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Can central banks go broke? Ask India

AN institution with money-printing powers should have no difficulty keeping the lights on. But could it continue to act effectively after depleting its net worth?

Former Bank of England policymaker Willem Buiter posed that question in early 2008, and it's currently the biggest challenge facing his long-time research collaborator Urjit Patel, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor. Under pressure to return surplus capital to a resource-strapped government, Mr Patel should borrow an idea from Mr Buiter's paper to argue that very little of the central bank's assets and liabilities are actually visible.

First, consider the counterargument. Chile, Mexico and Israel are examples of central banks that have discharged their mandates successfully despite weak capital positions. Similarly, the market doesn't approach the bloated finances of the US Federal Reserve, which is leveraged 106 times at present, or the Bank of Japan with anything resembling the trepidation it saves for overextended commercial banks or hedge funds.

The reason for that indifference, however, should form Mr Patel's first line of defence. The market doesn't seem to care because of an invisible part of the central bank's balance sheet. The RBI's monetary base adds up to US$363 billion, including currency in circulation and banks' current-account deposits with it. This "high-powered money" is duly acknowledged as an RBI liability. However, its ability to borrow at zero interest at will - by printing money - is a source of profits not explicitly accounted for.

Suppose the RBI for some reason (inflation?) couldn't print money and had to raise the same US$363 billion by paying the sovereign's three-month borrowing cost of 6.9 per cent. That's already a US$25 billion hit in one year. Add up the present value of all future profits from not having to pay interest on a US$363 billion pile growing in line with the economy, and throw in the US$25 billion saved this year. Were it to be accounted for, this profit from seigniorage would easily be the biggest asset on the Indian central bank's balance sheet. Most of it would over time flow to the government as realised gains on Indian and foreign securities, stuff the RBI buys and sells using its privilege of zero-cost funding.

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But there's a danger, exemplified by Venezuela in the 1980s and 1990s. The central bank, pushed into insolvency by its support of the Latin American government's industrial policy, leaned too heavily on the power of cheap money-printing to earn profits and repair its balance sheet, and lost control of inflation. Thinning out the Indian central bank's capital cushion could introduce a similar vulnerability. Mr Patel is already under pressure to use the RBI's balance sheet to support the private sector by accepting collateral from liquidity-starved shadow banks. His successors won't want a situation in which printing money would result in untamed inflation, and not doing so would mean the central bank would have no profit to share.

Too much capital

The Indian government may not want to get bogged down by the unseen part of the RBI's balance sheet. Concentrating solely on the US$498 billion of documented assets and liabilities, it might ask why Mr Patel needs US$95 billion in revaluation reserves and another US$32 billion in contingency funds. That's way too much capital, it might say, and therefore the RBI should return some. The "surplus capital" figure getting cited in the Indian media is US$50 billion.

The trouble is that the central bank can't reduce one side of the balance sheet without a concomitant decrease in the other. Raiding a little more than half of the US$95 billion foreign-currency and gold revaluation account would, from a risk-management view, force the RBI to sell an identical proportion of the related assets, or US$190 billion. That would trigger a "cataclysmic deflationary shock" for the economy, as VK Sharma, a former central bank executive director, noted in the Business Standard recently. That's because such a reduction in assets would involve shrinking the liability (the US$363 billion monetary base) by US$140 billion, net of the US$50 billion handed over to the government.

If authorities don't print new money quickly, the effect would echo India's other failed monetary experiment: the ban in November 2016 on 86 per cent of currency in circulation. That, too, squeezed the monetary base by 34 per cent in just one quarter, causing the economy to keel over.  Mr Patel was barely two months into his job when he was pushed to execute the note ban. He couldn't resist then. But now he should, with all the arguments at his disposal, including those of Mr Buiter. BLOOMBERG

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