Friday, December 27, 2013

Cluster Development: A medicine worse than the disease

The Maharashtra State Government has tabled a scheme for Cluster Development of housing projects in Mumbai. Read my views on why the scheme is harmful and needs to be scrapped here.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Zero marks to the Zero Loss Theory

I was glad to come across the news that Shri. Kapil Sibal, Union Minister for Communications & I.T. has joined Twitter.  It is good that India’s political class is slowly but surely taking to the Social Media. This will help the political class and the citizenry to engage fruitfully with each other and bridge the gap between the two. Whether Shri. Sibal likes it or not, his name has been permanently etched in public memory with the Zero Loss Theory. Soon after Shri Sibal came on board, he was confronted with a question on the same: “Sir, please explain the zero loss theory in 140 characters” said a tweet. To this, Shri Sibal replied with the following: “Expenditure – Earnings = Loss, if expenditure is greater than earnings. Have you calculated earnings to calculate loss?”

One may recall that Shri. Chidambaram, the Union Minister of Finance also made a similar statement in the Coal Scam discussion. “…if the coal has not been mined, if coal remains buried in Mother Earth, where is the loss?” he was widely reported to have said. What Shri Sibal or Shri Chidambaram were saying is that since the beneficiaries of the alleged largesse have not monetized the giveaway, the spectrum or the coal mine, there is no loss.

In other words, if your car is stolen, there is no loss until the thief sells the car.

When put this way, the defect in the Zero Loss Theory becomes immediately apparent.

There is another related argument that is often made that needs to be demolished. It goes like this – ‘since government is not a profit making entity, assets need not always be sold to the highest bidder. Cheap spectrum can make cheap telephony available to the masses, and cheap coal can provide cheap electricity.’ This line of argument has even been made by the Prime Minister himself in the past. How far is this thinking valid?

The government owns nothing. It is a Trustee of the assets that belong to the citizens. Every sale of an asset below market price is a loss to the citizens and a net gain to the new asset owner. Once the asset is sold, neither the government nor its people control what the asset owner does with it. Hence selling assets cheap “in public interest” only results in losses that are certain and upfront, while the supposed benefits remain uncertain and in the future. The fallacy of this approach has been amply demonstrated in both the 2G and the Coal Scams.

Does this mean the government should always maximize revenue and profits?

No. Here, one needs to distinguish between selling assets and providing services. For example, the Railways can justifiably run at a loss – anyone who buys a ticket can benefit from the subsidy. The benefits cannot be monopolized. The assets remain with the government while the public benefit from the services. But the same cannot be said about selling spectrum or a coal mine, where neither the government nor the people can control what the asset owner does once the ownership is transferred. However, many a times this crucial point is missed.

I have not checked how many followers Shri. Sibal has acquired over Twitter. Does that mean he has Zero followers. Or does he, really?

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Three myths about the "growth" debate

If one reads the country’s pink press or listens to the ‘experts’ appearing on television regularly, one might wonder why, with so many brains around to solve the country's problems, the problems are still there and not going away. The answer for this is not difficult to see. Given below are three common myths that surround the debate, making problem solving exercise an exercise in futility:

Myth # 1: GDP growth is utopia
No other economic statistic is probably as abused as “GDP growth”. Very few understand what (GDP) ‘growth’ is, and even fewer the limitations of this number. That is precisely why, probably, every politician worth his salt finds it a handy tool to misuse. GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, is the sum total of all output of final goods and services produced in the country in a given period. GDP growth then, is the increase in this output, adjusted for inflation. GDP growth shows how much more the country has produced compared to a previous period, usually the year. All this is fine. 

However, it is rarely discussed that:

What matters is not the absolute GDP growth but per capita growth, especially when comparing GDP figures between two different countries. For example, U.S. GDP grew by 2.78 % between 2011 and 2012, while India’s GDP grew at 4.99 %, faster than that of the U.S. However, India’s per capita GDP actually fell from $ 1,534 in 2011 to $ 1,489 in 2012 while U.S.’ per capita GDP grew from $ 48,113 to $ 49,965. (Source: World Bank). Indians were thus worse off than they were the previous year. All talk about India being “…one of the fastest growing economies in the world…” is thus meaningless, because India's per capita figures almost invariably turn out to be much worse.

Then there are other factors to be considered such as the composition of this GDP growth. In India, government buys food grains every year at higher and higher prices through an administrative fiat (MSP) with tax payer money which then rots in government godowns. This production counts as GDP, but it never reaches the consumer. With his remaining money, the tax payer ends up buying the remaining foodgrains in the open market at inflated prices, because so much of legitimate supply has gone out of market.

In a healthy economy, higher GDP figure should be supported by two other characteristics – increase in productivity and increase in job creation. India’s average GDP growth between 1999-00 to 2004-05 was 5.76 % and between 2004-05 and 2009-10 was 8.73 %. But the number of jobs created between 1999-00 to 2004-05 was 60.70 million whereas between 2004-05 to 2009-10 was just 2.72 million (Source: Planning Commission).

GDP growth is thus just a statistic that needs to be taken with a fistful of salt. GDP growth is an outcome of a healthy economy, but it does not necessarily constitute proof of one.

Myth # 2: The growth – inflation paradox
This probably is the biggest myth of them all – that the Central Banks are perpetually facing a Catch–22 situation: if rates are reduced (or liquidity increased, which has the effect of lowering rates) to propel growth, inflation flares up and if rates are raised (or liquidity tightened) to control inflation, growth suffers.

Let’s get this straight here – Bank lending and borrowing (i.e. deposit) rates move in tandem. If you want lending rates to come down, deposit rates need to be lowered too. And deposit rates cannot be delinked from inflation rate. Interest is the time value of money. The way an economy grows is like this: interest rates get high enough to encourage savings; this encourages people to save more. The banks (and others such as insurance & pension funds etc) become flush with money. They then compete among themselves to lend, which brings down lending rates. This in turn encourages more consumption and capital investment, promoting growth.

Lower interest rates are thus a result of increased availability of capital, which in turn is a result of increased savings, which in turn is a result of higher income and low inflation! That’s how low interest rate induces growth. All the economies which have shown high growth rates in the past, such as Singapore or China or even India have done so on the back of a high savings rate. Countries which tried to grow through excess leveraging, such as those in Europe or the U.S. are facing problems today.

What happens if inflation rate is higher than the rates of return savers get (the so-called negative real interest rate)? If inflation is high, disposable incomes fall; inducing people to cut down on discretionary consumption. There is also a flight of capital to hard assets and speculative investments, causing asset price bubbles.

Myth # 3: Central Banks can cure all economic ills
The media pays too much attention to Central Bank actions. The Central Bank can only do this much, and nothing more. It has the mandate to maintain the value of the currency, to oversee (but not to run) the banks and to run the credit & payment system in the country. The fiscal policy, the trade policy, the industrial policy, the law and order, the availability of manpower and requisite skill sets, the legal framework, the ease of doing business – there are several factors that impact how the economy performs. Most of these are under government influence. Most of the times, governments make things worse, in the guise of ‘regulating’ them. You just can’t expect the Central Bank to have a magic wand which will make all sins of the government disappear and power the economy full throttle.

In a 2012 World Bank ranking of 185 countries on “Ease of Doing Business", India ranked 132nd. The rankings rate countries on parameters such as starting a business, dealing with construction permits and enforcing contracts. Here is the latest example - a bill introduced in Indian Parliament to “regulate” street vendors will soon make it impossible for anyone to even sell peanuts on the streets. And we expect Central Bank to promote growth!

When you bust these myths, most of what appears in the pink press or the business channels on how to promote growth will cease to make any sense.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A bridge to nowhere

The Preamble of the Reserve Bank of India describes the basic functions of the Reserve Bank as " regulate the issue of Bank Notes and keeping of reserves with a view to securing monetary stability in India and generally to operate the currency and credit system of the country to its advantage." The central bank, of course has other functions in addition to this, such as the manager of foreign exchange, acting as the banker to the government and a lender of the last resort to the banking system. Maintaining price stability however, has always been seen as the primary objective of any Central Bank in the world. As the incumbent Governor of the Reserve Bank Dr. D. Subbarao prepares to demit office after an eventful tenure, I took a look at his monetary policy actions and the impact they have had on some key indicators in the country.

Subbarao’s tenure at the Reserve Bank has been one of the most challenging of any RBI Governor’s in recent times. Within days of his taking office, financial crises struck the economies of the West. Giant institutions collapsed.  Credit markets froze. World trade came almost to a halt. Stock markets crashed. Commodities plunged. The recession that followed in the U.S. and Europe has been described as the worst since the Great Depression of 1932. Though not a direct party to the tumultuous events unfolding in the developed world, a rub-off effect on India was inevitable.

Subbarao’s tenure has also coincided with a leadership crisis at the centre in New Delhi. In the last few years, a profligate UPA-II sunk itself neck deep in corruption, mega scams hit the headlines, crony capitalism peaked, “policy paralysis” became the buzzword and economic reforms that started in the 1990s reversed, ironically by the same man who was hailed as the architect of those reforms earlier. A welfare state has emerged.

In such an environment, managing the country's monetary policy can be no easy task. The policy under Subbarao followed alternate bouts of easing and tightening liquidity in 'baby steps' of 0.25 to 0.50 percent each at intervals of a few months at a time.

Over a period
Eased liquidity, lowered rates
Oct 08 – Feb 10
Reduced CRR by 4 %
Reduced Repo by 4.25 %, Reverse Repo rate by 2.75 %
Squeezed liquidity, raised rates
Feb 10 – Jan 12
Raised CRR by 1 %
Raised Repo, Reverse Repo rate by 3.50 %
Eased liquidity, lowered rates
Jan 12 – May 13
Reduced CRR by 2%
Reduced Repo, Reverse Repo rate by 1.25 %

What effect, if any, have these steps had on the key indicators stated while embarking on these policy actions? Let us take a look at some of them

Consumer prices have risen more than 50 % in less than five years
Consumer prices have risen continuously, at almost a uniform rate in the last five years. Between October 2008 and June 2013, prices (as indicated by CPI-IW) are up more than 50 % i.e. more than ten percent per annum compounded. Whether Subbarao was tightening credit or easing liquidity, it has clearly had little impact on consumer prices. 

The Rupee has depreciated from Rs. 48 to a $ to Rs. 65 in less than 5 years 
After an initial period of stability, the currency has collapsed. Especially from August 2011 when it was trading at Rs.45, it has been a one way street for the Indian Rupee, trading at around Rs. 65 to a dollar at the time of this writing. It is instructive to note that the Rupee broke its long term trading range (between Rs.45 to 50) in end-2011, when it was clear that the tightening cycle has ended and rates would be lowered going forward. Subbarao reversed the rate cycle with a CRR cut in January 2012.

Industrial production has gone nowhere in the last three years
If the rationale for cutting interest rates starting January 2012 was to promote industrial growth, it has clearly not worked. The Index of Industrial Production has gone nowhere in the last three and a half years - it stood at 163.60 in January 2010 and stands at 164.3 in June 2013. Whether Subbarao was raising rates or lowering them, industry has stagnated. 

In retrospect, vacillating between the demand from industry for lower interest rates and the imperative to tame inflation, monetary policy went nowhere under Subbarao. The cycle of liquidity tightening was abandoned abruptly in January 2012, ostensibly under the pretext of taming inflation. But even the meager mitigation in wholesale inflation rate never reached the end consumers. By lowering interest rates too early, Subbarao clearly jumped the gun, aiding, if not entirely causing the currency collapse. 

A prolonged period of negative interest rates is the primary cause of India’s financial crisis today. Negative interest rates promote investment in hard assets like gold and real estate at the cost of financial assets. Negative interest rates induce excessive borrowing and investment in unviable projects. Negative interest rates cause a flight of capital and depreciate the currency. The high inflation in recent years, and the sharp depreciation of the Rupee is a direct consequence of the RBI’s reluctance to raise rates when the situation demanded. A hawkish RBI is necessary to counter government profligacy.

Ironically, and unfortunately, Subbarao has been blamed for precisely the opposite – for not lowering rates enough. In the media, he is often portrayed as the one taking on the mandarins of the North Block, on issues ranging from interest rates reduction to new bank licences. But the symptoms of the current crisis - high inflation and a depreciating currency - prove that interest rates need to be higher and not lower than what they are. Subbarao probably knew this, but in the wake of the misleading clamor for reducing rates from the industry, politicians, influential economists and the media, could not stand up to his beliefs with conviction. In the end, his policy actions could neither control inflation nor promote growth.

Subbarao took office in the midst of a global crisis. He is now leaving in the midst of a domestic one.

(Also read a related article here)

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Aadhaar Card and our "Identity" crisis

Archana works for an organization that has recently introduced a new device to track employee attendance. At the time of entry and exit, members of the staff press their fingers against a biometric sensor installed in the office. The sensor matches the fingerprints with those in its database, identifies the employee and marks them present. But there is a problem. Female employees have learnt the hard way that on days when they have mehendi on their fingers – a very common occurrence in India, especially during festivals and family events like weddings – the sensor fails to recognize the employee, marking them absent.

Professor Chari is a retired professor who spends his time doing research and freelance journalism. He is a regular visitor at the local Public Library, which has a large collection of rare books that help him in his research. The University has recently ‘upgraded’ its systems, and introduced a biometric reader that scans the borrower’s fingerprints when membership is granted. However, there is a problem. The biometric reader fails to ‘read’ the Professor’s fingerprints, making it impossible for him to enrol. The Librarian says this is a very common occurrence with senior citizens, for which he has no solution.

These two incidents (names changed, stories true) that I came across recently drove me to attend an event organized by Moneylife Foundation earlier this year, on the recently introduced “Aadhaar” card by the Government of India. The event was addressed by Col (retd.) Mathew Thomas, a former missile scientist cum civic activist, and Mr. Jude D’Souza, a forensic expert. At the event, Mr. D’souza gave a demonstration of how fingerprints can be faked, and claimed even Iris scans can be easily tampered with. Col Thomas, in his speech, came down heavily on the Aadhaar project and explained how the project is being pushed ahead despite its lack of Parliamentary sanction, extraordinary high cost and innumerable flaws in conception, execution and  implementation

Since then, I have tracked the Aadhaar project closely. The critics of Aadhaar are many, and its flaws are there for all to see - the project has no Parliamentary sanction, its cost benefit analysis has not been done, it uses questionable methods to collect its data, the accountability for breach of data secrecy is vague and unidentified, the card itself is unnecessary and adds no value, and it exposes citizens to a grave risk of identity theft. (Read thisthis or this) The card is being mischievously linked to government schemes like subsidy payments, for which simpler solutions such as Electronic Transfers (e.g. RBI's ECS) already exist. It's marketing campaign makes the deceptive claim of being “every citizen’s right”, creating a perception of value and benefit. One can understand a right to vote, a right to free speech, or even a right to subsidies and scholarships (if eligible). But a "right" to an identity card is a laughable statement! And yet, the citizen’s have lapped up the card, as if there was no tomorrow (around 38 crore enrolled at the time of writing!). I am amazed at this craving for another “identity” proof, without giving a second thought to what constitutes an "identity", and why identity cards exist. So let us ponder over it...

Aadhaar - A "right" to get a card that tells you who you are!

My dictionary defines Identity as “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is”. A person’s name and face, appearance and physical features give him his identity. His character, reputation, image give him his identity. His achievements, his work, his thoughts and actions – all give him his identity. "Cogito ergo sum”, Rene Descartes famously said in the 17th Century. I think, therefore I am. That gives me my identity. People would still have their identities even if there were no identity cards.

Identity Cards exist not because people need identities, but because organizations need to identify people they want to deal with. The Election Commission issues an Identity Card, because it needs to identify voters who are authorised to vote. National governments issue passports because they need to identify people who enter and exit their country. A school or college issues an Identity card because it needs to identify students who have been granted admission. Why the UIDAI needs to identify anybody is beyond my understanding. It is probably the only organization in the world whose sole purpose is to issue Identity Cards!

Going far beyond its blatant illegality and reckless implementation, the Aadhaar project raises serious issues of citizen’s freedom, liberty and privacy that are little understood by a majority of Indians. The government exists for the sole purpose of ensuring law & order, defending the country from external aggression and providing a dispute resolution framework. People are unaware that nobody – not even the government – needs to know more about its citizens than what is necessary. For example, the Motor Vehicles Department seeks information about a person’s age, physical fitness & blood group in its ‘normal’ course of business. The Income Tax Authority does not ask for your physical fitness and blood group, but may seek information about income and assets, because that is in its normal course of functions. The Election Commission seeks information about age & residential address, but not income & assets! But the UIDAI wants to know everything about everybody, and for no specific purpose! 

It should be noted that opposition to Aadhaar is not opposition to technology. From Stone Age to this day, mankind has progressed only because of advancements in technology. The benefits of technology in areas such as bank computerization or railway reservation systems have been there for all to see. In recent times, government departments like the Income Tax or Passport Offices have computerized their operations, bringing immense improvement in the quality of their service delivery. However, Aadhaar seeks to create an integrated database that will hold everything from a person’s name and date of birth, to fingerprints and iris scans, and address to bank account numbers. It  would expose citizens to a grave risk of identity theft, and is a blatant encroachment on the citizen’s right to privacy and liberty. It would grant immense power to anybody who lays his hands on this data, and would be open to misuse (see this, esp. the last para). This includes unscrupulous employees from the related offices, data collection agencies, people with political power, and by consequence their relatives, associates, business partners or anyone else who is interested in obtaining this data for a consideration. 

The UIDAI claims the data is encrypted at the point of collection. But we know that adding a layer of encryption does little to deter a determined hacker. Everything from bank websites to email accounts, defence networks to even nuclear establishments have been hacked. No wonder UIDAI doesn’t even reveal whether the country’s top politicians own an Aadhaar Card!

To me, Aadhaar is nothing but part of a grand scheme to create a Surveillance State. Its other elements includes the Central Monitoring System (CMS), the National Population Register (NPR), the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID), countless CCTVs at every nook and corner of the country, and every other instrument of state oppression that is used to track every step a citizen takes. Much of this is often justified on the grounds of 'national security' – in other words, the government’s own administrative failure of securing our borders and making the country safe. Governments exist to serve its people, not to control them. Unfortunately, schemes such as these do not face popular resistance, because a majority of the people feel they have nothing to hide. But once such an infrastructure is created, it can be misused to intimidate and subjugate people, and create a regime of oppression and injustice.

No wonder the government is desperate to give you an Aadhaar card. Why are you desperate to take it?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Why RBI needs to RAISE interest rates

On 16th January 2013, speaking at an outreach programme of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) at Lalpur Karauta village in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India, Governor Dr. D. Subbarao said this: "If you see the currency note, it is printed on it that 'I promise to pay the bearer the sum of Rs 100' and it has my signature as the RBI Governor. What does the promise and signature mean? It means that the RBI will control inflation and maintain its purchasing power". It is another matter that the stream of journalists present did not report this very important statement (see here, for example) when they filed their reports on the event. Either they did not really understand what the Governor said, or did not like what they heard.

If you read the pink press regularly, or watch one of those stock market channels masquerading as ‘business’ channels, you might be forgiven to think that the RBI Governor sits in his office holding a magic wand in his hand. All he needs to do is to waive the wand lower, and lo! All the country’s economic problems would be solved! This magic wand, the press might tell you, is called The Interest Rate. So much is the pressure from interested politicians, crony capitalists and the media on the Central Bank to reduce rates, that one would be inclined to believe that that’s all that is there to managing an economy.

Subbarao has a promise to keep - to maintain the purchasing power of our money

The truth however, is not so simple. When it comes to the interest rates, the mainstream media is not just wrong, it is preaching exactly the opposite. Let us therefore be clear – beginning to reduce interest rates right now will take the country on the path of ruin.

Let us understand why I am saying interest rates need to be raised.

Inflation is still running frighteningly high. As per the latest figures, Consumer Price inflation (CPI) is at 10.56 % per annum. Food prices have increased by 13.04 %, with several key ingredients such as oils & fats (16.73 %), vegetables (25.71 %), sugar (13.55 %) rising at a much faster pace. Being official figures, even these figures may be grossly understated. Prices of several items have as much as doubled in the past year. The index does not even include the dramatic increase in the prices of services like transport  and education.

Bank lending is already growing faster than deposits. For deposits to catch up, interest rates need to be raised. RBI has pointed this out in the last mid-quarter monetary policy review on 18th December 2012. In December, borrowings from RBI’s LAF (Liquidity Adjustment Facility) reached highest level for the year at Rs.1.70 lakh crore and are still running high at almost Rs. 80,000 - 1 lakh crore this month (see this or  this). To put it simply, banks as a whole are lending more than what their deposit base justifies.

The high rate of inflation and the shortage of deposits with banks clearly point to a need to raise, and not lower interest rates. Even the slight dip in wholesale inflation rate (WPI) from 7.24 % to 7.18 % that is being bandied around is far higher than RBI's 'comfort level' of 4 - 5 %.

Lowering interest rates ignores the interests of savers completely; it presupposes that borrowers are the only ones interested in interest rates. Lowering interest rates punishes savers, rewards borrowers and encourages profligacy. An economy should be built on solid foundations of high savings rate, and not on high borrowings. If savings are high, plenty of money will be available for productive investment, and this in turn will cause rates to move lower. Low interest rates are thus an outcome of a healthy economy, lowering rates artificially cannot automatically lead to a healthy economy.

In its Financial Stability Report released last month, the RBI has stated that low real interest rates are causing diversion of savings to hard assets like property and gold. Lowering rates further will worsen this trend.

Raising rates strengthens the currency, something India badly needs to do. India’s foreign exchange problems are well known and need not be elaborated here.  At a time when the country is trying to attract foreign capital by opening up new sectors for foreign investment, what justifies discouraging domestic savings?

Lowering interest rates now will worsen these trends, causing a further rise in inflation, erosion of savings, flight of deposits from the banking system and weakening the currency.

Vested interest and sheer ignorance promotes the myth that somehow low interest rates are  ‘good’ and high rates ‘evil’. The debate in the mainstream media is so one-sided that the merits of raising the rates or keeping them high are not even discussed. The bogey of low industrial growth and high Non-Performing Assets (NPAs) is raised every time to oppose raising or justify lowering the rates. But industrial growth has been slow mainly because inflation is eating away into people’s savings, leaving people with little money to spend on other things. High NPAs have been a result of various factors like the policy mess (e.g. power sector), poor business plans (e.g. aviation) or simply, in the words of the Finance Minister himself, “poor lending decisions”, not to mention willful defaults and corruption (e.g. real estate). I have not come across any instance which points to high interest rates as the primary cause of an asset turning bad. The rates simply aren’t that high.  

If high interest rates are not a cause of the problem, lowering them cannot be the solution as well.

The villagers of Lalpur Karuata, like the rest of us, will soon know whether Subbarao keeps his promise.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Shooting the Messenger - India's Gold Imports (Part II)

(In this two-part series, we look at India's gold imports in the context of its foreign exchange problems. Click here for the first part of this article) 

But, aren’t gold imports, however small, a waste of money? After all, gold has no intrinsic value.

Fig. 3: World's Central Banks are sitting on huge Gold Reserves
Neither does paper money! Let us first look at some more points of data (Figure 3). It is known that all Central Banks are holding large reserves of Gold  as part of their foreign currency reserves. The adjacent table that shows that even those countries who are facing severe economic stress, are holding  large amounts of gold as part of their foreign exchange reserves. (Even China is playing catch up and is in fact set to emerge as the world’s largest gold importer)

Fig. 4: Central Banks have become net buyers in Gold in recent years
Not only are the Central Banks holding large quantities of Gold, but are increasing them further (see Figure 4). In 2012 too, Central Banks have remained net buyers of the yellow metal, as these reports suggest (click here or here). If gold had no intrinsic value, why are the Central Banks themselves, who supposedly understand money better than us, sitting on so much gold and buying more?

The fact is, Central Banks understand that gold is money, and money does not have intrinsic value. Your currency note derives its value from the promise of the Central Bank printed on it. Gold derives its value from the value attached to it by thousands of years of human civilization. To destroy value of paper money, you just need to print more money (to elaborate on this is beyond the scope of this article, but the interested reader can refer to this excellent article on inflation). To destroy value of gold, you need to change the subjective opinions of billions of people (and Central Banks) all over the world. The reader can decide what is easier.

Even India's Central Bank, which itself bought 200 tonnes of gold in 2009 had this to say last week: "Gold is easily accessible. It is a store of value, has no credit risk and is relatively liquid thereby incentivising many households to buy gold” (RBI's Financial Stability Report (FSR) released on 28th December 2012). 

But gold has no cash flows, pays no interest or dividends and is risky to store.

A common argument made against gold, but gold is not an equity share at all. So aren't we comparing apples with oranges here? Gold is not an investment at all. Gold is money, gold is currency, gold is wealth. I would use the cash flow  argument only to evaluate an equity share, not gold. 

But of course, you can’t take a milligram of gold to the grocer to buy your stuff, right?

Right. Nobody disputes the need for paper (or digital, these days) money. This article should not be construed as an invesmtent advice, nor am I saying that gold prices will continue to rise perpetually. The purpose of this article is only to highlight that gold imports are nowhere as problematic as they are being made out to be and one needs a different perspective to understand gold.


It is estimated that Indian households own more than 17500 tonnes of gold accumulated over centuries of civilization. Despite two decades of economic reforms, it is pointed out that India’s equity investor population has actually shrunk – a surprising statistic given the importance the stock markets are attached to by policy makers and the media. Performance of mutual funds has been disappointing, to say the least, and double digit inflation has made investing in fixed income instruments a loss making proposition. Gold and property are the only assets where Indian people have seen their wealth grow. Since buying property needs deep pockets, gold has emerged as the only asset which people can accumulate in small quantities. In fact, in the FSR mentioned earlier, the RBI has admitted low interest rates have caused households to shift away from financial assets to physical assets and valuables such as gold. “Gold prices have increased the most in comparison with other assets and are significantly above the movement in WPI (i.e. inflation)” it said. It has proposed inflation indexed bonds as an option, which it hopes can reduce demand for gold.

Blaming gold imports suits the political class, as it shifts the blame of India’s economic ills away from its own mismanagement to the Indian public. But it is for us to analyze data, ask the right questions and make intelligent judgement. Gold imports are neither frighteningly high, nor the cause of India's currency problems. Nor are Indians alone in buying gold. If people are buying more gold, there are reasons for the same. Those reasons need to be addressed. Other avenues to park money need to be made more attractive. Raising taxes or banning imports will only encourage smuggling, punishing the honest and rewarding the dishonest. Key non-gold imports, such as oil or defence need to be reduced by increasing domestic production. Exports need to be increased by controlling inflation (since higher domestic costs reduce export competitiveness). Interest rates need to be increased, and should be higher than inflation rate, in order to encourage savings in financial assets like bank deposits. Until that happens, people will continue to buy gold, and for a good reason.


President Roosevelt’s order had permanently pegged the price of 1 oz. of gold at $ 35 and committed the U.S. government to exchange dollars for gold at this rate with anyone on demand. After World War II, backed by gold, the U.S. Dollar emerged as the primary currency of global trade. All international transactions and agreements, no matter between which two countries and what their currencies, came to be denominated in U.S.dollars. But thanks to inflation, the dollar continued to lose its value while gold held its own. By the early 1970s, it was clear that an ounce of gold was much more valuable than the $ 35 that the U.S. government paid for it. The demands on America to redeem dollars for gold increased dramatically. In 1971, faced with a run on its gold, President Nixon announced that it was ending the peg of the dollar to the gold, letting it float freely in international markets. In the next 10 years, the price of gold shot up more than 10 times to more than $ 400 per ounce and is trading at $ 1650 today.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Shooting the messenger - India's Gold imports (Part I)


On 5th April 1933, citing difficult economic conditions, the then U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt signed a decree. The Executive Order 6102, as it was called, made it illegal for American citizens to possess gold (with certain exemptions). The Order specified a date, 1st May 1933 to be precise, before which all citizens were required to deposit all the gold bullion held by them with the U.S. Treasury or face heavy penalties and / or imprisonment upto 10 years. The U.S. Government would pay $ 20.67 per oz (troy ounce, i.e. 31.10 grams, the then official gold exchange rate) for the gold, the Order said.

A few months after the Order, the President signed The Gold Reserve Act of 30th January 1934, outlawing private possession of Gold and suddenly changing the price of gold to $ 35 an ounce. In effect, wealthy Americans, who had amassed huge amounts of gold over generations of hard work and entrepreneurship since the onset of American industrialization in the mid-nineteenth century were short cheated for millions of dollars by the government in the name of saving the country. Mind you, financial markets were not as well developed in those days as they are today, and gold was one of the primary means of wealth accumulation in the U.S. at that time.


“Steps were being taken to control the Current Account Deficit…there was a need to control gold imports…” said India’s Finance Minister Mr. P. Chidambaram at a meeting of the National Development Council on 27th December 2012. "We are worried about gold imports. It is an unproductive instrument", Mr. Raghuram Rajan, Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of India had said earlier. 

Over the last few months, there has been a sustained campaign in the press about India’s ‘soaring’ gold imports. The government has raised taxes dramatically on gold, quadrupling the import duty rate, changing it  from specific to ad valorem, and doubling the excise duty on jewellery as well. “One of the primary drivers of the current-account deficit has been the growth of almost 50 percent in imports of gold and other precious metals in the first three quarters of this year,”  Mr. Pranab Mukherjee, the then Finance Minister had said earlier last year, before announcing the tax hikes. “I have been advised to strengthen the steps already taken to check this trend.” To cut a long story short, Indians are buying too much Gold, and that is causing problems in managing the economy, we are being repeatedly told.

It is therefore time to take a look at the numbers and check out the facts. Take a look at the data on gold imports given in figure 1 below:

Fig. 1: Ninety percent of India's imports are non Gold

 We observe that:

1. Gold imports were 9.26 % of India’s total imports in 2011-12. Ninety percent of India's imports are other than gold.
2. Imports were in the 5 – 6 % range till 2008-09 but increased after that, roughly the time when the rapid deterioration of the economy began.
3. There has been a dramatic increase in the price of gold in the last decade. Increase in the quantity of gold imported therefore, is more benign. (It is in the range of 7 - 8 % per annum)

Gold imports have thus increased only in line with the overall growth of the economy, with only a small uptick in the last 2-3 years. They are in fact expected to come down in the current year and the next. The brouhaha around gold imports therefore does not seem justified.

Don’t they cite some data whenever they blame gold imports?

Figure 2: India's CAD started deteriorating from 2004-05 itself
Most of the time, it is pointed out that gold imports are high as a percentage of Current Account Deficit (CAD, the excess of total imports to total exports). Read the Finance Minister's comment yesterday: ‎“Suppose gold imports had been one half of the actual level that would have meant that our ‎foreign exchange reserves would have increased by $10.5 billion,” Chidambaram said. “I would ‎therefore appeal to people to moderate the demand for gold, which leads to large imports of ‎gold.”  But this is a wrong metric to use, since it does not prove causation. As  Figure 2 shows, India’s current account started deteriorating as far back as 2004-05 itself, much before gold imports picked up. Current account deficit is caused not just by gold imports, but by all imports and all exports. The question is not why gold imports are rising, but why the CAD is rising. Contribution of gold imports to current account deficit is much smaller than what is made out to be.  In 2011-12, India's total imports were USD 607.158 billion and total exports were USD 529.003 billion. Gold imports were thus only 4.95 % of the total Foreign Trade of USD 1,136.161 billion, a very small portion, compared to other imports like petroleum or defence. Overall current account deficit on the other hand, has increased at 64 % p.a. in the last 7 years. 
But, aren't gold imports, however small, a waste of money? After all, gold has no intrinsic value.

We will look at these and other arguments in the next part of the article. 

(To be continued)