Tag Archives: RBI

What sense do we make of bad news?

It seems to be the season of bad news. Here, here, here, here and here with some honourable exceptions here and here, various sectors of industry led by the automobile sector seem to be facing slow or negative growth in the last financial year. What sense do we make of these disparate bits of data coming from different corners of the market?

Why are auto sales falling?

Before answering this question, it is important to understand that what we are witnessing is a broadbased fall in sales across the automobile industry, not just in one or two firms. This means that people have, in general, chosen not to buy new automobiles, which in turn means that they have chosen to retain their existing mode of transportation, which could be private or public transportation.

Second, a significant proportion of automobile purchases (2 and 4 wheelers) in India happens with a bank financing the purchase, usually paying a large chunk (70-80%) of the price. The buyer of the automobile pays for it on a 3-5 year EMI schedule. That people are not ready to borrow in order to finance automobile purchases indicates that either funding is not available as easily as before or has become too costly, or the borrowers perceive greater uncertainty regarding their future income and are therefore reluctant to take up the responsibility of paying for a new vehicle under a scheme of EMIs.

So, if automobile sales are indeed falling, it must be a combination of these factors
1. People choosing to retain existing modes of transportation
2. Funding not as easily available as before
3. People not ready to borrow now and pay EMI later due to fundamental uncertainty over their own income
that underlies the problem. But then that raises the further question of why such an outcome should occur, that too across the entire automobile industry after so many years of spectacular, non-stop growth? The answer lies not in an analysis of the automobile industry and its markets but in understanding the broader economic climate in which the auto industry currently operates.

The economic climate

Since 2007, the global economy and the Indian economy along with it have been muddling through what is today called The Great Recession and is being recognised as one of the longest periods of economic growth challenges since the Great Depression. On paper, the recession started in December of 2007 and while there are debates about the official end date, the problems that started in 2007 are far from over. Every now and then, a new crisis pops up and there is a mad scramble to contain it. It was Greece a few months ago and it is Cyprus now. Heaven knows what it will be in the near and distant future.

Like any depression, The Great Recession is just a period of correction that consists of identification of a cluster of entrepreneurial error. In simple terms, a large number of businesses suddenly and surprisingly find that they are and have been producing things that people do not need and are therefore staring at deep losses and capital erosion. As Austrian Business Cycle Theory explains, this cluster of errors is created during the preceding inflationary boom (in this case by the boom of 2001-2007) and is caused by a combination of misleading interest rate signals given to producers, credit injection into the production system and monetary inflation, causing intertemporal discoordination, i.e., a mismatch between consumers’ consumption decisions and producers’ corresponding production decisions.

That producers en masse suddenly find far fewer takers for their goods, as automobile manufacturers currently do, is a result of this intertemporal discoordination. When this happens, what a sensible producer should do is to understand the economic climate, try to develop a better forecast of what the future, medium and long-term, is likely to look like and adjust production decisions accordingly. This could mean, in some cases, producing less of the good. It could even mean completely ending certain lines of production, i.e., shutting down certain businesses.

Such decisions are usually accompanied by a lot of pain as many people are put out of employment and, in many cases, will need to reskill themselves to the requirements of the new production structure. This puts further strain on many already struggling businesses leading to more business failures and more people being out of unemployment. While this sounds painful, it is just the market’s way of clearing past production decisions that are not in line with consumer preferences.

This process goes on till the market clears out all such poor decisions and leaves the production system in sync with consumer preferences. Capital is taken out of the hands of those who made poor forecasts of the future into the hands of better forecasters, i.e., from failed entrepreneurs to successful entrepreneurs. This is the proper point of economic recovery. Further economic expansion would, under a free market, be triggered by fresh decisions to save and add to the capital available to be advanced for production for a more distant future.

An alternative, equally or more likely in today’s FRB system, is that the banking system interrupts the market’s cleaning up process and initiates a fresh round of interest rate depression through credit expansion and monetary inflation, thus flooding the market with cheap money and cheap loans. This time, however, one would also have to contend with the possibility that such measures are not guaranteed to work like they have in the past. Experiments in the Western world indicate that such attempts have not really led to an economic recovery this time round.

Summary

What the auto industry is going through today could very well be one of the manifestations of the bursting of the bubble created from 2001 to 2007. If people are not buying as many cars as they are producing, it is probably because they do not wish to see producers produce as many cars as they are producing. It is possible that the market is crying for a correction and that producers need to cut-back production to the level customers are ready to support. This is clearly one of the possibilities for any producer. Alternately, producers could place their bets on the RBI, through the banking system, inflating a new bubble through a fresh round of credit expansion and monetary inflation. In this case, they need to hold their horses for the recovery to happen while being prepared to profit the most by being at the vanguard of the recovery.

Clearly, therefore, each entrepreneur will have to decide which scenario is likely to play out and what is the most appropriate course of action for him. It’s not easy, but no one ever said that operating a business in an environment of uncertainty created by endless meddling in the market would be easy. The times sure are challenging and let’s hope many entrepreneurs do make their way heroically through this economic fog to do what they do best – meet customer needs in the best possible way.

What we need to take home, and what this article seeks to emphasise, is the point that in many circumstances, having sound economic understanding can help us understand business situations far better than those economically uninformed or ill-informed can. We can also see that cutting through the fog and making sense of complex situations is made possible by a good grasp of sound economic principles. The situation created by falling sales of the automobile industry in India only highlights the point that learning sound economics is a critical prerequisite for any aspiring business manager seeking to create a career out of making effective business decisions in a complex economic environment.

Understanding the impact of RBI’s Repo and Reverse Repo Rate Cut

It has happened as expected. RBI has announced a 25 basis point cut in the Repo and Reverse Repo rates. For the less exposed, this means that the Repo Rate has fallen from 7.75% to 7.5% while Reverse Repo Rate has fallen from 6.75% to 6.5%. What does this mean to different people? The segments we cover in this article are Banks, Industry, ordinary people and the broader economy.

Impact on Banks

To understand the impact of a cut in Repo and Reverse Repo Rates on banks, it is important to understand the role they play in banking. Repo and Reverse Repo are basically instruments used by the RBI to influence the total monetary base of banks.

To get a grip on this, it is important to understand how banks work and what the term monetary base means. Banks engage in a practice called Fractional Reserve Banking (FRB). As explained in the linked article, under FRB, a bank lends many multiples of the actual cash in hand. This cash they have is what I mean by monetary base. Clearly, any addition to the monetary base adds to the bank’s ability to make loans by creating money from nothing (as explained in the linked article).

In India, banks’ monetary base takes 2 forms – CRR (Cash Reserve Ratio) and SLR (Statutory Liquidity Ratio). CRR is the amount of actual cash that banks need to hold with the RBI. SLR refers to the amount (by value) of approved securities (government bonds, gold and approved, privately issued financial instruments) that banks are mandated to hold. Currently, CRR is 4% and SLR is 23%. Together, they constitute the monetary base of the Indian banking system.

However, what CRR and SLR do not cover is the extent to which the RBI can lend to banks. That is covered under the Repo and Reverse Repo. In a Repo or a repurchase agreement, the Repo seller (the bank) sells an approved security to the RBI with the understanding that at a certain date in the future, the bank will buy the security back from the RBI. The bank gets cash and the RBI the security.

One would expect that this would not influence the monetary base because while the bank gets cash and adds to its CRR base, it loses possession of the security and falls behind on its SLR base and can therefore not lend more. The interesting part is that this problem in the way of expanding bank lending is eliminated by the way the Repo system works.

Very interestingly, during the term of the Repo, the bank is allowed to count the security thus sold to the RBI as part of its investments to fulfil the SLR requirement. So, the net effect of a Repo transaction is an addition to the bank’s cash reserves without falling behind on SLR requirements. With this, the bank can now engage in much more lending.

At the end of the term of a Repo, the bank buys the security back from the RBI at a price higher than the original sale price. The difference expressed as a percentage of the original sale price is the Repo Rate. Thus, Repo Rate is used to calculate the price at which the security is bought back by the bank. It is the equivalent of an interest paid by the bank to RBI.

It might seem that at the time the bank buys the security back, its cash reserve falls. However, the bank can then enter into a fresh Repo transaction and sell the security back to the RBI, bringing the cash reserve back to the higher level. In this manner, Repo becomes a means for the RBI to maintain a steady level of lending to banks.

But all this additional lending would mean more purchases of securities to meet SLR requirements. This would mean the need to deploy cash for the same. That cash would go outside the system of lending and reduce the system’s lending potential. This problem is solved by what is called the Reverse Repo.

In a Reverse Repo, the RBI sells an approved security to the bank with the understanding that it will buy it back at a future date at a higher price. The difference between the 2 prices expressed as a percentage of the original selling price (per annum) is called the Reverse Repo Rate. The Reverse Repo Rate thus becomes the interest rate received by the bank for lending cash to the RBI.

The important point for us to note is that a bank may show securities bought from the RBI through the Reverse Repo window as part of its SLR commitments. Further, as in the case of the Repo, at the end of the term of the Reverse Repo, the bank can enter into a fresh Reverse Repo with the RBI.

Summarising the understanding

Bank XYZ hits its lending limit based on its CRR and SLR. It sees potential for more lending. It offers RBI a portion of the securities it holds as part of a Repo transaction and gets cash. It deploys 23% of this new cash to obtain securities under the Reverse Repo window from the RBI, thus keeping the cash within the system. The bank now gets to create new money amounting to 1/(CRR+SLR) times the money borrowed under the Repo window and lend it out at interest. The Repo window thus becomes a cheap source of borrowing for banks.

The impact of a cut in Repo and Reverse Repo Rates

A cut in Repo and Reverse Repo rates basically reduces the bank’s cost of borrowing from the RBI to add to its reserves. It enables banks to either increase the interest rate spread on loans made by the bank or offer borrowers lower rates of interest without eating into its own interest rate spread. Thus, a cut in Repo and Reverse Repo Rates increases the banking system’s potential by expanding more loans in a profitable manner.

Impact on Industry

With lower repo and reverse repo rates, industry gets to borrow more and even gets to pay lower interest rates on its borrowing. Therefore, those businesses that are in a position to secure additional lending from the banking system will benefit from lower repo and reverse repo rates.

Impact on ordinary people

The impact on ordinary people can be felt in 2 ways. In the nearer term, greater lending to businesses will lead to more business investment and employment opportunities. In the medium and longer term, however, the dominant factor influencing ordinary people will be the increased money supply (inflation), which will send prices of consumers’ goods soaring, resulting in future pressure to raise interest rates thus forcing the pricking of the inflationary bubble and the onset of the depression.

Impact on the broader economy

In the long-run, reducing Repo and Reverse Repo rates is harmful for the economy as it is just a means to lend reserves to banks, enabling them to engage in far bigger inflation to undertake much more credit expansion through FRB. While this lending will have some short-term positive effects, in the long-run, it creates and worsens the inflationary boom of the familiar boom-bust cycle. It also sets the conditions for the inevitable raising of interest rates thus pricking the inflationary bubble and triggering the depression.

Conclusion

Thus we see that the policy of reducing Repo and Reverse Repo rates is essentially bad for the economy in the long-run because it greatly aids the creation of the business cycle. It also hurts ordinary people by sending prices soaring. Industry and the banking system, however, benefit in the short run. This explains why a policy of lowering repo and reverse repo rates finds fairly broad-based support from the banking industry and general industry as well.

The hidden side of RBI’s push for more electronic payments

In this article, the RBI is cited to be pushing for electronic payments as a replacement for cheques for loan repayments. The obvious explanation is that ECS will eliminate all the time and effort involved in collecting, depositing cheques and then getting them cleared. This is supposed to leave the banking system more efficient.

What is not stated is the deeper reason for the move – to make people more accustomed to making electronic payments for everything to eventually make the move to eliminating cash.

Now, cash is a bothersome thing. As long as people have a concept of cash and want it for various purposes, the banking system has to keep some cash. This is the reasoning behind having reserve ratios like CRR and SLR. With these, the bank is supposedly in a position to comfortably meet demand for cash.

Why does people having a demand for cash make it bothersome?

If people did not have a demand for cash, there is no operational limit to how much money the central bank and the entire banking system can create. We will then land in Inflationist Utopia where money creation and credit expansion can go on unbridled. That also means that all limits on government spending are eliminated.

Is it possible that this Inflationist Utopia is RBI’s goal?

Why the SBI Chairman is calling for rate cuts

I just chanced upon this article and thought it would be helpful to explain why representatives of the banking industry frequently make such demands. This is meant as a primer for those with little introduction to banking and finance.

Here’s how the banking system works. It is called a system of Fractional Reserve Banking. Unlike ordinary people, banks can lend many times the amount of money that they actually have on hand. If you have Rs. 1000 on hand, the maximum amount you can lend to someone is Rs. 1000. A bank, however, gets to lend many multiples of Rs.1000 depending on the regulatory regime, i.e., the reserve requirements imposed by the central bank (the RBI in India).

This is made possible by a simple accounting trick. Imagine a bank with the following balance sheet

Table 1 - Balance Sheet of a Hypothetical Bank upon launch

One would expect that the bank will be able to lend a maximum of 1,000,000 and end up with a balance sheet that looks like this.

Table 2 - Expected Balance Sheet of a fully loaned up bank

We think that the bank has 1,000,000 in cash to pay all deposit holders if need be. However, under fractional reserve banking, a bank needs to keep only a fraction of the total deposits as cash in reserve. This fraction is called the reserve ratio. These days, it is usually set by the central bank of each country though prior to central banking, banks used to set their own reserve ratios.

A bank with a 10% reserve ratio needs to keep only 100,000 as reserve against deposits of 1,000,000. Conversely, a cash base of 1,000,000 can support a deposit base of 10,000,000. This means that the bank’s balance sheet can look like this.

Table 3 - Balance Sheet of a fully loaned up Fractional Reserve Bank with a 10% Reserve Ratio

Thus, we see that fractional reserve banking enables banks to lend far in excess of their actual cash holdings. They do this by adding units of money to the total money supply by adding it into new or existing deposit accounts. This is reflected in the jump in deposits held in bank from 1,000,000 to 10,000,000.

Basic arithmetic tells us that if a bank gets to borrow 1,000,000 at 8% and lend 10,000,000 at 12%, it must be enormously profitable. So, there is phenomenal incentive for banks to borrow to add to their cash base and grow by increasing the total amount they have loaned out. In order to do this, banks need a source of near unlimited lending. That source is the central bank (the RBI in India).

The Repo window of the RBI is basically a means for banks to augment their cash reserves through sale of bonds to the RBI (repo) or borrowing reserves from the RBI (reverse repo). Interest rates (Update: Please note that interest rate here stands for repo/reverse repo rates) determine how much a bank can add to its cash base through this window. Higher interest (Update: repo/reverse) rates mean lower addition to the cash base while lower interest (Update: repo/reverse repo) rates mean higher addition to the cash base. Therefore, it must be obvious that banks would prefer lower interest (Update: repo/reverse repo) rates all the time.

Lowering the reserve ratio has a dramatic effect on how much the banking system can lend out on the same cash base. A drop in the reserve ratio from 10% to 9% will leave our hypothetical bank’s balance sheet looking like this.

Table 4 - Balance Sheet of fully loaned up Fractional Reserve Bank after cut in Reserve ratio to 9%

The banking system thus gets to lend out an additional amount greater than its actual cash base. While the actual additional amount of lending possible depends on the original reserve ratio and the extent of the cut, the simple arithmetical point is that it a cut in the reserve ratio necessarily means additional lending possibilities for banks. Combined with a cut in repo and reverse repo rates, it can indeed add significantly to the banking system’s ability to create new loans.

Thus, it becomes clear why the banking industry is perpetually calling for lower interest rates and lower reserve ratios. The economic consequences of these are, of course, an entirely different matter and I shall tackle them some other time.