India’s pot of gold

VP Nandakumar | Updated on August 30, 2019

Domestic monetisation efforts due for a revamp

Exactly how much gold India has accumulated over the years is a matter of much speculation. Considering the $340-billion worth of gold imported in the current decade itself, the total number should easily be worth over a trillion dollars. In 2013, a surge in gold imports aggravated India’s current account deficit, and revived interest in mobilisation of domestic gold to reduce imports. The existing Gold Deposit Scheme (1999) and the Gold Metal Loan Scheme (1998) were found ineffective, and so the Gold Monetisation Scheme (GMS) was launched in 2015 to increase mobilisation of domestic gold. However, the response since has been tepid, calling for a fresh look.

Here is one way to revive the flagging GMS: Allow gold loan providers (banks and NBFCs) to participate in the GMS through the gold pledged with them in default accounts. Currently, gold loan financiers are required to auction this jewellery on an “as-is-where-is” basis. Melting jewellery to determine purity is not permitted. Consequently, bidders at auctions exercise undue caution and bid lower than the real value of the jewellery (classic lemon market/asymmetry of information). Borrowers lose because their jewellery gets sold for less than market value, and with the GST also payable, the auction surplus, which otherwise comes back to them, is often wiped out.

If gold loan providers are allowed to deposit into the GMS collateral gold held against accounts in default, it would be a win-win for all. The actual value of the customer’s gold jewellery will be independently assessed by a credible third party upon melting at any authorised collection and purity testing centre, without extra cost or tax. The financiers will gain from lower operating costs and timely realisation. And the GMS, which has mobilised only about 15 tonnes of gold since 2015 (less than what the three largest gold loan NBFCs auction in a year), gains from volumes.

However, for this to work, the government must make gold deposits into the GMS tradable. In other words, the certificates evidencing deposits into GMS should be freely tradable on a stock or commodity exchange for liquidity. Tradability will also shift investors away from physical gold and towards GMS certificates, and move the investment demand away from gold ETFs.

With attention focussed on cutting down gold imports by recycling domestic gold, we may have ignored a more critical issue. For a country with so much gold, the real challenge lies in getting this idle asset to contribute to economic activity. $1 trillion or more of collective savings locked out of the economy is a huge opportunity cost. India’s organised gold loan market is estimated at ₹2.7 trillion, with the unorganised market perhaps twice as large. Extrapolating from this, India has likely monetised only 10-15 per cent of its gold. Monetisation of even half of our gold holdings would generate over ₹30 trillion for investment in economic activities.

A possible way out is setting up of an institutionalised gold depository. It would operate like a securities depository, holding the gold deposited by the public either as bullion or jewellery. Once the gold is deposited and assayed, the depositor can use the receipt to obtain finance against the asset or to sell on the exchange. The tradable depository certificate would provide liquidity. The mechanism would attract private gold into the depository and make it available for economic use. Also, as safekeeping of the jewellery is ensured, bank lockers will lose demand. The key barrier in the gold loan business is that the skill to assess gold is not well-known. A gold depository makes this redundant, allowing more players to enter the market.

The writer is MD and CEO of Manappuram Finance Ltd.

Views are personal

Published on August 30, 2019

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