Dear KC Chakrabarty, here's the real reason why people invest in Ponzi shemes

A standard explanation that seems to be emerging about why Ponzi schemes keep occurring in different parts of the country is that India does not have enough banks. And this lack of banks leads people to invest in fraudulent Ponzi schemes.

A Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment scheme in which the illusion of high returns is created by taking money being brought in by new investors and passing it on to old investors whose investments are falling due and need to be redeemed.

K C Chakrabarty, the deputy governor, is the latest individual who has jumped onto the more banks equals fewer Ponzi schemes, bandwagon. "The fact that people have to rely on such entities for their saving needs indicates a failure on the part of the formal financial system to reach out to such groups and earn their trust and confidence through a transparent and responsive customer service regime," Chakrabarty said yesterday.

"The need of the hour is to ensure that our unbanked population gains access to formal sources of finance, their reliance on informal channels and on the shadow banking system subsides and, in the process, consumer exploitation is curbed," he added.

RBI.org

Having said that 'higher returns' are not the only reason that lures people into Ponzi schemes. RBI.org

So what Chakrabarty is effectively saying is that only if people had a bank in their neighbourhood they would have stayed away from a Ponzi scheme like Saradha. While it simple to come to this conclusion which sounds quite logical, the truth is not as simple as it is being made out to be.

Let's consider a few Ponzi schemes that have done the rounds lately. MMM India which promises to double the investment every month, needs prospective investors to have bank accounts. So here is a Ponzi scheme which is using what Chakrabarty calls the 'formal financial system' to flourish.

Before that there was the Speak Asia Ponzi scheme. In this scheme investors needed to fill online surveys. Anyone who has access to internet in India is most likely to have access to a bank account as well. So people who invested in Speak Asia, did so because they wanted to not because they had no banks in their locality.

Then there are Ponzi schemes which involve investments in gold coins. People who can buy gold coins won't have access to a bank account?

Or lets take the case of Emu Ponzi schemes which had become fairly popular in parts of Tamil Nadu. The pioneer among these schemes was Susi Emu Farms. It promised a return of at least Rs 1.44 lakh within two years, after an initial investment of Rs 1.5 lakh had been made. This was the model followed by nearly 100 odd emu Ponzi schemes that popped up after the success of Susi.

Again anyone who has Rs 1.5 lakh to invest in a Ponzi scheme will not have access to a bank? That is rather difficult to believe. As Dhirendra Kumar of Value Research puts it in a recent column"Could it be that all those people who put money into Saradha wouldn't have done so if they had a bank in their neighbourhood? Very unlikely. A lot of the deposits seem to have come from towns where there would have been banks. Moreover, almost every ponzi scheme that has come to light in the last few years has actually flourished in towns and cities. The investors who fell for StockGuru or the Emu farms or other schemes all had access to legitimate alternatives."

So what is it that gets people to put their hard earned money into Ponzi schemes rather than deposit it into banks? The simple answer is 'greed'. We all want high returns from the investments we make. And Ponzi schemes typically offer significantly higher rates of return than other investment options that are available at any point of time.

Having said that 'higher returns' are not the only reason that lures people into Ponzi schemes.

There are other factors at work, which along with the lure of higher returns, ends up making a deadly cocktail.

Typically people do not like handing over money to someone they do not know. In small towns, people end up investing money into a Ponzi scheme through an agent they happen to know. So even though they have no clue about the company they are investing in, they feel they are doing the right thing because they know the agent.

In the case of Saradha, agents of Peerless General Finance and Investment were used to collect money. Peerless had a good reputation among the people of West Bengal, having been in the business of collecting small savings since 1932. This helped Saradha establish the trust that it needed to, during its initial days of operation.

As a report in The Indian Express points out "The selection of agents, a crucial link in the chain, was done very carefully by Saradha. Those picked were generally ones who wielded influence in their locality and in whom people had confidence."

What also helps is the fact that agents are paid reasonably high commissions, leading to a higher level of motivation and thus better service. The agents typically come to homes of prospective investors to get them to invest money. So clearly there is better service on offer unlike a bank. There is very little need for documentation ( PAN No, Address proof etc not required) as well, unlike is the case with a bank.

Let us briefly go back to the more banks fewer Ponzi schemes argument. As the Indian Express report cited earlier states "One important reason for chit funds mushrooming (they are really not chit funds, but Ponzi schemes) in West Bengal is the absence of easy access to banks and other financial institutions. According to an estimate of the state Finance Department, of the 37,000 villages in the state, nearly 27,767 have no bank branch."

While villages may not have access to a bank, they do have access to post offices. And India Post runs many small savings schemes, in which people can deposit money. But in West Bengal people seemed to have stayed away from these schemes. A report published in December 2012, in The Hindu Business Line quotes Gautam Deb, a former housing minister as saying "small savings and post office collections in West Bengal during the April-October 2012 period were merely Rs 194 crore, against the targeted amount of Rs 8,370 crore."

So why did people stay away from the post office schemes and get into Ponzi schemes? For one the returns offered on Ponzi schemes were significantly higher. The second reason obviously is the significantly better level of service that Ponzi schemes offer with agents getting higher commissions.

In fact, there are no commissions on offer for selling post office savings schemes. As Kumar points out in his column "The post office offers excellent schemes with a huge reach in rural and semi-urban areas but can it compete on sales and marketing? In fact, when the government eliminated commissions on PPF and other deposits in post offices in 2011, it effectively eliminated whatever little sales muscle there was."

The formal financial system thus finds it very difficult to compete with unscrupulous operators like Saradha. It is not easy for it to offer higher commissions as and when it wants to simply because it has got rules and regulations to follow. As Kumar puts it "They (i.e. the Ponzi schemes) spend much more on sales commissions, on offices, keeping politicians happy and getting media coverage because they can just dip into the deposited money for all these expenses. Therefore, even if legitimate financial services are available passively, they won't be able to compete."

Another reason why the people of West Bengal fell for Saradha was the fact that the Ponzi scheme came to be very closely associated with Trinamool Congress, the party that rules the state. The 'formal financial system' cannot afford to do anything like that.

When we take all these reasons into account it is safe to say that the more banks fewer Ponzi schemes argument doesn't really work. Even if more banks are established, the banks will not be able to compete with the level of service and commissions that Ponzi schemes can offer. Hence, it is very important that unscrupulous operators who are caught running Ponzi schemes are punished and justice is delivered as soon as possible. This will ensure that anyone who wants to start a Ponzi scheme will think twice before he acts. And that is the best way to protect people from Ponzi schemes.