governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Finance Minister or supermom

mom

Will Finance Minister Arun Jaitley protect wailing babies; photo credit: mubasshir.blogspot.com

High expectations in the near mystical ability of any finance minister to find a balm for all economic ills is common across all Budgets. Like all of us, finance ministers are egoists. They respond to expectations, like a supermom does to wailing babies.

The chorus of expectations from finance minister Arun Jaitley in Budget 2016-17, is no different. Growth fundamentalists expect a growth-oriented Budget — presumably heavy on infrastructure and investment. One may well ask then, why the accompanying demand for lower interest rates or for more investment than last year? Last year’s investment-lite Budget — just 1.7 per cent of the gross domestic product — pulled off GDP growth of 7.6 per cent, if government data is to be believed, despite the depressing economic environment.

Low social sector allocations

Social sector fundamentalists fret about low allocations for education and health — the building blocks of tomorrow. In the last Budget, the proportion of devolution to state governments was increased by 10 percentage points as per the recommendations of the 14th Finance Commission. Basic and secondary education, and primary health are state government mandates as per the Constitution. It is, thus, up to the states to get on with the job of prioritising social sectors in their spending.

Inadequate spend on defence

Security groupies worry about our poor defence preparedness. But they simultaneously support large pay and pension increases for the men in uniform who significantly outnumber the amount of modern equipment available to equip them with. No one seems to be thinking about reducing boots on the ground and using the money saved to upgrade much-needed equipment in this age of drones, airborne rapid action deployment and missile warfare.

air force

India’s aging fleet of fighter jets; Photo credit: indianexpress.com

Creaky infrastructure

Business, meanwhile, slouches about in the shadows, cribbing privately about the slow pace of the over-hyped initiative for rapid infrastructure development like the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor which is a confusing mishmash of railway lines, transportation hubs for improving freight movement and murky land deals for providing the usual real estate sweetener of houses, offices and malls. The fact that the Japanese are funding the railway freight component was probably its strongest point since both, the availability and cost of domestic funding, are at a premium for long gestation ventures. Ditto for the Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train.

plans

More plans than progress; Photo credit: dnaindia.com

As if all this was not enough to put any human into the ICU, public sector banks, egged on by the Reserve Bank of India, have chosen to make the December 15, 2015, quarter their “show and tell” moment.

Domestic shock: high levels of stressed bank assets

Whilst the financial cognoscenti may have known for years, the average depositor is just about finding out about the rot in government banks. Loans worth Rs 6 lakh crore have been extended over the years to borrowers who had no intention of paying them back. Instead of writing-off these loans when they soured or providing reserves against a potential loss, government banks have been dressing up their accounts to look good on paper by restructuring the unpaid loans. In essence, kicking the bad loans football down the road into the lap of the Bharatiya Janata Party government and Raghuram Rajan, governor of the RBI.

The result is that unless the government steps in and coughs up possibly Rs 4 lakh crore to recapitalise government banks over the next two years, bank finance will remain difficult to get and, even if available, it will be expensive. Despite the high margin these banks charge between the rate at which they get finance from the RBI and the rate at which they lend to borrowers, dodgy sets have reduced their profitability and affected growth. As a consequence, the market has sharply marked down the value of the equity of listed government banks.

Three trade-offs before the Finance Minister

Should Mr Jaitley bite the bullet and provide for reviving the government banks or should he keep this on hold and push public money directly into new infrastructure projects? The first option compromises short-term growth, the latter medium-term growth.

Mr Jaitley has to also choose between living with the unwise commitment to increase government pay and pension by 23.5 per cent or enhancing social protection and rural income support. The former helps the middle class, the latter the poor.

Another choice is between theory and practice. Should he stick to a fiscal deficit target of 3.5 per cent of GDP for 2016-17; increase tax revenue by hiking the rate of service tax; levy capital gains tax on equity and income-tax on dividends or should he play to the God of all things — the lack-lustre stock market — and keep tax rates low but blow out the fiscal deficit target?

Unfortunately, much as he may want, the finance minister cannot play supermom and please all. One hopes that he will bite the bullet and set about capitalising government banks — the engines of growth. Hopefully he will also set in motion fundamental reform in government banks. One extreme but useful step could be to explore support funding from the International Monetary Fund in the event of domestic or external shocks — like another drought or a sharp increase in oil prices — disrupt his plans.

The government of Gujarat has shown the way and the President’s address hit the right notes on safeguarding the allocation for social protection, rural income support and human development. The middle class may have to wait for their salary bonanza till growth-driven revenue buoyancy enhances the fiscal space available for such largesse.

To be cannily pragmatic or rigidly correct

The supermom character of the finance minister should kick-in whilst managing the trade-off between retention of the fiscal deficit target, tax revenue enhancement and managing stock market expectations. This is where the finance minister’s judgment will be key in doing something for everyone without disappointing all.

Our friendly Jats in Haryana have made their point with characteristic aplomb. By summarily cutting off the supply of water to Delhi they established a clear quid pro quo between water for Delhi in return for reserved government jobs for themselves. They seem to have won. Mr Jaitley could learn from their earthy pragmatism.

Who said that supermoms have an easy life?

Jaitley in parliament

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in  Parliament: Adept at keeping hopes alive. Photo credit: oneindia.com

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age February 26, 2015 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/finance-minister-or-supermom-261

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