Raghuram Rajan is leaving the battlefield just when he was getting the better of his rivals

I’m done.
I’m done.
Image: EPA/Divyakant Solanki
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India’s debonair central banker, Raghuram Rajan, leaves behind many broken hearts and disappointed souls. Chronicles of his legacy will list many achievements, but will also note that he left the battlefield just when he was getting the better of his rivals; what’s surprising is that the commander-in-chief agreed to his pre-mature withdrawal even though the general’s strategies could be seen bearing fruit.

Equally perplexing will be the choice of his replacement.

Both the government and Rajan personally have been advocates of an alternative global financial architecture. He has also been proposing for a while that it was time for a new Bretton Woods mechanism. And Rajan had taken the battle to the enemy camp. At the April 2016 spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, Rajan observed how deeply multilateral financial institutions were in thrall of western economic orthodoxies. He even wryly remarked how ideas from emerging economies were dismissed as “crankiness.”

He was prescient about the trans-Atlantic financial crisis. He took on former US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke when US domestic monetary policy spilled over into the global economy and led to severe volatility in emerging markets. He is unlikely to have fond memories of the period: he had to douse this particular fire soon after his appointment in Sept. 2013.

So, here is question number one: Will his successor have the same zeal about promoting an alternative global financial architecture that is sensitive to emerging economy needs and is not partisan about any particular economic ideology?

Rajan also quits before another crusade could be brought to its logical end. He’s been battening down the hatches that allowed a cosy nexus between large corporate borrowers, bankers, politicians, and bureaucrats, to bleed public sector banks through questionable debt write-offs. Rajan had taken a large broom to bank balance sheets and forced them to take drastic action against defaulters.

Many large—and over-stretched—corporate borrowers have been carping about Rajan’s reluctance to reduce interest rates, which, when lowered, would have certainly helped moderate their interest burden. These same corporates also turned into quack economists on the matter of interest rates: in their collective view, only lower interest rates could bring back high rates of economic growth. This view is oblivious to the fact that the low interest rates in the US, or negative rates in Europe and Japan, have failed to promote any economic growth.

Time for question number two: Will Rajan’s successor have the stomach (or benign sanction from the government) to continue with the clean-up act? Or to hold rates steady when required?

So, what does Rajan’s legacy look like? Apart from the well-documented success in fending off volatility from the US Fed’s tapering in 2013, his tenure will be remembered for three systemic changes he fostered.

One will be the differentiated banking landscape that he designed and left behind. As RBI governor, he grandfathered the emergence of a new breed of universal, small, and payments banks. He was in the process of adding two more categories—custodian banks and wholesale (or long-term) financing banks—to the mix. We will now have to wait and see if his successor has the same enthusiasm for a differentiated banking model.

These new categories come in addition to existing myriad forms of cooperative banks, regional rural banks, local area banks, public sector scheduled commercial banks, State Bank of India group of scheduled commercial banks, old-generation private sector banks, new-generation private sector banks, and foreign banks.

Restive signs mark the payments banks space—three companies which received in-principle approval to launch payments banks (Cholamandalam, Tech Mahindra, and Dilip Shanghvi of Sun Pharma) returned their licences stating that the project was not economically feasible. Undeniably, and in true RBI style, the initial architecture is anti-profit and has flaws in it.

The second marquee item is his strict action against non-performing assets (NPAs) that continue to impair bank balance-sheets. This was viewed as his struggle to end Indian-style crony capitalism: large volumes of loans remain unpaid every year and yet defaulting borrowers manage to get fresh loans unfailingly with some help from politicians, bureaucrats, and complicit bankers.

The staggering amount of NPAs is a direct drain on taxpayers, since loss to state-owned bank balance sheets must be compensated with fresh equity infusion by the largest shareholder—government— every year. 

Finally, the outgoing governor will be remembered for installing a new monetary policy framework, which uses inflation-targeting as its driving philosophy. It also includes a monetary policy committee comprising three government representatives and three central bankers, with the RBI governor getting the casting vote. This new structure overhauls the old belief that the economy’s fiscal (the government) and monetary policy (central bank) sides should remain out of each other’s hair.

While the government has been uncomfortable with Rajan’s public comments about governance and broader political economy trends—saying that central bankers should not interfere with the fiscal side—it has not shown the same restraint when trying to influence monetary policy.

It will have to be seen how future central bankers and monetary historians view Rajan’s acquiescence to large government presence in monetary policy making.

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