Friday, 1 September 2017

Maximum pain

Indian Express, 1st September 2017

Objectives of demonetisation could have been served better by doing a cost benefit analysis.

The RBI Annual Report reveals that almost all demonetised notes have been returned to the central bank. This number does not include the old notes with District Central Cooperative Banks for the short window when they were allowed to accept deposits. It also does not include the notes within Nepal. The shortfall of Rs 16,050 crore between the notes in circulation when the notes were demonetised and those that were returned, could therefore also be made up once these notes are returned to the RBI.

It should come as no surprise that almost all the notes have been returned, including the stock of black money held as cash. To the extent that it was possible to exchange money legally, individuals did so. When cash limits for withdrawal made it difficult, friends and families participated. The inconvenience of long queues was overcome by household staff. A private company offered booking of "chhotus", who would stand in long queues for people for Rs 90 an hour until their turn came. Bank employees were averse to being unhelpful to regular customers and found ways to serve them. Innumerable ways were found to work around the changing rules of exchange, cash limits, indelible ink and specified uses of old notes.

Those who could not exchange money legally found money changers. Innumerable anecdotes, media reports and arrests of bank staff tell stories about how this was done all over the country. When the government announced that old notes could no longer be exchanged, but only deposited, new ways of changing the stock of unaccounted cash emerged. Individuals with bank accounts, including Jan Dhan accounts, and companies showing cash accrual from sales came into business. Large amounts could be laundered through this route as it did not involve immediate cash payouts by banks, since cash shortages still persisted with the RBI and banks scrambling to remonetise the economy.

It was to be expected that even if people have to pay tax on their hoarded cash, and a change fee, they would prefer to do that rather than lose the whole amount. Data from Prowess, a database of companies in India, shows that in the quarter of demonetisation, when purchasing power had fallen sharply, net sales by companies rose significantly. At the same time, the number of tax payers and tax collections rose. The tax department is said to have found thousands of shell companies which were possibly engaging in the activity of depositing money in their accounts during the demonetisation period, claiming that it was cash from sales. This provided a means for laundering money.

The total currency in circulation, according to the RBI’s annual report, is about Rs 2 lakh crore short of the pre-demonetisation period. This is partly due to the increase in focus on printing of lower denomination currency notes. Initially, the RBI had focused on printing the Rs 2,000 notes to rapidly remonetise the economy. In addition, there could be some reluctance to hold cash. The replacement of cash transactions by digital transactions, the slowdown in small-scale industry, in the rural economy, construction and other informal segments of the economy could also lead to somewhat lower demand for cash. However, it is less probable that the cash of black money holders has not been withdrawn because they are unlikely to leave that in the bank accounts of the money launderers for long. It might have partly been settled for bitcoins, gold, or similar assets that are difficult to trace.

There is no doubt that those with holdings of unaccounted cash lost some of their wealth in the process of laundering it. To some extent, taxes were paid on it in the process of legitimising it. But in addition to that, illicit wealth was redistributed from black money holders to money launderers. Whether the money launderer was a company owner, a bank employee or a Jan Dhan account holder, there was now a need breed of criminals with wealth obtained from illegal means. The total reduction in black money was therefore much smaller than what might have been envisaged.

International evidence suggests that few countries address the problem of black money by demonetising their currencies. If the problem is large-scale crime, corruption, bribery, bureaucrat-politician nexus, rent seeking, tax evasion etc. the answer lies in reforming the criminal justice system, law and order, administrative reforms, bringing transparency in the functioning of the state and rationalisation and simplification of the tax system. In this context, the GST will be a far more effective mechanism to bring down tax evasion in indirect taxes considering the greater incentive for compliance that its design holds.

The real rationale for new notes by the RBI is a rather innocuous paragraph hidden away in its Annual Report. It says: "As a standard international practice, the design and security features of banknotes are reviewed periodically. In line with this practice, a new series (Mahatma Gandhi New Series) of banknotes in new design, dimensions and denominations, highlighting the cultural heritage and scientific achievements of the country, was introduced during the year. As part of this process, banknotes in the denominations of 500 and 2000 were introduced on November 8, 2016. New design notes in other denominations are due for phased introduction." (Section VIII.15, RBI Annual Report 2016-17).

The best way of achieving this objective would have been to slowly replace old notes with new ones, giving the public adequate time to exchange and deposit old notes, as is also "standard international practice". The outcome would have been the same. The pain would have been much lower.

This episode in India's policy-making highlights an essential tenet of policy-making — the need for a cost benefit analysis. For any objective that is to be achieved, we need to examine various policy options and analyse their costs and efficacy. For an economy on the path of reform, with many more reforms still to come, long-term sustainable impact can be achieved only when we strengthen the policy-making process as well.


Friday, 3 February 2017

Not with a bang

Indian Express, 2nd February 2017

FM springs no surprises. Nor responds adequately to slowdown in private investment.

Budget 2017 took place under the shadow of demonetisation. What would the follow-up actions be, especially as the outcomes from demonetisation have been disappointing compared to its stated objectives? The budget has proved to be a quiet affair. We are left with relief that erratic actions have not been taken. At the same time, there were few steps that would address the biggest concern about the economy - the slowdown in private investment.

Before the budget speech, there were several scenarios which were being talked about. Would the budget propose other radical measures like a banking transaction tax or the removal of income tax proposed by Artha Kranti? Would the budget try to soothe demonetisation’s pain by sending transfers and tax breaks to the affected? Would the fiscal deficit be increased to alleviate its contractionary impact?

The demonetisation experiment was a negative shock to the economy. Some people were proposing that this should be offset by a fiscal expansion. The finance minister (FM), however, stuck to a modest fiscal deficit. This makes sense for many reasons. First, a larger fiscal deficit could have hurt India's credit rating. A fall in ratings could have lead to a flight of capital and a rupee crisis. Second, providing a fiscal stimulus would be tantamount to accepting that the negative demonetisation shock has consequences beyond the present quarter. This may not be something the government is ready to admit. In terms of providing a positive shock by expanding expenditure, the capacity of the state to spend funds effectively is limited. The budget speech did well in not announcing big subsidy programmes. There was a sharp increase in the expenditure of MNREGS. This may be consistent with the increased utilisation of MNREGS owing to demonetisation that appears in the initial data. It has to be kept in mind, however, that the prime minister’s speech on December 31 announced many traditional subsidy programmes.

The overall emphasis on subsidies is larger than meets the eye.

At a conceptual level, perhaps demonetisation and the associated political strategy is more about being anti-rich than being pro-poor. In the past, populism in India has involved inventing subsidy programmes that help the poor. This government has tried to make poor people happy by pointing to the distress of the rich. Perhaps this would imply that the budget would also take actions which could be positioned as being anti-rich, such as raising tax rates or avoiding reforms. There could have been a number of measures that fitted the bill, such as a wealth or inheritance tax. It is not clear what the impact of these would have been. The FM proposed a surcharge on income between Rs 50 lakh and Rs 1 crore.

When faced with economic difficulties, another way through which fiscal policy can be expansionary is to cut taxes. One long-standing area for Indian fiscal reform is bringing down the corporate tax rate. In Union budget 2015, the FM promised that the Indian corporate tax rate will be brought down to 25 per cent. One concern for not doing this for the corporate sector may have been the risk of being called pro-rich. Another may have been the uncertainty that removing exemptions could have introduced at this time. The rate could not have been cut for large corporates that contribute to most of the corporate tax collections, without removing exemptions, or it would have led to a dip in revenues, something the government cannot afford at this point.

A compromise has been achieved by proposing a lower, 25 per cent tax rate for small companies whose income is under Rs 50 crore per year. At a political level, this can be seen as reaching out to small businesses. One can also hope that they would help to improve compliance by smaller companies.

Similar moves are visible in personal income tax, where tax rates were cut at low incomes and increased at higher incomes. These moves are consistent with the populist, anti-rich stance. Respect for Indian policymaking capacity was at a low after demonetisation. Expectations for the budget speech were low. The pessimists expected an escalation of erratic measures crafted by non-experts. The prevailing mood seemed to support doing things that were bold and that no reasonable country had tried before. Fortunately, the budget did not propose a universal basic income, a banking transaction tax, a cash transaction tax or any other untested idea.

In terms of institutional reform, the budget speech was necessarily silent on the big story: The Goods and Services Tax.

A sound GST is one with a low single rate, comprehensive coverage and a single administration. Many compromises have already been made which ensure this will not come about. The extent to which a sound GST is delivered will have a major impact on the coming years.

On financial sector reform, some old policy initiatives are gradually going towards execution. The abolition of FIPB was long overdue and is a welcome step. The Resolution Corporation will deal with the failure of financial firms.

In summary, while the FM should be given brownie points for staying on the conventional path and not giving any big surprises, he also did not respond adequately to the serious slowdown in private sector investment India has seen in recent decades.


Monday, 16 January 2017

Reserved Bank of India

Indian Express, 14th January 2017

Demonetisation showed India's central bank is too opaque. Its decision-making must be open to scrutiny.

The RBI board's decision to recommend withdrawal of legal tender of high denomination notes after a short board meeting is seen as a loss of independence of the RBI. The recommendation was based on advice by the government that the RBI Central Board should consider such a decision. The RBI board was within its powers to turn it down. It could have directed the management to give it a report on the costs and benefits involved and taken a considered decision in its next meeting. Why did it not do so? Why could the government take the RBI board for granted?

To figure this out, we need to look at how the RBI Central Board normally makes decisions. As an example, we consider how the RBI Central Board decides the annual expenses of the RBI; a relatively important decision about spending public money. The RBI annual report shows the RBI’s annual expenses in 2014-15 were Rs 13,356 crore. These are comparable to the annual expenditure of many states in India, and many times bigger than that of most central banks and regulators in India and abroad. Nearly a third, or more than Rs 4,000 crore, is spent on RBI staff salaries, superannuation, housing, maintenance, directors’ fee and board meeting expenses. Such a large use of public money requires adequate scrutiny.

The board would discuss and approve the expenses and fulfill its role of controlling excessive expenditure by the management. However, there is no evidence available that the board even discusses this enormous annual spend of the RBI. Further, there is no evidence that the board looks after the public's interest in the event that there may be a conflict with the interests of the management. This is something the Board would have been expected to do. The decision seems to be taken mainly by the management - without the scrutiny of the Board.

How could such an arrangement be possible in today's India? The answer lies in the text of the RBI Act. In 1934, India's British rulers did not see a role for defending public interest which could be in conflict with the interests of the RBI management - the sections of the Act relating to the functioning of the Board have not been amended even after Independence. Through regulations made by the Board (Regulation 15 of the RBI General Regulations), the board created a "Committee of the Central Board" to which it delegated all its powers. The management may invite a couple of directors to meetings of the Committee, based on whichever directors happen to be in Mumbai at the time. This Committee can meet often and take all decisions that are then approved by the Board - in effect, the RBI Central Board has abdicated its responsibilities to the people they were supposed to have oversight over, that is, the management.

A normal governance practice is to create committees of a board with specific mandates and come back to the board for decisions, rather than take decisions. All decisions are taken by the board. In the case of the RBI, all the general powers of the Central Board have been delegated to the Committee of the Central Board - the Committee of the Central Board virtually can do everything that the Central Board can, under the RBI Act. This defeats the spirit of collective decision-making at the Central Board-level and circumvents the necessity of obtaining votes of the majority of members of the Central Board. The minutes of the Committee are placed before the Central Board; this serves little purpose as decisions are already taken and members did not participate in them. The Central Board effectively becomes responsible for all decisions of the Committee without deliberations - while the Committee has no accountability on how it discharges its duties.

The regulation that empowered this Committee to transact all the business of the Central Board was made in 1949. For decades, the RBI board has functioned in a manner in which it did not deliberate on the most important decisions of the functioning of the RBI. This suited the management, which did not have public accountability in this unusual set-up. The management's functioning has consequently become a black box with no scrutiny. The Board functions in a manner that would not be acceptable even for a private company as it would violate company law. Today, Parliament may find fault with the demonetisation decision and blame the RBI for not asserting its powers or the governor for not doing his job properly. But if the Board continues to function in this manner, the problem will remain.

A related issue is that of transparency. The RBI does not make the Board agenda or minutes public. This lack of transparency is not just about this episode, when an RTI enquiry about Board minutes was turned down. Even the minutes of Board meetings held five years ago are not made public. If the Board was required to make its proceedings public, would it have continued to behave in this manner or would public scrutiny have prevented such functioning?

This takes us to the question of what is gained by transparency. Why are the agenda and minutes for board meetings of regulators or central banks in India and abroad made public? In the minutes, only a few specific decisions, such as those related to specific companies or trade secrets that the law prevents regulators from revealing, are held back. The answer lies in the understanding that along with transparency comes autonomy. When participants know that discussions of the meeting will be made public, they, as well as those who may be sending letters or advice to the Board, behave more responsibly. This reduces the chances of the Board being pressured or taking hasty or irresponsible decisions.

Parliament must examine in detail the functioning of the RBI Central Board. The RBI must be required to make public minutes of all past meetings of the Central Board. The agenda of every meeting should henceforth be public. If there are to be any exceptions based on national security, it is Parliament that should decide. The Board must not be allowed to abdicate its responsibility. Unless Parliament amends the law and enforces a well-functioning Board, the RBI will continue to be a weak institution and fertile ground for further mistakes.