Many motives have been advanced for the great Indian demonetization of 2016. These include reducing the informal/untaxed “black-money” economy, removing counterfeit notes from circulation, making terrorist financing more difficult etc. Might there be another, unstated, reason apparent to central bank watchers? A subtle subterfuge to reduce the perceived level of non-performing assets (NPAs) at Indian banks.
By March 2016, Indian banks held 6 Trillion rupees (or 6 lakh crore) in NPAs. This amounted to 7.6% of their aggregate balance sheets as outlined by the RBI in its June 2016 financial stability report, up from 5.1% over six months. That large jump was the result of an Asset Quality Review initiated by the RBI. Indian banks had been using various devices to avoid classifying bad debts as NPAs. The RBI’s re-classification tore down this hall of mirrors. The RBI also projected NPAs could rise to 8.5% by March 2017.
Within two months, Raghuram Rajan had been removed from his post by the present Indian government. Eight weeks after that, Prime Minister Modi announced the shock demonetization of existing Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 notes.
Since then, 90% of the demonetized currency notes (14 Trillion rupees) have been deposited into the system. We can reasonably assume the bulk of these funds have remained in the banking system since withdrawal limits are in effect and large cash transactions are being discouraged.
If the denominator for NPA ratios has indeed risen from 79 Trillion rupees to 93 Trillion rupees. gross NPA ratios would fall to 6.4%. Just like that, we have a seemingly magical improvement in the credit quality of bank balance sheets.
Who knew a “digital economy” would have such fringe benefits?
(Also published as a letter by the Financial Times)