The economist with a silver tongue: Raghuram Rajan’s most memorable quotes

The master orator.
The master orator.
Image: Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee
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Central bankers typically don’t have much to do with mass popularity. They are mostly viewed as haloed officials handling something akin to rocket science.

But there are exceptions. And Raghuram Rajan was one.

India’s outgoing central banker didn’t confine himself to the Reserve Bank’s boardrooms. He often made inroads into classrooms, trading floors, social networks, and ad billboards.

On Sept. 4, Urjit Patel took over at the end of Rajan’s three-year term. Over the past few weeks, Rajan’s exit has been subjected to as much hairsplitting—especially considering the perceived friction between him and prime minister Narendra Modi’s government—as some of his speeches and smart analysis.

Fifty-three-year-old Rajan was appointed RBI governor in 2013—at a time when India’s macroeconomic indicators weren’t great. Inflation was off the charts, growth was muted, and bad loans were mounting at banks. Rajan successfully tackled these problems.

But what struck a chord were his speeches and matter-of-fact commentary on everything from the economy to education to corruption. One of the world’s brightest minds in finance today, Rajan was the youngest chief economist at the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

“Being a wonderful listener universally makes him an excellent communicator. As a result, governor Rajan during his tenure has literally championed both conventional and unconventional modes of communication,” Soumya Kanti Ghosh, chief economic advisor at the State Bank of India, the country’s largest lender, said in a report on Sept. 2.

One of his most memorable quotes was almost 007-ish. ”My name is Raghuram Rajan and I do what I do,” he said, during one of the monetary policy reviews in 2015.

Yet, he remained humble. “I do not fool myself into thinking that reporters and TV cameras follow me around everywhere because I am a magnetic speaker,” Rajan said on Sept. 3, during his last public speech, at Delhi’s St. Stephen’s college. ”They follow RBI governors around because they may offer market-moving information on policy,” he said.

While his speeches will be missed, here’s a collection of his snappiest and smartest quotes over the three years.

On corrupt politicians

Rajan has always been vocal about crony capitalism. In one of his most famous speeches, he explained how corrupt politicians always win elections.

While the poor do not have the money to “purchase” public services that are their right, they have a vote that the politician wants. The politician does a little bit to make life a little more tolerable for his poor constituents – a government job here, an FIR registered there, a land right honoured somewhere else. For this, he gets the gratitude of his voters, and more important, their vote. Of course, there are many politicians who are honest and genuinely want to improve the lot of their voters. But perhaps the system tolerates corruption because the street smart politician is better at making the wheels of the bureaucracy creak, however slowly, in favour of his constituents. And such a system is self-sustaining. An idealist who is unwilling to “work” the system can promise to reform it, but the voters know there is little one person can do. Moreover, who will provide the patronage while the idealist is fighting the system? So why not stay with the fixer you know even if it means the reformist loses his deposit?

On the rich and the famous

On the last day of 2015, Rajan wrote a letter to some 17,000 RBI employees. In the no-bullshit year-end message, he dived head-first, calling out the mess in RBI and asking employees to get their act together.

Not only are we accused of not having the administrative capacity of ferreting out wrong-doing, we do not punish the wrong-doer—unless he is small and weak. This belief feeds on itself. No one wants to go after the rich and well-connected wrong-doer, which means they get away with even more. If we are to have strong sustainable growth, this culture of impunity should stop. Importantly, this does not mean being against riches or business, as some would like to portray, but being against wrong-doing. As the premier and most respected regulator in the country, we should take the lead. We cannot be seen as a paper tiger. We are changing our attitude towards compliance, but this is work in progress.

On banking for the poor

Rajan gave out bank licences and also created a niche segment with payments banks. In a speech in July, he outlines the need for financial inclusion.

One of the primary motivations for the country to push financial inclusion is to free the excluded from the clutches of the moneylender. How does the moneylender boldly lend where no banker dares to lend? Because he does not suffer the same impediments! Coming from the local community, the sahukar is well informed on what everyone’s sources of income and wealth are, and how much they can repay. He is quite capable of using ruthless methods to enforce repayment. Moreover, the borrower knows that if he defaults on the sahukar, he loses his lender of last resort. So the borrower has strong incentives to pay. Finally, because the sahukar lives nearby and uses minimal documentation—after all, he is not going to use the courts to force repayment—loans are easily and quickly obtained. In an emergency or if the poor need to borrow on a daily basis, there are few more readily available alternatives than the moneylender. No wonder he has so many in his clutches.

Dosa economics

Rajan explained complex economic terms using everyday examples. For instance, he once explained inflation and interest using the example of a dosa, the rice pancake that is a breakfast staple in southern India.

Say the pensioner wants to buy dosas and at the beginning of the period, they cost Rs50 per dosa. Let us say he has savings of Rs1,00,000. He could buy 2,000 dosas with the money today, but he wants more by investing. At 10% interest, he gets Rs10,000 after one year plus his principal. With dosas having gone up by 10% to Rs55, he can buy 182 dosas approximately with the Rs10,000 interest.

At 8% interest, he gets Rs8,000. With dosas having gone up by 5.5%, each dosa costs Rs52.75, so he can now buy only 152 dosas approximately. So the pensioner seems vindicated: with lower interest payments, he can now buy less.

But wait a minute. Remember, he gets his principal back also and that too has to be adjusted for inflation. In the high inflation period, it was worth 1,818 dosas, in the low inflation period, it is worth 1,896 dosas. So in the high inflation period, principal plus interest are worth 2,000 dosas together, while in the low inflation period it is worth 2,048 dosas. He is about 2.5% better off in the low inflation period in terms of dosas.

On India’s economic growth

Rajan came under fire for his remark on India’s economic growth, currently being widely celebrated as one of the fastest in the world. He said:

I think we have still to get to a place where we feel satisfied. We have this saying—”In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” We are a little bit that way.

But he was quick to give an explanation in his next public speech:

So in speaking to a foreign journalist the other day, who asked what it felt like to be the bright spot in the world economy, I used the phrase “Andhon mein kana raja” or “In the Land of the Blind, the one-eyed man is king”. The proverb has a long multinational history. The Dutch philosopher, Erasmus, used it in Latin when he wrote “In regione caecorum rex est luscus”, but he probably was inspired by earlier work.

My intent was to signal that our out-performance was accentuated because world growth was weak, but we in India were still hungry for more growth. I then explained that we were not yet at our potential, though we were at a cusp of a substantial pick-up in growth given all the reforms that were underway. In our news-hungry country, however, our domestic papers headlined the phrase I used. To be fair, they also offered the surrounding context, but few read beyond the headline. So the interview became moderately controversial, with the implication that I was denigrating our success rather than emphasizing the need to do more.

On tolerance

During a speech at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, in October 2015, he spoke on intolerance and tolerance.

Tolerance means not being so insecure about one’s ideas that one cannot subject them to challenge – it implies a degree of detachment that is absolutely necessary for mature debate. Finally, respect requires that in the rare case when an idea is tightly associated with a group’s core personality, we are extra careful about challenging it.

Tolerance can take the offense out of debate, and indeed instil respect. If I go berserk every time a particular button is pressed, rebels are tempted to press the button, while mischief-makers indeed do so. But if I do not react predictably, and instead ask button pressers to explain their concerns, rebels are forced to do the hard work of marshalling arguments. So, rebels do not press the button frivolously, while the thuggish mischief makers who abound in every group are left without an easy trigger. Tolerance and respect then lead to a good equilibrium where they reinforce each other.

On communication as the governor

During his last speech as RBI governor, Rajan spoke about the importance of communication, especially from the central bank to the masses.

Indeed, communication is as much about educating as it is about informing. For instance, even as I explained to entrepreneurs and retail borrowers why interest rates were not falling faster, I had to use the price of dosas to explain to pensioners why they were actually better off earning lower nominal but higher real interest rates. Public understanding can help ease the way for reforms, as well as increase support for policies. The RBI governor therefore has to explain again and again.

Occasionally, of course, the governor has to warn about the dangers of certain courses of action or certain tendencies in the economy for growth and macroeconomic stability. Finally, the governor is also a role model for the youth in this country, and should therefore not duck the responsibility to urge them to follow the highest standards of citizenship when he or she is invited to speak directly to them.

Rajan will now return to his academic job at the University of Chicago. Here’s a message from India to Rajan: It’s been real.