By Jayanth Varma
The Reserve Bank of India published the report of the Nachiket Mor Committee on financial inclusion (technically the Committee on Comprehensive Financial Services for Small Businesses and Low Income Households). Its first recommendation was that each Indian resident, above the age of eighteen years, would have an individual, full-service, safe, and secure electronic bank account.”
The Committee’s mandate was obviously to look at financial inclusion within the context of the current financial architecture and so it could not by any means have recommended a change in the core of that financial architecture itself. But for us sitting outside the Committee, there is no such constraint. We are entitled to day-dream about anything. So I would like to ask the question: if we were designing everything on a completely clean slate, what would we like to do?
Day dreaming begins here.
In my day-dream, India would embrace electronic money and give every Indian an e-Wallet. Instead of linking India’s Unique ID (Aadhaar number) to a bank account, we would link it to an e-Wallet provided by the central bank. We would simultaneously move to abolish paper money by converting existing currency notes (with their famous “I promise to pay the bearer”) into genuine promissory notes redeemable in e-Rupees delivered into our e-Wallets. Financial inclusion would then have three ingredients: a Unique ID (Aadhaar) for everyone which is more or less in place now, the proposed e-Wallet for everyone, and a mobile phone for everyone. All eminently doable by 2016.
The costs of creating all the computing and communication infrastructure for a billion e-Wallets would be huge, but could be easily financed by a small cess on all paper money and bank money. The cess would also serve to incentivize a rapid shift to e-Rupees. (At some stage, we could even decide to make demand deposits illegal just like bearer demand promissory notes are illegal today, but I think that a ban would not be necessary at all.)
The operating costs of e-Rupees would be easily covered by the seigniorage income on the electronic money. Because of its greater convenience, safety and liquidity, e-Rupees should become at least as large as M2, and probably would grow to 25-30% of M3, making it about twice as large as paper money. The operating costs of e-Rupees should be significantly less than that of paper currency, and the seigniorage income much greater. The government would earn a fatter dividend from the Reserve Bank of India after covering all the cost of e-Rupees.
A huge chunk of the current banking infrastructure is now devoted to the useless paper shuffling activity that constitutes the current payment system. If this infrastructure is re-purposed to perform genuine financial intermediation, this would support much higher levels of economic growth. Divested of a payment system, the banks would be more like non bank finance companies and would pose far less systemic risk as well.
All this would allow India to leapfrog the rest of world and create the most advanced payment system on the planet (something like a Bitcoin backed by an army).
In a world that struggles to ensure that systemically important settlement systems like clearing corporations settle in central bank money, we would have a system in which every individual could settle in central bank money. It is even possible that e-Rupees would find international adoption in the absence of any competition.
Day dreaming ends here.
Jayanth Varma is a professor of finance working at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.
Featured Image Source: Unsplash