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.

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).

Exchange rates — REER logic may be unsustainable

The Hindu Businessline

Perhaps the most sustainable `pricing policy for dollars’ (to rename exchange rate policy) will be that based on `transaction cost’ adjusted PPP. `Transaction costs’ here include the transport and insurance costs, costs of inventory, hidden costs of differential controls and restrictions, labour law and other legal rigidities, lax administration and infrastructure, and, of course, the inertia of the people to migrate, or change their consumption habits. Maybe it is time we moved away from managed pegs and managed REERs.

http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/bline/2003/02/21/stories/2003022100030800.htm