Raghuram Rajan Controversy: Why Subramanian Swamy HAS a Point

There is a sense of anger among Indian intellectual class, stunned by the demand made by Dr. Subramanian Swamy for the sacking of Dr. Raghuram Rajan – the most respected, ever charming, hottest RBI Governor India has ever had. From Shobha De to newspaper editors to the average Joe, Dr. Raghuram Rajan commands a following rivaling that of Salman Khan.

Not only analysts, commentators and financial daily editors have come out in support of Dr. Rajan, but the even common public also seems to be completely unanimous in their support of Dr. Rajan and all the good work he has been doing for the Indian economy. Going by the number of editorials/articles and public forum comments posted in support of Dr. Rajan, one can easily conclude that India is in safe hands, or at least perceived by the general public to be in safe hands.

There is no denying the fact that Dr. Raghuram Rajan is one of the finest brains when it comes to Economics. Applauded by some as one of the very few economists to warn about 2008 crisis much ahead of the time, he is widely respected and credited with a sound understanding of complex macroeconomics issues.

The last time a central banker got so much respect and public support was Alan Greenspan in the 2002 era. The other Economist, who got so much respect from Indian public/experts/intellectuals, was Dr. Manmohan Singh as India’s PM in 2004-09 era. Needless to say, public opinion is hardly the right barometer for gauging long-term impact if one goes by the disdain both these gentlemen now attract from academia and the general public alike – as public opinion, fickle at best, is always swayed by perception rather than hard facts.

The arguments made in support of Dr. Rajan are multifold and cover almost every possible ground to demonstrate how Rajan is the best man for the job and how wrong is Subramanian Swamy. The main arguments given by supporters of Dr. Rajan are as follows:

1. Dr. Rajan has been able to keep inflation under control by keeping interest rates high initially and didn’t succumb to political pressure (greatest virtue in the country of Singham). This hard stance towards inflation kept cheap money out and didn’t allow the buildup of another sub-prime scenario in India.

2. He has cracked open the NPA issue of banks and brought out the muck in open. This cleansing of bank balance-sheets will usher in a new era of transparency and will fix the nexus of politician-banker-bureaucrat forever, as the public sector banks are the primary source of crony capitalism and high real estate prices in India.

3. He has published far more papers than Dr. Swamy and is cited / peer-reviewed many times more compared to Dr. Swamy.

4. He is very well respected by International media and considered to be one of the best brains in Economics

5. He is a far better economist than Dr. Subramanian Swamy who is more of a lone ranger/fringe politician.

All the above arguments seem quite valid on the face of it, but then keep in mind that the criticism of Raghuram Rajan is not made by some usual analyst but none other than Dr. Subramanian Swamy – one of the sharpest brains around with an enviable track record of proving his points. So rather than jumping in defense of Raghuram Rajan, it is much better to have a deeper look at the critique, since Dr. Swamy has a reputation of not making false claims without support from necessary data. So rather than debating on issues like nos of papers published, who is the better economist, etc., let us focus on the major issue of interest rates and inflation, which seems to be the bone of contention among fan-boys and Dr. Swamy.

There is no debate that inflation has remained within limits since Dr. Rajan took over RBI in 2013; however, the low inflation has been more of a function of the massive drop in oil prices and commodity prices. Since 2013, oil prices have dropped from the heights of US$ 90 a barrel to US$ 40 a barrel (55% drop). Further, by choosing not to pass this price drop benefit to consumers, Indian govt has been able to manage its high fiscal deficit, which in turn calmed down its currency. Further, Modi Govt has been quite proactive in controlling food inflation by taking quick actions, be it the import of food items or action against hoarders. Hence, to say that inflation in India is down due to strong monetary policy and high-interest rates is nothing but a big myth. In fact, a little bit of movement in oil prices in last quarter has already perked up the inflation.

Hence, it is obvious that the high-interest rate regime has nothing to do with inflation and in fact everything to do with low growth faced by India. Interestingly, everyone has jumped on Subramanian Swamy, harping on the fact of rate cuts not passed by banks to consumers and talking of headline interest rate, while totally forgetting that Swamy is not talking of main interest rate but interest rate available to SME sector.  Interestingly, while interest rates for large corporate hover around 9%, interest rates for SME sector hover in the range of 16% to 22% and no attempt has been made to bring down this rate.

Worldwide, and especially in the Western world, monetary policies are effective tools to manage inflation; however, the economists trained in Western view need to understand that India is not West and does not have the luxury of enormous resources or well-oiled supply chain. Inflation in India is not a function of more demand but supply-side constraints, which become worse with higher interest rates and crony capitalism. So far, not only has RBI failed in bringing down overall lending rates in the general economy, but it has also not worked on main inflation which is plaguing middle class and poor in India.

Unfortunately, all discussions related to inflation in India revolve around food prices, while in actual the bigger share is consumed by the housing sector. On an average, almost 34% of a household income goes towards meeting the housing cost (Rent/EMI), and thanks to liberal policies/crony capitalism indulged by banks (primarily PSU Banks), the prices of housing have remained strong in India and in fact are much higher than even the prices in Dr Rajan’s adopted country. In 2008, when the whole world was reeling under severe liquidity crunch and asset prices collapsed like anything, Indian real estate and Indian economy remained insular and that was not due to sheer brain of Dr. Manmohan Singh but sheer luck in the form of 6th Pay Commission and crony capitalism of PSU banks (banks pumped capital in real estate firms and thus allowed them to keep prices high) that saved the day for Indian economy and builders.

However, this benevolence of Indian banks created other victims – that is overall economic growth in general and middle class in particular. The continued high real estate cost (EMI/Rent) left hardly any surplus cash in the hands of an average consumer and in turn led to continued slowdown in the Indian industry (a fact clearly visible if one goes by almost flat growth of white goods, commercial vehicles, etc.), which was already reeling under high interest costs.

Now one may argue as to what is the relation between housing prices with inflation and interest rates. By keeping interest rates for housing at 11% while the lending rate for SME at 14%, RBI has crowded out money from all sectors and diverted it to housing. Given the power of leverage and faulty income tax laws, investors are earning 30% to 36% returns from real estate and thus creating capital scarcity and higher interest rates. Today, an SME or a hospital or an educational institute pay interest rates in the order of 14%+ while housing loans are disbursed at 11% or lower, and on top of it get significant income tax rebate.

Dr. Rajan, in his 2005 address, had observed that ongoing financial developments had made the world a riskier place (no, he didn’t predict the 2008 crisis as believed popularly) and raised concerns regarding banks’ inability to handle risks beyond a limit due to flawed reward structure. Interestingly, despite deep insight into the workings of the banking system, the RBI Governor in India never restrained banks from providing additional liquidity to real estate or stopped fancy derivative schemes like interest subvention, etc. This continued liquidity given to the housing sector in the form of lower interest rates and subvention schemes has created a massive build-up of risk in the Indian banking system in the form of housing. Strangely, Dr. Rajan didn’t take any action in terms of normalizing exposure to the housing sector.

Hence, Dr. Subramanian Swamy is correct when he says that Dr. Raghuram Rajan has wrecked the economy by wrong policies since continuous 22% interest rate has wrecked SME sector due to high costs and low demand as an average household has hardly any cash surplus left after paying for real estate costs (Rent/EMI).

So rather than saving and steering Indian economy, the policies of present Governor have pushed India in a unique crisis with almost no industrial growth coupled with high-interest rates where there is massive unemployment or no job growth except some small slivers of hope on account of massive funding to startups.

Now with oil slowly limping back to US$ 50 per barrel and above, and 7thPay Commission on the horizon, Indian economy is going to face double whammy for which neither Indian Finance Ministry nor RBI is well prepared.

So why is there such wide support for Dr. Raghuram Rajan and so much disdain for Dr. Swamy? Interestingly, the reasons don’t lie in economics data or hard facts but in human behavior.

We all love Dr. Rajan because he is so much like us and represents our aspirations – be it his education (IIT, IIMA, MIT), his career path (Chicago Professor, IMF, RBI Governor), which we all aspire for us or for our kids to have. Not in the distant past, we all went gaga over a certain another economist who ruled this country for 10 years and despite all hard data/evidence about lack of moral compass and corruption, we kept him revered and on the altar of perfection. So this is basically about us and not at all about Dr. Rajan or Dr. Manmohan Singh.

Now on Dr Swamy – the reason for the disdain and smirks thrown at him by the great middle class is obvious as Dr. Swamy is that super-intelligent lone warrior in the class whom we all secretly admire but have none of the intellect, guts or courage, and hence mock him, because however hard we try, we can’t be him.

But then when was economics about data and not about human behavior!!!