The Great War and Evolution of Central Banking in India

by Tehreem Husain, The Express Tribune

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Post global financial crisis, there has been increased importance on exploring financial history of advanced economies and emerging markets to identify episodes of boom, crisis and regulatory responses from which parallels can be drawn today. In this blog, Tehreem Husain discusses an episode from early twentieth century Indian financial history which narrates the tale of a crisis and the evolution of a regulatory institution-the central bank in its wake.

The importance of India amongst the pool of emerging market economies can be gauged from the fact that it contributed 6.8 per cent to global GDP on PPP basis in 2014. Sustaining this growth track requires robust financial regulatory frameworks which can only come with a thorough understanding of its history and the events which led to the evolution of its crucial building block-the central bank. Researching early twentieth century Indian financial history suggests that the onset of the Great War and the financial crisis that ensued in India gave impetus to the creation of a central banking institution in the country.

The Great War, one of the most expensive wars in history, caused untold loss of human life and damages to economic and social resources. Britain at the forefront of the war went through insurmountable stress to meet financing needs of the war. Stephen Broadberry and other eminent economic historians have estimated that the cost of the Great War to Britain exceeded one-third of the total national income of war years. As the war continued in Europe, its stress spilled over the boundaries of mainland Britain and British colonies also became entangled in human and financial costs. For instance, not only did India contribute approximately 1.5 million men recruited during the war, but Indian taxpayers also made a significant contribution of £146 million to Britain to finance the war.

War times impose huge costs on the entire economy but more so for banks, due to the key role that they play in financing it. The National Bureau of Economic Research published a special volume on the effect of war on banking in 1943. One of the chapters, ‘Banking System and War Finance’, highlighted the crucial importance of commercial banks for Treasury borrowing. Banks constituted the largest purchasers of government obligations in addition to being the single most important outlet for the sale of government obligations to the public during World War II. Going back, similar to the experience of other countries, during the Great War Indian treasury borrowed heavily from the banking system. Debt archives from 1918 show that Rs 503.3 million were raised in the form of loans, Treasury Bills and Post Office Cash Certificates. At the same time government continued to issue fresh currency notes, which contributed to extraordinary liquidity flushing the banking sector (evidenced by a high cash-to-deposit ratio).

Studying the Indian economy during that time period using macro-financial indicator analysis, the relation between the British involvements in the Great War and the evolution of central banking is explored in India. Evidence suggests that exigencies of war-finance and government resorting to banking system to finance expenditures, the latter came under huge strain. A stressed macro and financial environment during the war years further weakened the fragile and fragmented Indian banking system. It led to a contagion like financial crisis accelerating bank failures in the war years and beyond. This crisis went unabated due to lack of a formal regulatory structure.

The near absence of regulatory oversight leading to financial crisis gave impetus to the creation of a central banking authority. Although the idea of a ‘banking establishment for India’ dates back to 1836, as a consequence of this episode, restructuring and reforms process ensued. This led to the introduction of a quasi-central banking institution, the Imperial Bank of India in 1921 and finally the creation of a full fledged central bank – the Reserve Bank of India, in 1935. In general, as argued by economists Stijn Claessens and M. Ayhan Kose (2013) deficiencies in regulatory oversight[1] leading to currency and maturity mismatches and resultant financial crisis are applicable to this episode as well.

Interestingly, this episode was not unique to India. In the presence of no regulatory institutions, management and resolution of financial crisis becomes increasingly complex. Historian Harold James has written that the global financial panic of 1907 demonstrated the necessity to America the need to mobilize financial power themselves in the form of a central bank analogous to the Bank of England. The Federal Reserve was created in 1913.

To conclude, one can argue that absence of a formal central banking institution in India resulted in many stressed scenarios for Indian financial system and missed opportunities for the imperial government. This meant that at that time there was no liquidity support available to the failing commercial banks, no control and coordination of credit creation (i.e. no reserve requirements), no mechanism or support for price discovery of the securities to be traded in the primary and secondary markets, etc. A similar argument was given by Keynes in his book ‘Indian Currency and Finance’ supporting the idea of an Indian central bank. Had there been a central bank in India it would have performed three essential functions: (a) assist the government in flotation of bonds or other government securities to the commercial banks, (b) provide direct lending to treasury in the form of ways-and-means advances or by purchase of government securities, and (c) provide reserves to the commercial banks to help them buy government obligations and offer them guidance and support to carry on as much of their traditional task of financing trade and industry as was compatible with a maximum war effort.

This article was based on the working paper ‘’Great War and Evolution of Central Banking in India”.

[1] Claessens, S., and Kose, M.A, 2013,” Financial Crises: Explanations, Types and Implications”, IMF Working Paper WP/13/28

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