First published in slightly abbreviated form as “A scam in the making” in The Sunday Statesman April 1 2007, Front page comment
A gigantic financial scheme is in the making. Will it come to be seen in future years as having been in fact a scam – indeed India’s scam of the 21st Century for which India’s unknowing masses will be made to pay for many generations? The scheme is mind-boggling in size as well as its sheer audacity. Bofors, Quattrochi etc amount to peanuts in comparison.
No less a personage than the Finance Minister of India, P Chidambaram, has openly praised the potential of this financial scheme. And he has done so in no less an open and transparent place than his latest Budget Speech to Parliament last February.
It is a scheme openly advocated and currently being developed by our Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s closest acolytes, Planning Commission head Mr Montek Singh Ahluwalia and HDFC head Mr Deepak Parekh, in collaboration with Reserve Bank Governor Dr YV Reddy and the Finance Ministry’s top bureaucrats. The PM himself has come close to endorsing it explicitly. And this PM is not an elected member of the Lok Sabha but holds office and acts as the executive agent of the UPA Chairperson and Lok Sabha Member from Rae Bareilly, Sonia Gandhi.
I hasten to add nobody in the BJP has objected to this financial scheme — in fact had the BJP been in power today instead of Congress, they would have been likely even more agreeable to the scheme given their close proximity to business lobbies and organized capital. As for the Communists, none of their JNU economics professors is technically competent enough to comprehend or recognize what is going on.
The scheme involves private companies “borrowing” India’s foreign exchange reserves from the Reserve Bank of India, allegedly for purpose of “infrastructure” creation — in collaboration with the American bank Citigroup, the American financial business, Blackstone Group, and possibly the American giant, GE Capital too. Mr Chidambaram took the unprecedented step of naming Mr Deepak Parekh as well as Citigroup and Blackstone in the text of his Budget Speech.
To begin to comprehend the nature of this scheme, we need to recall an earlier case.
Foreign exchange reserves of countries typically include foreign currency holdings as well as gold stocks. One of the biggest Wall Street scams of the 1980s-1990s involved private companies borrowing not countries’ foreign currency reserves but their gold reserves.
In that scam, it was not the Reserve Bank of India that was cheated but the Central Banks of Poland, Malaysia, Portugal and Yugoslavia. The New York financial company involved was a subsidiary of the Drexel Burnham Lambert Group. The Drexel parent went bankrupt on February 13 1990 and its subsidiary followed on May 9 1990.
A report on June 4 1990 by Leah J. Nathans (now Leah Nathans Spiro) in New York’s highly respected Business Week magazine said: “Central banks, those pillars of monetary virtue, lost $219 million ($21.9 crore) to an obscure commodities subsidiary called Drexel Burnham Lambert Trading Corporation”. The sum was small by American standards but it was “a big, big number” for the countries involved at the time.
What had these national central banks done? They had been lured into becoming greedy. They had been sitting on stocks of gold as part of their national reserves which they felt “just collect dust”. So they yielded to the temptation offered by the Drexel subsidiary of leasing the gold to private parties.
In Ms. Nathans’ words, “By leasing gold, a central bank earns a modest interest rate, ranging from less than 0.5% to 2.5%. Typically, the central bank consigns the gold to a dealer – say, for 90 days. The dealer can then lend the gold to a customer, at a higher interest rate. It may be a speculator, who hopes to repay the borrowed gold when the price falls, or a gold mine that wants to repay the broker with gold produced later.”
But the Drexel parent and subsidiary went bankrupt through bad financial decisions. Drexel’s Michael Milken went to jail. The Central Banks of Poland, Malaysia, Portugal and Yugoslavia were left empty-handed – and had to sue as creditors in New York’s courts trying desperately to get back the gold they had been lured into parting with. It would be unwise to take bets on how much of their gold they ever got back.
All the present PM’s men — Messrs Chidambaram, Ahluwalia, Parekh, Reddy et al in collaboration with one or two American financial companies – now have a scheme that will use not the RBI’s gold but its foreign currency reserves.
Mr Ahluwalia and Mr Parekh have made the outlandish claim that “India needs US$320 billion” (US 32,000 crore) by way of “investment for physical infrastructure” during the so-called “Eleventh Five-Year Plan”. (How many so-called “Five Year Plans” is India going to have incidentally? We had our “First Plan” when Manmohan Singh was a student at Punjab University. Stalin, who invented the “Five Year Plan”, died during that time, and even his old USSR has ceased to exist, let alone its “Five Year Plans”.)
That vast amount of “investment for physical infrastructure” is what Mr Ahluwalia says he knows India needs for his purported “9% growth rate” to be achieved. Where are the macroeconomic models and time-series data sets from him or his friends to back such assertions? There are none. None of the PM’s men, no one in the Finance Ministry or RBI or Planning Commission, nor any of their JNU economics professor friends or anyone else in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata etc have any such models or data with which to back such assertions. Nor do the World Bank etc. It is all sheer humbug – all a lie. It is part of the mendacity and self-delusion that our capital city has been floating upon.
In any event, the RBI reportedly has “opposed the idea of deploying forex reserves for infrastructure development on the grounds that it will create monetary expansion”. But Mr Chidambaram’s Finance Ministry owns the RBI, and the Ministry has said “the RBI’s concerns had been taken care of, as the investments would be deployed only through a structured mechanism”. (Business Standard 23 March 2007, p. 3)
What is a “structured mechanism”? Mr Chidambaram, mentioning Citigroup and Blackstone Group specifically, said in his Budget Speech that Mr Deepak Parekh has “suggested the establishment of two wholly-owned overseas subsidiaries of India Infrastructure Finance Company Ltd with the following objectives: (i) to borrow funds from the RBI and lend to Indian companies implementing infrastructure projects in India, or to co-finance their External Commercial Borrowings for such projects, solely for capital expenditure outside India; and (ii) to borrow funds from the RBI, invest such funds in highly rated collateral securities, and provide ‘credit wrap’ insurance to infrastructure projects in India for raising resources in international markets. The loans by RBI to these two subsidiary companies will be guaranteed by the Government of India and the RBI will be assured of a return higher than the average rate of return on its incremental investment.”
You do not understand? Well, no one is supposed to. The most exquisite thievery occurs after all not in darkness but in broad daylight with everyone watching but no one able to see or comprehend anything. So let us return to elementary first principles.
What are foreign exchange reserves and why do countries hold them? It is quite simply answered. Consider the USA and Canada, each with its own dollar. Canadians want to purchase American goods and services, give gifts and make loans to American residents, and make investments in the USA. Americans want to do the same in Canada. Each has to use the domestic money of the other when it does so. If an American wishes to lend money to a Canadian or to purchase something from him, he receives Canadian dollar notes from the Canadian Government to make his Canadian transactions, handing over his American dollar notes instead. The American dollar notes he hands over become part of Canada’s foreign exchange reserves, held by its Central Bank. Roughly speaking, a country’s foreign exchange reserves are the residual foreign currency assets its central bank holds after all these transactions are carried out on both sides of the border.
In the US-Canada case, neither Government prevents its citizens from exchanging domestic money for foreign money. In India, our rupee has been inconvertible since about 1940. The average Indian cannot freely exchange his/her rupee-denominated assets for foreign exchange denominated ones even if he/she wished to. There has been some import-liberalisation in recent years but only someone with the political access of Mr Tata or Mr Birla can purchase foreign assets and foreign companies using their Indian money – because the rupee is inconvertible, any bad financial decisions they make in using their foreign assets will be implicitly paid for by the Indian public.
Now a country’s central bank, such as our Reserve Bank, is the custodian of its foreign exchange reserves. India’s reserves are supposed to have reached $195.96 Billion ($19,596 Crore) as of March 16 2007. Keep in mind we do not know why they have risen: they can rise merely because foreigners (including NRIs) have lent us more of their money, not because foreigners have bought more of our goods and services. In fact Business Standard yesterday 31 March 2007 said on its front page “external commercial borrowing” was “a major source of accretion” of India’s reserves.
Also keep in mind that the Reserve Bank has the duty to manage these foreign-denominated assets against which it has already issued Indian rupees. It might receive a small conservative income from the cash-management aspect of this but it may not risk them or place them in any jeopardy!
Yet the whole idea behind the Chidambaram-Ahluwalia-Parekh-Reddy scheme under discussion by the Sonia-Manmohan Government is that the RBI will “lend” some of the billions of Americans dollars in its custody to overseas subsidiaries of Indian companies – say, for example, to the Tatas who have now bought foreign “capital assets” of some US$ 12 Billion ($1200 Crore) from Corus without having anything near that kind of foreign income.
Such favoured Indian companies might then use these “borrowed” funds as collateral for other borrowings. In exchange, they will go about undertaking purported “infrastructure” projects in India. So much for the “structured mechanisms” being touted by Messrs Chidambaram, Ahluwalia, Parekh et al.
Before India’s public understands it, the schemers will shout (as they have done with the SEZ Act) that Parliament has passed it. The BJP will applaud with envy. The Communists might uncomprehendingly complain a little, and then be bought off with a sop or two that they do understand, like a little pro-China rhetoric or being let off lightly on Nandigram.
Now international institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the Bank of International Settlements officially exist to advise central banks to stay along the straight and narrow and to avoid all such mischief. Here is what the IMF explicitly warned about such schemes in its Guidelines for Foreign Exchange Reserve Management dated September 20 2001:
“Liquidity risk. The pledging of reserves as collateral with foreign financial institutions as support for loans to either domestic entities, or foreign subsidiaries of the reserve management entity, has rendered reserves illiquid until the loans have been repaid. Liquidity risks have also arisen from the direct lending of reserves to such institutions when shocks to the domestic economy led to the borrowers’ inability to repay their liabilities, and impairment of the liquidity of the reserve assets.
Credit risk. Losses have arisen from the investment of reserves in high-yielding assets that were made without due regard to the credit risk associated with the issuer of the asset. Lending of reserves to domestic banks, and overseas subsidiaries of reserve management entities, has also exposed reserve management entities to credit risk.”
Dostoevsky believed man could have evil intent. Socrates was more generous and said man does not do wrong knowingly. It is not impossible our Indian schemers have innocent intent and do not even realize how close they are to becoming scamsters, or are already in the grip of scamsters. But at least we are now forewarned: India faces a clear risk of being swindled of its foreign exchange reserves. Prevention is better than cure.