Category: Finance Matters

Surgical Strike Demonetization


The Indian Government carried out a rapid surgical strike last week by demonetizing the 500 and 1,000 Rupee Notes, with the aim of curbing “black” money and eliminating terrorist financing from across the border.

People were obviously shocked as the Prime Minister announced it late on 8th November evening, with almost immediate effect. There was no time left for anyone to “spend” their money denominated in the above two Rupee notes, and since the notes became illegal tender almost right away, people were stuck with millions of such currency notes. While the idea was to eliminate black money, and various ideas have been on the table for a long while, the way it was executed was typical of the style developed by the Indian Prime Minister, Mr Modi. He has been on a mission against black money from the time he assumed office but has been stymied by gridlocks in the system, and even by non-cooperation witnessed in overseas jurisdictions where Indians stash their illicit monies (such as Switzerland). But it appears that he is not a man who would give up easily. The black money hoarders have been hit hard by the new executive order (which has been challenged in Court by the way) as most of them stored the higher denomination notes.

The other group of people who have been hit below the belt are the terrorists from across the Pakistani border, who have always brought in fake Indian currency of higher denominations, and used the same for their terror-making purposes in the Kashmir Valley and elsewhere. Now that would be stopped forthwith by a determined Prime Minister, who is hell bent on stopping them from crossing the border as well.

Of course, in any such well-intentioned measure taken by the government, there will always be collateral damage. Millions of poor people have been affected because they do not have access to bank accounts which are mandatory for crediting of the currency notes (only INR 4,000 will be paid out in smaller denominations, or in the new INR 2,000 currency note, and the balance of the money that you bring in has to be credited to your own bank account). India is a cash economy, and also has a parallel economy which is run entirely with cash. Given the predominance of cash, it is no wonder most people try to keep less number of currency notes by adopting the 500 and 1,000 currency denominations. I always keep 500 Rupee notes when I travel as these are convenient for transacting, and a 500 Rupee note is just the equivalent of SGD 10.50 – in India the 500 Rupee note now delivers what 2 x 100 Rupee notes used to deliver in 2008, given the serious inflation which has occurred over the past 8 years. Hence, it is no wonder people step out of their homes with at leastĀ 4 orĀ 5 x 500 Rupee notes when they go shopping. Credit and Debit Cards are not popular. Recent stories of how ATMs have been compromised and Debit Cards have been copied do not generate confidence. Cheques are not accepted in shops. That leaves most people with plentiful cash.

Mr Modi’s action is not a political initiative. I think it is a specific action plan put together with the collaboration of the Reserve Bank of India and other leading banks, with the main aim of curbing the growth of black money. From that perspective, I believe it is a very good initiative with aggressive execution. Such an action sends a strong message to all in the country, including politicians, industrialists, lobbyists, commoners, et al, as well as terrorists. It also sends a powerful message to overseas Indians.

Of course, I think it is not correct to let millions of “small” people with urgent requirement to convert 500 Rupee currency notes suffer, when the government-owned banks have run “dry” of the required change of small denomination notes. It is also not correct to hand over the new 2,000 Rupee notes to these folks, as their primary need is to spend small money, and this new note (most of the country is yet to see these new notes) is difficult to convert to smaller 100 or 50 Rupee notes which are in huge demand today. India always has problems in the planning and quality of execution, though the Prime Minister is teaching India on the speed of execution and its logical necessity. This situation is no different, and the government will do well to have a more detailed planning for the implementation of future such initiatives – the Prime Minister has promised more steps targeting black money in the coming months.

The country has to get ready, and should start to think “small” – I mean, spend money in small currency notes from now on. Hoarding of the new 2,000 currency notes will not be a good idea, as it is supposed to be traceable with some unique characteristics.

The other collateral damage was caused to millions of tourists who visit India during the current season of cool weather, who have been left holding 500 Rupee notes with no possibility of exchanging at their airports of departure. May be they will remember their India visit during this particular occasion of demonetization and frame these notes when they are back home in their respective countries. One day, these invalid currency notes might fetch a premium in the market, who knows?

Obviously, the politicians are the most affected as they stash huge amounts of cash all over the place for their illicit activities such as vote buying, and buying of members of state assemblies/parliament, influencing ministers, etc., They will be cursing the super human efforts of Mr Modi in obliterating their ill-gotten wealth.

There have been numerous WhatsApp messages about the demonetization topic, and some of these show the now invalid notes being used to hold peanuts, as a joke of course. I have several of these notes and have to find a way to convert; there are millions of people overseas who have the same problem. May be we will sacrifice these notes for the benefit of India and endorse the attempt to convert black money to white eventually, though it is going to be a long, long time before that is accomplished even to the extent of 90% of the currency notes in circulation in India.

I would like to complement the Indian Prime Minister for this initiative, but at the same time would like him to pay more intense attention to the execution process and elimination of inconvenience to the poor and downtrodden folks who need to lead their lives in a routine manner instead of queueing up for the entire day at the ATMs (which are not working) or at the bank branches.

Let us hope this initiative will produce the planned and desired effects for the Indian economy,

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

13th November 2016

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The Greek Tragedy


Well, you might have wondered why I haven’t yet commented on the most important topical issue of the Greek exit from the European Union (“Grexit”).

It is now increasingly looking inevitable, given the intransigence of the Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, and his Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis. It is now certain that tough conditions set by the creditors would not be accepted by the Greek Government. The Prime Minister has called for a public referendum on the new bailout terms, which is an obvious ploy to get all the new terms completely rejected by Greek citizens.

Greece has lived beyond its means for several decades now. Borrowed money has been helping Greece survive tough economic conditions. Greece has a porous tax collection system and a welfare economy, both of which cannot be sustained at the current rate. It is only natural that its creditors, especially the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, would call for sweeping reforms to be implemented.

But the real fact is that the creditors are only asking for incremental reforms. For instance, they are asking for increase in Value Added Tax that a consumer pays in a restaurant. They also want reduction in pension payments. When the Greek Government wanted to increase the corporate income tax rate to 28% (from 26%), the creditors actually said no to that proposal, as such a hike would affect economic recovery of the business situation. I am sure there are some tough terms and demands by the creditors who have been giving billions of Euros in credit to Greece – it is only to be expected, especially when they see a strong move away from financial obligations by the new Leftist Government, led by Mr. Alexis Tsipras.

It is hard to understand the rationale for not compromising and settling on mutually acceptable terms. The situation looks very bad for the European Union as Greece could become the first member of the Union to exit, with the attendant exit from Euro currency. That would lead to worldwide impact, as a Greece exit would become a precursor to an Italian or Spanish exit as the economic situation in those two countries are getting worse as well.

Germany has taken a hardline approach towards Greece, for the above reasons. However, it appears such a tough approach has not worked, and Greece is now inching towards a “Grexit” from the European Union. This is not good for Greece, and not good for Europe. It would also have political impact of the negative variety, with Greece moving closer to Russia.

The time to compromise is now – over this weekend. If this opportunity is missed, then all hell is likely to break lose, and the Greek Tragedy could be enacted for a worldwide audience. Such a drama would see the Greek banking system shuttering, with the deposits of Greek citizens evaporating – this is not a joke, it is now becoming a reality.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

27th June 2015

Markets ahead of Performance


The Indian Stock Markets have run up in a huge fashion over the past 6 months based on the euphoria created by the elections and the new government of Mr Modi.

Is it justified ?

Partially may be – but not to the extent of over 27.8% in 8 months (from April 2014 to Nov 2014), attaining the position of the best performing stock market in all of Asia Pacific and the second best in the entire world.

Simply because the actual performance of the government is yet to be seen. Yes, the inflation has come under control and trade deficit appears to be improving. Yes, promised decisions on insurance FDI (Foreign Direct Investment holding) and taxes appear to be on their way in parliament (not yet a done deal).

Any reform that the government wants to implement will be challenged in the upper house of the parliament by the opposition parties, even if it can get through the lower house which is now controlled by the ruling party.

The most important indicator was the GDP growth. It has dropped to 5.3% in Q2, from 5.7% in Q1.

But the BSE Sensex stock market rose by 255 points last week Friday. Obviously there were external considerations, the key factor being the dropping oil prices which benefited the stocks of oil companies.

The conclusion that one can derive from an analysis of market behavior and government performance is that, as usual, the markets are way ahead of physical realities of India. The global investors are watching and waiting – the portfolio investment inflows are only half of what India received in 2010. It does not matter if the Indian stock market is the best performing in the world, if government fails to deliver on its committed reforms and people do not benefit at the end of the first year of the new government.

It is critical for investors to understand that without the much-needed reforms and tax changes, India will continue to be a difficult place to do business in and business with. Land acquisition reforms are absolutely critical to ensure some success of the “make in India” slogan of the Prime Minister.

India still suffers from high interest rates, and the government and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) do not seem to be in sync on interest rate policy. High rates are choking credit growth for the industry and for the consumers. RBI’s worry is inflation, but that being contained now, it is time to relax a bit and drop the rates. Of course, that action will further boost the already high stock indices, but more importantly will reduce the cost of doing business.

Overall, I would expect the stock markets to correct somewhat in the next couple of months if the RBI does not reduce the interest rates. And more so, if the government fails to pass reform bills in the Winter session of the parliament which is currently going on.

Let us see how things unfold.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan
30th November 2014

The Struggle for Tax Filing


I had to submit my tax forms for India Income Tax before the deadline of 31st July.

I decided to do the rather “taxing” work over two weekends.

Today I submitted the form online via a tax-filing website service.

The issue in India always is the amount of data that the tax department demands from you, though they have access to all the data about your financial transactions (in India you have to quote your PAN or Permanent Account Number for all major financial transactions). All the financial institutions declare transactions by their customers to the tax department.

I always wonder why the whole thing could not be effectively and efficiently automated.

I know that the U.S. tax forms are even more complex than the ones in India, and may be the U.K. is also complex from that perspective of the taxman digging around for data that they already have access to.

I had to collate a lot of data even before I started off on the website. Selecting an online service (about which I had written an earlier blog piece) is a challenging task, because thorough investigation of the features and functionality may not be entirely visible when you start off with any one of these services. And, you will find later on, that some required functionality is not available !

This year I was clear that I need to have a service which does all that I require and desire !

Well, somehow, I got through today and submitted. It has been tedious, but you come out of it feeling somewhat good. Surprising, isn’t it ?

Yes, it kind of gives a satisfaction when you compare the online services with the past when one had to work with chartered accountants for filing tax. Not a pleasant experience, though the efficient ones take care of you for good and do everything, but they do charge a hefty amount as fees.

I believe that I have become a bit wiser on the Indian Income Tax rules because sometimes I had to refer to the rules (available online, of course), before making a decision on what to do with a particular type of income or deduction entry.

Well, you would see a big rush of millions of Indians over the next ten days or so, trying to file their respective taxes. No one wants to file early, I don’t know why !

Have a good weekend,

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan
20th July 2013

The Cyprus Fiasco


Cyprus is a very small country with little population.

However, what is happening in Cyprus has huge ramifications.

Last week I thought that the Cyprus Parliament would act firmly and very strongly against taxing bank depositors – common and not so common folks who have deposited their monies in the local banking system.

There must surely be other ways to satisfy the demands by the European Union to find Euros 5.8B of own money so as to obtain Euros 10B as bail-out package ???!!!

Even people with little money invested in bank deposits are now going to get hit, and those richer folks with over Euros 100K are going to be taxed to an extent of 60%. Yes, it is not a typo, the figures that are rumoured about is in the range of 60%.

The worry is, if emerging economies find themselves in a similar situation, would they be forced into taxing their huge base of depositors, who have kept their hard-earned money in the local banks ? Unlike the politicians and richer folks who have spread their monies across the world in various tax-free countries, which do not ask many questions before opening bank accounts.

Things are not looking rosy for the world economy, surely not for the European economy. I am sure countries should now be rethinking the wisdom of staying on in the European Union.

Cyprus is virtually getting forced into acting in this manner, by taxing the savers. It is surely not a good sign. Is the government going to return the depositors’ money when the economy turns around ? Is there any guarantee at all ?

I hope the emerging economies do not get any “bad” ideas. Something like – “well my current account deficit should be at 4.3% but it is now at 6.7%, I am not able to bridge the gap, and even if I wish to bridge, I cannot as the elections are just about a year away, so I need to keep major subsidy programs alive. The only thing that I can think of is taxing the millions of depositors who have been foolish to keep their money in the bank deposits”.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan
31st March 2013

The Case for Raising Interest Rates


This post is in the context of the current economic situation in India.

There was a report yesterday in The Times Of India that the Government of India is prodding the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) to drop interest rates in the upcoming review of interest rate policy.

I do not think that the RBI will yield to government pressure, having stood tall over the past many quarters with an independent and fair analysis of the state of the economy. There is no issue with the government wanting to raise the GDP growth rates, but it must first reduce the current account deficit to a Parliament-mandated target.

While Finance Minister Mr P Chidambaram has worked hard on the Budget that he unveiled last month outlining measures to reduce the deficit, still much needs to be done. India was never short of policy planners and strategists – but India always had a problem with execution.

It is commendable that the Finance Minister has not yielded to an election year scramble for spending tax-payer money on populist measures, and has controlled the urge to spend more. But he needs to do more to ensure that the inflation is brought under check by eliminating supply-side bottlenecks which continue to hobble the Indian economy.

What has the government done to at least reduce the inflation by couple of percentage points ?

NONE, nothing that anyone can see.

Infrastructure wreaks under the ever-increasing load, and there is no determination on the part of the various ministries to concentrate their efforts on removing all hurdles on the way to growth.

The blame of slowing economic growth cannot be laid at the doorsteps of the RBI.

In fact, I would argue that the RBI should now declare a upward bias on interest rates, since the consumer inflation is again going up. Real estate prices are skyrocketing when the entire economy is decelerating. I don’t think India will exceed 6.2% GDP growth rate in the year starting in April 2013 – at best it would reach 6.0%. RBI need not throttle growth but it should warn the government and the business leaders that it won’t drop interest rates to oblige their priorities and put the common man on the mat.

Government can do a lot more than what they have done so far. It has been a total systemic failure of economic policy making at the senior levels of the government which boasts of Dr Manmohan Singh as the architect of the 1991 economic reforms.

But, the spectre of 1991 is returning to India, and all our foreign currency reserves and gold reserves won’t be able to save us this time also.

Reduce the deficit below 4.6% and then something can be done on the interest rate policy – till such time, growth has to contend with inflationary pressures ever-present in the economy.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan
10th March 2013

Preparing for the Upcoming Boom


What ?

Do I think that an economic boom is coming ? And that too, in India, which is currently facing an economic deceleration ?

Yes.

I do think that good times are around the corner.

Does not appear to be so. To anyone. To the World Bank. To the IMF. To the economic analysts. Or, even to stock markets.

But I can (as well as anyone) see some early signs of an economic turnaround on the verge of happening in the Indian economy.

All of us know that government policy-making is a key determinant of “feelings generation” in business/industry mindset. What I mean by that ? Industry captains and business executives have to “sense” an improvement in policy directions that would benefit them in the short to medium term. And that sense would then generate positive feelings about the turnaround of the economic situation. And that would then in turn, lead to some early investment decisions. The induction of Mr P Chidambaram as the Finance Minister and his reversal of the retro-active / regressive tax policies introduced by his predecessor (currently the President of India) are sending strongly positive messages to the business and investment communities world-wide.

The other key determinant is domestic consumers’ consumption patterns. It is apparent to everyone that the real estate market is holding up pretty well in key markets in the country. Car purchases are going up. Two-wheeler purchases are holding up. People are still buying jewellery. When airlines announce a big drop in seat prices on a fire-sale, people pick up almost all the seats on offer. There are big crowds in malls. People are still going to movies and restaurants – difficult to get a movie ticket, except when you try to book online. Though fuel prices have largely been deregulated, people are no longer shouting at the government for doing so in an aggressive fashion.

And, what about the inherent demand for almost everything in India ? There is a huge unmet demand, so industry will continue to thrive once certain restrictive policies are pushed out.

Interest rates ? These are critical for CAPEX investment by industry, and the current trend of inflation (dropping to some 6.2% at the wholesale level) is a very positive indication to the RBI (Reserve Bank of India) to tend towards rate reductions in March timeframe.

All of the above are indicating an economic recovery for India. While India is struggling on the exports front due to the difficult economic situation prevailing in the U.S. and Europe, the domestic economy is so huge for India that it never was dependent on the trade to drive its economy forward. While trade is becoming an important component of India’s economic strategy, it is nevertheless in the second spot for India.

So, there we go. One of the largest domestic economies in the world, having almost an insatiable demand for all manufactured goods, is now turning the ship towards good times. In the next nine months, I won’t be surprised if India reaches an annualized GDP growth rate of 6.5 to 7.0%, and then move ahead with that momentum towards its old goal of 8.0%.

So, let us not believe the doomsayers. Things are on the upswing, and we will see the positive economic impact soon (towards the end of 2013).

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan
23rd Feb 2013
Mumbai