Sweet little lies

Despite the frenzy of distractions since, by now you have likely heard the news that demonetisation failed. As NDTV’s Sreenivasan Jain put it in Truth vs Hype, the news sent the government into “a spiral of deflection, of moving goalposts and of swamping us with cherry-picked data”. He’s being very polite, avoiding the accurate and efficient word: “lies”.

Take this blatant example from the 31 Aug 2017 Ministry of Finance release titled “Demonetisation immensely beneficial to Indian Economy and People”:

The Government had expected all the SBNs to come back to the Banking system to become effectively usable currency.

Oh yeah? Here are four examples that show otherwise:

  • In his 8 Nov speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated: “The 500 and 1,000 rupee notes hoarded by anti-national and anti-social elements will become just worthless pieces of paper.”
  • Two days later, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley told News18 that, of the 14 lakh crore notes outstanding, “some would certainly get extinguished” because “people who have used cash for crime purposes are not foolhardy enough to try and risk and bring the cash back into the system”.
  • On 10 Dec, Attorney General Mukul Rohtagi informed the Supreme Court that “the government had expected ₹10 or 11 lakh crore to be returned out of a total of ₹15 lakh crore of ₹500 and ₹1,000 notes that were demonetised”.
  • One month later, on 10 Jan, NITI Aayog member Bibek Debroy predicted that some 10% of the notes in circulation would not return.

Some other big holes in the government’s defence of demonetisation are now widely acknowledged. That the proportion of fake notes in the system is small and remains so, and that the cash crunch failed to impede the activities of militants in Kashmir and in Naxalite areas (here, here and here). That demonetisation has brought in fewer taxpayers than the government claims.

So what’s left to be said?

Quite a bit, it turns out. The big fibs are defended by a ring of smaller lies and half-truths, to the point that honesty seems absent in the entire defence of demonetisation. It’s one thing for politicians to spin or massage the truth, quite another for an official government statement to do so.

Let’s look at the claims in that document, one by one.

A significant portion of SBNs deposited could possibly be representing unexplained/black money… Since November 2016 and until the end of May 2017, a total of Rs 17,526 crore has been found as undisclosed income and Rs 1003 Crore has been seized.

Duh, that’s obviously what happened. It is possible that the income tax department’s Operation Clean Money exposes a good proportion of that money in the coming months, and thereby contributes to the original goals of demonetisation. But the evidence so far is unimpressive.

₹17,256 crore sounds like a lot, but is actually well within historical averages, even if we exclude the unusually large 2013-14 haul – which we really shouldn’t since demonetisation was supposed to be this bold, never-seen-before move (see chart below). The best-case scenario is that future revelations await, the worst-case scenario is that wily citizens successfully convert black money to white.

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Takeaway: Wake us up when you have something solid.

The total assets under management (AUM) of Mutual funds (MFs) rose by 54% by the end of June 2017 from March 2016.

This is simply ridiculous as a defence of demonetisation. The bulk of this asset growth happened prior to demonetisation, between Apr and Oct 2016, when it rose 32% (according Association of Mutual Funds in India data). Following demonetisation, mutual funds assets grew a more subdued 16% between Nov 2016 and Jun 2017. But 54% sounds so much cooler than 16%, doesn’t it?

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Takeaway: They do take us for fools.

Thanks to demonetization led efforts, zero balance accounts under PMJDY declined from 76.81 % in September 2014 to 21.41% in August 2017.

More bunkum, I’m afraid. The proportion of zero balance Jan Dhan Yojana accounts had already fallen to 24.1% by 26 Sep 2016, several weeks prior to the demonetisation announcement. In fact, the reduction from 24.1% to 21.4% that occurred after demonetisation is the slowest since 2014 (see chart below), quite the opposite of what the Finance Ministry is implying.

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Takeaway: Still taking us for fools.

As part of fillip to digitalization, about 52.4 crore unique Aadhaar numbers have been linked to 73.62 crore accounts in India. As a result, every month now, about 7 crore successful payments are made by the poor using their Aadhaar identification. The government now makes direct transfer of Rs. 74,000 crore to the financial accounts of 35 crore beneficiaries annually, at more than Rs. 6,000 crore per month.

Congratulations, but this has nothing to do with demonetisation. It’s to do with Aadhaar and PMJDY, which were ticking along nicely long before demonetisation, and would have continued to do that in its absence.

Takeaway: Irrelevant.

Digital payments have increased by 56% from 71.27 crore transactions in October 2016 to 111.45 crore transaction till the end of May, 2017.

This implies steady growth in digital transactions, when in fact the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology – clearly more honest than the Finance Ministry – admitted in the Lok Sabha on 2 Aug that “digital transactions increased during November-December 2016 and have plateaued thereafter”. In other words, people shifted to digital payments when they had no cash, got accustomed to it to some extent, and then reverted to their old habits. This is clear in the chart below — and recent National Payments Corporation of India data show no increase in later months either.

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So we sacrificed millions of jobs and two percentage points of economic growth for a temporary bump in the growth rate of digital payments.

Takeaway: If only the spin would also plateau.

Some people had expected a very large shock to economic growth on account of demonetisation.  Their expectations have been belied.

I don’t know what the Finance Ministry is smoking, but it’s obviously potent stuff (see below). To be fair, the 5.7% GDP number came out the day after the demonetisation defence, but the 6.1% growth in Q4/2016-17 was already down 1.8 percentage points from 7.9% in Q4/2015-16. The only expectations belied here are the Finance Ministry’s.

Takeaway: The Finance Ministry can’t read statistics. Worrying.

It’s not easy to defend a failing flagship policy, especially when the central premise is shaky.  When the foundation is built on wishful thinking, the supporting ‘evidence’ is bound to stray into fictional realms too. Let’s hope the Finance Ministry doesn’t have to rely on such storytelling skills in the future.

 

 

Fact checking Modi’s WSJ interview

Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a wide-ranging interview to the Wall Street Journal to mark the second anniversary of his government. Modi argued that he had restored confidence to India and put an end to the “sense of policy paralysis, bad economic conditions and corruption” of 2012 and 2013.

As usual, there was a grain of truth, and also the exaggeration and sleight-of-hand that we have come to expect from him (look here for a check of other claims by Modi).

Consider Modi’s highlighting of the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) as an instance of how his leadership had ended “a sense of negativity and a sense of deep inertia in the government machinery”:

If you see my Jan Dhan Yojana, you’ll find that I mobilized the whole government machinery so that in a definite period of time, the country’s poorest could be linked to the mainstream of the economy, its banking system.

Certainly, the PMJDY has accelerated the spread of basic savings bank deposit accounts (BSBDA), and increased their usefulness by adding overdraft facilities and life and accident insurance. But the truth is that the entire architecture of financial inclusion (BSBDAs, Aadhaar, electronic payments, RuPay cards) was created and implemented long before Modi took office. Modi often talks as if he singlehandedly brought the poor into the financial system, but the facts show that India’s financial inclusion programme was already established and growing rapidly.

In the two years before Modi, the UPA opened 44 and 61 million BSBDAs respectively, which under Modi jumped to 147 million in 2014-15 and 67 million in 2015-16 (see table below). If we conservatively assume that another government would have opened 61 million BSBDAs per year (as the UPA did in 2013-14), then the Modi effect looks something like this:

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Modi’s mobilisation of government machinery did have a positive effect: we can quantify it at around 92 million accounts, or 20% of the 457 million accounts opened (as on 30 March 2016). Impressive, yes, but the “policy paralysed” UPA also brought millions of poor households into the financial system. Indeed, there was a downside to Modi’s big 2014-15 push: the number of accounts with zero balance was 45% one year after PMJDY began, although it had declined to 26% by 26 May 2016. The growth in account openings consequently slowed in 2015-16.

If Modi did end “negativity” and “inertia” in the government, the PMJDY is definitely the wrong story to pick.

Modi went on to say:

My country had lost a lot of face on account of corruption relating to the coal scam, the scam involving auctions of the 2G network. But within a short and fixed time period, we have ensured transparency. Auctions are now actually held openly and online in front of media.

There is little doubt that the coal and 2G controversies damaged the UPA and helped Modi’s election victory. Indeed, the Modi government has overseen a spate of auctions to allocate natural resources since he took office. But this is not new: the UPA auctioned 3G and 4G spectrum in 2010, and 2G spectrum in 2012 after the Supreme Court cancelled the flawed January 2008 allocations in February 2012.

Likewise, the Modi government had to auction coal blocks after the Supreme Court (in September 2014) cancelled the allotment of 214 coal blocks made between 1993 and 2011. The Modi government could be commended for its speed, but it didn’t have any choice in the matter either.

What Modi deserves credit for is the passage of the 2015 Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Bill that requires mining rights to bauxite, iron ore and other minerals to be auctioned. The UPA sat on a similar bill for six years before the Modi government succeeded in passing it.

In defence of his economic policymaking record, Modi also stated the following:

In India, reform in the insurance sector, reform in the defense sector, reform in the Bankruptcy Code had been pending for years…  In defense, in my country, there was no private investment. Today I have allowed it to 100%. In insurance, private investment was not allowed.  I have allowed it… I have allowed 100% foreign direct investment in the railways.

Now it’s entirely true that the Modi government succeeded in doing what the UPA had failed do for many years: to raise the FDI cap in insurance from 26% to 49%. It also passed a comprehensive Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code this year that should help clean up Indian banks’  balance sheets. And FDI is now permitted in railway infrastructure (though not in rail operations) whereas previously it was allowed only in metro rail.

But the claim regarding defence FDI is simply wrong. Consider the UPA’s July 2013 policy on FDI in defence:

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Here’s the Modi government’s current policy:

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The new policy is certainly more liberal than the older one, but it is misleading for Modi to say “today I have allowed it to 100%”. Just as it does today, the government had the power in July 2013 to approve defence investments with 100% FDI if it had wanted.

And the reality? No 100% FDI proposals have so far been approved. Here’s what Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar told parliament in April 2016: “From August 2014 to February 2016, a total amount of Rs.112.35 lakh (Rs 1.12 crore) has come into the country as FDI in the defence sector”. Damp squib.

Finally, Modi stated that:

If you look at the entire post-independence phase of the country, you will find that in terms of money volumes the maximum disinvestment has taken place in the last two years.

An odd formulation, considering that disinvestment began in 1991-92, but Modi is, at first cut, correct. The Rs 48,234 crore raised through disinvestment in 2014-16 is somewhat higher than the Rs 45,697 raised by the UPA in 2009-11.

But that’s too simple: if you’re comparing long periods like “the entire post-independence phase of the country”, you need to account for inflation: the value of a rupee raised in 2004-05 is not the same as in 2014-15. A proper comparison requires us to deflate the value raised from disinvestment with an appropriate, consistent index, in this case the Wholesale Price Index (base 2004-05).

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We find that the volume of disinvestment by the Modi government (in constant 2004-05 rupees) at Rs 26,671 crore is dwarfed by the Rs 33,464 crore the UPA2 raised in its first two years. Even in 2012-13, under the “policy-paralysed” UPA, the value of equity divested was greater than in either of the Modi government’s two years in office.

But the cold reality is that disinvestment has been an embarrassment under both the Singh and Modi governments, and basically reduced to a fiscal deficit padding sham in which a third to a half of funds have come from the state-owned Life Insurance Corporation. The following chart (sources here, here and here) says it all:

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It could be that the NITI Aayog or the Bank Board Bureau proposes a genuine transformation of the public sector in the coming months. But until that happens, Modi would be well advised to avoid flaunting what is a policy embarrassment from every perspective.