Moving towards a cashless economy

In any transaction, the process of payment is a pain. It is a necessary step, of course, in that payment is what completes the transaction, but the process of payment is not something that adds any value to the transaction. If money could be magically be transferred from buyer to seller at the end of a transaction, both transacting parties would be happy.

In this context, any chosen method of payment, be it cash or credit card or cheque or bank transfer, involves some degree of pain for the transacting parties.

In case of cash, there’s the problem of counting out the money, cross checking it, finding exact change, being able to handle currency without the fear of being robbed, and making sure the currency is not counterfeit. Cheques have a credit risk, since they can bounce, not to speak of the time it takes to write one, and the time it takes for the money to get transferred.

Bank transfer requires parties to have bank accounts, and the ability of transacting parties to tell each other their account details. Credit cards have the most explicit pain of transaction – the transaction fees the merchants need to pay the acquiring bank – apart from the time and pain of swiping, entering the PIN, etc.

The reason India has so far been a primarily cash economy is that the pain of transacting through cash has been far lower than the pain through other means. Apart from the pains mentioned above, cash also has the advantage of anonymity, speed of transaction and ability to hide from the tax authorities.

So if we have to turn India closer to a cashless economy, as the current union government plans to do, we need to either increase the pain of transacting in cash, or reduce the pain of transacting through another means. The Unified Payments Interface (UPI), which was launched with much fanfare earlier this year but has spectacularly failed to take off, seeks to reduce pain of cashless transactions. The government’s efforts to get people open bank accounts through the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) also seeks to reduce pain in non-cash transactions.

The government’s recent effort to withdraw legal tender of Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes, on the other hand, seeks to increase the cost of transacting in cash – 85% of the current stock of cash in India needs to get banked in the next 50 days. This, however, is not a repeatable exercise – it can simply remove confidence in the rupee and drive people to alternate (formal or informal) currencies.

So what can be done to move India to a more cashless economy? The problem with small change has already played its part, with most auto rickshaw and taxi drivers in Mumbai supposedly willing to accept payment in digital wallets such as PayTM. If the stock for the new Rs. 2000 and Rs. 500 notes released is low, and most people have to transact using Rs. 100 notes, that will again increase the pain of transacting in cash, since the cost of handling cash might go up.

Perversely, if crime and robberies increase, that will again make people wary of handling cash. In fact, as this excellent piece in the New Yorker claims, the reason Sweden has moved largely cashless is that people got scared of handling cash after a series of cash robberies a few years ago. The cost of higher crime, however, means this is not a desirable way to go cashless.

It’s been barely three days since the new Rs. 500 and Rs. 2000 notes have been released, and there are already reports of counterfeiting in these notes. Given the framework I’ve proposed in this blogpost, it is not inconceivable that these rumours have been planted – when people become more wary of receiving large currency (thanks to the fear of counterfeiting), they want to reduce the use of such physical currency.

It’s perverse, I know, but nothing can be ruled out! As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, increased use of cash has a fiscal cost (in terms of printing and maintaining currency, apart from people not paying taxes), so the government has an incentive to stamp it out.



Currency confusion

Arvind Panagariya has an excellent piece in the Business Standard on how “tax terrorism” has created a poor investment atmosphere, and if not reversed quickly, might be the undoing of the “Make In India” campaign. While the piece itself is brilliant, my problem with it is that it mixes currencies and numbering systems without providing “translations”. Sample these two extracts:

In 2013, Nokia decided to exit mobile and smartphone manufacturing and sold its worldwide operations to Microsoft. Around the same time, the income tax department retrospectively assessed a sum of Rs 15,258 crore in tax liability against Nokia, India and placed a lien on its Chennai operations.


But in our zeal to immediately generate a large volume of revenues, we have compromised that prospect. Ironically, in doing so, we may not have added much to our revenue kitty either. Already, the tax authorities have lost a $3 billion tax claim against Shell in the Bombay High Court.

Now, $3 billion is approximately equal to Rs 18,000 Crores, which makes the size of Shell’s tax dispute to be of the same order of magnitude as Nokia’s. However, being presented in different currencies (the Nokia number is mentioned up to five significant digits, for no good reason), it makes it hard for the reader to compare the two numbers and appreciate their similarity!

Unrelated to this piece but another similar problem in reporting in Indian newspapers is the confusion of Indian and Western systems of representing large numbers. Some numbers are represented in lakhs and crores, and others in millions and billions, and while the two might be in the same “units”, it is still an effort on behalf of the reader to appreciate.

It would be a great idea for newspapers to put down as part of their editorial policies a note on expressing all numbers in a given piece in the same units and numbering systems (providing translations where said units or systems are not “native” to the data being presented). This will go a long way in helping readers appreciate the numbers.

Tailpiece: I read the first part of this piece assuming that it had been written by Arvind Subramanian (Chief Economic Adviser to MoF) and was quite surprised at the candour expressed by a member of the government. Evidently, I’m not the only person to have got confused between these two Arvinds.

Rupee against emerging market currencies

One common argument by experts who claim that there is nothing to be worried about the decline and fall of the Indian Rupee in recent times is that the Indian Rupee is not the only currency that is falling, and that other emerging market currencies are also falling equally badly. In order to test this out, we will look at the movement of the rupee as a function of other so-called “emerging market” currencies.

I’m just going to offer the graphs here (of movements of various currencies against the rupee) without any comment. All graphs are of the form “how many units of foreign currency does it take to buy a rupee”. So the higher this graph, the higher the level of the rupee compared to this particular foreign currency. And it is on purpose that I’ve drawn all charts starting from Jan 1st 2008, so that the US financial crisis is also captured.

Data for all charts is taken from oanda and charted using quantmod for R.




What should we do about the falling rupee?

So the more perceptive of you would have realized that the rupee is falling. And fast. At the beginning of the year, fifty four rupees bought a dollar. Now you need over sixty rupees. That’s a fall of over ten percent in half a year.

People argue based on differences in interest rates and interest levels between India and the United States, and India’s current account deficit, that the rupee deserves to depreciate. Some argue that the rupee should actually trade even lower. That is correct. What makes the fall of the rupee worrying, however, is that it has happened so quickly. No theories on trade imbalance or rates imbalance or inflation can account for the fall of ten per cent in half a year.

The issue, of course as everyone knows, is to do with capital flows. While India has run a persistent current account deficit, the continuous inflow of foreign investment into the Indian markets (either direct or indirect) had ensured that the rupee was relatively stable over the years. With India maintaining a high growth rate in the GDP over the noughties, the inflow was persistent. Things aren’t so good now, however.

India’s GDP is slated to increase at a paltry 5% this financial year. The growth story is seemingly over. And that is not all. Things aren’t looking great in other parts of the world also. Due to this concept of margin financing, sometimes when some of your holdings lose value, you are forced to liquidate other holdings in order to comply with “margin requirements” (we will not go into the technical details here). So with markets around the world not doing great, and India’s growth not as spectacular as it used to be, and with the country’s muddled policies (check out how difficult the government has actually made it to invest in India – irrespective of your nationality), investors started exiting. With some investors exiting, asset values dropped and the rupee dropped. Consequently other investors exited. And so forth. It did not help that there was nothing inherent in India’s government policies to hold them here.

So that’s the story so far. Question is what we should do going forward. As I mentioned earlier, there are two levers that can help shore up the rupee – the capital account and the current account. Within the current account there are two components – imports and exports. What normally happens when a currency depreciates is that exports become more competitive and go up further. Imports become costlier and thus reduce. On the current account front, thus, we have what is called as “negative feedback”.

Notice that in the past whenever an economy staged a recovery, it was generally preceded by a devaluation of the local currency. So since our currency is already devalued the stage is set for recovery, right? Unfortunately it’s not so simple. While it is true that our exports are now likely to be more competitive, fact is that Indian industry is not well placed to capitalize on that. Investment bottlenecks, labour laws and bureaucracy means our entrepreneurs haven’t been able to move fast enough to take advantage of the falling rupee and up exports. This can be borne in the fact that the Reserve Bank of India, which normally shies away from controlling exchange rates (as long as they are not too volatile), has issued several public statements on this matter in the recent past, and taken steps to prevent further fall in the currency levels. That the Central Bank has had to step in to protect the currency shows that we are in extraordinary times. The natural corrector to a falling exchange rate (increase in exports) is absent.

Matters are not helped, of course, by the fact that one of our largest imports is an asset – gold. Thing with asset prices is that unlike prices of “normal goods”, the demand for assets increases with price. When asset prices increase, people see “momentum” in the asset and want to get on to the bandwagon. So there goes part of another natural corrector to a falling exchange rate (less competitive imports).

So coming back to where we started off with – what should the Government do? While this is going to be a time-consuming process, what the government needs to do is to ensure that exporters can exploit the falling rupee. Reforms in this direction are not easy of course – since they require significant efforts in removing bureaucracy and making it easier to do business – which means we need significant administrative reform. There is also the small matter of possibly having to reform labour laws (while on the matter of labour laws, check out this paper by Takshashila Scholar Hemal Shah, who presents some easily implementable reforms in the labour law). While these are difficult things to implement, the fact that there is a crisis gives the government an alibi to push ahead with the reforms. PV Narasimha Rao had done that once in 1991. The problem now is that the government may not have political will given that elections are less than a year away. In this context, it would be advantageous to have early elections, for a new government with a fresh mandate might be more prone to taking tough short-term measures.

Currently, the government is trying its best to shore up on the other levers. Gold import is being curbed – except that it will be hard to implement since they will simply get diverted to the black market. The Finance Minister is traveling the world putting up a roadshow to get investments to India. That, however, is akin to putting lipstick on a pig since there is little in India’s fundamentals and current economic scenario to attract foreign investors. Even if some of these measures succeed, they will only lead to temporary respite to the currency. Fact is that for sustainable improvement in currency, tough reforms are mandatory.

More on USD/INR

Via email, V Anantha Nageswaran gave a simple theory on the USD/INR exchange rate. Posting it here with his permission.

Source: V Anantha Nageswaran
Source: V Anantha Nageswaran


Using the above chart, which charts the exchange rate over the last 20 years, he says:

The chart attached is quite clear. Except for the period between 2002-07 when actual growth and growth expectations in India shifted higher, the rupee has been on a trend depreciation.

Sustained high inflation (or, rather higher inflation relative to peers) caused by lack of fiscal discipline is the principal or predominant explanatory factor.

To bring back the experience of 2002-07, he states that we need to bring back sustainable growth rates of 7-8%.

Elsewhere, in The Hindu Business Line, S S Tarapore argues that the RBI should not intervene until the USD/INR is at 70. Quoting:

The RBI needs to accept that the rupee is still grossly overvalued despite the decline in recent days. It should not support the rupee till it reaches a rate of around $1 = Rs 70, which would be consistent with the long-term inflation rate differentials between the US and India.

My view is that this may not be enough – this view assumes that Indian businesses (specifically exporters) will be able to take advantage of the falling rupee and export more. This also assumes that domestic demand for petroleum products and gold (our two biggest imports) is elastic and will fall with the falling rupee. If these assumptions don’t come true, things are only going to get worse with a falling rupee.

Also coming back to Ananth’s point on the break in fall of USD-INR in 2002-07, I want to point out that despite our high growth rates in that period, we still didn’t run a current account surplus. It was just that our high growth attracted significant foreign investments which offset our CAD from that period to lead to a rising rupee. The consequent pulling out of those investments has hastened the fall of the rupee over the last few years.