State Bank of India chairman Pratip Chaudhuri, yet again, took on the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), saying saying CRR is a “waste” for the economy and successive interest rate cuts by central bank have failed to contain inflation.

The CEO caused a flutter in the banking community by demanding the abolition of the Cash Reserve Ratio (CRR) in SBI vs RBI round II. RBI did promptly appointed a committee to look at this issue. The reserve ratios, CRR and SLR (Statutory Liquidity Reserve), are an important feature of Indian banking regulation. Alongside the debate about CRR, and new thinking about how monetary policy should be conducted, we should also review the SLR. SLR is a much bigger burden on the banking system and has no role in monetary policy.

SLR is the requirement imposed by the regulator on commercial banks that compels them to invest a percentage (currently 24%) of their Net Time and Demand Liabilities (NDTL) in approved government securities. Through this, today, 24% all the resources – deposits and borrowings – mobilised by commercial banks are invested in government securities. Currently bank deposits and borrowings are Rs.7 trillion which means that SLR places Rs.1.8 trillion into purchases of government securities. SLR creates a significant captive source of financing its borrowing program. This has three important implications:

  • SLR reduces the resources available for commercial lending by banks. Every rupee deployed in SLR is a rupee not invested in a private enterprise that needs capital. There is no free lunch: when capital given to the government, it comes at the cost of capital available to the private sector. Any reduction in the SLR (as in the CRR) will yield more capital for the Indian private sector. It is hence important to critically analyse both.
  • By creating a large captive source of deficit financing, SLR effectively subsidises government at the cost of savers and commercial borrowers. When a government has to borrow at a competitive rate in the market, the market exerts a check on irresponsible fiscal behavior of the government. When there is a large captive source of borrowing, the government is shielded from the pressures of the bond market and is more likely to engage in fiscal imprudence.
  • Such a large scale preemption of savings by the government through SLR fundamentally distorts the interest rate structure in the economy by artificially depressing the yield curve. This complicates the pricing of all assets in the economy.

If we want to “right-size” SLR we have to ask some important questions:

  • What is the rationale for imposing SLR?
  • What is the conceptual foundation for the regulator to impose SLR? The answer is: prudence. Banks raise public deposits with a promise to redeem them at par or more. To reduce the risk of the portfolio of the bank, the regulator ensures through SLR that at least some part is deployed in the safest assets available. But if prudence is the reason, what is the right level of such reserves that will ensure adequate prudence? Could it be that imposing a requirement as high as 24% is beyond prudence, and is actually a means for the government to preempt savings in the economy? It is hence important to ask the next question:

Right level of SLR ?
Banks are in the business of taking risk. These risks are taken by deploying public deposits. The most potent weapon that the regulators have used against excessive risk taking is “risk capital” which the equity capital committed by the banks owners. In fact, the entire edifice of modern day bank regulation is based on provision of risk capital as a buffer against risk taking by banks. If we believe, as do most regulators, in risk capital as the buffer against risks, then it makes eminent sense for banks to hold this capital safely. This would logically lead us to conclude that prudence should demand that the bank’s risk capital be held in very safe assets. In India, the risk capital requirement is 9% of risk assets which translates roughly to 6.5% of NDTL (given that the risk assets are typically 70% of NDTL). Therefore, the policy prescription should be: Banks must hold their entire risk capital in safe assets which should include both CRR and SLR.

Even if we assume the CRR is zero, this means that the theoretically right level of SLR would be around 6.5% of NDTL. If we scan the international landscape, this is the sort of number that we see in most countries. It is reasonable to argue that an SLR value above 6.5% of NDTL is motivated by pre-emption and not prudence. When the regulator prescribes a level of 24% for SLR, 6.5 percentage points are for prudence and the remaining 17.5 percentage points is really preemption by the government.

The composition of SLR
The next important question about SLR is about its composition – what investments should qualify as SLR investments? Currently securities issued by the sovereign (Central and State Government bonds) are the only ones that are allowed as SLR investments. But if we accept prudence as the logic for SLR, then the regulation must make sure that these investments are as safe as they can be. This raises concerns about the rating threshold and of concentration risk. If Indian government securities are rated BBB and that of New Zealand government are AAA, it makes sense for banks to hold SLR in New Zealand Govt securities. Also, there should be limits on any individual issuer of securities, reflecting the standard risk management practice followed by any portfolio manager.

The ideal SLR
Putting all the arguments above provides us an ideal construct of SLR as follows:
SLR is imposed for the purpose of prudence and hence the operative principle is that banks should hold all the regulatory required risk capital in SLR
The level of SLR should be consistent with the objective of prudence and anything over such a prudential level should be considered as preemption, which should be gradually eliminated.
SLR should be invested in top rated securities available globally; furthermore there should be concentration limits on single security and issuer
Dual limits structure for SLR
In the short term, it would be hard to come close to the ideal SLR outlined above. But there are some incremental changes that can be made without fundamentally altering the current framework that could provide banks with much greater flexibility. The regulator could prescribe 2 separate limits as follows:
L1: is the minimum level of SLR that a bank would normally maintain
L2: “core” SLR – a minimum below L1 that the banks can go down on SLR as long as the difference is only through repo arrangement on SLR with another bank
What does this mean? Let us assume that L1 is pegged at the currently prescribed level of 24%. We then define another limit, L2, which is closer to the prudential requirement of 6.5%. For simplicity, let us assume that L2 is set at 10%. This policy would demand that all banks maintain SLR at 24% but could go down this level upto 10% if and only if they enter into a repurchase agreement (repo) with another bank. Such a policy will mean that the banking system as a whole will continue to hold 24% SLR and so the government will continue to have access to this captive source of funding deficit. However, individual banks would be able to go down to lower levels if they have commercially viable opportunities to do so. Without diluting the overall investment by the banking system in government securities, it would provide significant flexibility to individual banks on commercial lending. In this respect, it is analogous to the idea of trade-able certificates for priority sector lending.