Moving towards a cashless economy

In any transaction, the process of payment is a pain. It is a necessary step, of course, in that payment is what completes the transaction, but the process of payment is not something that adds any value to the transaction. If money could be magically be transferred from buyer to seller at the end of a transaction, both transacting parties would be happy.

In this context, any chosen method of payment, be it cash or credit card or cheque or bank transfer, involves some degree of pain for the transacting parties.

In case of cash, there’s the problem of counting out the money, cross checking it, finding exact change, being able to handle currency without the fear of being robbed, and making sure the currency is not counterfeit. Cheques have a credit risk, since they can bounce, not to speak of the time it takes to write one, and the time it takes for the money to get transferred.

Bank transfer requires parties to have bank accounts, and the ability of transacting parties to tell each other their account details. Credit cards have the most explicit pain of transaction – the transaction fees the merchants need to pay the acquiring bank – apart from the time and pain of swiping, entering the PIN, etc.

The reason India has so far been a primarily cash economy is that the pain of transacting through cash has been far lower than the pain through other means. Apart from the pains mentioned above, cash also has the advantage of anonymity, speed of transaction and ability to hide from the tax authorities.

So if we have to turn India closer to a cashless economy, as the current union government plans to do, we need to either increase the pain of transacting in cash, or reduce the pain of transacting through another means. The Unified Payments Interface (UPI), which was launched with much fanfare earlier this year but has spectacularly failed to take off, seeks to reduce pain of cashless transactions. The government’s efforts to get people open bank accounts through the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) also seeks to reduce pain in non-cash transactions.

The government’s recent effort to withdraw legal tender of Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes, on the other hand, seeks to increase the cost of transacting in cash – 85% of the current stock of cash in India needs to get banked in the next 50 days. This, however, is not a repeatable exercise – it can simply remove confidence in the rupee and drive people to alternate (formal or informal) currencies.

So what can be done to move India to a more cashless economy? The problem with small change has already played its part, with most auto rickshaw and taxi drivers in Mumbai supposedly willing to accept payment in digital wallets such as PayTM. If the stock for the new Rs. 2000 and Rs. 500 notes released is low, and most people have to transact using Rs. 100 notes, that will again increase the pain of transacting in cash, since the cost of handling cash might go up.

Perversely, if crime and robberies increase, that will again make people wary of handling cash. In fact, as this excellent piece in the New Yorker claims, the reason Sweden has moved largely cashless is that people got scared of handling cash after a series of cash robberies a few years ago. The cost of higher crime, however, means this is not a desirable way to go cashless.

It’s been barely three days since the new Rs. 500 and Rs. 2000 notes have been released, and there are already reports of counterfeiting in these notes. Given the framework I’ve proposed in this blogpost, it is not inconceivable that these rumours have been planted – when people become more wary of receiving large currency (thanks to the fear of counterfeiting), they want to reduce the use of such physical currency.

It’s perverse, I know, but nothing can be ruled out! As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, increased use of cash has a fiscal cost (in terms of printing and maintaining currency, apart from people not paying taxes), so the government has an incentive to stamp it out.

 

 

Dealing with loss of cash

Ever since Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes ceased to be legal tender on Tuesday night, the internet has been full of “human stories” of people for whom tragedy has struck because they are not able to transact.

This is a valid concern – for there is a significant portion of the population without access to banking (numbers in a Mint piece I’ve sent but they’re yet to publish), and access to banking is necessary to do any transaction of reasonable size (there’s only so much you can pay with 100 buck notes).

One fallacy, though, is that people in rural areas, where access to banks and ATMs is lower compared to urban areas, are going to have it harder till the cash gets adequately replaced. While these places may be out of the way, what will help them tide it over is that everyone pretty much knows everyone else.

In Money: The Unauthorised Biography, Felix Martin argues that money is neither a store of value nor a medium of exchange. Instead, it is simply a method to keep track of debts, with the elegance being offered by the fact that money is “negotiable”. If I have a 100 rupee note, all it says is I’m owed 100 rupees. Who owes me those 100 rupees doesn’t matter. “I promise to pay the bearer the sum of one hundred rupees”, the front of the note declares. It just doesn’t matter who the “I” in question is.

In order to illustrate his theory of money, Martin gives the example of Ireland around 1970, when a six-month banking strike left the country’s financial system in tatters. Life didn’t come to a standstill, though, as people figured out ways of maintaining their credits and transferring them.

Initially, people wrote each other cheques. Despite the inherent credit risk, and the fact that they couldn’t be encashed in near future, people accepted them from people they knew. Then the cheques became negotiable, after “reputed community people” such as barmen started vouching for people’s creditworthiness. And so the economy moved along.

Debts were finally settled many months later when the banking system reopened, and people could cash in the cheques they held. A similar story played out in Argentina in the early 2000s when rampant inflation had rendered the currency useless – cities managed to invent their own currencies and life went on.

In a similar fashion, in small towns, and other communities where most people tend to know one another, people are unlikely to face that much trouble because of the cash crunch. Credit is already fairly common in such places, except that it will have to be extended for a longer period of time until the cash supply returns. It is similar in other remote unbanked areas, and perhaps even among tightly-knit communities of businessmen. Systems will spontaneously come up to extend and exchange credit, and life will go on.

The concern, however, is for the urban poor, since they tend to do a large number of transactions with people they don’t know well. In such situations, extension of credit is impossible, and people might find it hard.

Extremes and equilibria

Not long ago, I was chiding an elderly aunt who lives alone about the lack of protein in her diet (she was mostly subsisting on rice and thin rasam). She hit back citing some research she’d seen on TV which showed that too much protein can result in uric acid related complications, so it’s ok she isn’t eating much protein.

Over the last couple of years, efforts to encourage non-cash payments in India have been redoubled. The Unified Payments Interface (UPI) has come in, payments banks are being set up, and financial inclusion is being pursued. And you already have people writing about the privacy and other perils of a completely cashless economy.

Then you have index funds. This is a category of funds that is 40 years old now, but has gained so much currency (pun intended) in the recent past that the traditional asset management industry is shitting bricks. And so you have articles that compare indexing to being “worse than Marxism” and dystopian fiction about a future where there is only one active investor left.

All these are cases of people reacting to suggestions with the perils of the suggestion taken to the extreme. My aunt needs more protein in her diet, but I’m not telling her to eat steak for every meal (which she anyway won’t since she’s a strict vegetarian). The current level of usage of cash is too high, and there might be more efficiencies by moving more transactions to electronic media. That doesn’t imply that cash in itself needs to be banned.

And as I mentioned in another blogpost recently, we probably need more indexing, but assuming that everyone will index is a stupid idea. As I wrote then,

In that sense, there is an optimal “mixed strategy” that the universe of investors can play between indexing and active management (depending upon each person’s beliefs and risk preferences). As more and more investors move to indexing, the returns from active management improve, and this “negative feedback” keeps the market in equilibrium!

In other words, what more people moving to indexing means is that the current mixed strategy is not optimal, and we need more indexing. To construct scary scenarios of where everyone is indexing in response is silly.

Effectively, what we need is thinking at the margin – analysing situations in terms of what will happen if there is a small change in the prevailing situation. Constructing scare scenarios around what will happen if this small change is taken to the extreme is as silly as trying to find the position of a curve by indefinitely extending its tangent from the current point!

Indexing, Communism, Capitalism and Equilibrium

Leading global research and brokerage firm Sanford Bernstein, in a recent analyst report, described Index Funds (which celebrated their 40th birthday yesterday) as being “worse than Marxism“. This comes on the back of some recent research which have accused index funds of fostering “anticompetitive practices“.

According to an article that says that indexing is “capitalism at its best“, Sanford Bernstein’s contention is that indexers “free ride” on the investment and asset allocation decisions made by active investors who spend considerable time, money and effort in analysing the companies in order to pick the best stocks.

Sanford Bernstein, in their report, raise the spectre of all investors abandoning active stock picking and moving towards index funds. In this world, they argue, allocations to different assets will not change (since all funds will converge on a particular allocation), and there will be nobody to perform the function of actually allocating capital to companies that deserve them. This situation, they claim, is “worse than Marxism”.

The point, however, is that as long as there is no regulation that requires everyone to move to index funds, this kind of an equilibrium can never be reached. The simple fact of the matter is that as more and more people move to indexing, the value that can be gained from fairly basic analysis and stock picking will increase. So there will always be a non-negative flow (even if it’s a trickle) in the opposite direction.

In that sense, there is an optimal “mixed strategy” that the universe of investors can play between indexing and active management (depending upon each person’s beliefs and risk preferences). As more and more investors move to indexing, the returns from active management improve, and this “negative feedback” keeps the market in equilibrium!

 

So in that sense, it doesn’t matter if indexing is capitalist or communist or whateverist. The negative feedback and varying investor preferences means that there will always be takers for both indexing and active management. Whether we are already at equilibrium is another question!

Investment banks, scientific research and cows

I’ve commented earlier on this blog about how investment banks indirectly fund scientific research – by offering careers to people with PhDs in pure sciences such as maths and physics.

The problem with a large number of disciplines is that the only career opportunity available to someone with a PhD is a career in academia. Given that faculty positions are hard to come by, this can result in a drop in number of people who want to do a PhD in that subject, which has the further effect of diminishing research in that subject.

Investment banks, by hiring people with pure science PhDs, have offered a safety net for people who haven’t been able to get a job in academia, as a consequence of which more people are willing to do PhDs in these subjects. This increases competition and overall improves the quality of research in these topics.

Beef is like investment banks to the dairy industry. I recall an article (can’t recall the source and link to it, though) which talked about V Kurien of Amul going to a meeting called by the Union government on banning cow slaughter. Kurien talked about his mandate from his cooperative being that everything was okay as long as cow slaughter wasn’t banned – for that would kill the dairy industry.

Prima facie (use of latin phrase on this block – check)  this might sound like a far-fetched analogy (research to cows). However, cow slaughter has an important (positive) role to play in encouraging the dairy industry.

When you buy a cow, you aren’t sure how good it is in providing milk, until you’ve put it through a few cycles of childbirth and milking. If after purchase it turns out that the cow is incapable of producing as much milk as you were promised, it turns out to be a dud investment – like getting a PhD in a field with few non-academic opportunities and not being able to get a faculty position.

When cow slaughter is permitted, however, you can at least sell the cow for its meat (when it is still healthy and fat) and hope to recover at least a part of the (rather hefty) investment on it. This provides some kind of a “safety net” for dairy farmers and encourages them to invest in more cows, and that results in increasing milk production and a healthier dairy industry.

This is not all. Legal slaughter means that there is a positive “terminal value” that can be extracted from cows at the end of their milking lives. Money can also be made off the male calves (cruel humans have made the dairy industry one-to-many. Semen from stud bulls is used to impregnate lots of cows, and most bulls never get to fuck) which would otherwise have negative value.

A ban on killing cows implies a removal of these safety nets. Investing in cows becomes a much more risky business. And lesser farmers will invest in that. To the detriment of the dairy industry.

There are already reports that following the ban on cow slaughter in Maharashtra last year, demand for cows is going down as farmers are turning to the more politically pliable buffaloes.

Similarly, with the investment banking industry seeing a downturn and the demand for “quants” going down, it is likely that the quality of input to graduate programs in pure science might go down – though it may be reasonable to expect Silicon Valley to offer a bailout in this case. Cows have no such luck, though.

Simulating segregation

Back in the 1970s, economist Thomas Schelling proposed a model to explain why cities are segregated. Individual people choosing to live with others like themselves would have the macroscopic impact of segregating the city, he had explained.

Think of the city as being organised in terms of a grid. Each person has 8 neighbours (including the diagonals as well). If a person has fewer than 3 people who are like himself (whether that is race, religion, caste or football fandom doesn’t matter), he decides to relocate, and moves to an arbitrary empty spot where at least 3 new neighbours are like himself. Repeat this a sufficient number of times and the city will be segregated, he said.

Rediscovering this concept while reading this wonderful book on Networks, Crowds and Markets yesterday, I decided to code it up on a whim. It’s nothing that’s not been done before – all you need to do is to search around and you’ll find plenty of code with the simulations. I just decided to code it myself from first principles as a challenge.

You can find the (rather badly written) code here. Here is some sample output:

Sample output

As you can see, people belong to two types – red and blue. Initially they start out randomly distributed (white spaces show empty areas). Then people start moving based on Schelling’s rule – if there are less than 3 neighbours of the same kind, you move to a new empty place (if one is available) which is more friendly to you. Over time, you see that you get a segregated city, with large-ish patterns of reds and blues.

The interesting thing to note is that there is no “complete segregation” – there is no one large red patch and one large blue patch. Secondly, segregation seems rather slow at first, but soon picks up pace. You might also notice that the white spaces expand over time.

This is for one specific input, where there are 2500 cells (50 by 50  grid), and we start off with 900 red and 900 blue people (meaning 700 cells are empty). If you change these numbers, the pattern of segregation changes. When there are too few empty cells, for example, the city remains mixed – people unhappy with their neighbourhood have no where to go. When there are too many empty cells, you’ll see that the city contracts. And so forth.

Play around with the code (I admit I haven’t written sufficient documentation), and you can figure out some more interesting patterns by yourself!

Capitalism and Freedom and JNU

This piece by David Henderson has a very powerful quote by Milton Friedman. Quoting in full:

In the circumstances envisaged in the socialist society, the man who wants to print the paper to promote capitalism has to persuade a government mill to sell him the paper, a government printing press to print it, a government post office to distribute it among the people, a government agency to rent him a hall in which to talk and so on. Maybe there is some way in which one could make arrangements under a socialist society to preserve freedom and to make this possible. I certainly cannot say that it is utterly impossible. What is clear is that there are very real difficulties in preserving dissent and that, so far as I know, none of the people who have been in favor of socialism and also in favor of freedom have really faced up to this issue or made even a respectable start at developing the institutional arrangements that would permit freedom under socialism. By contrast, it is clear how a free market capitalist society fosters freedom.

Think about the ongoing protests at Jawaharlal Nehru University, a far-left-of-centre university, regarding the rally they took out last week and the government crackdown thereafter. While the current protests there have little to do with economics, and mostly about government control, given that a large section of the university has a mostly leftist anti-capitalist agenda, it’s a good example to take.

So where did the students and faculty of JNU obtain the resources to organise their protest marches? Some posters and banners might have been handmade, but many would’ve been bought (or made to order) from capitalist banner manufacturers.

The protests were largely covered by capitalist media houses which gave them further ballast, and acted as a force multiplier. Discussions on capitalist TV channels and newspapers (some of them publicly listed) added legitimacy to the protests.

Protestors would have needed a way to coordinate regarding the time and location and manner of protests. While old-fashioned methods such as notice boards and offline meetings could have been used, it is far more likely (and far easier) that the protestors used a capitalist social network (such as WhatsApp or Telegram (though admittedly the latter is not-for-profit, but it’s just that its owners are not optimising for profits) ) to coordinate their protests, using smartphones and computers made by capitalist manufacturers and sold by capitalist shopkeepers.

In other words, capitalism is a necessary condition for any kind of freedom, especially freedoms directed against the state. In a wholly state-owned economy, last week’s protests would have been far harder, if not impossible.

The state-owned media could have been one-sided in the coverage. The state-owned banner manufacturers could have refused to sell to the protestors. State-owned social media would have snooped on and subverted attempts to organise (if not block them altogether). I’m only picking a few examples here.

The next time you think you can have social freedom without capitalism, think again. It is capitalists driven by profit motives who provide anti-state activists the necessary tools to express their freedom.