By Norbert Haering, a German financial journalist, blogger and PhD economist, who received the 2007 getAbstract Best Business Book award and the 2014 prize of the German Keynes Society for economic journalism. His best-selling book (in German) “The abolition of cash and the consequences” was published in 2016. Originally published on norberthaering.de (http://norberthaering.de/en/home/27-german/news/745-washington-s-role-in-india). Republished with permission of the author.
In early November, without warning, the Indian government declared the two largest denomination bills invalid, abolishing over 80 percent of circulating cash by value. Amidst all the commotion and outrage this caused, nobody seems to have taken note of the decisive role that Washington played in this. That is surprising, as Washington’s role has been disguised only very superficially.
U.S. President Barack Obama has declared the strategic partnership with India a priority of his foreign policy. China needs to be reined in. In the context of this partnership, the US government’s development agency USAID has negotiated cooperation agreements with the Indian ministry of finance. One of these has the declared goal to push back the use of cash in favor of digital payments in India and globally.
On November 8, Indian prime minster Narendra Modi announced that the two largest denominations of banknotes could not be used for payments any more with almost immediate effect. Owners could only recoup their value by putting them into a bank account before the short grace period expired at year end, which many people and businesses did not manage to do, due to long lines in front of banks. The amount of cash that banks were allowed to pay out to individual customers was severely restricted. Almost half of Indians have no bank account and many do not even have a bank nearby. The economy is largely cash based. Thus, a severe shortage of cash ensued. Those who suffered the most were the poorest and most vulnerable. They had additional difficulty earning their meager living in the informal sector or paying for essential goods and services like food, medicine or hospitals. Chaos and fraud reigned well into December.
Reading the statements with hindsight it becomes obvious, that Catalyst and the partnership of USAID and the Indian Ministry of Finance, from which Catalyst originated, are little more than fronts which were used to be able to prepare the assault on all Indians using cash without arousing undue suspicion. Even the name Catalyst sounds a lot more ominous, once you know what happened on November 9.
Catalyst’s Director of Project Incubation is Alok Gupta, who used to be Chief Operating Officer of the World Resources Institute in Washington, which has USAID as one of its main sponsors. He was also an original member of the team that developed Aadhaar, the Big-Brother-like biometric identification system.
According to a report of the Indian Economic Times, USAID has committed to finance Catalyst for three years. Amounts are kept secret.
Badal Malick was Vice President of India’s most important online marketplace Snapdeal, before he was appointed as CEO of Catalyst. He commented:
“Catalyst’s mission is to solve multiple coordination problems that have blocked the penetration of digital payments among merchants and low-income consumers. We look forward to creating a sustainable and replicable model…. While there has been … a concerted push for digital payments by the government, there is still a last mile gap when it comes to merchant acceptance and coordination issues. We want to bring a holistic ecosystem approach to these problems.”
Also in September, McKinsey Global Institute issued a report titled “How digital finance could boost growth in emerging economies”. The authors acknowledged “collaboration with the Financial Services for the Poor team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation”. They thanked more than ten Gates Foundation (BTCA) people for contribution to the report, including Gates Foundation’s India head Nachiket Mor, whom we will meet again later. The Gates Foundation and USAID are key members of a Better Than Cash Alliance, which we will also look at more closely. In mid-December, seemingly unfazed by ample evidence that taking away cash in India has been the exact opposite of helping the poor and promoting “financial inclusion”, McKinsey-partner Susan Lund and study contributor Laura Tyson published “The promise of digital finance”, making fantastic claims about the advantages of pushing back cash-use in favor of digital, including ten percent higher GDP for countries like India.
“Merchants, like consumers, are trapped in cash ecosystems, which inhibits their interest” in digital payment it said in the report. Since few traders accept digital payments, few consumers have an interest in it, and since few consumers use digital payments, few traders have an interest in it. Given that banks and payment providers charge fees for equipment to use or even just try out digital payment, a strong external impulse is needed to achieve a level of card penetration that would create mutual interest of both sides in digital payment options.
It turned out in November that the declared “holistic ecosystem approach” to create this impulse consisted in destroying the cash-ecosystem for a limited time and to slowly dry it up later, by limiting the availability of cash from banks for individual customers. Since the assault had to be a surprise to achieve its full catalyst-results, the published Beyond-Cash-Study and the protagonists of Catalyst could not openly describe their plans. They used a clever trick to disguise them and still be able to openly do the necessary preparations, even including expert hearings. They consistently talked of a regional field experiment that they were ostensibly planning.
“The goal is to take one city and increase the digital payments 10x in six to 12 months,” said Malick less than four weeks before most cash was abolished in the whole of India. To not be limited in their preparation on one city alone, the Beyond Cash report and Catalyst kept talking about a range of regions they were examining, ostensibly in order to later decide which was the best city or region for the field experiment. Only in November did it became clear that the whole of India should be the guinea-pig-region for a global drive to end the reliance on cash. Reading a statement of Ambassador Jonathan Addleton, USAID Mission Director to India, with hindsight, it becomes clear that he stealthily announced that, when he said four weeks earlier:
“India is at the forefront of global efforts to digitize economies and create new economic opportunities that extend to hard-to-reach populations. Catalyst will support these efforts by focusing on the challenge of making everyday purchases cashless.”
Catalyst is housed at IFMR, an Indian research institute, of which Gates Foundation India’s CEO Nachiket Mor is a board member, has many US-Institutions as funders, including many members of a group called Better Thank Cash Alliance, including USAID, Gates Foundation, Ford foundation, Citi. IFMR is a member of the “Alliance for financial inclusion”, which is financed by the Gates Foundation (BTCA).
The members of the Alliance are large US-Institutions which would benefit most from pushing back cash, i.e. credit card companies Mastercard and Visa, and also some U.S. institutions whose names come up a lot in books on the history of the United States intelligence services, namely Ford Foundation and USAID. A prominent member is also the Gates Foundation. Omidyar Network of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and Citi are important contributors. Almost all of these are individually also partners in the current USAID-India-Initiative to end the reliance on cash in India and beyond. The initiative and the Catalyst program seem little more than an extended Better Than Cash Alliance, augmented by Indian and Asian organizations with a strong business interest in a much decreased use of cash.
Raghuram Rajan has ample reason to expect to climb further to the highest rungs in international finance and thus had good reason to play Washington’s game well. He already was a President of the American Finance Association and inaugural recipient of its Fisher-Black Prize in financial research. He won the handsomely endowed prizes of Infosys for economic research and of Deutsche Bank for financial economics as well as the Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Prize for best economics book. He was declared Indian of the year by NASSCOM and Central Banker of the year by Euromoney and by The Banker. He is considered a possible successor of Christine Lagard at the helm of the IMF, but can certainly also expect to be considered for other top jobs in international finance.
Somewhat counterintuitively, the Mor Committee that was to foster financial inclusion of the poor and of rural areas, was heavily dominated by big finance and law firms, with a strong US bias and. Members included Vikram Pandit, former CEO Citigroup, a member of the Better Than Cash Alliance, and Bundu Ananth, President of IFMR Trust. A further member of the Mor Committee was a representative of the National Payments Corporation of India the umbrella organization of payment service providers, which aims to move India to a cashless society. Another member was credit Rating Agency CRISIL, majority-owned by the US Rating giant Standard & Poor’s.
In May 2016, RBI announced plans to print a new series of banknotes and announced in August that it had approved a design for a new 2,000 rupee note.
As a Central Bank Governor, Rajan was liked and well respected by the financial sector, but very much disliked by company people from the real (producing) sector, despite his penchant for deregulation and economic reform. The main reason was the restrictive monetary policy he introduced and staunchly defended. After he was viciously criticized from the ranks of the governing party, he declared in June that he would not seek a second term in September. Later he told the New York Times that he had wanted to stay on, but not for a whole term, and that premier Modi would not have that. A former commerce and law Minister, Mr. Swamy, said on the occasion of Rajan’s departure that it would make Indian industrialists happy:
“I certainly wanted him out, and I made it clear to the prime minister, as clear as possible…. His audience was essentially Western, and his audience in India was transplanted westernized society. People used to come in delegations to my house to urge me to do something about it.”
All this was well known and made it a certainty that suddenly abolishing most cash would cause severe and even existential problems to many small traders and producers and to many people in remote regions without banks. When it did, it became obvious, how false the promise of financial inclusion by digitalization of payments and pushing back cash has always been. There simply is no other means of payment that can compete with cash in allowing everybody with such low hurdles to participate in the market economy.
However, for Visa, Mastercard and the other payment service providers, who were not affected by these existential problems of the huddled masses, the assault on cash will most likely turn out a big success, “scaling up” digital payments in the “trial region”. After this chaos and with all the losses that they had to suffer, all business people who can afford it, are likely to make sure they can accept digital payments in the future. And consumers, who are restricted in the amount of cash they can get from banks now, will use opportunities to pay with cards, much to the benefit of Visa, Mastercard and the other members of the extended Better Than Cash Alliance.
The hypothesis that a main driver behind the demonetization were U.S. interests, does not at all imply that the Indian prime minister and other Indian constituents did not have their own interests associated with it. It is hardly possible to get the elite of a country to do something that goes against their own interests, but it is fairly easy to get them to do something that helps significant fractions of them, but hurts the majority of the people. A few possible such interests, taken from readers’ suggestions are recapitalising the public banks, which were staggering under the weight of bad loans to cronies, the interests of online payment platforms and online marketplaces as well as retail chains, which, curiously, as an Indian journalist tells me, were well supplied with cash in their in-store ATMs and benefited from the wiping out of informal competition.
Even more importantly, the status of the dollar as the world’s currency of reference and the dominance of U.S. companies in international finance provide the US government with tremendous power over all participants in the formal non-cash financial system. It can make everybody conform to American law rather than to their local or international rules. German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has recently run a chilling story describing how that works (German). Employees of a German factoring firm doing completely legal business with Iran were put on a US terror list, which meant that they were shut off most of the financial system and even some logistics companies would not transport their furniture any more. A major German bank was forced to fire several employees upon U.S. request, who had not done anything improper or unlawful.
There are many more such examples. Every internationally active bank can be blackmailed by the U.S. government into following their orders, since revoking their license to do business in the U.S. or in dollar basically amounts to shutting them down. Just think about Deutsche Bank, which had to negotiate with the US Treasury for months whether they would have to pay a fine of 14 billion dollars and most likely go broke, or get away with seven billion and survive. If you have the power to bankrupt the largest banks even of large countries, you have power over their governments, too. This power through dominance over the financial system and the associated data is already there. The less cash there is in use, the more extensive and secure it is, as the use of cash is a major avenue for evading this power.