America’s divided economists


America’s divided economists

by

Subroto Roy

First published in

Business Standard 26 October 2008

Future doctoral theses about the Great Tremor of 2008 will ask how it was that the Fed chief, who was an academic economist, came to back so wholeheartedly the proposals of the investment banker heading the US Treasury. If Herbert Hoover and FDR in the 1930s started something called fiscal policy for the first time, George W Bush’s lameduck year has marked the total subjugation of monetary policy.

In his 1945 classic, History of Banking Theory, the University of Chicago’s Lloyd Mints said: “No reorganisation of the Federal Reserve System, while preserving its independence from the Treasury, can offer a satisfactory agency for the implementation of monetary policy. The Reserve banks and their branches should be made agencies of the Treasury and all monetary powers delegated by Congress should be given to the Secretary of the Treasury…. It is not at all certain that Treasury control of the stock of money would always be reasonable… but Treasury influence cannot be excluded by the creation of a speciously independent monetary agency that cannot have adequate powers for the performance of its task…” Years later, Milton Friedman himself took a similar position suggesting legislation “to end the independence of the Fed by converting it into a bureau of the Treasury Department…”(see, for example, Essence of Friedman, p 416).

Ben Bernanke’s Fed has now ended any pretence of monetary policy’s independence from the whims and exigencies of executive power. Yet Dr Bernanke’s fellow academic economists have been unanimous in advising caution, patience and more information and reflection upon the facts. The famous letter of 122 economists to the US Congress was a rare statement of sense and practical wisdom. It agreed the situation was difficult and needed bold action. But it said the Paulson-Bernanke plan was an unfair “subsidy to investors at taxpayers’ expense. Investors who took risks to earn profits must also bear the losses. Not every business failure carries systemic risk. The government can ensure a well-functioning financial industry, able to make new loans to creditworthy borrowers, without bailing out particular investors and institutions whose choices proved unwise.”

Besides, the plan was unclear and too far-reaching. “Neither the mission of the new agency nor its oversight are clear. If taxpayers are to buy illiquid and opaque assets from troubled sellers, the terms, occasions, and methods of such purchases must be crystal clear ahead of time and carefully monitored afterwards…. If the plan is enacted, its effects will be with us for a generation. For all their recent troubles, America’s dynamic and innovative private capital markets have brought the nation unparalleled prosperity. Fundamentally weakening those markets in order to calm short-run disruptions is desperately short-sighted.”

The House’s initial bipartisan “backbench revolt” against “The Emergency Economic Stabilisation Act of 2008” (ESSA) followed this academic argument and rejected the Bernanke Fed’s advice. Is there an “emergency”, and if so what is its precise nature? Is this “economic stabilisation”, and if so, how is it going to work? The onus has been on Dr Bernanke and his staff to argue both, not merely to assert them. Even if the House “held its nose” and passed the measure for now, the American electorate is angry and it is anybody’s guess how a new President and Congress will alter all this in a few months.

Several academic economists have argued for specific price-stabilisation of the housing market being the keystone of any large, expensive and risky government intervention. (John McCain has also placed this in the political discussion now.) Roughly speaking, the housing supply-curve has shifted so far to the right that collapsed housing prices need to be dragged back upward by force. Columbia Business School economists Glenn Hubbard and Chris Mayer, both former Bush Administration officials, have proposed allowing “all residential mortgages on primary residences to be refinanced into 30-year fixed-rate mortgages at 5.25 per cent…. close to where mortgage rates would be today with normally functioning mortgage markets….Lower interest rates will mean higher overall house prices…” Yale’s Jonathan Koppell and William Goetzmann have argued very similarly the Treasury “could offer to refinance all mortgages issued in the past five years with a fixed-rate, 30-year mortgage at 6 per cent. No credit scores, no questions asked; just pay off the principal of the existing mortgage with a government check. If monthly payments are still too high, homeowners could reduce their indebtedness in exchange for a share of the future price appreciation of the house. That is, the government would take an ownership interest in the house just as it would take an ownership interest in the financial institutions that would be bailed out under the Treasury’s plan.”

Beyond the short run, the US may play the demographic card by inviting in a few million new immigrants (if nativist feelings hostile to the outsider or newcomer can be controlled, especially in employment). Bad mortgages and foreclosures would vanish as people from around the world who long to live in America buy up all those empty houses and apartments, even in the most desolate or dismal locations. If the US’s housing supply curve has moved so far to the right that the equilibrium price has gone to near zero, the surest way to raise the equilibrium price would be by causing a new wave of immigration leading to a new demand curve arising at a higher level.

Such proposals seek to address the problem at its source. They might have been expected from the Fed’s economists. Instead, ESSA speaks of massive government purchase and control of bad assets “downriver”, without any attempt to face the problem at its source. This makes it merely wishful to think such assets can be sold for a profit at a later date so taxpayers will eventually gain. It is as likely as not the bad assets remain bad assets.

Indeed the University of Chicago’s Casey Mulligan has argued there is a financial crisis involving the banking sector but not an economic one: “We’re not entering a second Great Depression.” The marginal product of capital remains high and increasing “far above the historical average. The third-quarter earnings reports from some companies already suggest that America’s non-financial companies are still making plenty of money…. So, if you are not employed by the financial industry (94 per cent of you are not), don’t worry. The current unemployment rate of 6.1 per cent is not alarming, and we should reconsider whether it is worth it to spend $700 billion to bring it down to 5.9 per cent.”

Dr Bernanke has been a close student of A Monetary History of the United States in which Milton Friedman and Anna J Schwartz argued that the Fed inadvertently worsened the Great Contraction of 1929-1933 by not responding to Congress. Let not future historians find that the Fed, at the behest of the Treasury Secretary, worsened the Great Tremor of 2008 by bamboozling Congress into hasty action.

October 1929? Not!

October 1929? Not!

by Subroto Roy

First published in

Business Standard, Editorial Page,

18 September 2008

Lehman Brothers filing for bankruptcy protection, Merrill Lynch taken over by Bank of America, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and now AIG being nationalised by the US Government, Bear Stearns getting a government bailout, many thousands of low-quality loans going bad … Does it all add up to an American financial crisis in the autumn of 2008 comparable to that in the autumn of 1929? Even Alan Greenspan himself has gone on record on TV saying it might.

 

But there are overriding differences. Most important, the American economy and the world economy are both incomparably larger today in the value of their capital stock, and there has also been enormous technological progress over eight decades. Accordingly, it would take a much vaster event than the present turbulence — say, something like an exchange of multiple nuclear warheads with Russia causing Manhattan and the City of London to be destroyed — before there was a return to something comparable to the 1929 Crash and the Great Depression that followed.

 

Besides, the roots of the crises are different. What happened back then? In 1922, the Genoa Currency Conference wanted to correct the main defect of the pre-1914 gold standard, which was freezing the price of gold while failing to stabilise the purchasing power of money. From 1922 until about 1927, Benjamin Strong of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York adopted price-stabilisation as the new American policy-objective. Britain was off the gold standard and the USA remained on it. The USA, as a major creditor nation, saw massive gold inflows which, by traditional gold standard principles, would have caused a massive inflation. Governor Strong invented the process of “sterilisation” of those gold inflows instead and thwarted the rise in domestic dollar prices of goods and services.

 

Strong’s death in 1928 threw the Federal Reserve System into conflict and intellectual confusion. Dollar stabilisation ended as a policy. Surplus bank money was created on the release of gold that had been previously sterilised.

 

The traditional balance between bulls and bears in the stock-market was upset. Normally, every seller of stock is a bear and every buyer a bull. Now, amateur investors appeared as bulls attracted by the sudden stock price rises, while bears, who sold securities, failed to place their money into deposit and were instead lured into lending it as call money to brokerages who then fuelled these speculative bulls. As of October 22, 1929 about $4 billion was the extent of such speculative lending when Chase National Bank’s customers called in their money.

 

Chase National had to follow their instructions, as did other New York banks. New York’s Stock Exchange could hardly respond to a demand for $4 billion at a short notice and collapsed. Within a year, production had fallen by 26 per cent, prices by 14 per cent, personal income by 14 per cent, and the Greatest Depression of recorded history was in progress — involuntary unemployment levels in America reaching 25 per cent.

 

That is not, by any reading, what we have today. Yes, there has been plenty of bad lending, plenty of duping shareholders and workers and plenty of excessive managerial payoffs. It will all take a large toll, and affect markets across the world.

 

But it will be a toll relative to our plush comfortable modern standards, not those of 1929-1933. In fact, modern decision-makers have the obvious advantage that they can look back at history and know what is not to be done. The US and the world economy are resilient enough to ride over even the extra uncertainty arising from the ongoing presidential campaign, and then some.

Nuksaan-Faida Analysis = Cost-Benefit Analysis in Hindi/Urdu

I have published about a half dozen or more articles, mainly in The Statesman‘s Editorial Page, on the India-US Nuclear Deal, e.g. “Imperialism Redux”14 March 2006, “Towards an Energy Policy” 2 April 2006, “India’s Energy Interests” 27-28 August 2006,  “Need for Clarity”, 19 August 2007.  One of my main complaints has been that the Prime Minister and his acolytes seem to have failed to do a proper cost-benefit analysis of the whole thing.  The same currency-risk that made the Dabhol-Enron project instantly unviable is also faced a fortiori in the idea of importing nuclear fuel and reactors.  The Finance Minister and Finance Secretary who failed to calculate that currency risk in the former project, and hence caused its failure, have now failed again as PM and Planning Commission chief while advocating the latter project. Is the Indian rupee destined to depreciate in the long run?  Of course it is: just look at the long run trends and compare our money supply growth rates and inflation rates with those of the USA or EU.   The cost of imported nuclear power in India must be recalculated under different scenarios for the exchange-rate of the Indian rupee including e.g. a 20% depreciation.

It is not as if the Government of India is ignorant of what Cost-Benefit Analysis is supposed to be!  For example, look up

“*Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions* * *THE INDIAN ADMINISTRATIVE SERVICES (PROBATIONERS’ FINAL EXAMINATION) REGULATIONS, 1955* * *In pursuance of rule 7 of the Indian Administrative Service (Probation) Rules, 1954, the Central Government, in consultation with the State Governments and the Union Public Service Commission, hereby makes the following regulations, namely* *1. Short title:- These regulations may be called the Indian Administrative Service (Probationers’ Final Examination) Regulations, 1955.* *2. Definition:- 2(1) In these regulations, unless the context otherwise requires,-* *(a) `Academay’ (sic) means Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration;* *(b) [ ];* *(c) `Director’ means the Director of the Academy; and * *(d) `Schedule’ means a Schedule appended to these regulations.* *2(2) All other words and expressions used in these regulations and not defined shall have the meanings respectively assigned to them in the Indian Administrative Service (Probation) Rules, 1954.* *3. Final examination.- 3(1) Every probationer shall, at or about the end of the period of training in the Academy appear at a final examination.* *3(2) The examination shall be conducted by the 4Director in the manner laid down in these regulations….4. PUBLIC ADMINSTRATION AND MANAGEMENT* *Essentials of Administration-Organisational Structure of Governments, Role of Civil Servants, Administrative Ethics and Accountability, Delegation and Decentralisation-District and Local Administration-Personal Administration, Police Administration-Jail Administration Panchayati Raj Administration- CalamityAdministration-Administration of Development and Welfare Programmes- Budget and Role of Audit and general financial principles-Role of District Officer/SDO-Conduct of Elections.* *Management and Organisation* *Behavioural Science Motivation, Leadership, Decision-Making, MBO, Management of Conflicts, Management of Change ,Transactional Analysis, -MIS-O&M & Work study-Pert-CPM, Time Management Methodology of Presentation of a subject-Financial Management Capital Budgeting, Discountal Cash Flow, Ratio Analysis, Project Formulation, Cost benefit Analysis, Project Evaluation Interpretation of Balance Sheets….”  (emphasis added)

How come there has been none with the India-US nuclear deal then?   I think we need a new more comprehensible term for Cost-Benefit Analysis, and that should be, most simply, its Hindi/Urdu equivalent: “Nuksaan-Faida Analysis”.

What is the estimated Nuksaan?

What is the estimated Faida?

How do they compare?  It all becomes so much easier!

Subroto Roy

Indian Inflation: Upside Down Economics from New Delhi’s Establishment

Indian Inflation:

Upside Down Economics From The New Delhi Establishment

by

Subroto Roy

First published in two parts in

The Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article,

April 15-16, 2008

Suppose there are only three real goods and services in the economy, and their prices per unit expressed in terms of money were Rs 3, Rs 2, Rs 6 respectively. If those money prices per unit doubled to Rs 6, Rs 4, Rs 12 respectively, we would say inflation of 100% occurred during the relevant time-period. If the prices had gone instead to Rs 4.50, Rs 3, Rs 9, we would say inflation was 50%, and so on. Notice the ratios between the three prices have remained the same in these examples; i.e., while the money prices of the items have changed, relative prices between them remained constant. In reality, there are many hundreds of millions of differentiated real goods and services in any economy though the logic stays the same.

Decline of money
It is well within living memory that the monthly salary of a Government of India Joint Secretary was Rs 3,000. Middle class parents would wed their daughters respectably to a groom earning such a figure. A Joint Secretary today makes 20 times as much and Rs 3,000 is made by his driver or children’s nanny whose equivalent back then made perhaps Rs 150 per month. The relative distance between the Joint Secretary and his driver has not decreased but the absolute amount of rupees made by each has been multiplied by a factor of 20. That indicates the fall in the value of rupees or rise in prices of goods and services relative to rupees during that period.

One reason this has happened is that the monopoly issuer of rupees, namely the Government of India, has vastly enlarged the stock of rupees present in the economy, both paper-notes and bank-deposits.  Inflation, strictly speaking, is uniform decline in the value of money or, what is the same thing, uniform increase in all rupee prices, including wages, with relative prices constant. The time-period could be a year or even a month; “hyperinflation” may start to be defined if the value of money falls at more than 10% per month.

The main problem with inflation is that rupee prices never expand uniformly and hence some classes of people gain unexpectedly while others suffer catastrophe. E.g., all those with debts expressed in rupee terms pay back less in real terms while their creditors go bankrupt. Those with fixed or slow-changing incomes (like old people, unorganised non-unionised workers etc) and those with paper assets (like currency rather than land or jewelry) are all made worse off by inflation. Unionized workers, like Government employees, do very well from inflation relative to others in society as their compensation is inflation-indexed. And the Government of India itself, as the largest debtor in the economy, gains massively from inflation; indeed, printing more paper is a standard way for all governments around the world to reduce their real debts by subterfuge.

The farmers at Singur or the SEZs who hand over their land for paper rupees from the Government will find the value of that paper declining and the value of that land rising over future years ~ which may help explain the recent keenness of city-people to take over rural India.

Rupee prices are one key variable that tend to expand via inflation with expansion of money stock. The other main change occurs in real income through growth. The Joint Secretary and his driver both use colour TVs for entertainment and gas-stoves for cooking these days; their earlier counterparts would have used transistor radios and coal-fired ovens.

To that extent, we have superior standards of living than we did in the past. There has been enormous technological progress, mostly through spontaneous learning and productivity increase, and that leads to vastly greater commerce and transactions between people, hence greater income and wealth through specialization. The vastly increased volume and value of commerce requires more money to expedite its turnover.

India’s money stock in recent decades has been growing at no less than 15% per annum, most recently reaching an all-time high of 22% per annum last year. Even if current Government estimates of growth of real income at some 9% are taken at face-value, that may mean growth in all rupee prices, i.e. inflation, near 22-9=13% per annum. TV economists parrot Government WPI inflation at 5% per annum, and now newspaper headlines are screaming WPI inflation is at 7.4% ~ more realistically, the decline in the value of India’s paper money has likely been in double-digits for years.

Paper money is a peculiar thing as it has no intrinsic value ~ even a hair pin or shirt-button has more usefulness as such. Paper money derives whatever value it has only because each of us in the economy believes everyone else will accept it in transactions in payment of wages or to purchase food and other items with.

Gold standard

The currency note in your pocket may carry the signature of the RBI Governor and his “promise to pay the bearer” the face-value ~ as if he is going to pay you its equivalent in gold held by the Government. But this is open humbug, a childish fiction. In 1931 the British pound, and the Indian rupee which linked to it at the time, went off the “gold standard” and there has been no backing of the Indian currency with gold ever since then.

In a pure gold standard, gold is money ~ interchangeable in the sense the central bank guarantees it will exchange gold for the paper it issues at an announced price. If that price changes up or down, there is devaluation or revaluation of the currency with respect to gold (depending on how you count it).

A gold exchange standard is similar except gold is not used as money and central banks of nations guarantee the announced prices of their paper moneys with respect to gold in transactions with one another. In the dollar exchange standard (or Bretton Woods system from 1944 to 1971), the US Government alone and uniquely undertook to guarantee the price of the dollar at $35 a troy oz of gold in transactions with all other central banks. That was the underpinning of the international financial system until Richard Nixon “closed the gold window” on 15 August 1971 because the US had largely financed the Vietnam War through money-creation, and other countries’ central banks (like France) had accumulated large dollar-balances.

The “gold standard”, “gold exchange standard”, and “dollar exchange standard” are all examples of “fixed” exchange rate systems which came to end in 1971-1972. The price of gold at $35 an oz was obviously unrealistically low, and it shot up at once, and has even reached $1000 an oz recently. Since 1972, the Western world has been on “floating exchange rates” where currencies find their own values and gold is merely one asset among many. Fixed exchange rate systems can lead to speculation, runs against currencies and the irresponsible international export of inflation which floating exchange rate systems tend to avoid because there will tend to be market-determined movement in the exchange-rate instead.

Elite capital flight

India today has neither a proper fixed nor a proper floating exchange-rate system but instead continues a system of highly discriminatory exchange controls. Twenty or thirty million people in our major cities know how to use the present system well enough to exchange their Indian rupees for as much as US $200,000 per annum to send their children and relatives settled abroad as foreign nationals. Plus Indian corporations have been allowed to convert rupees to buy sinking foreign companies. Foreign-currency reserves have vastly climbed too as domestic Indian companies have been allowed to incur foreign-currency denominated debt. Hence the thirty million special people are rather cleverly able to borrow foreign currency with one hand and then transmit it abroad with the other.

The net result is a clear policy of government-induced elite capital flight, unprecedented in its irresponsibility anywhere in world economic history ~ signed, sealed and delivered by the Montek-Manmohan-Chidambaram trio now just as Yashwant-Jaswant-KC Pant and friends had done a little earlier. The Communists would only be worse, as their JNU economists renounce all standard textbook microeconomics and macroeconomics in favour of street-shouting instead.

Outside the thirty million Indians with NRI connections, the average Indian today is disallowed from holding foreign exchange accounts at his/ her local bank or holding or trading in gold or other precious metals freely as he/she may please ~ the physical arrest of Mohun Bagan’s hapless Brazilian footballer by our inimitable Customs officers the other day reveals the ugliness of the situation most poignantly.

Every TV economist in Delhi, Bombay and Kolkata now seems to have a solution about India’s inflation and all sorts of fallacious reasoning is in the air. Some recommend the rupee appreciating or depreciating ~ as if anyone in the country has the faintest idea how elastic imports, exports and capital flows may be in fact to changes in the (controlled) exchange-rate. The Finance Minister and PM keep saying inflation is being “imported” because international commodity prices are high ~ someone should explain to them inflation is “imported” when fixed exchange rates allow transmission through the price-specie flow mechanism, and that is far from being India’s main problem. The extra-constitutional “Planning Commission” has, we may be thankful, remained silent about inflation, and seems to have abandoned earlier misconceptions about using forex reserves for “infrastructure”. The UPA Chair, we may be thankful, also has been silent and admits innocence of all economics, implicitly trusting her PM’s wisdom in all such matters instead.

What no one wants to talk about is the hippopotamus that is present in the room, namely, the chronically diseased state of accounts and public finances of the issuer of India’s paper-rupees, the Union Government, as well as the diseased accounts and finances of more than two dozen State Governments that are subservient to it. The macroeconomic and fiscal policy process that the Congress, BJP, Communists and everyone else in the political class in New Delhi and the State capitals have been presiding over for decades is one that turns normal economics upside down.

What happens in the West is that an estimate of technological progress and population growth is made by policy-makers, then an “acceptable” or “unavoidable” or “natural” rate of inflation is added (the figure of monetary change needed for efficiency in the real economy so relative prices adjust to equilibrium in response to demand and supply changes), then a monetary growth target is set, to which the fiscal authority ~ i.e. the legislature handling the Government’s budget ~ must adjust taxation and spending plans accordingly.

What has been happening in India every year for decades is that each of some two dozen state legislatures runs up a large deficit, which are all added up and passed on to the “Centre”; the “Centre” and its “Yojana Bhavan”, at the behest of every conceivable organised interest-group with access in Delhi especially government unions and the military, runs up its own vastly larger fiscal deficit, and then this grand total of fiscal-deficits is offered to the Reserve Bank at the end of a loaded pistol ~ to pay for one way or another via new public debt creation and money printing.  Subtract the WPI rate from the Money Supply Growth rate and government spokesmen and their businessmen friends then exclaim that the economy must try to reach the difference as its “warranted” growth rate! It is all economics upside down from people who have either learnt nothing significant in the subject or forgotten whatever little they once did.

Fragile financial state

The net result has been a banking system (mostly nationalized) in which the asset side of banks’ balance-sheets is made up almost entirely of rather dubious government debt, interest payments on which are received every year from fresh money-printing. The liability side of those balance-sheets consists of course of customer-deposits. In this fragile monetary and financial state, a government-induced capital flight has been allowed to continue under pretence of liberalization ~ with Indian companies being allowed to borrow from foreign markets many times their domestic rupee-denominated net worth by which to acquire ailing foreign companies and brands. Furthermore, there has been a massive fiscal effect as vast new Government spending programs ~ like buying foreign aircraft carriers, fighter-jets or passenger aircraft or writing off farm loans ~ come to be announced and absorbed into expectations of future inflation. A monetary meltdown is what the present author cautioned against in 1990-1995 and again, publicly, in 2000-2005. Economics, candidly treated, tells us not only that there is no such thing as a free lunch but also that chickens come home to roost.

Articles of related interest include “Against Quackery”, “India’s Macroeconomics”, “Fiscal Instability”, “Indian Money and Credit”, “Indian Money and Banking”, “The Dream Team: A Critique” etc. See https://independentindian.com/2013/11/23/coverage-of-my-delhi-talk-on-3-dec-2012/


Gold standard etc: Fixed versus flexible exchange rates

Author’s Note September 2008: Most of this material has now been published in my article in The Statesman “Indian Inflation”, republished elsewhere here.  I should add that this note  written in 2007 is extremely rudimentary and was written in a few minutes; I have not altered it as it is has been a popular read, but if I rewrote it, I would say the gold exchange standard was  far more complicated than I have made it out to be in this note. Please see e.g. my recent article “October 1929? Not!” in Business Standard republished elsewhere here.

“Someone at the Ron Paul Forums asked for an explanation of the gold standard etc, so I posted the following brief note on it:

Gold standard etc: Fixed versus flexible exchange rates

Subroto Roy

First published at the Ron Paul Forums and at DailyPaul.com etc

The “gold standard”, “gold exchange standard”, and “dollar exchange standard”/Bretton Woods system are examples of “fixed” exchange rate systems.

In a pure gold standard, gold is used as money, ie interchangeably with paper money and the Central Bank of a country guarantees it will exchange gold for the paper money it issues at a certain announced price. If that price changes upwards or downwards, there is devaluation or revaluation of the currency with respect to gold (depending on how you count it).

A gold exchange standard is similar except gold is not used as money and the central banks of nations guarantee the announced prices of their paper moneys with respect to gold in transactions with one another.

In the so-called dollar exchange standard (or the Bretton Woods system from 1944 to 1971), the US Government alone and uniquely undertook to guarantee the price of the dollar at $35 a troy oz of gold in transactions with all other central banks. That was the underpinning of the international financial system until President Nixon “closed the gold window” on August 15 1971 because the US had largely financed the Vietnam War through money-creation, and other countries’ central banks (eg France) had accumulated large dollar-balances.

Since then, the world has been on floating exchange rates where currencies find their own values. and gold is merely one asset among many. Obviously the price of gold at $35 an oz had become unrealistically low, and shot up at once.

Milton Friedman had argued for floating exchange rates 20 years before they came into being. Fixed exchange rate systems can lead to speculation, runs against currencies and the irresponsible international export of inflation which floating exchange rate systems tend to avoid because there will tend to be market-determined movement in the exchange-rate instead.

As I have said before here, Dr Ron Paul’s discussions about monetary economics are probably better than that of any other candidate or politician in any party but they are not robust.

Dr Subroto Roy, Kolkata, India”

Swindling India

SWINDLING INDIA

by

Subroto Roy

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.

India in World Trade & Payments

Our Trade & Payments

by

SUBROTO ROY

First published in The Sunday Statesman, Feb 11 2007, The Statesman, Feb 12 2007

Editorial Page Special Article

 

 

TWO and a half millennia ago, the Greeks described how brightly coloured textiles imported from India were popular among the Persians. Five centuries later, the Roman historian Pliny complained that India every year “took from Italy a hundred million sesterces in return for spices, perfumes and ornaments”. Montesquieu observed in 1748: “All peoples who have traded with India have always taken metals there and brought back commodities. Indians need only our metals, which are the signs of value. In all times those who deal with India will take silver there and bring back none”.

During the British period, India remained a great trading nation. JM Keynes found Britain, the world’s largest exporter in 1913, exporting more to India than anywhere else, and Germany, the world’s fastest growing economy in 1913, receiving 5 percent of its imports from India and sending it 1.5 percent of exports, making India the sixth largest exporter to Germany (after the USA, Russia, Britain, Austria-Hungary, France) and eighth largest importer from it (after Britain, Austria-Hungary, Russia, France, the USA, Belgium, Italy). India’s share of world exports during 1870-1914 may have been about 3-4 per cent. As of 1917-1918, India’s balance of payments and fiscal budget appear idyllic: an export surplus of £61.42 million, official reserves of £66.53 million, total claims on the rest of the world of £127.5 million (or 32.85 million troy ozs of gold), and a 1916-1917 budget surplus of £6,594,885.

Even at mid-20th Century, India was still a trading power with 2 percent of world exports and a rank of 16 in the world economy after the USA, Britain, West Germany, France, Canada, Belgium, Holland, Japan, Italy, Australia, Sweden, Venezuela, Brazil, Malaya and Switzerland.

Yet during the second half of the 20th Century, the Indian subcontinent collapsed to near insignificance in world trade and payments. The traditional export surplus implied a high “treasure” demand for precious metals on capital account; this was reversed and the new India became a chronic trade-deficit country dependant on foreign borrowings and grants. Of world merchandise exports, the subcontinent’s share today is 0.8 of 1 per cent, and of Asia’s 6 percent (India accounting for two thirds); by contrast, Malaysia alone accounts for 0.9 of 1 percent of world exports and 6.5 percent of Asia’s. Most poignantly, among 11 major developing countries (Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Israel, Yugoslavia), India’s share of manufactured exports to the world fell from 65 per cent in 1953 to 51 percent in 1960 to 31 per cent in 1966 to 10 per cent by 1973. Our legendary textiles lost ground steadily. As of 1962-1971, India held an average annual market-share of almost 20 percent of manufactured textile imports into the USA; this fell to 10 percent by 1972-1981 and less than 5 percent by 1982-1991. India’s share of Britain’s imports of textile manufactures fell from 16 per cent in the early 1960s to less than 4 per cent in the 1990s. India and Sri Lanka once dominated world tea exports but lost rapidly to Kenya, Indonesia and Malawi. Of total British tea imports, Sri Lanka’s market-share fell from 11 percent in 1980 to 7 per cent by 1991 while India’s fell from 33 percent in 1980 to 17 per cent by 1991. Today India may not be in the top thirty largest merchandise exporting countries of the world.

Several causes may be identified for our historical collapse in world trade and payments. These include Western protectionism e.g. of domestic textiles between 1965-2005, and emergence of new technologies like synthetic fibres, plastics, tea-bags etc as well as new competitors in the world marketplace willing to use these. Successful commerce depends on intangible quantities like trust, reliable information and contacts between individual contracting parties. Decline in our shares of world exports led to wastage of such informational capital and commercial trust. Foreign importers established new relations with India’s competitors, and for Indian entrepreneurs (now facing lessened foreign protectionism or newly liberalized domestic policies) to win new customers or win back old ones becomes doubly difficult.

But the most important cause of the decline was undoubtedly the political discord and trauma leading to economic disintegration of Old India into modern India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Partly as a result of their conflict, independent India and Pakistan deepened government requisitioning and rationing of foreign exchange purportedly as part of pseudo-socialist “planning”.

Trade policy followed the British pattern of import quotas imposed to conserve hard currency and save shipping space during war. Discretionary controls were in place by 1942 on grounds of “essentiality” and non-availability from indigenous sources. War needs over-rode others, and consumer goods banned ~ favouring their production by domestic business houses. In 1945 consumer goods were placed on open general license, as “the pattern of post-war trade should not be dictated by perpetuation of controls set up for purely war-time purposes”, and in 1946 there was further liberalization in view of India’s enormous sterling balances. But by March 1947 this ended, and import of gold and 200 “luxury” goods were banned. Only a few “essential” goods remained on the open list.

After the British left, political/bureaucratic control of imports and foreign exchange were extended, not removed. Intricate restrictions, subsidies, barriers and import-licensing (based on obsolete war-time “essentiality” and “actual user” criteria) continued, now in name of “import-substitution” and “planning”. Major industries were nationalized, and these became leading consumers of imports obtained by administrative rationing of the foreign exchange earned by export sectors. As consumer goods’ imports were most restricted, Indian businesses predictably diverted to produce these in the large highly protected domestic markets that resulted, causing monopolistic profits and financing of a vast parallel or “black” economy with its thriving hawala sector. Restriction of consumer goods’ and gold imports also caused smuggling and open corruption in Customs. The international price of the rupee was viewed not as reflecting demand for foreign relative to domestic moneys but as just another administered price to be used by politicians and bureaucrats. Foreign exchange earnings of exporters were confiscated in exchange for rupees at the administered rate. Foreign currency thus requisitioned was (and still mostly is) disbursed by rationing in the following order of precedence: first to meet Government debt repayments to international organizations, and Government expenditures abroad like maintenance of embassies and purchase of military imports, plus politicians’ and bureaucrats’ foreign travel etc; secondly, for import of food, fertilizers, petroleum; thirdly, for imported inputs required by Government firms; fourthly, for import demands of those private firms successful in obtaining import licenses; lastly, to satisfy demands of the public at large for purposes like travel or study abroad.

After devaluing with sterling in 1949, the rupee was maintained at the same value for 17 years despite weakening reserve positions and numerous shocks to the economy like the 1962 war with China, 1965 war with Pakistan, and droughts and food crises. Devaluation on June 6 1966 to Rs. 7.50 per US dollar met political opposition and contributed to Congress Party losses in the 1967 elections. The rupee did not respond to sterling’s devaluation in November 1967 and was not adjusted downwards though the economy continued to suffer shocks like the rise in petroleum prices, refugees from the Pakistan civil war, and domestic strikes and political instability. In August 1971, India pegged to the dollar and devalued with the dollar’s depreciation but in December again linked to sterling at Rs 18.97. When sterling depreciated after floating in June 1972, the rupee effectively devalued with it, and until July 1975 there were three small devaluations against sterling. In September 1975, India pegged (within margins) to an undisclosed basket of hard currencies including the dollar, yen and deutschmark, and between 1981-1985, the rupee was slowly managed downwards, without political resistance. From September 1985-July 1991, it followed a more rapid downward course depreciating 40 per cent, while the dollar depreciated as well against major currencies, suggesting the dollar weighed heavily in the basket to which the rupee was pegged.

1991 reforms

Narasimha Rao, P Chidambaram and others received from Rajiv Gandhi in his last months the results of a “perestroika-for-India” project, and started a process of economic liberalisation. Chidambaram said at the time the reforms “were not miraculous” but based on rewriting the Congress manifesto: “We were ready when we came back to power in 1991”.

On July 1 1991, the rupee devalued 9 percent and on July 3 a further 11 percent. The new Government’s March 1 1992 Budget placed the rupee experimentally on a dual rate, implicitly taxing exporters who had to surrender 40 percent of their forex at an officially determined rate and could sell 60 percent in an open market. On March 1 1993, the rupee began to be made convertible for current account transactions, i.e. for import and export of goods and services. Trade reforms included removing many import quotas and some export subsidies. But grave fiscal and monetary problems were not (and have never been) addressed with any seriousness.

Balance of payments

The “balance of payments” sums a country’s current and capital accounts. In Western countries, the capital account consists of net trading in long and short-term securities like private stock and government debt ~ domestic securities being bought and sold freely by foreign residents and foreign securities by domestic residents. Prices determined by competitive trading are very sensitive to interest-rate differences. In India (and Pakistan etc) genuine capital account transactions have not existed since the 1930s, and do so only in highly distorted form even today. The traditional export surplus and positive current account, balanced by net inflow of precious metals, had been wiped out and current account deficits were coupled with overvalued currencies and closed capital markets – along with repressive financial policies causing capital flight of an elite nomenklatura. The inherent risk of unproductive use of funds by borrowers and consumers of forex (mostly Government) were shifted to export and other hard-currency earning sectors.

In particular, a severe trade-deficit had followed petroleum-price rises in the late 1970s, which continues today. There has been some exploration, discovery and extraction of domestic supplies of oil and gas, but no significant move to conserve or find economical alternatives to use of imported energy. (Indeed a coal-exporting petroleum-importing nation with the most heavily used railways in the world made an unprovoked decision to abolish steam-locomotives in favour of diesel and electric. And now, very expensive foreign nuclear plants are planned to be imported on a turnkey basis under a false assumption these will help India’s energy sector.)

India gained from exporting temporary workers to the Gulf since the 1970s but that could hardly finance the increased oil bill. Instead there has been large growth of foreign debt since the 1970s, mostly owed by the Government (and recently by large private businesses) to Western financial markets via brokerage of Western governments and organizations they control. India’s foreign debt amounts to more than $100 being owed by each of our one billion citizens, each of us having to earn five or six dollars every year on average just to meet interest payments due to foreign creditors.

This has been accompanied in the last few years by foreign exchange reserves (the residual in the balance of payments) seeming to grow rapidly, and rising reserves have been perceived as a sign of optimism. Just as bad luck came by way of large oil-price increases, we have seen windfall gains from spread of American “information technology” ~ causing an even larger surplus on services as Indian computer-workers are exported, or new foreign investment is lured by low costs of “business process outsourcing” using our “reserve army” of labour and seemingly cheap real estate.

Rising forex reserves may or may not indicate a better financial position just as rising debt may or may not indicate a weaker financial position. A cash-rich person or company or country may have enough liquid resources to meet an immediate payments’ crisis ~ but may have become cash-rich merely by having borrowed more. A country’s forex reserves may be rising because foreigners have lent it more or have been exploiting arbitrage opportunities presented by multiple exchange-rates or interest-rates or other capital market inefficiencies, or even because reserve-assets have appreciated in world markets due to currency movements.

Similarly, it is not the absolute size of a debt that matters but productivity of the use to which it has been put. At a conference on a “perestroika-for-India” in May 1989 at the University of Hawaii, the late Milton Friedman remarked that one man can be heavily indebted yet have used his debt for investment in capital and hence real growth, while another man can be less heavily indebted but have used borrowed money for debauchery or other wasteful consumption.

For countries too, it is the use to which debt has been put ~ the nature of assets that have been created with the debt ~ that is fundamental. If our foreign debt has been used by Government to create roads and bridges or improve agricultural productivity, fertile capital assets have been invested in, which lead to economic growth and well-being.

If borrowed foreign money has been mostly spent on fancy tanks and bombers (or even passenger aircraft, which mostly earn domestic and not foreign currency) or on foreign trips for politicians and bureaucrats, it has likely gone on sterile consumption goods for the elite. Since Pakistan and India are armed with foreign weapons intended to be used mainly against one another, the arms’ merchants on both sides have been laughing all the way to their Swiss banks for decades. Pakistan and India’s weapons’ imports have been effectively paid by their Governments having borrowed what now constitutes the bulk of their enormous sovereign debts. Requisitioning forex has permitted military generals, politicians, bureaucrats and other lobbies to spend as they wish foreign monies earned by relatively meagre export sectors under conditions of severe international competition.

False convertibility

The RBI is presently engaged in a false convertibility whereby the organised private sector can purchase foreign assets, and the elite can transfer $50,000 annually to their adult children already exported abroad. Truly freeing the rupee today would involve allowing, overnight, any Indian to hold gold, foreign currency and foreign exchange bank accounts freely at his/her local bank (just like those glamorous NRIs). But some 50% or more of public expenditure is being financed by debt compulsorily held by nationalized banks, and this would leave Government with the problem of finding real resources to pay interest and amortisation on the sovereign debt. Moving towards convertibility may induce severe inflation and instability caused by exposure of the weakness of the banks, as their assets (especially Government debt) come to be valued at international prices. Yet without a convertible rupee, proper valuation at world prices is not possible of any paper assets in India (including shares), nor is there any incentive for a responsible fiscal and monetary policy to emerge, even while the nomenklatura continue in capital flight, and India’s masses unknowingly inherit large accumulating rupee and dollar-denominated public debts.