Book review: Overdraft Saving the Indian Saver by Urjit Patel

Overdraft makes a compelling argument in favor of Karl Polanyi's insight (aptly summarized by Robert Skidelsky) that if the market order has to be viable, then it has to "embedded" in a framework of rules, policies, and institutions. For the Indian banking system in particular and the economy in general, unfortunately, this insight has been neglected by the government, policymakers, regulators, and the financial media.

To further illustrate this, there are three critical insights from the book that merits our attention. First, growth based on excessive borrowing and lending is costly and unsustainable: it leads to distortions and misallocation of resources, which impose a heavy burden on the economy in the long run in terms of output stagnation, unemployment, and inflation. Recovery is typically long-drawn, painful, and has social and political consequences. Before 2014, the government encouraged the government banks (GBs) under the façade of capital deepening and sensitive sectors (construction/real estate) to help stimulate the economy for higher growth. Unfortunately, this banking sector-fiscalization led to buildup of non-performing assets (NPAs), output stagnation, inflation, and unemployment. What is puzzling is that all this happened under the leadership of an economist Prime Minister, who one would imagine would be aware of historical lessons of the high cost of short-term growth based on excessive lending and borrowing (the latest being the global financial crisis in 2008). This lack of understanding is also reflected in the writings of former deputy chairman of the erstwhile Planning Commission (one of the key economic policymakers during the UPA 1 and 2). According to him, "..slow down after a long period of high growth is not abnormal. A string of good years generates irrational exuberance leading overambitious investment plans and a buildup of excess capacity. This then leads to a slowdown or even a decline in new investment. Once the excess capacity has been worked out, investment revives again, getting the economy back on rails." This would seem to suggest that NPA was a minor bump, which could have been quickly resolved by refinancing and reforming the banks. Being fully aware of how difficult it is to initiate reforms, this approach to the problems of NPAs seems cavalier.

The regulators who were supposed to provide oversight, unfortunately, lived up to their reputation to be soft. The scale of exposure by the banks remained uncontested. Not only did the regulator neglect its fundamental duties, but by allowing asset classifications, it allowed large borrowers to get access to more substantial funding: evergreening of loans was institutionalized. The financial media were also complicit: banks that had been pulled up by the regulator were bestowed with awards, and the jury members were often associated with institutions that were penalized. In brief, the buildup of NPAs was a systemic failure on the part of various stakeholders; it was an erosion of institutions where public purpose served the private interest of the few who were privileged. In general, Indian savers were robbed of their hard-earned savings, while millions lost opportunities to better their lives due to output stagnation, inflation, and unemployment.

Second, in a democracy, should there be one set of rules for the government and another for private citizens, when they are engaged in the same activity. The Reserve Bank of India's (RBI) powers are highly constrained and circumvented when it to comes to the supervision of government banks; for example, they do not have the power to remove directors or management that are appointed by the Government of India, in the event of any wrongdoing the RBI cannot force a merger or trigger a liquidation. This raises a fundamental question of individual liberty, who will protect the individual from the excesses of the state. One of the allures of democracy is that the power of state vis-à-vis the individual should be checked; unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case for Indian banking. The present setup allows the government to exploit the public purpose of the government bank to transfer private benefits to the few who are privileged at the expense of the general public.

Third, there is an unstated essential lesson for reformers. Lord Keynes ended The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money with the following words: "But, soon or later, it is ideas not vested interests, which are dangerous for good and evil." We have to, therefore, in the context of reforms, ask a fundamental question, why specific ideas persist even when they are proven to be wrong. To understand this, it would be helpful not to think of the government as a single entity. We need to deconstruct it into politicians and bureaucrats. Politicians are relatively easier to understand; their primary (and in some case only) objective is the pursuit of power. Resistance or pursuit of reforms for the political class would depend on populist demand. If the marketplace of ideas (which could be schools, colleges, universities, media, and now social media) are limited or constrained or captured, then open debates are unlikely to happen, and independent opinion will not be shaped. Populist demand, therefore, will depend on which ideology has captured the marketplace of ideas. However, in the case of bureaucrats, it is not very obvious what drives their motivation to resist or pursue reforms. In my opinion, the Indian bureaucracy is deeply conservative, but not in an evolutionary way. There is a statement attributed to Burke that reflects the definition of an evolutionary conservative: "a disposition to preserve and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman." The Indian bureaucracy has a great disposition to preserve, but its ability to learn has been constrained by a dearth of the marketplace for ideas. The Indian bureaucracy is a product of an education system where an open debate on ideas either does not happen or is captured by a particular ideology. It is in this domain, where reformers have to pursue the struggle. In a recent speech, the former deputy governor of the RBI made a statement that the exit of some right-minded reformers from positions of power should be seen as a “form of dissent”. I think these reformers have to ask what will be achieved by their dissent. To come from a position of privilege, into a position of privilege, and leave to a position of privilege is hardly a sacrifice. If dissent is only a matter of making an individual statement, then it is superficial and will have no impact whatsoever. If, on the other hand, reforms and ideas are about the pursuit of justice and truth, then one has to prepare for the long haul and be willing to make personal sacrifices. These reformers will have to use their persuasive power to engage intellectually not only with present bureaucrats but also with future bureaucrats at the level of schools, colleges, universities, national, local, and vernacular media not only in tier 1 cities but also in the hinterland. They would have to engage with all stakeholders across the spectrum of ideologies intellectually. However, at present, these right-minded reformers, remind one of a tweet by Teju Cole: "The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege."