Thursday, June 23, 2016

Evaluating Both Sides of the Argument about Raghuram Rajans Exit as RBI Governor

Ever since news broke that Mr. Raghuram Rajan, the RBI Governor will not be continuing in his role, media has been abuzz about the whole fiasco. Experts in Economy and Finance as well as people who don’t know squat about Economy or Finance are posting their opinion on Facebook & Twitter and supporting/opposing the move vociferously. Our media, the ever hungry hounds have jumped on this new juicy piece of meat to garner further ratings. 

The common man (you & me) are left wondering what is going on with RBI and the Central government as well as how this could potentially impact our Economy in the future. The purpose of this article is to understand Mr. Rajans contribution to our Economy in the last 3 years and whether all this hoopla that is going on is worthwhile… 

Before we Begin: The views in this article are Entirely Mine and NOT Politically Motivated. If you disagree with any of the views in this article, please feel free to sound off civilly in the comments section. 

Who is Mr. Raghuram Rajan?

Mr. Rajan is a world renowned Economist and a former Chief Economist in the International Monetary Fund (IMF). He was appointed as the 23rd Governor of the Reserve Bank of India on 5th September 2013 by the previous Central Government. He is presently on leave from the University Of Chicago Booth School Of Business. 

Quick Background as to what has transpired in the Past 2 months

Last month, one of our politicians laid some serious allegations against Mr. Rajan for not doing enough to grow the Indian Economy and not keeping India’s Interest as top priority as part of his role as RBI Governor. There have been many debates and discussions in TV channels and before things went out of control, Mr. Rajan declared his intention to step down as RBI Governor once his tenure ends in September 2016 and suggested that he would be returning back Academia. 

Over the past few weeks, our media and opposition have taken this whole situation to garner political mileage/TRP and have credited Mr. Rajan with many things including the lowering of inflation, arresting the fall of the Rupee etc. The other side has labelled him anti-national and have questioned his loyalty to India by citing his residential status. During the course of this article we will evaluate each of those points. 

My Views on Mr. Rajan as RBI Governor 

Mr Rajan is arguably one of THE MOST POPULAR Indian Born Economists in the world and is widely renowned by almost everyone in the Finance World across the globe. When he took over the role as RBI Governor India as a Country and Economy was facing a scary recession head on. He has done pretty much what any smart RBI Governor would or should have done to help the country and Economy. Of course, due to his credentials he has received a lot of love from Indians as well as credit for the work from everyone. 

Anyways, there have been a lot of points raised by folks both for and Against Mr. Rajan as the RBI Governor. Just like any topic warranting an argument, let’s review each of those points one by one and understand if they carry any Merit. Also, I will try my best to avoid too much financial jargons and information to keep this article as simple & easy to understand as possible. 

Each Argument (Either For or against) will be evaluated subjectively and reviewed in detail. A Point will be awarded in Favour of or Against Mr. Rajan corresponding to each argument as follows:
-1 means could have done more or the Argument in his Favour is invalid or the Argument Against him is 100% valid
0 means has done something good or the Argument in his Favour has some Merit but not 100% valid 
1 means has done great or the Argument in his Favour is 100% valid or the Argument Against him is 100% invalid
The idea here is to find out if his Exit from the position as RBI Governor be good or bad for India as a nation and our Economy. 

Argument 1: He Arrested the Free-Falling Rupee and averted the Currency Crisis in 2013 

Yes, when Mr. Rajan took over as the RBI Governor, the Indian Rupee had taken a massive beating and was trading at almost Rs. 69 per US Dollar and people thought it was inevitable that we cross the dreaded Rs. 70 per dollar mark. Due to the measures implemented by the RBI Governor at that point, the free-fall of the rupee was stopped and the rupee did stage a decent recovery.

But, if you see the 5 year chart (above) between the USD and INR, our currency was much stronger in 2011/2012. Also, the gains the Rupee made in 2014 have been pretty much wiped out in the last 2 years and presently Rupee is trading between Rs. 67 to 68 per USD which is very close the all-time high in mid-2013 before Mr. Rajan took over. So, I would say that the measures were more short-term hacks to stem the free fall rather than long-term permanent fix. 

Score: -1 

Justification for Score: For someone with his resume and background, India expected a permanent solution or at least the first steps of a permanent solution rather than a temporary workaround. Hence the -1

Argument 2: He Helped Reduce the Current Account & Fiscal Deficit which was dangerously high in 2013 

This point is actually very much related to the previous point on averting the currency crisis. Just a couple of statements ago, I mentioned that the RBI implemented a short-term measure to arrest the free-falling Rupee. What did they do? 

When the Indian currency came under attack in July and August of 2013 with the worsening of the twin deficits “current account deficit and fiscal deficit” the RBI, with a new Governor at the helm, decided to provide a window for banks to raise Foreign Currency Non Resident or FCNR deposits, along with a concessional swap facility, which helped raise $ 34 billion. That bolstered the currency, and in the months that followed, the central bank started building its reserves. However, a bulk of those deposits are actually Expiring later this year which is also one of the reasons why the Rupee has been under tremendous pressure lately. With about USD 28 billion set to mature between September through November it will be tough times for the Indian Economy as a whole. India will need to manage those outflows carefully at an especially tricky time for global markets with U.S. rate hikes expected and worries about China and crude prices lingering. A vote by Britain to leave the European Union in next week's referendum would add to these worries. So, now you understand it is no surprise that the Indian Rupee is back to the 67 and 68’s against the USD – right? 

Score: -1 

Justification for Score: Given that Mr. Rajan has offered to step down as RBI Governor by September this year, the responsibility of navigating through those troubled waters now fall on the shoulder of whoever is going to succeed him. Like I said before, for someone with his credentials, it would have been commendable if he had implemented permanent solutions rather than temporary workarounds which come back after a few years to bite India back. Hence the -1

You want to hear something interesting? You may be tempted to say that this FCNR issue to temporarily arrest the fall of the Indian Rupee and reduce the CA/Fiscal deficit was a brilliant move by the RBI Governor. Let me refresh your memory a bit.  
Back in the late 90’s when the AB Vajpayee led Government conducted Nuclear Tests, most Economic Nations imposed financial restrictions on India which pretty much backed us into a corner. During that time, our foreign reserves were dangerously low and to help the country, the then RBI Governor (Mr. Bimal Jalan) helped iron out the plan that pretty much saved us from economic ruin. Want to venture a guess what that plan was? The same FCNR deposits that were issued in 2013 by India. Mr. Jalan did not get the kind of love Mr. Rajan is getting and if you ask me, those were more troubling times and Mr. Jalan helped India navigate through especially troubling times (1997-2003) when the Economic Crisis was at its peak as well. 

Argument 3: He is Responsible for Keeping Inflation in check 

This has been the single biggest point in favour of Mr. Rajan by his supporters. He helped keep Inflation in check. Let’s do a subjective comparison of the Inflation situation between 2013 and now. in the last 3 years, Crude Oil Prices have come down significantly which has heavily eased our Fiscal Deficit woes. When oil prices come down, the overall inflation rates for oil importing economies follow suit and this is no surprise. However, if you see the price of essential commodities especially food items, they haven’t come down much in the last 3 years – isn’t it? We all buy rice, dal and vegetables almost every day for our meals and we can all vouch for the fact that their prices haven’t come down. So, the whole argument of him keeping Inflation in check is pretty much nullified, right? 

Score: 0 

Justification for Score: As RBI Governor he can only do so much like adjusting Interest Rates. He cannot control the prices of agricultural produce. At the end of the day, inflation isn’t just about the numerical value reported by the media. It is about the increase in cost of living every Indian has to live with every day. So, I believe if we have to give someone full credit for the same, he/she needs to deserve it. So, a score of 0. 

Argument 4: He has been Very Hard on Loan Defaulters 

With the Vijay Mallya case being on the limelight for a long time, everyone is talking about how the RBI and Mr. Rajan especially have cracked down on large corporations that owed Banks money. 

Let me ask you this – have banks been able to recover anything from Mr. Mallya yet? He owes about 7000+ crores to banks in India. He has assets abroad that value much more than that and is enjoying his life in in Europe while we argued about him on TV channels for a few weeks and have moved on to Yoga Day and Mr. Rajans exit from RBI. Tomorrow it will be something else...

Yes, the RBI did declare the names of people who owned money to banks in India and have tightened lending norms for Banks. All those people have been pretty much labelled wilful defaulters. However, I think this is not the right course of action for a couple of reasons:
1. Many of the defaulters in the list of owners of Small & Medium sized enterprises which have been having a tough time surviving (or should I say competing with big names). These people are not wilful defaulters who have enough assets to repay the loan but instead choose not to. These are people who are trying to make ends meet and support their families. Unless they can secure fresh investments they cannot revive their businesses. 
2. The Actual Wilful Defaulters are still at large enjoying their lives. People with thousands of crores worth of liabilities which they aren’t repaying on purpose while living off their assets. Though their names have been declared, we haven’t been able to make much progress – haven’t we? 

If you are still undecided on the being hard on loan defaulters part, let me ask you this, let’s say a friend of yours has just lost his job or is going through a severe illness and is falling back on his home loan repayments. Would you expect the bank to give him 3-6 months’ time to recover/find a new job and get back on his feet or would you expect the bank to throw him and his family out of the house after his missed EMI payment and say we are very strict on loan defaulters? 

All I am saying is, if the loan defaulter has many lakhs worth assets and still not paying his EMI then throw him out of the house. Don’t treat someone who isn’t able to repay his loan for legit reasons the same way. 

Score: -1 

Justification for Score: Yes, lending regulations must be tight but the primary role of Banks in an economy like ours should be to facilitate businesses and small enterprises – not choke them out. As the Central Bank of the country, we expect RBI to set up processes and framework to rectify the problem. This hasn’t happened. Hence the score of -1 

Argument 5: He has Revived the Indian Banking System 

Over the last 2-3 years there has been a lot of buzz around RBIs role as a whole. People have credited the RBI and Mr. Rajan in particular for Reviving the Banking System in India. Private banks being given licenses to start operations which has increased competition and is helping the common man. Banks are flourishing and hence it’s all good due to the RBI. 

If you look further into the details, the whole licensing process for private banks was like a lottery. Nobody was able to predict which of the 26 applicants would get their licenses approved. A Central Bank must have clear-cut processes and requirements for a new bank to get a license. It is not a knee-jerk reaction to say, we need more banks so let us grant more licenses. Past experience tells us that, things don’t really work that way. Numerous small financial establishments have failed in the past and eroded the savings of the middle-class population overnight. 

It is still hard for existing banks to start branches. It is still hard for foreign banks to play. It is still hard for mobile phone and internet-based companies to compete in payments. It is hard for money market mutual funds to compete in deposit accounts. I could go on but the truth is, things aren't as rosy and blue as we are asked to believe.  

Score: 0 

Justification for Score: For someone with his credentials and background, it would have been great if had taken steps to rectify the system which hasn’t been the case. It is unfair to blame Mr. Rajan for all this because our system was designed to be this way from the get-go. Hence the score of 0 

Argument 6: He has helped Stabilize the Indian Economy by Keeping Interest Rates High

One thing we hear from most Rajan supporters if the fact that he has helped Stabilize the Indian Economy during turbulent times. He has left Interest Rates high in order to keep Inflation in check and that reduction of rates would destabilize our Economy. 

However, if we dig deeper, most developing/growing economies help facilitate faster Economic Growth by reducing Interest Rates. When Interest Rates are lower, businesses can raise cheap capital and expand their production. This in return boosts the economy, increases the GDP of the nation, can generate more employment etc. With the Central Government trying to get foreign businesses to set up shop in our country and boost local production, it is imperative that the central banks policies with regards to interest rates resonate with the sentiment and help things. Instead of sticking to high interest rates with the presumption that we may have inflationary pressures is not in the best interest of the country or its economy. 

Of course, we can’t just keep lowering rates in an uncontrolled manner because this can have a counter effect and mess up the financial system. This is why we have an esteemed economist with Mr. Rajans credentials at the help of RBI – to help boost the Indian Economy. Unfortunately that hasn’t happened much. 

Score: -1 

Justification for score: Not just Mr. Rajan, even his predecessors have been equally responsible for a stagnant system which isn’t able to grow at the pace that it could – if the right policy decisions are made at the right time. Even now the rates are held high which isn’t really helping things. Hence the score of -1 

Argument 7: He is Anti-National 

I am actually chuckling as I write this argument by Rajan Haters. Before you get carried away, let’s look at a few facts quoted by his detractors. 
Mr. Rajan is a Green Card Holder of the USA and was living there for many years before he took over as RBI Governor
He is still holding on to his Green Card and hasn’t surrendered it
He is still listed as Faculty in the University of Chicago where he will most likely be returning by the end of his tenure as RBI Governor

Along with quoting these facts some of the crazier conspiracy theories are that he is sharing some of India’s confidential information with countries like USA. While I can only laugh at such crazy allegations, truth being told, the fact that he hasn’t lived in India for many years and is still holding on to his Green Card does make things hard for his supporters to defend him. Just because someone is living outside India doesn’t make them anti-national. I am an NRI and I love my country very much. I wouldn’t do anything to harm my country or its position globally. As someone who has held prestigious posts in esteemed organizations like the IMF, it would be silly of us to question his professionalism as RBI Governor or loyalty to India. 

Score: 1

Justification for Score: Just because he holds a Green Card doesn’t make him anti-national or any less an Indian like you or me. The Indian Economy is complex and unless we live in the system it’s very hard for the individual to relate to the nuances of the same. He is a very smart economist and is world renowned for his skills and has done a good job as RBI Governor. Hence the score of 1 because blaming him for being an NRI before he took over the job isn’t fair. 

India is probably the exception where we let someone who is a US Green card holder to take over the role of RBI Governor but I don’t think any other nation would allow such an appointment especially to an office as prestigious and powerful as the Governor of the Central Bank of the country.

Argument 8: We cannot find a better RBI Governor than Mr. Rajan

This statement could probably be true in terms of Credentials or popularity world-wide. However, we have scores of capable economists and some of them have great credentials as well. I am pretty sure the successor will be plenty capable but only time can tell who that would be...

Score: 0 

Justification for Score: It may not be practically possible to find another person with Mr. Rajans credentials especially the contribution to IMF part. However, it is disrespectful to the Economists of our Nation by making such a statement. Hence the score of 0 

Final Score: -3

Final Judgment: A score of -3 suggests that Mr. Rajans tenure as RBI Governor hasnt been the exceptional tenure as people are claiming to be. Coupled with the fact that the next RBI Governor will probably be another competent Economist, I doubt if this will be the doomsday kind of prediction that Rajan supporters (and BJP detractors) are trying to predict for India. Things will move-on just like they have for the past many years. 

Some Last Words 

As you can see, the points awarded for 4 out of 8 arguments was a -1 which implies that as RBI Governor, India expected a lot more from him than what he delivered. Considering the fact that he was given a system with so many shortcomings it was unreasonable of us Indians to expect him to fix it overnight. However, we aren’t talking about any layman taking over as RBI Governor, we are talking about probably the Most Decorated Indian Economist and hence the high expectations weren’t wrong either. 

If a tail-ender batsman comes out to bat when India needs another 150 runs to win in 20 overs, we won’t expect India to win. But, if a Sachin Tendulkar comes out with the same situation, our expectations would be the entire opposite. Yes, chasing 150 runs in 20 overs is a stiff target but we aren’t talking about any tail-ender batsman. We are talking about Sachin Tendulkar – the man who singlehandedly holds more cricketing accolades than anyone can care to remember. If he makes 75 runs and gets out, wouldn’t we be disappointed? That’s the kind of feeling I have with regards to the situation with Mr. Rajan. Everyone expected a Century from him that would revolutionize the Indian Banking System and make India the Economic Super Power that we have been dreaming off, for years. However, that did not happen. 

I am not saying that Mr. Rajan failed at his job as RBI Governor. He has done what any good RBI Governor should have done. He took over during turbulent times and has helped the nation avert disaster and that is no small feat. All am saying is, for someone with his resume, we expected a lot more than what was delivered which is why you might find majority of the reasons that are used by his supporters to request him to continue as RBI Governor garner a -1 as score. 
Plus, the fact that he was appointed by the previous government doesn’t help with regards to the relationship with the current ruling party. They may prefer someone they appoint in order to tweak the system per their willingness. This may have been a main reason for the vociferous mudslinging by the ruling party. I personally feel that labelling him anti-national and questioning his loyalty to the nation was bit overkill. Anyways, in the end Mr. Rajan declared his intention to not pursue the extension as RBI Governor and the whole hoopla will probably die down very soon. 

Let’s hope the next RBI Governor that is appointed can revive the stagnant banking system of India and infuse fresh blood into our Economy.

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