ON MONEY & BANKING
The deficit-finance of all public institutions flow like rivulets into the swamp that is our Public Debt, managed by the RBI
First published in The Sunday Statesman, Editorial Page, Special Article
April 23 2006
THE Reserve Bank of India, like all other public institutions, belongs to all of India’s people. There has been a tendency with every national institution, whether the ONGC or nationalised banks like SBI, or the IITs and IIMs or Air India and Indian Airlines or the Railways, Army, Navy, Air Force, IAS, IFS, Central Secretariat etc, even Parliament and State legislatures, to think that its assets, both tangible and intangible, are to serve the interests mainly of its employees, whether of Class 1, 2, 3, or 4. In fact, the assets of all such national institutions belong to all Indians: all one thousand million of us, from nameless street children and rural mendicants onwards. The body of our whole Indian citizenry own any and all such public institutions, and their employees are merely our “agents”, literally “public servants” who get paid salaries and perquisites out of public revenues. The task of managing and controlling these vast cohorts of public servants is a stupendous one of democratic politics and public administration. As a country we have never been very adept at it, indeed we often have been hopelessly incompetent. Without proper control and management, employees of national institutions have naturally tended to take over control of these assets, shifting liabilities onto the shoulders and budgets of the anonymous diffused body of citizenry who are supposed to be their masters. The public’s servants have tended to become the masters of the public’s assets and resources.
The RBI, as the nation’s Central Bank, has a unique position because its principal task is to establish and maintain the integrity of our money and banking system. The deficit-finance of all public institutions flow like rivulets into the swamp that is our Public Debt, managed by the RBI.
Money as such has no “intrinsic” worth. All the paper rupees, dollars, pounds, euros, yen in the world have less “intrinsic” usefulness than a hairpin or a button or a pair of shoelaces. Hairpins, buttons and shoelaces at least keep your hair, your shirt or your shoes together ~ the paper of paper money can be at best used to roll cigarettes perhaps. Yet paper money comes to be needed and is valued by everyone in every country ~ from street children upwards to Mr Premji, Mr Gates and Mr Mittal. Everyone accepts paper money as wages in exchange for his/her work, and then plans to use that same paper to buy food, shelter, clothing and other necessities with. I.e., we accept paper money for a short time believing we can use it to acquire useful things with. It has no intrinsic worth yet it is universally valued because everyone believes it will be accepted by everyone else in exchange for real goods and services which are in fact useful and conducive to life. The use of paper money depends on a fine and invisible web of collective trust permeating throughout the economy.
Banks arose due to the increasing complexity of modern economies in the last six hundred years. Paper currency was then supplemented in commerce by “deposits”, so that a transaction between two persons need not involve turnover of cash but can come to be accomplished by adjustment in their respective deposits with their banks. This vastly increased the quantum of trust ordinary people placed in the system of normal transactions, since they had to now believe not just in the exchangeability of paper money but also in the viability of the banks where they had placed their deposits. Currency plus Bank Deposits constitute what is called the “Money Supply”, and its controller is the RBI.
Our collective trust in money and banking is in and of itself something with economic value, which commercial banks are in a unique position to exploit. Banks can usually bet that all their customers will not demand their deposits at the same time, and so they are able to lend out as loans a very large fraction of what they have received as deposits from the public. Making such loans in turn causes the recipients of the loans to make new deposits (of what they have borrowed) in yet other banks, and this in turn acts as a signal to the receiving banks to make even more loans. Hence a process of “redeposit” or “deposit multiplication” occurs in any banking system where only a fraction of deposits is legally required to be kept as reserves by the bank. A Central Bank like the RBI then has the duty to see none of this gets out of hand: that while individual banks are acting to make profitable investments on the capital risked by a bank’s owners, they are, as a collective body, creating enough but not excessive credit to meet the needs of business.
In India, most banks came to be nationalised decades ago by Indira Gandhi on advice of P. N. Haksar, the mentor of Dr Manmohan Singh in his career as an economic bureaucrat. Whatever original capital they have had also arises from the public exchequer, and all their employees are effectively “public servants” under the Ministry of Finance. We have not been hearing from the RBI anything about the deleterious effects of this continuing state of affairs.
The RBI’s functions include managing the “Public Debt”, which stands today at perhaps Rs. 30 trillion (1 trillion= 1 lakh crore), on which interest of perhaps Rs 2-3 trillion must be paid by the Union and State Governments every year to those holding the debt (mostly the nationalised banking system under duress from the RBI). Why the stock-market has been doing so “well” is because it has been like an athlete on steroids. A stock market is supposed to be risky while a debt market is supposed to be safe. Our Government’s fiscal and monetary behaviour over decades has caused the formal debt market to yield negative returns, and so the stock-market has become relatively lucrative despite its risky nature.
It is also the RBI’s task to manage the country’s foreign exchange “reserves”, i.e. the residual balance left after all forex outgoings from purchases of imports (like petroleum or weapons) and payments of interest on or repayment of foreign loans have been subtracted from flows of incoming forex arising from export revenues, emigrants’ remittances, and new foreign loans and investments. These “reserves” do not belong to the Government or the nation in the same way tax-revenues belong to the Consolidated Fund of India. It was a shocking conceptual error of the Manmohan Singh Government’s most prominent economic bureaucrat to fail to see this and to suggest forex reserves could be used for “infrastructure” development. For the business press to get excited about forex reserves being at this or that level is also misleading, since high reserves may or may not indicate a better financial position just as a heavily indebted man may or may not be in a bad position depending on what kind of use he has made of his debts.