The PNB fraud has left many of us feeling cheated although no money has gone out of our pockets directly. We feel cheated because the rich and the well-connected once again appear to have managed to get away after stealing a large amount of money. The pictures of smug high lifers seem to be mocking those who play by the rules.
We feel cheated because we are made to feel like criminals when we intersect with the financial sector—each of us, every few years, has to redo our KYC details. The linking of Aadhaar to various services has now reached a level where a corporate chemist chain is sending texts to customers to link Aadhaar to the account. When we seek a loan, the due diligence process is exhausting; the contracts are not really two people agreeing, it is the weaker party (us) just signing what the stronger party (bank) shoves across the table. Miss one EMI or get behind your credit card payment and the hounding begins relentlessly. A friend’s sister is a senior bank manager in a state-run bank in a small town in middle India. A part of her territory is also the nearby rural clusters and some of her work is loan recovery. As details of the Nirav Modi theft emerged, her sense of disbelief grew. She said that when sometimes people defaulted on loans, she has actually threatened to walk off with a cow or a goat as collateral to make good the bank’s loss. For the poor people, who will surely be even less able to pay their debt with their asset gone, the loss would be mind numbing. But the rich get away with it because of political patronage, collusion and greed. Fraud of this kind corrodes the overall value system of a nation when people feel justified in cheating and not paying taxes.
The auditorium was packed. Girls were sitting on the floor in the aisles. I was visiting Banasthali University, 75 km south of Jaipur, to speak to the postgraduate management and journalism students. About 250 curious pairs of eyes were bright with anticipation and I was hoping that I don’t let them down.
For those who don’t know, a quick update on this unique university. The journey of how this university came to be is quite a story. In 1927, the Jaipur state secretary in the home and foreign department, Pandit Hiralal Shastri, left his powerful job to relocate to a remote village (then) called Banthali to work on rural reconstruction. His friends said he’d gone half mad to do this. Who gives up power, prestige and money like this? But he moved himself and his family to the village. One day he found his 11-year-old daughter, Shanta, teaching the village kids under a tree. Sometime later she asked him for a room so that she could teach them without fear of storms or wild animals. He told her—you build the bricks and I will build the room. He forgot about the story thinking that the child will move on to other things. Three months later she showed him 300 handmade bricks she and the village kids had made. I saw one of the bricks that the institution has preserved. To touch the brick made by a determined young lady almost a 100 years ago was surreal. Shastri built that room and decided to give his daughter the best education he could manage. Music and martial art classes were organized. There is a painting of young Shanta in a sari, wielding a lathi and practising in one of the preserved rooms. When you remember that this was in rural Rajasthan in the 1920s when girls were married off as soon as they could be, the image of the lathi-wielding girls just adds to the amazement.
Regulations in the financial sector need to keep evolving as the market grows in depth, breadth and complexity. Think of this as the need for road rules and a traffic management system in a large metro—what worked 30 years ago cannot work today. It was possible to travel 5 km in Delhi without running into traffic lights or traffic cops 30 years ago as road traffic was thin. A malfunctioning traffic light today causes hours of traffic jams. As the traffic volume rises, cities resort to one-way traffic rules, higher parking fees and other measures to curb traffic in the city centre. Financial markets are similar; regulations need to keep moving to keep pace with the changing face of the market. Has the market changed? Yes, the size of the assets under management by the three large parts of the retail financial market—mutual funds (only retail), life insurance and the National Pension System (NPS)—crossed Rs34 trillion in FY 2017, up from Rs22 trillion just 3 years ago. Both the volume of money and the number of people on-boarding these products has risen sharply over the past few years. The share of household savings in financial products has been rising and now more than one-third of household savings find their way into financial products. In addition to the urban users of these products, a new category of investors are getting added through the Jan Dhan accounts. These are people who will be first-time users of many financial products as they move from cash, gold and real estate.
The debate around the Financial Resolution and Deposit Insurance (FRDI) Bill is good news. The citizens of a country must engage with a potential law that affects their money. I wrote on the issue last week, where I argued that the FRDI Bill proposes an early warning system for crisis in financial firms. You can read it here. Based on their financials, banks and other financial firms will be classified according to their risk. When the risk becomes more than moderate, a set of data reporting protocols kick into place, giving the system ample time to prevent the bank (and other financial firms) from failing. If it indeed does fail, there is a process-driven system for mergers and take-overs. It is only when all of this fails that a bank goes into liquidation. It is like getting a warning 10 miles before the train hurtles towards a cliff.
When you move a system from personality-based solutions to rule of law, there is a painful period of readjustment of the old way of doing things to the new. People, institutions and analysts all need to readjust to the new reality. The recent commentary around the Financial Resolution and Deposit Insurance (FRDI) Bill that is up for debate in the winter session of the Indian Parliament has picked up on one section (section 52) of the Bill, ignoring everything else in the 125 pages, and has resulted in panic about the safety of bank deposits if this bill gets passed. I read the Bill over the weekend and this is my understanding of what the aim of the Bill is and what it means for you.
Bank deposits are the one true friend of a middle class Indian and any threat to their safety is terribly upsetting. The government will introduce a new bill in Parliament in the winter session called the Financial Resolution and Deposit Insurance (FRDI) bill. One section of this bill is causing bank depositors to fear for the safety of their money. I read the bill over the weekend and this is my understanding of what the aim of the bill is and what it means for you.
Most people have a “where I was” story about the night of 8 November 2016. Some of us also have a story on ‘how much money I had’ on the night that Prime Minister Narendra Modi invalidated 86% of Indian currency. I was just dragging myself back home after my Iyengar yoga class (those who join the Beginners will identify with my use of the word ‘dragging’), ready to eat some dinner and collapse. But of course, the team and I were up until midnight, reporting and writing on the biggest news of a personal finance journalist’s lifetime. How much money did I have? I had three Rs500 notes that day. Having moved to cards and then digital, I’d moved my household staff to bank accounts and electronic transfer of salaries some years back. Cash was needed for everyday buying of milk, bread, eggs, vegetables kind of stuff. The local Mother Dairy booth was accepting old notes for future purchases, so I was spared the lines to deposit my money. We all have our stories of what happened that night. This was mine.
Apart from the personal shock to our money lives, demonetisation quickly became a huge political, social and intellectual battle. The battle lines got drawn deep in the ground and your pro- or anti-Modi stance decided where you stood on the demonetisation debate. I wrote a column one day after demonetisation in which I said that the step will raise the cost of black money, it will not eliminate it. That it is one step in a larger plan to go after corruption. You can read it here: bit.ly/2mmdYeZ. How does it look a year later? Modi gave four reasons for demonetisation: to curb corruption, black money, fake notes and terror finance. To judge the success or failure of demonetisation on these four metrics is almost impossible because demonetisation was one of the several weapons the government has deployed against these issues. But let me try and unpack them.
Has there been a dent in corruption and black money? Anecdotal stories say that high-level corruption in the central government is gone, but the cancer of graft elsewhere in the system still thrives. It is unrealistic to expect the deep-rooted habit of graft to disappear overnight, but at least there is serious political will behind the anti-corruption war in India today. What of black money, or money on which income tax has not been paid? Black money is back in the system—talk to any builder (real estate is the biggest sump of black money and talking to builders is a quick way to figure out if cash deals are back) and they say it is as if demonetisation never happened. But they admit to the cash ratio going down and the fear factor lurking at the back of every deal.