Using my cook as an ATM

This happened ten days before high value notes were withdrawn, and suggests nothing about my cook’s political opinions or views. 

On 30th October 2016, I paid my cook his salary for October. As it was the usual practice, I paid him in cash. He asked me if I could do an online transfer instead.

It was the first day of Diwali, and he needed to send money to his wife in Bihar. And it being Diwali, all banks were closed, and there was no way he could send money to her. So he asked me if I could do that. And if I were anyway transferring money to his wife’s account, could I send her a bit more, he asked – he would compensate me for the extra amount in cash.

And so like that I used my cook as an ATM. He gave me his wife’s account details (it was such an obscure branch that I’d to google it to find the IFSC code – wasn’t in citibank’s lookup list). I added her as a “payee” and immediately IMPSd the amount to her. And my cook gave me the extra funds I’d transferred in cash.

Later on, I told him to install his bank’s app on his newly acquired fancy phone (with a Reliance Jio sim). I’m not sure he’s done that but considering how resourceful he is, it wouldn’t be long before he does that. And more of the Bihari cooks network in Bangalore do likewise.

Nandan Nilekani, in his championing of the UPI, likes to talk about how “anybody can be an ATM” with the new technology. This was an exemplary example of that.

The only fly in the ointment was that I didn’t need cash that day – after all I’d been to the ATM earlier that morning just so that I could get cash to pay my cook – so I ended up with a lot of cash that I didn’t need. Thankfully I was able to spend it productively before the ceased to be legal tender.

Following the withdrawal of high currency notes, I told my cook I would pay his subsequent salaries by bank transfer. He gladly agreed.

ATMs and their security

Paul Volcker, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve and proponent of the Volcker Rule following the financial crisis of 2008 once remarked that the only useful financial innovation in the last twenty years is the ATM. The biggest advantage of the ATM is that because you can get money at any point of time on demand, you don’t need to keep too much of an “emergency stash” at home. For example, you are now extremely unlikely to find more than five thousand rupees in hard currency in my house at any point of time (including my wife’s and my wallets, and our “emergency stash”). In the pre-ATM era, when we would have to wait to visit a bank branch to withdraw money, we would have to keep a much larger sum at home as an emergency fund.

So how does this help the economy? Lesser cash in people’s homes and wallets means more cash in the banking system. Which means that at any given point in time, the banks have more money to lend out, and so the supply of credit is higher, reducing the cost of credit. Reduction in the cost of credit improves investment and thus leads to higher economic growth – which is good for everybody. The ATM is thus pareto-positive in stimulating economic growth.

And this is not all. The presence of the ATM has meant that one of the basic activities for which people would visit bank branches – to withdraw money – has now declined massively. Thus, it is possible for banks to run with much leaner branch infrastructure and this again pays back to the general public in the form of a lower “spread” between the cost of a deposit and the cost of a loan. I read on twitter yesterday (unable to find link now) that the average cost of servicing a customer at a teller counter is Rs. 176 while at an ATM it is Rs. 6. This order of magnitude difference is hard to ignore.

And we are not done yet, for we haven’t yet factored in the ease of drawing money now in the age of the ATM. Ten years back I remember having to wait at the bank branch at IIT for about twenty minutes to withdraw cash. I would have to fill up and submit a form, collect a token and wait till my number was called before I was handed my money. The transaction cost (for the customer) of withdrawing money was way too much. And one had to go during the branch timings. It is all so different now!

Now that we have established that ATMs have a socially and economically useful purpose, let us get to their security. On Tuesday this week in Bangalore a woman was mugged at an ATM when she had gone to withdraw money. The assaulter threatened her with a pistol and a machete, and assaulted her anyway and decamped with her money. The event was caught on the CCTV camera at the ATM and the footage was played out on national television.

Following this incident the Home Minister of Karnataka has given a directive that banks appoint security guards at ATMs or shut down the ATMs. Initially he gave an ultimatum of three days to implement this rule, but then the impracticality of the suggestion dawned on him and the deadline has now been extended. The question, however, arises on who is responsible for safety of the ATM.

There are two components to safety at an ATM – safety of the cash and safety of the customers who visit it. The cash at the ATM is the bank’s private property, and the bank has chosen to put the cash there (and not somewhere else), so it can be argued that security of the cash inside the ATM machine is the bank’s responsibility. I don’t think there needs to be too much debate on this.

What is debatable, however, is the responsibility of security of people visiting the ATM. The question is if it is the responsibility of the bank or as a public good it is the responsibility of the government. Let us draw an analogy. Let’s say you are visiting my house, and at exactly the same time a robber happens to pay a visit. In the course of the robbery you get injured. Can the state hold me liable for your injury for not securing my house enough against the robbers? Isn’t it the state’s responsibility in the first place that the robbers were on the prowl and they just happened to rob my house when you were visiting?

Public safety is a public good. To get technical, it is non-rival (by keeping the streets safe for you, the streets are also kept safe for me) and non-excludable (having kept the streets safe, you cannot exclude me from enjoying the safe streets). And it being a public good, it is the responsibility of the state to provide it. It also means that it is the responsibility of the state to provide public safety everywhere – be it private or public places. Arguing that the ATM, since it belongs to the bank, is not a public space and hence the state is not responsibility for security there is thus wrong. So the state has no right to demand that banks employ private security guards to guard the ATMs.

So if it is the state’s responsibility to keep ATMs safe does it mean that police be appointed to guard the ATMs? Of course not, for the police’s job is not to guard private property that is the ATM – their job is to ensure public safety. Effective policing would mean that the thug who attacked the woman at the ATM wouldn’t be in business at all, and that he wouldn’t have thought of committing this crime.

So if we don’t have private security guards or cops guarding the ATMs how are we going to keep them safe? I argue that it is a matter of design. If you were to watch the video above, you will notice that the first thing the thug does on entering the ATM behind the victim is to pull down the shutters – thus the happenings of the ATM is shielded from the public eye. If ATMs are by definition perennially open what is the purpose of the shutter? You might also notice in the video that the thug pulled down the shutter once again while exiting. Consequently the victim was found only three hours later and that might have had serious consequences in terms of her health. Would the ATM not be better off without that shutter?

Then, there is the question of whether we need a room at all to house the ATM. Here in India, everywhere except in malls, ATMs have their own rooms, and it was in one such room that the mugging happened on Tuesday. On my few visits abroad, however, I’ve noticed that ATMs there never have their own rooms – they are simply holes in walls on the street from which you can get cash. That automatically puts the ATM in a public space and makes them safer (especially if they are on busy streets). The ATM rooms only provide a false sense of security and can prove counterproductive like in the case we just saw.

As we saw in the first part of this piece, ATMs perform a socially valuable function and it is in the interest of banks to encourage customers to use them. That, however, doesn’t mean that banks appoint guards to all ATMs – there might be an alternate solution that might be cheaper and easier to implement, and it is for the banks to find it. It is NOT the state’s business to mandate how the banks get customers to use their ATMs – the state has to concentrate on maintaining public safety.

In June last year the Reserve Bank of India allowed non-bank entities to run “white label ATMs” – cash dispensing machines that are not affiliated to any banks. The first such ATM came up earlier this year. I’m hopeful that some of these ATM companies will gain enough scale that they can solve the ATM design issue and make them safer and more customer friendly.

Money De-laundering

A few months back I got my kitchen remodelled. It set me back by a couple of lakhs, and the guy who did the work for me insisted that I pay him fully in cash. I, who has had all cash inflows so far via bank transfers, was thus forced to withdraw (in several iterations) from the ATM perfectly white money and then hand it over to this guy and permanently convert it to black. Now that I think about it, I overpaid.

The key fact here is that people pay to get their money laundered. If you have Rs. 100 of unaccounted money in wads of cash, you are willing to give it to someone who puts Rs. 80 in your bank (the spread has been pulled out of thin air. Don’t go after me for that) and also some documentation to prove that you legally earned the Rs. 80.

So you have this bunch of people who want their money laundered. And then there are bank-only guys like me who sometimes have to produce wads of hard cash. Why isn’t there an exchange (illegal, of course, but who’s talking legality here? I’m only talking money) where money can be laundered and people with excess bank balances (and little hard cash) can be paid for it? For example, instead of paying Rs. 200000 in hard cash to my carpenter, I would have paid (say) Rs. 160000 to someone by cheque and got a receipt for it, and that person would have paid Rs. 200000 cash to my carpenter.

What does it say about the black economy that no such exchange exists? Does it mean that the market is skewed in a way that the demand for money laundering is much larger than its supply, because of which people who would otherwise have been intermediaries doing one side of the deal themselves? Or does an exchange like this actually exist but I’m not aware of it partly because it’s underground (for obvious legal reasons) and partly I’m seen as too small a fry to be accosted by the exchanges?

Next time I pay wads of hard cash, though, I’m going to try and see if I can get a discount.


We live in an era of unprecedented liquidity. Think about the difference from just about ten years ago. Back then, there was a much larger amount of cash reserve that one had to keep in one’s home, or on one’s person. There were no ATMs. There were no credit cards. All purchases needed to be meticulously planned, and budgeted for.

Now, because we don’t need to carry as much hard cash, there is so much more money in the banking system. While that gives depositors the nominal daily interest rate (at some obscenely low rate), there is much more money available with the banks to lend out, which increases the total amount of economic activity by nearly the same amount.

Just think about it. It’s fantastic, the effect of modern finance. And I don’t disagree with Paul Volcker when he says that the most important contribution of modern finance has been the ATM.

PS: My apologies for the break in blogging. I was in and around Ladakh for a week (yes, I was there when the cloudburst happened) and there were some problems with my laptop when I returned because of which I wasn’t able to blog. Hopefully I’ll be able to get back to my one-post-a-day commitment. And I have lots of stories to tell (from my Leh trip) so hope to keep you people busy.