Indian Money & Credit
First published in The Sunday Statesman, August 6 2006, Editorial Page Special Article, www.thestatesman.net
One rural household may lend another rural household 10 kg or 100 kg of grain or seed for a short time. When it does, it expects to receive back a little more than the amount lent ~ even if that little amount is in services or in plain goodwill among friends or neighbours. That extra amount is “real interest”, and the percentage of its value relative to the whole is the “real rate of interest”. So if 10 kg of grain are lent for two weeks and 11 kg are returned, an implicit real rate of interest of 10 per cent has been paid over that short period. The future is always less valuable than the present in the sense that 10 kg of grain today is worth something more than the prospect of the same 10 kg of grain tomorrow.
But loans may be made in terms of money rather than real units of grain, thus the change in the value of money over the period of the loan becomes relevant. If a loan of Rs 100,000 is made by a bank to a borrower for one year at a simple interest rate of 13 per cent per annum, and the value of money then declines at 8 per cent over the year, the debtor is paying real interest of just about 13 per cent-8 per cent = 5 per cent. The Yale economist Irving Fisher described how this monetary rate of interest equals the real rate of interest plus the rate of monetary inflation, while the great Swedish economist Knut Wicksell predicted inflation if the monetary rate fell below the real rate, and vice versa.
And there is another consideration too. A new cycle-rickshaw costs about Rs 5,000. A rickshaw driver who does not own his own machine has to pay the owner of the rickshaw a fixed rental of about Rs 15 per day. Now a government policy may want to see more cycle-rickshaw drivers owning their own machines, and allocate bank-credit accordingly. But some fraction of the drivers are alcoholics and hence are bad credit-risks, while others are industrious, have strong family lives and are good credit-risks. If a creditor is unable to distinguish between who is an alcoholic and who is not, credit terms will tend towards subsidising the alcoholic and taxing the industrious.
On the other hand, a creditor who knows each debtor individually will also know their credit-risks, and price individual loans to them accordingly. India’s credit markets, both rural and urban, have been segmented always into “formal” and “informal”, and remain so despite (or perhaps because of) much government intervention in recent decades.
Banks and the Reserve Bank of India operate in formal financial markets, but the informal credit market is where the real action is. For example, a mosaic-machine used in the construction business costs Rs 15,000 brand new and gets to be rented out at the rate of Rs 150 per day.
Someone with access to formal sector bank loans at say 13 per cent per annum, might borrow the Rs 15,000, buy a machine, rent it out, break-even within a few months and make a whopping profit afterwards. Everyone would thus hunger after subsidised formal sector bank loans, and these would be rationed quickly and then come to be allocated to people known to bank officials (like their own friends and relatives).
Rates of return on capital, i.e. real profits, are and always have been massively high in India, and that is what is to be expected because capital, both machinery and finance, is relatively scarce as a factor of production. Rates of return on labour, i.e. real wages, are on the other hand relatively low in India thanks to our vast population. For these reasons we have had for three centuries foreigners coming to India to invest their capital in enterprise and make a profit, while Indians have emigrated all over the world from Fiji to Britain to America in search of higher wages.
Now all of this is very elementary reasoning well known to serious monetary economists, yet it seems to have always escaped India’s monetary and fiscal decision-makers. For example, just the other day, the Finance Minister said in Parliament that all rural banks had been instructed to lend farmers credit at a 7 per cent (monetary) rate of interest, and failure to do so would lead to punishment. By the rickshaw example (in fact many cycle-rickshaw drivers are also marginal farmers), the FM did not wish to, and of course cannot in practice, distinguish between good and bad credit-risks among the recipients of such loans. If the value of money is declining by, say, 8 per cent per annum, a 7 per cent monetary rate is equivalent to a minus 1 per cent real rate. i.e., the FM would have done some Humpty Dumpty economics and caused the future prospect of holding Rs 1,000 tomorrow to be more and not less valuable than the certainty of holding Rs 1,000 today. It is inevitable there will be credit-rationing when credit is so massively subsidised, so the typical borrowing farmer will get some little fraction of his credit-needs at the official government price of 7 per cent per annum and then have to get the bulk of his credit-needs fulfilled in the informal market ~ at a price perhaps of 1 per cent-5 per cent PER DAY! The FM promising in his Budget to subsidise farm credit sounds nice on TV but may be wholly futile as a way of stopping farmers’ suicides.
The same kind of Humpty Dumpty monetary economics has been religiously pursued by the Reserve Bank of India for decades upon directions from its owner and master, the Finance Ministry ~ which in turn has always meekly followed the dictates of India’s unreasonable politicians of all parties. Formal sector interest rates in India have been for decades so artificially lowered that even if we use official figures measuring inflation, this leads to real interest rates being lower in capital-scarce India than in the capital-rich West! (See graphs). Negative or near-zero real interest rates in India’s formal financial sector coexisting with massively high profit rates in informal credit markets point to continuous processes of low risk profits being made by arbitrage between the two. That is why the organised private and public sectors seem so pleased with official credit policies ~ while every borrower in the informal credit markets always has suicide not far from his/her mind.
Other than Dr Rangarajan who once mentioned it, we have never had an RBI Governor who has wished to see the Reserve Bank of India constitutionally independent of the Government of the day, and hence dedicated to restoring the integrity of India’s money. Playing with the repo rate or other short term monetary rates is fun and makes the RBI think it is doing something as important as the US or UK central banks. Certainly the upward trend in such short term rates over the last few months is better than the nonsensical flip-flops previously. But it is small potatoes compared to the really giant variables which are all fiscal and not monetary in India. For example, Sonia Gandhi (as advised by another naturalized Indian, Jean Drèze, disciple of the Non-Resident Amartya Sen) insisted on a massive “Rural Employment Guarantee”; Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjee have insisted on massive foreign weapons’ purchases and government wage increases; Praful Patel on massive foreign aircraft purchases; Arjun Sengupta on Scandinavian welfare benefits; Montek Ahluwalia on nuclear reactor purchases (so South Delhi will be able at least to run its ACs in 20 years’ time). All this adds endlessly to the stock of government paper being held as bank-assets, while the currency remains inconvertible (See e.g. The Statesman 30 October 2005, 6-8 January, 23 April 2006).The RSS/BJP and JNU/Left have been equally bereft of serious thought.
Tell any suicidal farmer that the Government of India has been borrowing larger and larger amounts every year just to pay intereston previously incurred debts; it may make him realise there are famous and powerful people who are even more unwise than himself and amount to effective suicide-prevention therapy. But do not tell him that they unlike himself have been playing with public money ~ or you may have the opposite effect.