Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The shrinking rupee

Earlier this month I criticized the architects of India's recent note demonetization for not using the traditional overstamping technique for replacing large quantities of banknotes.

This week I want to examine another feature of Modi's demonetization: the concurrent change in note sizing. The new series of ₹500 and ₹2000 notes are smaller in size than the ₹500 and ₹1000 series that they have since replaced. This has caused huge logistical problems. Since each cartridge in an ATM must be manually configured to handle a certain note size, ATMs were not equipped hold the newly issued ₹500s, ₹2000s, or additional ₹100s for that matter. Instead, they were forced to operate at a fraction of their capacity. Indians, desperate to replace their demonetized notes with good cash, were left on the lurch.

Let's explore the reduction in banknotes size. I'd argue that independent of the decision to crack down on black money, the decision to go smaller makes a lot of sense. But twinning a banknote size reduction with a demonetization was a recipe for disaster.

Consider that the length of the current issue of rupee banknotes grows as the denomination increases, like this:
Denomination: width x length
₹100: 73mm x 157mm
₹500: 73mm x 167mm
₹1000: 73mm x 177mm

To Americans and Canadians, this may seem odd since all our money is the same size. However, a pattern of progressively longer notes is quite common in other countries. Euro banknotes, for instance, also increase in size as denomination rises as do Swiss francs and Japanese yen. Presumably this format is chosen to to make manual sorting easier.

Now if the Reserve Bank of India, the nation's central bank, had continued to follow its traditional size progression, the newly issued 2000 rupee note would have had these measurements:

₹2000: 73mm x 187 mm

This would have been an awfully big note, one of the largest in the world by surface area. It would have clocked in 32% larger than a US$20 bill, for instance, and 43% larger than a 20 euro note. Not only would a note of this size have been expensive to print, but the combined costs of storage and handling incurred by hundreds of millions of Indians over time would have been quite large. Reducing the size would cut down on both expenses.*

The trend among central banks is to reduce the dimensions of banknotes. For instance, euro banknotes are quite a bit smaller than the francs, deutschmarks, and other notes that they replaced. The five euro note is one of the smallest notes in the world (see this pdf). When the Swiss began to introduce the ninth generation of Swiss banknotes in 2016, they lopped around 11 mm off the length of the 50 franc note and 4mm off its height (it now clocks in at 70 x 137 mm, down from 74 x 148).  By doing so, the Swiss National Bank will be lowering manufacturing and handling costs of the currency. In the chart below, you can see the evolution of the dimensions of Swiss cash over time.

Data source: Wikipedia

So India's decision to reduce the size of the new notes is very much modern practice. 17mm has been removed from the length of the ₹500 note; it measures 150 mm rather than 167mm. As for its height, it has gone from 73mm to 66mm. The new ₹2000 note measures 66mm x166mm, a 20% reduction from what it would have measured had the RBI continued with its old progression. Presumably the RBI will eventually do the same with the smaller denomination like the ₹100 as well.

While a note size reduction makes sense, twinning it with an aggressive demonetization was a bad decision. To reduce the odds of damaging the economy, the void left by demonetized notes must be filled as rapidly as possible. In India's case, the discontinuity in banknote size interfered with this re-cashification process. The authorities should have split the two policies apart, say by enacting a gentle two or three-year conversion of existing notes to a new and smaller series, and only announcing a surprise aggressive demonetization of the two highest denomination notes four or five years from now, say in 2021.

Alternatively, the authorities could have proceeded with their November 8 aggressive demonetization, but without enacting a note size reduction. The RBI should have taken incoming demonetized 500 and 1000 rupee notes and stamped them for re-circulation to ensure the banknote supply was sufficient, as I went into here. By using existing banknotes, ATMs cartridges would not have required adjustment. As for the new ₹500 note, it should have been the same size as the old series to ensure that cash distribution worked smoothly. Then—say five years from now—the Reserve Bank of India could have gradually phased in reduced note sizes for the entire range of denominations from the ₹10 to the ₹2000. This would have cut down on the chaos of the last few months.

The RBI seems not have been involved much in the planning stage of demonetization. According to recent press reports, the Board was "asked" to consider the demonetization just a day before it was enacted and had not discussed the matter before then. This is a shame. While an aggressive demonetization needs to be planned in secret, as I pointed out here, having at least a few closed-mouth central bank types involved from the outset seems like a basic requirement. They might have been able to fix the mistake of combining a demonetization with a note reduction.

*On the other hand, there are arguments for increasing note size too. See Garber.

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