Money & Finance

Picking up the pieces

  • Blog Post Date 18 November, 2016
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In an earlier article , Pronab Sen, Country Director, IGC India Central, examined some of the economic consequences of the recent demonetisation of Rs. 1,000 and 500 notes in India, and concluded that the potential damage could be substantial, both in terms of growth and equityIn this article, focussing on solutions, he contends that the government now needs to realise that credit for production purposes is at least as, if not more, important than providing liquidity for consumption.

In an earlier article, I had examined some of the economic consequences of the recent demonetisation of Rs. 1,000 and 500 notes in India, and concluded that the potential damage could be substantial, both in terms of growth and equity. However, economists are not, or rather should not be, only storm crows. While pointing out the dangers looming in the future, it is also incumbent on us to suggest ameliorative, if not solutions. Whether these are accepted or not is a different matter altogether, but one should at least try. This article is in that spirit, and should therefore be read as a companion piece to the earlier – a balm to soothe the impending hurt.

The point that I had made earlier was that the demonetisation will have serious supply-side effects involving loss of both production and employment, especially in the informal sector. The measures that have been taken by the government so far are mostly designed to address the demand-side issues in an orderly and equitable manner. This is no doubt essential, but the hope that the liquidity released will rapidly percolate to the production side is seriously questionable. The greater likelihood is that most people will curtail their current consumption and try to rebuild their precautionary cash holdings as quickly as they can. The net result is that the currency in active circulation will be significantly lower than the currency pumped in, which means a continuing lack of liquidity in the informal sector. So what are the alternatives?

The first best and most elegant option is to do what should have been done in the first place – announce that both the old and the new currencies will be legal until 31 December, after which the former will become so much scrap paper. If all the procedural checks that have been imposed are kept intact, as they should, I do not see how this would be less effective in addressing counterfeiting and in penalising black money holders than what is happening now. However, far too much political capital has been invested in the current design, and any back-tracking will involve serious loss of face. As they say: it just ain’t gonna happen! Which leaves us then with the “Band Aid” approach.

Agriculture

Let me begin with the sector that needs the most help and needs it fast – agriculture. Crop agriculture is at a critical juncture (this does not apply to animal husbandry and fisheries, whose problems are more akin to those faced by informal manufacturing). In the North and the West, the summer crop (kharif) has been harvested and, for the most part, sold. The farmers are thus holding large amounts of what is now funny money. A rough estimate of the amounts involved is that a farmer cultivating 1 hectare of land would have sold his surplus produce for around Rs. 6 lakh – it’s very unlikely that this would have been paid in Rs. 100 notes. The lucky ones would have settled their debts, but it would still leave a tidy amount in cash/bank deposits. This can now be converted at the excruciatingly slow rate mandated by government, which may be all right for his immediate consumption needs over the next five months but will certainly not meet his working capital requirements for the winter (rabi) crop. And time is short – the sowing should begin in early December. Although the formal banking sector is required to make agricultural loans, the bulk of agricultural credit comes from the informal financial sector, that is, the moneylender and his like. Much of these funds technically qualify as black money, which means they are frozen and are unlikely to provide sufficient support to the farmers.

The situation is even worse in the South and the East, where harvesting will begin around the end of November, and sowing of the next crop towards the end of December. Will there be enough funds with the mandi traders; or will there be distress sales in all places and all products where the Food Corporation of India (FCI) does not have presence? I am afraid it will probably be the latter. This poses a critical problem not just for the rabi, but even for inter-harvest consumption.

Mobilising and providing sufficient liquidity to the non-moneylender agricultural credit system should therefore take high priority in the government’s scheme of things. The Kisan Credit Card system could have provided some succour, but it has two infirmities: (a) these cards are available with less than 20% of farmers; and (b) the cooperative banks which issue and operate these cards have been left out of the remonetisation process, possibly because of political considerations. This should be reversed urgently. Indeed, for the next two months, the remonetisation process should be redirected from the current consumption focus towards agricultural credit through whatever channels are available, keeping in mind the fact that production loans should be released en-bloc, and not in driblets. Equally important is to ensure that the cash requirements for purchase of the incoming crops are met. I do not believe that this can be done without coordinated action between the Centre and the states, and such a mechanism should be put in place without any delay.

If the farmer’s position is bad, that of the agricultural labourer is dire. He is staring at the prospect of unemployment at a time which is usually his peak work period. Given the liquidity position of the farmer, it is more than likely he will resort increasingly to using family labour instead of hired hands. This is a serious livelihood issue, and one that crops up every time there is a monsoon failure. Fortunately, there is a mechanism already in place to address this problem – the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). The government’s attitude towards this scheme in the last two-and-a-half years has been somewhat desultory, but it may be the only effective instrument it has to stave off a backlash against a calamity that is not natural but policy-induced. This should immediately be projected aggressively and implemented effectively, again in coordination with state governments.

Unregistered manufacturing

The informal manufacturing sector, which includes handlooms and handicrafts, is perhaps even more dependent on informal credit than agriculture, and therefore faces an imminent threat of massive disruption. And, like agriculture, very little of the money in this sector is black since all of them are below the excise threshold and most would be below the income tax threshold as well. Nevertheless, it also is going to suffer collateral damage. The only saving grace is that the credit needs of this sector are less ‘lumpy’ (or seasonal) than that of agriculture, which makes it more tractable in terms of gradual adjustment. Moreover, the only supply-side measure taken so far – permitting the withdrawal of Rs. 50,000 per month from current accounts – does address that component of this sector which has managed to access commercial bank credit. This is a good first step, but it just does not go far enough either in terms of volume or in garnering goodwill.

Prime Minister Modi had taken a path-breaking initiative in this area with the launch of MUDRA (Micro Units Development and Refinance Agency) loans, which were low volume unsecured loans issued by commercial banks that would be increased step-wise in tandem with credit compliance. After the initial push, however, MUDRA has dropped out of the limelight. This is an opportune time to revive its standing in the public eye and emphasising the government’s commitment to providing formal credit to micro manufacturing units.

Trade and transport

These two activities sit at the heart of any market economy and together constitute the largest component of the service sector by a wide margin. Any disruption in these activities has ripple effects which affect the entire economy: none is immune. The problems being faced by these two sectors from the demonetisation, however, are very different.

The trade sector is by far the largest repository of cash at any given point in time. Most of this is money in transition, that is, cash received from the buyer waiting to be remitted to the supplier, but there is a substantial component of own and borrowed funds as well. The first category is completely legal, since the trader is simply acting as a transaction platform. The second, however, probably has a fair component of ‘black money’, since these traders do act as agents for the recipients of black money and are also notorious for not declaring their incomes. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between the money in transition and the rest. The tax authorities, quite rightly, are raiding traders, but separating the legitimate from the illegitimate requires forensic audit, and the usual ham-handedness of the tax officers can do incalculable damage up and down the value chain. Since the demonetisation is in any case imposing punitive damage, it makes much more sense to wait until 31 March 2017 before cracking down.

The road transport sector, on the other hand, though highly dependent on cash, probably has very little black money. More than 90% of this sector comprises single truck owners, and not fleet operators. Since the trucking business by nature involves continuous movement and does not happen at a fixed location, it necessarily depends on a medium of exchange which will be accepted wherever you are. Currency is the only medium that meets this condition. The government has given some relief by allowing the use of the old currency notes for purchase of diesel for the time being, but what of the myriad other necessities that are involved when you are not at home? And especially what of the bribes demanded by a range of public functionaries lining the highways with open palms? Since truck operators usually do not access working capital loans from banks, the relaxation on withdrawals from current accounts is of little relevance to them. A possible option for addressing this problem would be to work through the vehicle financing companies, since almost all truckers borrow from these entities to buy their vehicles. These NBFCs could be asked to open a credit window for their trucker clients and new currency notes channelised through them.

In conclusion, I believe that the government needs to realise that production credit is at least as, if not more, important than providing liquidity for consumption. If it does accept this point of view, it should continue with the restrictions on exchange and withdrawals for consumption purposes for a longer period, and redirect much of the new notes being printed for production purposes.

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