India’s Currency Cancellation: Seigniorage and Cantillon Effects

India, Demonetization, Narendra Moti, seigniorage, wealth transfer
A protester holds a charred facsimile of the discontinued Indian 500 Rupee note outside the Reserve Bank of India office in Kolkata, India. 16 Nov. 2016. (AP Photo/Bikas Das, File).

india-currencyNews accounts and analyses on other blogs have usefully described and critically assessed the “demonetization” shock that Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave the Indian economy on November 8. Here we emphasize two features of Modi’s initiative that have been little noticed. First, the combination of demonetization followed by “remonetization” will transfer billions worth of US dollars from the Indian public to the Indian government. Second, the skewed pattern in which new notes will be injected will favor some sectors over others.

To recap, Modi announced that, in order to fight untaxed “black money” holdings, the two highest denomination rupee notes would be demonetized the next day (the Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000, worth about $7.50 and $15). Indian citizens have some weeks to deposit the invalidated notes into banks for deposit credit, or exchange them for new valid notes of Rs. 500 and Rs. 2000. But the exchanges can only be made in small amounts (Rs. 2000, or $30, per person per day) for the time being and, as Devangshu Datta points out, “only with identity proofs (which hundreds of millions don’t have) and the additional hardship of standing in many queues for many hours.” Once a greater volume of new notes becomes available, currency withdrawal limits will be relaxed, but those who deposit more than Rs. 250,000 (about $3676) in old notes face promised scrutiny by tax authorities.

Currency transactions play a huge role in the Indian economy. To list some pertinent facts about the importance of currency in India:

  • Over 90% of all transactions in India are (or were) conducted in currency.
  • 47% of the population (almost 600 million people) is unbanked, unable to substitute into check-writing or debit or credit card use.
  • The Reserve Bank of India puts currency held by the Indian public at Rs. 17 trillion, or 62% of M1 (the sum of currency and checkable deposits).
  • The two invalidated note denominations make up more than 80% of currency in circulation.

Half of India’s money stock (80% of 62%) has thus been at least temporarily immobilized. The immobilization imposes special hardship on the unbanked population. About 30% of the population lack even the basic ID required to change old for new currency notes. Those who sell old notes for new in the informal market suffer a loss of around 20% (the exchange rate reported in recent days).

Here we consider three different aspects of India’s currency cancellation policy: (1) the effects of transition away from old notes, (2) the fiscal impact of transition into new notes, and (3) the impact of the non-uniform injection of the new notes into the economy.

1. Effects of transition away from old notes

Modi’s surprise announcement imposes a one-time wealth loss on currency holders who are unable or unwilling to convert their entire holdings of old notes. This is actually intentional, because the idea is to eliminate untaxed or illegally gotten wealth held in currency.

Modi seems to have underappreciated, however, that in so doing his policy creates a serious shortage of currency. This shortage blocks ordinary currency transactions, blocking honest ordinary people from making a living, thus reducing national income. The biggest impact is on the poor, who have few substitutes for cash transactions. In the last two weeks, some daily wage laborers have not been paid due to the currency shortage, and are down to only one meal a day because of the drop in earnings. Farmers and vendors unable to sell fresh produce have lost their entire stock of perishables. Other small businesses are unable to operate without access to sufficient new currency notes. And since November 9, close to 50 deaths have been attributed to the currency shortage. A policy ostensibly intended to inflict losses on tax evaders and criminals is imposing, at least in the transition, much greater losses on honest users of currency.

2. Fiscal impact of transition into new notes

While these harms of the transition away from the old notes have been widely noted, hardly any attention has been paid to the implications of the transition into the new notes. The most striking implication is that the Indian government enjoys a one-time revenue gain. Suppose that, as the government purports to believe, a large share of the old currency is “black money” held by tax-evaders and professional criminals who will be penalized by the cancellation because they do not want to face the scrutiny that will accompany the exchange of too many old notes for new. They will simply eat their losses. For the sake of a dramatic example, let’s suppose that half of the invalidated currency notes is never turned in. This would mean that the currency stock will fall by 42.5%, or Rs. 7.2 trillion ($106 billion), as the old notes lose their circulating status. The fall in the public’s actual currency holdings below its desired level gives the Indian government a huge potential revenue windfall: it can issue replacement currency (the new Rs. 500 and Rs. 2000 notes) of up to Rs. 7.2 trillion in value, without raising the currency stock or the price level above pre-reform heights. (The demand for the new currency may fall shy of Rs. 7.2 trillion at the current price level, because the transition has lowered the public’s wealth, and because the public’s trust in rupee notes has been diminished.) It can spend these new notes into circulation on government programs or sovereign debt buy-backs. To make the example somewhat less dramatic but still large, if 20% of the old notes are never turned in, the government’s revenue windfall is up to Rs. 2.9 trillion ($42.5 billion).

The destruction of the private wealth of non-redeeming old-note holders, combined with the revenue windfall to the government, makes the currency policy effectively a large capital levy, a massive one-shot transfer of wealth from the private to the public sector.

3. Impact of the non-uniform injection of the new notes into the economy

The third aspect to the demonetization we want to mention relates to the effects of the evident unevenness of the injection of new currency notes into the economy. Monetary economists call these “Cantillon Effects.” New currency notes are presently entering the economy through the formal banking system under Reserve Bank of India regulation. The notes injected this way are taking time to reach the 600 million Indians who do not have bank accounts. In the meantime, with currency-dependent sellers of goods and services having lost their unbanked customers, those who receive the new currency notes first can buy goods and resources at depressed prices. The terms of trade turn against the unbanked sector, and the relatively wealthy banked population receives a transfer from the relatively poor unbanked population. The skewing of relative prices and incomes will persist until the access to new currency notes flows throughout the economy.

There is also a geographic skewness. Tea vendors in the city of Mumbai, for example, where new currency is appearing relatively promptly, are less hard-hit than tea vendors in the rural villages of Maharashtra.

The currency shortage may also cause structural imbalances in the economy for longer production processes. For instance, mid-November is the sowing season for the Rabi (winter) crop in India, which is harvested in spring. Farmers lacking access to valid new currency notes have been struggling to pay for seeds to sow during this crucial time. Farmers who thereby miss the sowing season will lose their entire year’s earnings, even though the shortage of notes is temporary. Industries supported by farmers (fertilizers, machinery, etc.) will also see a fall in demand, and earnings. The relative price changes may persist until spring, at the time of harvest, even if the shortage of currency is resolved sooner. Close to half of Indian families are engaged in agriculture, and it accounts for 16% of the GDP. The government yielded to obvious necessity last week and announced that it would grant farmers a special dispensation allowing them to use old 500 rupee currency notes through the sowing season. But similar problems arise in other lines of business, which the government cannot anticipate and make timely exceptions for. Another example is construction, an almost entirely a cash-based industry, where current projects are being postponed until new currency notes become sufficiently available. This postponement will have effects on housing supply and prices for several years ahead.

Supporters of the demonetization policy have (with or without accounting for all these harmful effects) argued that all together this is still a small price to pay for tackling the big problem of black money. As critics have pointed out, however, the note cancellation really won’t do much to fight tax evasion, corruption, or illicit commerce. It will hardly touch most “black wealth,” because the financially sophisticated already hold their illicit wealth in other forms: real estate, corporate shares, foreign bank balances, foreign currency notes, gold. The planned re-introduction of large notes will soon re-enable unreported large currency transactions. The tax system that invites evasion, and the political system that invites corruption, remain in place.

We tend to agree with Kelkar and Shah’s argument that the sensible ways to reduce the role of black money are through deregulation (fewer bribes to be paid in cash) and structural reform of India’s tax and capital controls system (fewer transactions to be hidden using cash). The wealth transfer to government may help to explain Prime Minister Modi’s enthusiasm for the currency cancellation and re-issue, despite its likely ineffectuality against black money.


Co-authored with Shruti Rajagopalan, Assistant Professor in Economics at Purchase College, State University of New York, and Fellow at the Classical Liberal Institute, New York University Law School.

  • J Mareeswaran

    Very good & much needed analysis.

  • Simon Spero

    Even Larry Summers thinks this was a stupid idea…

  • Isn't that inflation is high and deteriorated therefore the political power wants to provide more credibility in doing business? There have been many countries that redenominated their currency over the years. Not sure if the corruption can be reduced in this way but definitively the poor people will be the first to feel the consequences.

  • R Krishnamoorthy

    The author of this article has done some armchair analysis. Yes India lives in villages and banking penetration is less. But the cash requirements of these people for day to day requirements is meagre
    But the problem is magnified by politicians who are upto malign the PM for anything he does
    His foreign tours are made fun of etc. But if one sees dispassionately it will show he has been trying to raise the status of the Nation. This article further says that we are cash economy. No doubt
    But this should be changed. To change to a full cashless economy will take time but a beginning has been made. Demononetisation has shown people were having idle savings. All this is not black. Perhaps they may have to prove that these are genuine savings
    If one sees the response one will think that people are with the Government by and large. The media gives more coverage for articles like this to give a handle to the opposition is my opinion
    Sri Modi knows the people. He will succeed.

    • So killing the residents of India will raise the status of the nation? Interesting strategy.

      • jr

        great. Indians should learn saving lives from a Churchill. Thanks but no thanks.

    • jandr0

      [But the problem is magnified by politicians who are upto malign the PM for anything he does
      His foreign tours are made fun of etc.]

      So your "problem" is that someone you apparently approve of is being made fun of?

      Excuse me for rejecting your "argument" as not having much validity or substance.

      [But if one sees dispassionately it will show he has been trying to raise the status of the Nation.]

      Well, it does not seem as if he is doing a very good job then. And, no, I am not making fun of him, although he may deserve to be made fun of – I am simply making my own subjective assessment.

      [To change to a full cashless economy will take time but a beginning has been made.]

      Goodness me, you assert that evil possibility of a "cashless economy" as though it would be something good!

      [Perhaps they may have to prove that these are genuine savings]

      Why do innocent people have to go through all the bureaucratic trials and tribulations to prove their innocence? When it has likely been corrupt GOVERNMENT officials who have been taking bribes – and government should in fact be fixed.

      Are ordinary people not important to you? Or ar you so naively infatuated with your "status of Nation" that ordinary people do not matter anymore?

      This ostensible nationalistic bias of you is one of the most dangerous killers of innocent people in the world. Please reflect and consider where your – in my view – blinkered thinking may be leading you. You seem to have so little regard for your fellow human beings that you regard them and their travails as expendable.

      [Sri Modi knows the people.]

      Really? I mean, really? That assertion sounds almost laughably naive. As is often asked at weddings: "How the hell can we believe you!" Making a blunt assertion like that makes it seem that you are not much more than a partisan, party hack.

      Frankly, it seems as if the "armchair analysis" you take issue with is light years ahead of your apparently highly sycophantic "analysis."

      Allow me to quote someone for you in response to your ostensible, and very poor, defence of Modi:

      "The moment you follow someone you cease to follow Truth." – Jiddu Krishnamurti.

  • RK

    LARRY WHITE does not live in INDIA…so govt. should allow 2.9 trillion to 7 trillion ruppee as ILLEGAL WEALTH, which is not available to 1.2 billion indians for INFRASTRUCTURE DEVELOPMENT, HOSPITALS, SCHOOLS, INDUSTRIES, EMPLOYMENT etc., and allow looting of Indian currency for 70 years…he should know about the hardships of our cilivilizaton for 200 years after British looted 3000 metric tonnes of gold over 250 years and killed 8 million indians officially and then after independence, Rs 462 billion are missing due to black money etc from INDIAS development fie to the powerful and corrupt…Will America tolerate such a nuisance and destruction of wealth? THANKS,AND REGARDS FOR your detailed investigations…LONE LIVE AMERICA, LONG LIVE INDIA…VANDERBILT MATRAM, JAI HIND.

    • jandr0

      [LARRY WHITE does not live in INDIA..]

      So what? I do not live in India either, but that would not stop me from making an analysis.

      [so govt. should allow 2.9 trillion to 7 trillion ruppee as ILLEGAL WEALTH, which is not available to 1.2 billion indians for INFRASTRUCTURE DEVELOPMENT, HOSPITALS, SCHOOLS, INDUSTRIES, EMPLOYMENT etc]

      There is ABSOLUTELY NO guarantee that the amount of money you claim will in fact go to the areas you enumerate. Why? Since it is to a large extent the government itself that is corrupt.

      Secondly, you are making an absolutely absurd reductionist strawman argument. It is NOT as if that money in circulation is not allowing the Indian people (especially those who need it most) to trade with each other, look after their needs and desires, and hopefully improve their lot.

      In other words, your "argument" is not much more than an over-dramatized emotional appeal and blind belief in government.

      [he should know about the hardships of our cilivilizaton for 200 years after British looted 3000 metric tonnes of gold over 250 years and killed 8 million indians officially and then after independence]

      I am aware of that, and you have my sympathies. I myself point a lot of fingers at what the "British" did, especially over the last few centuries (you may even know that the US fought a war of independence against them).

      However, that does not provide any justification for any argument you are trying to make. In fact, your statement is once again not much more than an emotional (although largely correct) assertion that does not logically advance any economical position (how ever vaguely) that you espouse.

      [Will America tolerate such a nuisance and destruction of wealth?]

      The US has got sufficient problems of their own with overreaching and interfering government. That still does not justify India's overreaching and interfering government.

      Maybe you should look for the problems where they really are, instead of allowing yourself to be blindsided by banners and flags.

    • "ILLEGAL WEALTH, which is not available to 1.2 billion indians for INFRASTRUCTURE DEVELOPMENT, HOSPITALS, SCHOOLS, INDUSTRIES, EMPLOYMENT etc."

      Per RK, voluntary transactions which produce income and ultimately private property is illegal wealth. The government confiscating it so RK can have access to it is apparently legal wealth. No wonder the country is inflicted with poverty and misery.

  • NA

    How much does indian gov make on seigniorage?

  • DG

    Few silly data points seem to have reached unchallenged in the western world about India.

    1. 600 million people without bank accounts. This is out of 1250 million and are those under 18. In other more unbiased surveys 99% of Indian households have bank accounts. In the last two years itself Modi forced Indian bankers into opening over 250 million bank accounts mostly for the poor. Almost equal to the number of bank accounts from independence. So change your priors, you will find it hard to find a household however poor without a bank account.

    2. All facts out of the Indian media are equivalent to the biased facts you saw about Trump in the US media. So when you see things like the number of people going hungry, dying because of this move, ask yourself why did Modi win a few elections held in the weeks after this move. They are all partly true or not true at all. Though lot of people are genuinely facing trouble, most of them don't care too much about standing in a line for an hour.

    Though overall, It is still not a sure thing whether the policy will bring returns for Modi but overall things are more or less back to normal and in another month it will be completely life as usual. Except for those who made hay in the Black economy of the past 70 years.

    If ever there was a policy which was the equivalent of the Drain the Swamp. This is it.

    And I expect the whole world to follow on Modi's footsteps in the next ten years. I would bet even Trump would do a slow demonetization in the next 8 years of the $100.

  • Informative blog posted….

    Indian Notes