An unkind hike: On small savings

With inflation persistently high, small savings rates should have been pegged higher

October 27, 2022 12:10 am | Updated 11:30 am IST

The Government recently increased the returns on a handful of small savings instruments for the ongoing October to December quarter by 0.1 to 0.3 percentage points. Popular investment avenues for the middle class such as the Public Provident Fund (PPF) and the National Savings Certificate were left out. On paper, the returns on these instruments are to be reset on a market-determined basis, with a spread of 0 to 100 basis points (one basis point equals 0.01%) over the yields on government securities with comparable maturities. That this has not been adhered to is evident even at a cursory glance, given the long pause between rate changes. Following interest rate hikes this year to curb inflation, government securities’ yields have been shooting up. This month, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) said that interest rates offered on various schemes in the current quarter are 44 to 77 basis points below the formula-implied rates. The PPF, for instance, should have been earning 7.72% this quarter instead of the 7.1% accruing now. It is noteworthy that the central bank, which usually publishes the formula-based small savings rates every month or two, had not spelt them out from May to September, although it did note in August that the spread between current rates and the formula-based rates had turned ‘negative for most’ schemes.

For households that have been grappling with 6%-plus inflation since January, punctuated by a few months of 7%-plus price rise, these meagre hikes are far from enough to lift sentiment. Bear in mind that this was the first change in these schemes’ rates in 27 months — after a sharp cut in the range of 0.5 and 1.4 percentage points across schemes introduced in April 2020. That political considerations still determine the trajectory of small savers’ nest-egg sizes can be gauged by the few recent occasions when rates were changed, or rolled back. The last time rates were hiked was in January 2019, just ahead of the Lok Sabha election. In March 2021, the Government had announced further cuts ranging from 0.4% to 1.1%, but withdrew the decision overnight, citing an ‘oversight’ amid a poll campaign for five States. However, even as a token gesture to voters in upcoming polls, this latest tweak in small savings rates does not make the cut. As the RBI’s top brass warned earlier, negative returns have serious consequences for the economy if households, which are the biggest lenders, stop parking their savings in such fixed income instruments and banks. The next quarter should see a fairer and healthier reset of returns to negate inflation’s dent on household savings..

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