governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Archive for July, 2017

Rooting out perverse incentives in GST

Hasmukh Adhia Masterclass

Muscular tactics are paying-off in the Income Tax system. The number of assesses went up by an astounding 25 percent from 37 million in March 2016 to 46 million, by March 2017 and to 63 million by mid-July 2017. The linking of Aadhar-PAN card to bank accounts; the campaign against cash and now the GST, together create desirable institutional incentives for individuals and business to bank their transactions. This provides the “push” factor for enlarging the income tax base of potential assesses.

Transformative GST  

The GST is even better designed to provide desirable incentives for enlarging the indirect tax base. Unlike, Income Tax where “push” factors compel assesses to pay tax on the income revealed via bank transactions, the GST uniquely also has “pull” factors for better tax compliance. The biggest being the facility to set-off GST paid on purchases against GST payable on sale, which reduces the net tax payable. This induces both buyers and sellers to bank their transactions – which is also good for income tax collections.

Transformative, as the GST is, glitches have inadvertently crept in, which go against the grain of positive incentives to prefer banked to cash transactions; increase value addition and boost tax revenues.

But design glitches remain

One such, relates to small service providers with annual revenues of up to Rs 2 million. Those providing services within the state are exempt from both registration and payment of GST up to this limit. But the moment they provide a service across the state borders or to a client abroad, they are compelled to get a GST registration; submit the mandatory three returns per month and much worse, pay GST on their entire revenue stream.

Killing the small cross-border service provider

Individual IT professionals writing code or designing websites routinely get contracted over the internet to provide services to overseas clients or to clients across state borders. Each contract may be as low as Rs 20,000. But all these professionals will need to get registered and incur the transaction cost on submitting monthly GST returns. For these small service providers, the price points are highly competitive. It is unlikely that clients will be willing to part with the 18 percent GST for out of state providers. They will be pushed to get registered and pay the GST themselves or absorb the tax in the price they charge with the GST paid on the purchase by the client.

The net result will be that out- of-state small service providers will become uncompetitive and may stop seeking work outside their states, reducing competition. GST which was meant to create a Pan Indian national market will instead, end up creating intra-state silos for small service providers.

The negative impact is fiscally marginal but it rankles

This design flaw will also impact income tax revenue. Service providers whose annual billing reaches Rs 1.6 million within a state, will refuse out-of-state work of less than Rs 0.5 million because, by increasing their out-of-state billing by up to Rs 0.4 million they end up paying the entire incremental amount as GST.

If 2 million small service providers, ranging from civil contractors, designers to business consultants, refuse additional work due to this reason, the government loses Rs 18 billion as income tax. This calculation assumes a tax rate of 20 percent and the underlying taxable income lost at one half of the amount of work refused.

Protection for local service providers breeds inefficiency

The “infant industry” proposition can be used to justify discouraging cross border services and thereby encouraging small local service providers to ramp up their capacity and fill the gap. This may well be true. But it rankles against the pan-Indian tax framework objective of promoting efficiency and competition. It is also, against the logic of digital India which is meant to enable seamless work across state and international borders.

Whence the pan-Indian market and digital India?

Admittedly lost income tax revenue of Rs 18 billion is small change, in an income tax kitty of around Rs 4 trillion. But it is personally frustrating for small service providers who can see the cross-border opportunity to expand their business but are blocked by the “deadweight” amount of Rs 0.4 million of billing, which equals the GST they would pay by increasing their billing to Rs 2 million, if some part of it coming from cross border contracts.

Have a common GST exemption limit irrespective of location of the client

Is there a way of getting away from this flawed design? Yes, there is. The first option is to extend a common GST exemption limit to all service provision, irrespective of whether it is within state, across state borders or overseas. This immediately removes the “deadweight” of GST becoming payable, the moment a cross border transaction, no matter how small, is made.

Tax only the incremental revenue above the GST exemption limit

However, this still leaves the problem of expanding billing above Rs 2 million and thereby losing the exemption from GST on the initial Rs 2 million. Adopting the principle of taxing only the incremental amount, as used in the Income Tax, can effectively avoid the perverse incentive for opting for cash based transactions to avoid losing the tax exemption above a billing of Rs 2 million, till billing expands substantially beyond Rs 2.4 million, at which point it would neutralize the additional GST paid and yield a net income increase for the supplier.

Harmonise tax exemptions under IT and GST to reduce reduce the compliance cost 

The best option is to harmonize the exemption limits under GST and income tax. The current income tax regime presumes taxable income at 50 percent of billing, unless shown otherwise. A billing of Rs 0.5 million corresponds to a net taxable income of Rs 0.25 million which is also the maximum limit for income exempt from income tax. Hence the exemption limit for GST could be reduced to Rs 0.5 million from the existing limit of Rs 2 million. But rolling back exemptions is tough. Alternatively, the exemption limit in Income Tax could be increased to Rs 1 million. Enhancing the income tax exemption limit is the preferred option.

The number of income tax assesses increased by 25 percent in 2016-17 over the previous year. In comparison the revenue from Income Tax increased by 18.4 percent. Tax yields are lagging increase in assesses. Efficient tax collection practices would point towards focusing on high value targets rather than cluttering up the system with marginal yield assesses until tax filing systems are vastly more simplified and easy to follow for the average citizen.

This article is also available at http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/end-perverse-incentives-for-small-service-providers-in-gst/

Template Rashtrapati

Rashtrapati Bhawan

Presidential elections in India are a ho-hum event for the average citizen. At best, this is a moment when the government “signals” its political identity or its governance style. The BJP-led NDA government has succeeded in the former but not the latter.

Shivshankar Menon, national security adviser in Dr Manmohan Singh’s government, uses the “minimum cost, maximum benefit” strategy as the defining principle of India’s foreign policy. This applies equally well to identify the political incentives behind presidential nominees.

Why Presidential nominations are the outcome of a MinMax strategy

The ruling party’s biggest nightmare is to nominate a candidate who loses. This is not only egg on its face, but it opens a Pandora’s box of future antagonisms between the government and the head of the state. It has never happened thus far. But it is wise to budget for minimum risk, especially when the upside of having “your own man (only one of thirteen Presidents has been a woman) in the Rashtrapati Bhawan are limited.

The Constitution severely limits action, independent of the government, by the President. But the potential for being deviously obstructionist exists. James Mason — the distinguished political scientist — credits Babu Jagjivan Ram – the original dalit face of Indian politics – with the insight of how to do a “Putin” in the Indian context and acquire covert, unconstitutional political power. The only redress against a malevolent President is to impeach him in Parliament. Whilst theoretically possible, it requires a two-thirds majority. That is tough if the President is politically savvy and actively conspires to defeat the motion, including by requesting MPs to merely abstain from the vote.

Unrealised political ambition is not an asset for being President

In the heady days after Emergency was lifted, the Janata government — a loose coalition of political interests, opposed to the authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi — came to power. But it splintered. Prime Minister Morarji Desai lost his majority and resigned. Y.B. Chavan and Charan Singh sequentially failed to build their factions into a majority. President Neelam Sanjiva Reddy (1977-82), instead of giving Babu Jagjivan Ram — leader of the largest rump of the Janata Party — a similar opportunity, dissolved the Lok Sabha and ordered fresh elections. This was, at best, presidential over-reach to force an early conclusion to the drift. At worst, it was intentionally muscular, to induce an election, in anticipation of an uncertain outcome, which would allow then the President to manoeuvre and put a “pocket” government in power.

Petulance can warp Presidential efficiency 

Later a petulant President Zail Singh (1982-’87), a “trusted” political follower of Indira Gandhi, used obstruction as a mechanism to show his annoyance at being politically ignored by the debonair, apolitical Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, who stepped into his mother’s political legacy, but wanted no part of its earthier political roots.

Ego is a killer for normative functioning  by the President 

President K.R. Narayanan (1997 to 2002) was a “working President”. Nothing was further from his intent than subverting the Constitution. In fact, he felt a heightened sense of responsibility to keep the ship of state credible and morally enlightened in the face of unstable minority governments. He possibly felt, albeit unwisely, that the President, being elected by an electoral college much wider than the Lok Sabha, had a stronger, deeper representativeness. He was also decidedly uncomfortable with the BJP holding the reins of power — a hangover from the post-Independence demonisation of the Hindu right-wing party. This mutual distrust led to his public speeches and media interviews being interpreted as being critical of government policy. He departed from his prepared and vetted speech at a state banquet in New Delhi and seemed to hector President Clinton of the US – the chief guest, on the proclivity of great powers to play “headman”, quite contrary to the government’s intentions.

The game is rigged so that nominees of the Union government win elections

The process for Presidential elections is constitutionally rigged in favour of the Union government. The Lok Sabha, where every Union government has a working majority, has a vote share of 35 per cent. The Rajya Sabha — where the government, like the present one , may not have a majority – has a smaller vote share of 15 per cent. State legislative assemblies have an aggregate vote share of 50 per cent. But the weight for each state Legislative Assembly varies and is indexed to its population. Just 10 of the most populous states — out of a total of 31 states — together have a 37 per cent vote share in the electoral college. An MLA from Sikkim has vote value of seven versus 208 vote value that an MLA from Uttar Pradesh commands. This is one reason why political parties go all out to capture elections in state legislative assemblies.

Union governments have traditionally played safe and fielded nominees whose reliability trumps their candour. Political placidity is preferred to ambition. Being of an age close to permanent retirement is a key qualification.

President elect Ram Nath Kovind – the perfect fit

Ram Nath Kovind 2

Ram Nath Kovind, the BJP’s nominee and the 14th President of India, is a perfect fit. He is non-controversial and low-key. His Hindutva beliefs seem to be personal rather than aggressively political. Like President Narayanan, he is a dalit and hence a symbol of continued dalit empowerment. He is the first President from Uttar Pradesh — the most populous Indian state with the largest population of Scheduled Castes. His election reiterates that Uttar Pradesh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s adopted karam bhumi, remains close to his heart.

Thus far the average age of Presidents, at the time of election, has been 71 years. Mr Kovind is right on the button being 71 years of age. The youngest at 64 years was President Neelam Sanjiva Reddy. His subsequent actions reiterated that unrealised ambition is not an asset for this position. But age alone is no assurance of placidity.

K.R. Narayanan — never “a rubber stamp President” — shares the honour of being the oldest at 77 years, with R. Venkataraman (1987 to ’92).

Ironically, 81 per cent of India’s population is less than 44 years of age and 97 percent was born post-Independence. But all our Presidents have been from the pre- 1947 colonial period. It doesn’t need to be that way.

The minimum age to be elected President is 35 years. But till we effectively depoliticise the presidency, by defining a code of conduct with detailed guidelines for presidential action (an Indian Magna Carta), the potential for youthful ambition to seize power covertly, will dissuade governments from taking the risk of electing a youthful, erudite President, as the face of Bharat which is India.

children

An opportunity lost for being transformative

The government has played the “minimum-maximum” game to perfection. The irony is it didn’t need to do so. This was a low-risk opportunity to reinforce its commitment to cooperative federalism and to broaden the ambit of governance by pulling in apolitical talent. At the very least, it should have tried harder and negotiated in good faith, to get President Kovind nominated by all parties, rather than making him contest an election. Admittedly, there is no political tradition urging it to do so. But Mr Modi did not start out trying to be a template Prime Minister.

One hopes he will resist the institutional incentives to lapse into a transactional, rather than his earlier, transformative mode.

Adapted from the author’s article in The Asian Age, July 21, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/210717/template-rashtrapati.html

Fix the “market” for political power

Indian army

Citizens expect governments to intervene when the markets fail. The market for Diplomacy failed last month at Doklam. If the Chinese Army is to be stopped well north of the tri-junction between India, Bhutan and Tibet/China, then only the Indian forces, funded by taxes, can do the job. This is a satisfactory arrangement for all Indian and Bhutanese citizens, who otherwise may be hard-pressed to secure their territory.

When State failure fails to fix the underlying market failure

But not all government actions have an obvious rationale. Demonetisation was unleashed in November 2016 to end black money. Few believe that this objective has been achieved. Black money is not an outcome of market failure. It is an outcome of governmental failure to tax income effectively; control corruption or control crime. Poor governance only encourages the generation of black money, which then requires another intervention to root out black money. Economist Shanta Devarajan of the World Bank, in New Delhi last week for the NCAER annual India Policy Forum <http://www.ncaer.org/event_details.php?EID=184>  believes such iterative interventions are ineffective in improving the quality of governance, and can reduce the legitimacy of governments. Far better instead to rethink how to deal with the underlying market failure – in this case the “market” for political power.

Poor tax administration

So why do governments tax ineffectively? Most commonly, multiple objectives in the tax policy are to blame. The sale of loose groundnuts — the ordinary person’s food — may be tax-free but packed groundnuts, even if unprocessed, are taxed. This creates a five per cent tax differential for arbitrage between the two categories, which are difficult to administer separately. A single rate of tax levied on a non-evadable tax base is the most effective. But consider that this would be akin to the colonial “poll or head tax” — levied on each person uniformly. Effective, but terribly inequitable.

The killer “app” for instant equity – Universal Basic Income- how effective?

Admittedly, mechanisms like transfer of a basic income to the poor can neutralise such an inequity. But transfer of a similar amount of cash, to each poor person, itself creates huge inequities, even among the 40 per cent population vulnerable to poverty. Transferring differential amounts, depending on need, attracts the same inefficiencies as trying to administer progressive tax rates fairly.

The big 2Cs – Corruption and Crime

Why is corruption or crime so hard to control in India? If citizens feel that political power can be acquired by subverting the “popular” vote, it reduces their faith in the power of their vote. It also delegitimises the government and undermines its ability to rule, in the eyes of those who voted against the government. Bihar faced this conundrum for two decades.

It does not help that, in India, governments can be formed even with a minority of the total votes cast in elections, so long as each elected member of the ruling party gets more votes than the next candidate. This first-past-the-post system fractionalises politics. It encourages parties to form coalition governments, which are unable to discipline errant behaviour by their constituents. This “coalition dharma” fosters crime and corruption.

Are laws aligned with context?

An alternative explanation for pervasive crime or corruption is that laws are out of sync with local customs. And not enough has been done to change social behaviour beyond legislating transformative rights and duties. Ending open defecation — a prime driver to reduce the vulnerability of women to crime — is one such example. The benefits from ending open defecation are dependent on collective action. One reason why we did not do more earlier could be that the political incentives are perverse. They favour exaggerating, rather than bridging, the social cleavages of caste and religion, which inhibit collective, progressive decision making.

Feudal governance patterns breed poor accountability

Low public accountability and lackadaisical collective action can also be traced to the continuation of feudal traditions of governance and poorly distributed income growth. Richer citizens are more resilient to State encroachment of their rights and less dependent on State largesse. Luckily, over the past three decades, we have become less poor, better educated and more aware of our rights versus the State.

But the extent of inequality remains significant as does the infrastructure deficit across rich and poor areas. The privileged crust is thinner than a hand-tossed Neapolitan pizza — possibly just 10 per cent of the population. The rest seethe in forlorn frustration. Can we get away from this low-level equilibrium? Yes, we can by fixing the market for political power.

End the perverse incentives in our political architecture 

Our political architecture is riddled with perverse incentives which  constrain the will to reform. Here are four changes which are overdue – deepening decentralisation; enhancing state government autonomy; enhancing the representativeness of the legislatures and regulating political parties better.

First, bridge the trust deficit and distance between citizens and the State. Empower state governments versus the Union government and local government versus state governments. Hopefully, the 15th Finance Commission will carry forward the trend of forcing the Centre to devolve functions and Central taxes to states and directly to local governments based on performance criteria.

Second, cut the colonial fat; abolish the titular but unedifying position of state governors. These are unelected nominees of the Union government exercising oversight over elected state governments. Transfer this role to the President, who is elected. This will level the playing field between states and the Centre versus the presidency.

Third, make Parliament and state Assemblies more representative. Sharply reduce the size of constituencies. Only directly-elected members should be eligible to become Prime Minister or chief minister. A candidate should be able to contest an election for only one seat at a time. The winner must secure a simple majority of the available votes and two-thirds of the votes cast. Municipalities must be headed by elected mayors.

Fourth, the functioning and finances of recognised political parties must be made transparent. Inner-party elections must conform to common but effective guidelines. The Election Commission must be empowered to determine constituency boundaries and diversified beyond the administration, to include citizen representatives and the judiciary with the chief election commissioner chosen specifically.

Use the GST process of risk-free consensual decision making

GST became a reality as a process of cooperative federalism was followed led by the finance minister. Reforming the market for political power could benefit from a similar approach.

Adapted from the author’s article in The Asian Age, July 19, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/190717/power-structure-needs-reform.html

G 20 summit: Not India’s turn to eat

ivanka G20

President Trump’s implicit assessment of the value of the G20 Hamburg summit was best illustrated by letting his daughter replace him, whilst he was away from his seat at the summit and to spend double the budgeted time, holding President Putin’s hand. We should take note.

Did Trump try and devalue the G20, President Xi or both by letting Ivanka replace him?

Despite his oddities and his rhetoric, President Trump is a businessman. He cannot but recognize that his real fight is with China. So occasional side swipes to emphasize US dominance over China are par for the course. But the US is too fat to keep pace with China. Its entrepreneurial juices have dried up, bled by the strain of keeping the American Dream alive – an endlessly aspirational, middle class and a voraciously, acquisitive elite, albeit both sets being more meritocratic than elsewhere. But the strain shows. If there is no public money for infrastructure and Facebook needs to build a village to increase the supply of affordable housing in Silicon Valley, there is something very wrong with institutional incentives in the US.

The football “huddle” to plot strategy

Trump

President Trump’s instincts to deal with a problem is to “huddle” in a group of “familiar” friends. Co-opting Russia into a loose friendly alliance of northern hemisphere countries could be an outcome of such “huddling”. After all, there are the cultural bonds. The UK will be supportive. It was Tony Blair, who persuaded Russia to join the rich country club of G7, which thereafter became the G8. Russia was expelled, in 2014 over its muscular action in Crimea. But the G7 was already in decline, post 2009, whilst the G20 gained leverage, as a more inclusive forum with economic heft.

Russia better as a friend than an enemy

Putin2

Bringing Russia in from the cold, makes sense. It is no longer an ideological threat to the West – just a shade smarmier in its management style. But no more so than other upper middle-income countries. Its GDP, in constant terms, has barely moved from US$ 1.5 trillion in 1989 to 1.6 trillion in 2016 – though it has doubled since 1998, when it reached its nadir at US$ 0.8 billion. Russian expatriates live happily in the US and in Europe.

Hypertension, made in China

china air craft carr

Expansionist Germany was the muscular outlier in the early part of the last century. In the early part of the current century, it is China. Scale matters. Consider that the world’s largest mall, 19 million square feet of space, has come up in Chengdu, western China.

The Chinese manufacturing engine has surplus capacity to feed the world over the next decade with goods, targeted at the price points and quality requirements of local markets, across the globe.

China applies the late CK Prahalad’s principle of, “finding the fortune hidden at the bottom of the pyramid” by supplying consumables and consumer durables to 3 billion humans at the bottom of the economic food chain. And they do it better than local manufacturers, located in countries where the poor exist, including India.

India’s dharma

So where does this leave India? It is not in India’s DNA to kowtow. So, we are a poor fit with China. It is in India’s political DNA to be ideological. Remember Non-Alignment? Ideologically committed bureaucracies are a menace. They must be tamed. To come out tops, from the ongoing international churn towards a transactional future, we need to reign-in our tendency to grandstand. There is virtue in being supremely transactional. But transactions must be anchored in public interest. We have not been very good at that.

Had we been better, we would have got rid of poverty faster than we have. We would have cared more about creating physical and social (education and health) infrastructure and jobs. And we would have exploited every growth opportunity, which came our way, rather than choose to sit out the 1970s and the 1980s on our elitist, immaculately manicured hands.

We do not have the luxury, unlike Latin America and large parts of Africa, of being natural invitees to the western, Christian table of nations. Nor do we fit the dismal, backward looking club of Islamic nations. And we are too large to be helped economically. So, like China, we have no option, except to fend for ourselves.
International trade is our entry point to becoming more competitive.

We need cheap Chinese goods more than China needs our market. We import just 3 percent of China’s exports. We should be trying harder to become part of global supply chains to pull-in foreign investment, technology, jobs and increase net exports. Our traditional links with Russia are valuable but need to be lubricated.

With the US and its West European allies, we share a tradition of democracy – a generic, clunky, artifact to safeguard citizen rights versus the State via an elaborate architecture of self-balancing, institutional power centers. These links can be deepened.
Going under the radar and setting-off no red alerts till we have accumulated critical economic heft is sensible.

Playing second, or even seventh fiddle, to achieve targeted outcomes is better than to compromise outcomes by being top-dog in process matters. But low profile economic diplomacy does not come easy to our colonial style Foreign Policy establishment. Best to remember that we rank seventh in nominal GDP and are a lower middle-income country. We should punch our weight. Doing more is unsustainable.

Adapted from the author’s article in TOI July 9, 2017Blogs http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/g20-trumped/

 

 

 

 

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