence. One should also bear in mind that one of the most essential ingredient of growth is risk-taking capacity and entrepreneurial zeal.

The current hysteria being created by media and the sudden near-choking actions of the RBI towards NPA recovery seem to overlook the fact that we need a balanced approach to recovery even while preserving the above two.

Reasons for bad loans

The current stock of NPAs is the result of court actions of cancellation of licences, government not keeping its word on contractual obligations, global commodity price movements, low equity base in India, irrational exuberance in sanctions and a lackadaisical approach in the past, free-trade agreements (FTA), a sudden sinking of the growth table from 8-9 per cent to 6-7 per cent with services taking a greater share, etc.

Of these, the Asean FTAs have played a large part in pushing many units to involuntary defaults. According to one estimate, when all ASEAN countries implement their FTA commitments with India, India’s exports to them are supposed to increase by 21 per cent while India’s imports from them was slated to increase by 59 per cent (C.Sikdar and B. Nag, 2011,Impact of India-ASEAN FTA).

Surprisingly, Asean FTA, effective January 2010, remained largely unnoticed till the last leg. When the import duties on many end products became zero per cent from 2.5 per cent in 2014, it became a tipping point for the media, traders, and even the overseas exporters.

The cumulative lag in its impact weighed in heavily all too suddenly. This put the domestic manufacturing industry’s prices on import parity and several industries became uncompetitive or saw their margins shrink. In any case their ability to pass on input cost inflation became restricted. Due to this, the growth rate in several Indian manufacturing sector has sharply come down from 7-9 per cent to 3-4 per cent. This has elongated the pay back of several projects from 6-7 years to 10-12 years.

A moderated approach

Banks should carefully segregate stressed credits into (a) where Return on Capital Employed (ROCE) is still more than Cost of Capital (COC). This would indicate that the credit is still viable but less liquid than earlier planned, and (b) where ROCE is less than COC, where the feasibility itself in question.

In case of (a) the RBI should allow one-time re-scheduling of loans in line with the revised economic assumptions and the elongated paybacks, with adjustments in credit spreads, but without strangulating either the clients or banks by provisioning.

Such cases should not be reckoned as NPA in view of the general objective of maintaining a conducive atmosphere for investment. They should not be allowed to erode the confidence in our banking system and preserve the capital base of banks.

Most of current stipulations seem more appropriate for Type (b) cases. The combined might of the legal system (with its slothful, apologetic approach) and existing regulations is the weakest in cases involving immoral and wilful defaults. Immediately after the crisis of 2008, it was found that the CEOs and traders of investment banks had appropriated for themselves huge bonuses from questionable practices and structures.

The Swiss and the Swedish authorities, instead of protracted legal battles, arm twisted them to pay up a substantial part of their ill gotten gains, threatening them with the might of the State which yielded optimum and quick results.

Given that the top 60-70 cases would cover nearly 80-85 per cent of our current NPAs, the regulator, the government and the banks might do well to take lessons from such an approach and jointly ‘arm twist’ a settlement.

This approach might involve transfer of ownership in Type (b) cases to others in the industry who have competitive strengths in manufacturing, technology or distribution to make a less viable unit to fully viable one. Central Banker should have ideally asked for easy exit norms including the court procedures, automatic transfer of licences and permits instead of just concentrating on provisioning alone.

Banks should also agree on norms for lending for takeovers and mergers which is taboo as of now at least for cases involving share purchase, even if the acquirer has to pay for liabilities simultaneously.

Overly cautious approach

The contrasting approaches of the Fed to 2008 crisis as against the current scene in India is interesting. The 2008 crisis was caused by individual excesses and born of instruments created by outlandish models.

Professional excesses were writ all over and unjustified transfers of wealth humongous. Yet their approach was to save the system and public confidence and many of the sins were forgiven or forgotten, despite the effectiveness of their legal system.

Our strangulating approach of ‘one prescription whatever the diagnosis’ seems destined to manufacture a crisis out of what is at worst a matter of serious concern. This, when an accommodative monetary policy is the need of the hour, with the bulk of the economy and manufacturing sector struggling and growth and employment addition far below potential.

The excesses of strangulation can be gauged in the light of the equity that RBI holds in relation to its total balance sheet size. RBI’s ratio in this regard is the second highest in the World at 32 per cent (next only to Norway at more than 40 per cent).

The same stands at a mere 2 per cent for the US and UK. There is a clear case for a more nuanced and segmented approach, appropriate solutions for each class of cases, besides of course a re-look at the real interest rates which are at historic highs for many sectors, stubbing out any entrepreneurial spurs in the affected sectors. The high equity component in the balance sheet should be a source of comfort and assurance of the system; unfortunately RBI does not seem to know its strengths.

An edited version of this was published on March 28, 2016 in The Hindu Businessline. Link: http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/going-overboard-on-npa-recovery/article8406146.ece