Why the land and gold obsession of rural Indians may be entirely rational

Bindu Ananth
Updated: Mar 19, 2013 08:33:01 AM UTC

One of my favourite movie scenes is from “It’s a wonderful life”. The hero, George Bailey, is a reluctant banker. On his wedding night he has to deal with a bank run. In trying to stop the bank run, he tries to explain the concept of illiquidity to his depositors. " "You're thinking of this place all wrong. As if I had the money back in a safe. The money's not here. Your money's in Joe's house...right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin's house, and a hundred others. Why, you're lending them the money to build, and then, they're going to pay it back to you as best they can." George's vision of banking is infectious: it is not about pieces of paper or ledgers. It is about helping people build houses and dreams. This vision drives me. Along with my awesome team at IFMR Trust (where I am the president), am obsessed with seeing that all of India has access to high quality financial services; be it a daily wage labourer seeking to protect her Rs. 100 wage from inflation or a municipality issuing its bonds to build sanitation for its residents. I believe that finance, when done well, can be a tremendous force for good. I live and blog from Chennai (and planes) but most of my stories are from Thanjavur, Ganjam and Uttrakhand.

What does the asset allocation look like for people living in remote rural India (villages with less than 5000 population)? My colleague Sowmya Vedula and I looked at the data from some of our investee companies and this is what the picture looks like across 250,000 individuals in rural Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand and Orissa.

gold1
gold2

 

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While there has been much discussion about demand for gold in recent times, the data reveals that land holdings are a much bigger issue from a concentration perspective. So, why are rural households hoarding these assets instead of financial assets?

 

In the absence of financial assets like fixed deposits, stocks and pension plans at these locations, rural households are forced to look at physical assets that will give them old age security and inflation protection, among other objectives. Land as an asset has many dimensions. Several of our labourer customers tell us that it is difficult to find wage labour opportunities beyond the age of 45 or so and then owning a piece of land becomes an important strategy to earn in the later years because you can always “hire yourself”. Similarly, in light of the heavy dependence on the local economy, gold is often the only “national asset” available to hedge against local economic downturns.

 

There is no quick-fix to alter asset allocations of rural households away from gold and land, despite their obvious shortcomings. We have to complete the task of making access to high-quality financial services available and create trust in these instruments and the institutions that provide them.

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