Confidence in the Indian financial system has been breaking down for some time. Instead of trying to restore trust, it may be time to require less of it – with the help of an official rupee cryptocurrency.
The last straw was the collapse of corporate lender Yes Bank Ltd., which failed in slow motion in full view of Indian authorities. Depositors have been assured that their 20 billion US-Dollar in stuck funds will be released after a rescue by the government-controlled State Bank of India. While that may help prevent widespread panic, even temporarily stopping people from accessing their funds would mean that from now on, not all savings and current accounts will be treated by individuals and businesses as a perfect substitute for cash. It will be in our opinion both difficult and costly to revive the public’s dwindling faith. A nuclear option is to nationalize the banks and non-bank finance firms that provide 1.75 trillion US-Dollar in annual funding. Doing so would be a doomed throwback to the late 1960s, when India lurched toward stultifying socialist-style state controls.
Similarly, it would be in our opinion unrealistic to assume that the Yes Bank embarrassment would trigger an improvement in the status quo. The crony-capital relationships between finances and borrowers in India are steeped in its colonial history.
Putting on the gloss of Basel III capital requirements, which are supposed to make lenders less prone to failure, doesn’t make corruption in banking go away. Not all is lost. Blockchain technology, which the Indian establishment is trying to snuff out in finance, offers hope. Prime Minister Norendra Modi’s government should consider an official crypto currency to obulate the need for trusted intermediaries, which are in short supply, anyway. Before the coronavirus outbreak, China was widely expected to start its own central bank digital currency this year.
But India’s need in our opinion is greater, and its motivation very different from Beijing’s desire to shake the hegemony of the dollar.
After the Yes Bank debacle and botched rescue, deposits in India will probably gravitate toward four or five large lenders, whose managers may be emboldened to make risky bets with other people’s money. The remaining banks will struggle for liquidity.
A perennially unstable credit delivery network will always be one misstep away from the next blow-up. While every country has its share of mania, panics and crashes, to be gripped by absolute financial mistrust every few years is not an environment where growth can flourish. A legal defeat has provided the opportunity to think afresh. Earlier last month, India’s highest court set aside the Reserve Bank of India’s directive that asked banks to not offer any kind of services to cryptocurrency traders and exchanges.
But in parallel, the government is considering a blanket ban on private virtual tokens. Crypto activity could get slammed again if this happens. One other possibility could be to allow only regulated crypto currencies, so that one popular use of the technology, money laundering, would be much more difficult. But to kill an industry and send practitioners packing in our opinion would be to lose out on a valuable innovation at a time when India needs to build on the globally recognized successes of its digital payments industry, which has gained users’ trust just as banks and shadow banks have lost it. After surveying 17 projects around the world – from Norway and Sweden to China, Cambodia and South Africa – the Swiss based Bank for International Settlements has identified four possible pathways for a central bank digital currency.
Of them, a rupee token that doesn’t require the holder to have an account with anyone but has value guaranteed by the Reserve Bank of India could be a starting point.
Cryptography rather than account relationship could also be used to enable easy transfers. Later, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) can open up the validation of transactions to authorized parties on distributed ledgers.
Currently a deposit holder has to rely on everyone from the bank’s management and board to the auditors, the rating firms and the regulator to do their jobs. When they all fail, as in the case of Yes Bank, the bank’s cheque book, ATM card, and online banking password cease to generate liquidity.
Deposits stop being the same as cash, even if the state guarantees their safety. It would be far less painful if deposit owners only had to trust the RBI, not as a banking regulator but as a money-printing authority that could never run out of resources to settle its IOUs. If the RBI doesn’t make easy-to-transact digital rupees available, and leaves ordinary folks at the mercy of poorly run and supervised banks like Yes Bank, people would rather store their wealth in Silicon Valley-sponsored tokenized money – or Beijing’s upcoming digital yuan – whenever they arrive.
If that happens, good luck running an independent monetary policy.