Business Standard


- RAGHURAM RAJAN Former governor, RBI


Banks were fooling themselves by not acknowledg­ing their bad debt mess, says former Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor

RAGHURAM RAJAN. Speaking to Anup Roy on the sidelines of the release of his book “I do what I do” in Chennai, Rajan says through his speeches he had tried to warn about the impending dangers, which have largely come true now. He also reveals his plan for setting up a liberal arts university in south India as part of his continued engagement with the country. Edited excerpts:

Do you think something more is left to the demonetisa­tion saga?

Very hard to tell. First, we have a concatenat­ion of factors. We have had the twin balance sheet problem, the anticipati­on of GST (goods and services tax), and then demonetisa­tion. These three things probably had adversely affected growth. On the positive side, the world economy is doing better. So there should be a positive effect of growth there. Net effect is, whether we have seen the end is hard to say. Certainly, I understand there’s enough currency available and nobody would be prevented from doing transactio­ns. The two sources of lingering effects of the adverse side are: one, sentiments are depressed, and two, some small and medium enterprise­s that were working on thin buffers may have shut shop when they found that sales were plummeting for cash-based transactio­ns. Those could be bringing down the growth potential for a little while, until we see new businesses starting up.

We are transition­ing to a middle income economy. Are we prepared for that?

We are working on our institutio­ns. This recent move to bring in the bankruptcy code is very useful. It is one of the institutio­ns we need for a stronger financial sector. I think if we keep doing that, we have the preconditi­on for take-off. One of the most important institutio­ns that we have, and this should strengthen, is the Competitio­n Commission. I think we need to continuous­ly beef up the capacity of our central bank and our regulatory bodies.

What about the autonomy of the RBI and its governor?

I think we have some autonomy and it’s important to preserve it.

But you said the bureaucrar­cy tries to whittle down the powers of the RBI governor.

I think it is not so much (about) the autonomy, it’s the turf. Every person likes to build more of an empire. And in an environmen­t where the government feels constraine­d by the RBI, it may on certain occasions allow the bureaucrac­y more reign. I think it’s important to have a balance. Interestin­gly, when a job has to be done, because the RBI has built a certain amount of capabiliti­es, that job is often entrusted to the RBI. It’s back and forth.

What were the other alternativ­es to demonetisa­tion that the RBI suggested to the government?

I can’t talk about the specifics of the alternativ­es. But I can say that narrowing the scope for evading black money is something the government has been working on, like mandating Aadhaar for the deposit accounts. That is an important step forward because that would slow down the flow of black money.

After the Supreme Court judgment on privacy, the use of Aadhaar has come into question.

I think it is important for the RBI and the government to satisfy the Supreme Court that privacy issues are being respected by the whole Aadhaar process. I think the Supreme Court has a valid concern that it should not be open for everybody and on any basis whatsoever. It shouldn’t be possible for people to fishing for private data, even for government officials to have free access to that private data. So, those kinds of privacy inputs have to be built in and the onus is on the government for those kind of regulatory institutio­ns to prove to the Supreme Court that that has been done.

What’s your view on the moral hazard of farm debt waivers?

Loan waivers tend to be problemati­c for the farmers themselves because access to credit tends to get weaker over time because bankers fear the weakened credit culture. Also, these loan waivers don’t touch the farmers who borrowed from the informal sector such as from moneylende­rs. These farmers may be in difficulty the most. Those with access to public sector loans may be better off. So we have to be a little careful in these situations. Not to vitiate the credit culture and not to be disproport­ionate beneficial to the farmers who can stand on their own but not to those who can’t. The broader point is that we have to ask what are the sources of agricultur­al stress and address those at the root.

Banks don’t have capital, while the RBI’s provisioni­ng norm is very steep. In just six months, as liquidatio­n begins and banks have to set aside more provisions, some banks may become bankrupt.

The bankruptcy structure discovers what is the true value of the loan and creates a capital structure for that. If the value of the loan is really so low that you have to take such haircut, who are you fooling by saying that let us not write this down. The mistake a lot of people do is by saying that the provisioni­ng is causing the bad loan. No, bad loans exist. What the provisioni­ng is doing is acknowledg­ing that the bad loans are worthless. That said, I would be very careful in using the word bankrupt. It’s not clear to me that is indeed the case, but certainly some banks have been put on prompt corrective action. For bankers to say forbear, don’t force us to do provisions, who are they fooling?

The RBI has been criticised for not cutting rates when inflation is falling rapidly and growth is questionab­le. Is it because the monetary policy committee is just following a single mandate of inflation?

I don’t want to comment on the current policy, but the medium-term inflation forecast targeting is basically achieving the inflation core in the medium term. If the economy is very weak, that gives you room to allow the economy to grow faster. What the RBI has to do, if it departs from the inflation core, is really write a letter to the government as to how to get back to that inflation within a reasonable period. Most people would say a reasonable period is a couple of years. That gives you enough freedom. It gives you the freedom to say that if growth is plummeting, inflation would too. So I don’t need to tighten policy today and I can be a little more accommodat­ive. Those kind of judgments can be made in an inflationt­argeting framework.

What kind of role we can expect from you to remain connected with India?

There is nothing on the table. I am doing other things. I am working with some very good people on creating a liberal arts university in the South (India). In fact, tomorrow we are going to have discussion­s on that. There are engagement­s that I will have. Not with the private sector, but generally the non-for profit and the public sector.

We are argumentat­ive Indians, but, as a country, we really don’t have a culture of dissent. Did you try to change that?

I don’t think you can use the RBI governorsh­ip to push that agenda. But I thought I said what the position needed to say. I was careful to see that I was not carrying out a private agenda. If you look at every one of my speeches, you will find that what it was warning about and what it was saying has largely come true. Ever since I said that “one-eyed King …” growth has been falling. We have to be careful that we don’t over-promise. My focus always was under-promise and overachiev­e. We need to worry about some of those things; my point was never to raise the issue of dissent. It was to say what needed to be said. More on

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