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Bias against the disadvantaged - Outside View by S.S. TARAPORE

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Bias against the disadvantaged
Dec 15, 2014

Governor Raghuram Rajan, in a powerfully argued monetary policy statement on December 2, 2014, warded off the clamour from large industry and government to reduce policy interest rates, thereby providing succour to a large number of depositors who otherwise would have faced adverse interest rates. Over the past two decades, there has unfortunately been a tilt towards borrowers and against depositors.

Bankers' response in recent months

Although the RBI September 30, 2014 Review maintained unchanged policy interest rates, banks started lowering term deposit rates. Again, when policy interest rates were kept unchanged on December 2, 2014, banks, predictably, started reducing term deposit interest rates.

The advice given to depositors in September 2014 needs to be reiterated: depositors should quickly lock into longer term deposits whatever surplus funds they have, even if they happen to be temporary surpluses. Under the current dispensation, if a depositor prematurely withdraws a term deposit, there is no penalty. Since an increase in policy interest rates can be ruled out for the next 18-24 months, depositors would be well advised to lock into the longer maturities, up to say, three years.

Cartelisation of savings bank deposit rate

Savings bank deposits account for a fourth of total bank deposits and most depositors are small. Since the deregulation of the savings rate in October 2011, each bank has the freedom to set its own rate, but as all banks, barring a few small banks, have uniformly fixed their savings bank deposit rate at four per cent (the erstwhile regulated rate) it points to cartelisation. Banks often argue that small accounts are costly to service. This is not tenable. The bulk of small depositors are stable as these depositors do not frequently operate their accounts.

Many banks have a low Current and Savings (CASA) ratio to total deposits. For such banks, it makes sense to offer higher rates on savings bank accounts and thereby increase these deposits and at the same time reduce the proportion of the higher cost term deposits. Per contra, banks with a very high CASA could afford to lower the rate they offer on savings accounts and offer higher rates for term deposits without adversely affecting their overall cost of funds. The fact that banks neither raise nor lower the savings bank rate is reflective of the operation of a cartel.

Samir Kochhar, chairman, Skoch Consultancy, in the quarterly Inclusion for July-September 2014, has pointed out that with the bulk of banks offering a uniform four per cent on savings deposits they are obviously operating a cartel. Kochhar draws a telling inference that by offering a meagre four per cent on savings accounts banks "steal from the poor to loan the rich." Kochhar has been functioning as a pro bono public and taken up the issue with the concerned authorities. It is gathered that the Competition Commission of India (CCI) is actively pursuing this issue. It is hoped that the CCI's intervention will put an end to this reprehensible action by banks.

Miscued fiscal incentives

As work on the Union Budget for February 2015 is in full swing, it is only apposite to discuss some miscued fiscal incentives.

First, there is a deduction from income up to Rs 10,000 per annum for interest on savings bank interest for purposes of calculating income tax. A very large proportion of savings account holders are not income tax payers. Furthermore, an interest exemption of Rs 10,000 implies a savings bank holding of Rs 2.5 lakh, which reflects that this incentive is elitist.

Second, the much talked about deduction under Section 80C of Rs 1.5 lakh for long-term savings in provident funds, insurance and pension schemes etc. acts in a regressive manner; the higher the income the greater the benefit. One hopes that the Union Budget for February 2015 will consider a graded system wherein for the first Rs 50,000, the deduction could be 150 per cent, for the next Rs 50,000 the deduction could be 100 per cent and for the last Rs 50,000 the deduction could be 50 per cent. This way the system would be more equitable for the lower income tax payers and at the same time not result in any increase in the revenue foregone.

Third, the government should not hesitate to issue a tax-free government bond for individuals with a ceiling for investment by an individual of Rs 5 lakh, which, at a rate of eight per cent, would mean a tax free income of Rs 40,000 per annum. If there are concerns regarding loss of revenue, the scheme could be restricted only to senior citizens.

Fourth, a retail Consumer Price Index linked inflation-indexed government bond, with annual interest, could be issued with a three per cent real rate plus the inflation rate. Thus, if the inflation rate for a year is five per cent, the nominal interest should be eight per cent. With the commitment to bring down the inflation rate, the government should not hesitate to issue such a bond.

Fifth, with the fiscal deficit being very high in the first eight-nine months, the government slams the brakes towards the close of the year. A major casualty is income tax refunds. There should be a provision under which all tax refunds to individuals relating to a year should be paid out by the next year for refunds up to Rs one lakh. If the assessments are not completed by the stipulated date, the refunds should be paid out on the basis of the refund claimed in the return.

These measures would work towards the income tax system becoming less regressive.

Please Note: This article was first published in The Freepress Journal on December 15, 2014. Syndicated.

This column, Common Voice is authored by Savak Sohrab Tarapore. Mr. Tarapore, is an economist and he runs his own Multi-Language Syndicated Column. Mr. Tarapore's other column, which appears in The Hindu Business Line, is titled Maverick View.


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