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Electric subsidy – Haryana’s burden of riches

Khattar

Today we found the grandfatherly chief minister of Haryana Mohan Lal Khattar smiling at us out of a half-page advertisement, paid for by taxpayers, announcing an “unprecedented decision” of his government. From October 1, 2018 onwards, electricity customers consuming less than 500 kilowatt hours per month would pay between 16 to 47 per cent less to their distribution utility. The advertisement proclaims that 4 million consumers in Haryana would benefit.

Cross-subsidy will increase

So who is going to pay for this pre-election bonanza and why is it necessary? In 2017-18 the Haryana Electricity Regulatory Commission (HERC) estimated that the all-in cost of supply to a low tension (LT) consumer – low tension here refers to the voltage of supply and not the potential for aggravation – was Rs 7.25 per kWh. Compare this with the paltry existing tariff which ranges from Rs 2.70 to 5.56 per kWh, increasing progressively up to a monthly consumption of 500 kWh. At no point of consumption, till 500 KWh per month, does the utility recover its cost of supply.

Fiscal red flags may be raised

With the latest bonanza, this loss would further increase. To be sure the HERC can recover some of this loss by charging even more than the cost of supply to other consumers who use more electricity at LT or increasing the tariff for Industry which uses High Tension supply. That has been the strategy all along. But there are problems with continuing the “robbing Peter to pay Paul Robin Hood” approach to finance a utility.

So why have an Electricity Act at all if it is to be flagrantly flouted?

First, the Electricity Act 2003 enjoins regulators and utilities to decrease (not increase) cross-subsidies (meeting the loss from one by over-charging another). This is not just an issue of commercial equity that customers should be charged what it costs to serve them.

Far more important, excessive cross-subsidy can and does severely distort prices and business decisions. Those charged below market rates are prone to wasteful use. Those charged more are prone to steal, game the system (by getting multiple meters) and in the case of industry, become uncompetitive versus other producers in states with more rational tariff policies.

That Haryana’s prices are severely distorted is clear from the fact that the new reduced tariffs (Rs 2 to 4.27 per kWh up to 400 kWh and Rs 4.56 per kWh up to 500 kWh) will not even meet the utility’s cost of power purchase which was Rs 4.13 per kWh last year. Increasing rather than reducing the cross-subsidy and taking it beyond the statutory maximum limit of 20 per cent is ultra vires the objectives of Section 61 of the Electricity Act 2003.

Where are the poor in Haryana and how many are they?

Trump Village unveiled in Haryana

Waiting for goodies – A village in Haryana’s backward district Mewat renames itself as “Trump Village”. 

Second, does the average Haryana electricity consumer need the deep subsidy? The answer is a resounding no. First, the level of poverty in Haryana was one of the lowest in the country at around 11 per cent in 2011 (census data) when the national average was 22 per cent. Since then it has been a high growth economy clocking 11.5 percent per annum in current prices. Poverty in Haryana is low, possibly less than the 3 per cent red flag. Second, the average per capita income is the fifth highest (2014-15) with only Delhi which is part of the contiguous National Capital region and Chandigarh which is Haryana and Punjab’s combined capital ahead of it, along with Goa and Sikkim. Third, it is a 100 per cent electrified state which had 4.1 million electricity customers in 2007. The existing retail tariff subsidizes consumption up to 500 kWh by between 63 to 23 per cent. The new tariffs would increase the subsidy to between 72 to 35 per cent.

Has HERC lost credibility?

Why was the state government in a hurry to announce these new tariffs without any supporting announcement from the regulator? Possibly, this illustrates the current impatience with due process and cynicism around independent regulation. But more likely, this is just one in a series of pre-election bonanzas.

Haryana joins the race to the bottom of the tariff reform ladder

Can Haryana afford to waste money on poorly targeted freebies? The answer is a qualified yes. Haryana’s fiscal stability, as measured by the “revenue deficit (RD)” – the excess of current spending over revenue, is better than its immediate neighbours- Rajasthan and Punjab. Haryana’s RD was high at 2.4 per cent of gross state domestic product (GSDP) in 2015-16. But it is expected to reduce from 1.4 per cent in 2017-18 to 1.2 per cent in 2018-19. The latest subsidy bonanza may, however, upset plans to meet that target.

amrinder khattar

Comparing oranges with oranges, Haryana comes out smelling sweeter than Punjab. The latter state’s RD was 3.1 per cent in 2017-18 and an estimated 2.5 per cent in 2018-19. Rajasthan is an also-ran, with an RD of 2.4 per cent in 2017-18 and 1.9 per cent in 2018-19.

Three other non-contiguous states are worse than Haryana in 2017-18 – Assam, Kerala and Himachal Pradesh. But that still leaves 24 other states doing better than Haryana. That statistic alone should make Haryana’s combative leadership and progressive citizenry stop and re-think their fiscal allocations.

Negative messaging on reform

Even if Haryana has money to spare, subsidising electricity customers is a poorly targeted priority for its resources. It also does not speak well of party discipline and ideology since the Union government ruled by the BJP, as in Haryana, has diligently followed the fiscal stability agenda.

15th Finance Commission should penalise Haryana for poorly targeted fiscal exuberance

Fiscal exuberance in “rich” states just prior to elections needs to be penalised. One hopes the Fifteenth Finance Commission evolves a formula for penalising freebies (political gifts). The judiciary can also bell the cat as it is doing in an environment and human rights. Adding the fiscal review to the overburden of the higher judiciary is a bad option. But we may be heading there if public funds are spent with impunity for partisan benefits.s

Also available at TOI Blog, September 13, 2018 https://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/haryanas-burden-of-riches/

Jaitley returns as FM

Jaitley returns

Arun Jaitley has returned to take charge as finance minister well before those who care for him would have advised. So what was the haste all about?

The uncharitable view would be that power abhors a vacuum. Politicians and film stars — no wonder the two often overlap — are most vulnerable to the prolonged loss of public face-time. What is most likely, though, is that he returned to his North Block corner office in order to cement his legacy as finance minister through the last and interim budget for 2019-20 of this government.

Chidambaram’s challenge to Jaitley

Chidambram 20142015 interim budget

This is a courageous move, very similar to his taking up Palaniappan Chidambaram’s implicit challenge in his interim and last budget in 2014-15 — a fiscal deficit target of 4.1 per cent of GDP — steeply reduced from 4.6 per cent in the previous year.

Mr Jaitley manfully accepted this unreal target and achieved it, noting in his budget speech: “One fails only when one stops trying”.

Fiscal stability has improved over Mr Jaitley’s tenure. The ambitious target for the current year is 3.3 per cent of GDP. Achieving this is crucially dependent on reduction in subsidies from two per cent of GDP in 2014-15 to 1.4 per cent this year, and a 0.6 per cent of GDP increase in tax collection (7.3 per cent in 2014-15 to 7.9 per cent in 2018-19).

The pressures for fiscal expansion come from the urgency to recapitalise publicly-owned banks; financing infrastructure via public funds in the absence of any appetite for India risk among foreign developers; the narrow base of unimpaired domestic infra developers and finally the compulsions of electoral politics.

Will Jaitley go for an endgame of Fiscal Deficit at 3 % of GDP

Other than achieving this year’s stretch fiscal deficit target, the finance minister needs to ponder on the target for 2018-19. Will he play the “Chidambaram card” and fix it at 3 per cent of GDP? Mr Chidambaram was pretty sure that he would not have to live within his interim budget. The jury is out on whether Mr Jaitley could reasonably assume a similar privilege. But reducing the fiscal deficit by a full percentage point of GDP below what he inherited would be in line with Mr Jaitley’s flair for challenges.

Chasing the UPA I go-go years of high growth

On growth — a sensitive issue for the BJP — Mr Jaitley has thrown a googly. He claimed recently that in trying to copy UPA-1 and chase high growth, both the banks and industry were destabilised through reckless lending and investment. This is a wise move.

It is unlikely that the growth record of UPA-1 (FY 2004-09) at an annual average of eight per cent plus would be achievable till after 2022. The IMF (August 2018 report) expects GDP growth to pick up over the next two years to 7.7 per cent. The “twin balance sheet problem” is likely to take three to five years to resolve, considering that “legal blustering” is a time-honoured mechanism for delaying a decision.

Public Sector Bank accountability and governance reform is key 

The Reserve Bank of India’s Financial Stability Report of June 2018 estimates that Gross Non-Performing Assets will worsen from 11.6 per cent in March 2018 to 12.2 per cent by March 2019. For the 11 worst-performing publicly-owned banks, the GNPAs will worsen from 21 per cent in March 2018 to 22.3 per cent by March 2019. For the six publicly-owned banks which the RBI has barred from fresh lending, the weighted average capital adequacy ratio will fall below the minimum required of nine per cent of loans.

The government has allocated Rs 2.1 trillion for bank recapitalisation, partly by increasing its own borrowings by 0.8 per cent of GDP. Additional borrowing of 0.5 per cent of GDP will be needed in the next fiscal year. Alternative schemes are being implemented like LIC, a publicly-owned insurance company, buying up the bankrupt IDBI Bank and infusing an additional Rs. 90 billion into it. This is mere fire-fighting. Unless bank lending and corporate governance become more market-friendly and transparent, investment levels will hover around the 30 per cent of GDP level — not enough for eight-plus per cent growth.

8 percent plus plus growth needs massive restructuring

Mr Jaitley’s is a nuanced claim. It implies that the growth during UPA-1 was not sustainable. The associated structural reforms to make the banks autonomous of government control; effective oversight of bank lending by the RBI and seeding economic liberalisation into field-level government regulations — labour laws, freedom from “inspector raj”, land regulation and transparent natural resources allocation, were all kicked down the road for successive governments — including the BJP, to manage.

Self goals are expensive

It is good optics to claim the present is hamstrung by the past misdeeds of others. But the BJP also scored some self-goals, most specifically demonetisation and the less than meticulously-planned implementation of Goods and Services Tax (GST)

Demonetisation was effective but cynical politics, which did not pass the “raj dharma” smell test. The GST snafu can be ascribed to the lack of expert skills or a tactical decision to trade off technical rigour against speed of implementation — a perfectly sensible trade-off in India’s fractious democracy.

India’s achilles heel- Twin deficit

India has a long history of carrying a twin deficit. The Fiscal Deficit, because government spends more than it earns annually and borrows, like the rest of us, who borrow to invest. But unlike most of us, it also borrows to fund consumption because we also run a Revenue Deficit. It is “effectively” small  at 0.7 per cent of GDP but typically we should run a revenue surplus to finance at least 20 per cent of our investment.

Our external account (net inflow and outflow of foreign exchange) is in a deficit. We have a Trade Deficit – imports exceed the export of goods and services.  60 per cent of the Trade Deficit is met from the surplus – ie. net inflow of expatriate remittances and foreign income versus outflow of interest on external debt.

What remains uncovered is the Current Account Deficit (CAD). This is met by net inflows of capital – FDI, portfolio investment and loans. The CAD is expected to increase from 1.9 per cent of GDP last year to 2.6 per cent of GDP this year, primarily because of the higher cost of oil imports. But India’s external debt is a moderate 20 per cent of GDP – of this short term external debt is just 9 per  cent, so both refinancing and debt servicing risks are manageable. And the fears of attracting American sanctions by buying oil from Iran have also receded.

The Indian Rupee is freed from its misplaced burden of being an icon of “National Strength”

A gradual rationalisation of the rupee exchange rate since January 2018 have made exports competitive and provide the required protection for domestic production from predatory imports feeding on an overvalued Rupee. The Reserve Bank of India, with its mandate for managing inflation, has kept domestic base interest rates competitive in tandem with trends in “safe havens” to manage the flight of foreign capital. The IMF estimates that the net inflows of foreign investment and portfolio capital increased from $28 billion in 2014-15 to $48 billion last year and anticipate $70 billion this year.

 

Burning his fingers once, while explicitly chasing growth, should not convert the finance minister into a growth wallflower. Rapid economic growth remains fundamental for equity. The trick is to use the lens of sustainable equity while laying our economic foundations. Growth will follow.

Adapted from the authors Opinion Piece in The Asian Age, August 30, 2018 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/300818/jaitley-returns-as-fm-to-cement-his-legacy.html

Grow up well India

statistic_id254469_median-age-of-the-population-in-india-2015

So, what are we trying to say when we repeatedly stress that 65 per cent of our population is below 35 years of age? It is not as if we are growing any younger. In fact we are ageing. And that is a good thing because it is an outcome of development. India became younger between 1951 and 1970 when the median age (the point at which one half of the population fall below and above) decreased from 21.3 to 19.4 years due to improved healthcare and rising incomes.

Demographic googlies

Since 1970, the median age has increased steadily as people live longer, fewer babies die and fewer babies are born. By 2040, the proportion of the population below 34.5 years will fall to 50 per cent from 65 per cent today. Will that be terrible? Consider that by 2040 we will be in the same demographic boat that Singapore is in today. Age merely indicates we can become like Singapore in two decades if we do the right things.

The point here is that the advantages of a youthful population are exaggerated. There are 84 countries with a more youthful population than us today. None of them is competitive with India. The virtues of youth are likely to fade over time. Advances in artificial intelligence and healthcare will reduce the demand for manual work — which is best done by the young — whilst also prolonging productive life. This means that the definition of the workforce will change to include older folk — possibly up to 75 years — who will continue to earn, pay tax and pay-in rather than draw out from health insurance. Tata Sons and the BJP have already used the magic number of 75 years as a marker for obsolescence.

We are working towards an ageless society. The Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Abhiyan being launched on September 25 will provide in-hospital medical insurance to 107 million families (45 per cent of the total number of families) at the bottom of the income and caste pyramid. Public health centres in 150,000 locations are to be upgraded to provide pre-hospitalisation diagnostics and preventive care. State governments have also taken the lead in launching similar schemes for health security. Robotisation is widespread already in our automobile sector. Machines will progressively replace workers in construction, agriculture and sanitation.

Wear those wrinkles with pride – they signal the long road we have travelled

wrinkles

The bottomline is that we should not emulate the paranoia of filmstars about ageing. Our collective shelf life is far longer than the first flush of youth or middle age. We should also not be nudged into having more babies to keep the median age low. China, with a median age of 37.4 years, is reversing its family size restrictions and doing just that. But their demographic transition, like their economic transformation, has been jagged and artificially staged via the heavy hand of State control. Ours has been a natural demographic transition driven by personal choice, higher incomes and better old age and health insurance.

Hone kids to be productive future citizens

What we do need to fear is that we may continue our business-as-usual approach which prioritises near term results over sustainable growth. If India is to grow up with dignity we need to transform our educational system to produce multilingual, multi-skilled and multicultural professionals, as capable of cooking up a meal, singing a song or cleaning their toilets as of designing a complex space mission.

Hai! the plunging Rupee

There is another number which is being bandied about with alarm — the exchange rate of the Indian rupee versus the American dollar breached the 70-rupee mark last week. Our currency has been overvalued since 2013 because of a complex belief in a “strong” currency being a proxy for a “strong” nation.

False pride

strength

This belief is wrong on two counts. First, if our exports are not competitive because our currency is overvalued, relative to our peer exporters, then a strong rupee is merely false pride, not strength. Second, if strength is gauged from the ability of domestic producers to beat back the competition from imports and retain domestic market share, then a strong rupee works at cross purposes to this objective. It subsidises imports at the expense of domestic production. It taxes our exports and benefits our competitors like China.

The only thing a strong (overvalued) rupee achieves is to artificially reduce the landed cost of imported coal, petroleum products and military hardware. It also signals to foreign investors that exchange rate depreciation risks are minimal, thereby reducing the risk premiums they add to the hurdle rate of expected return from their investments. To this extent it reduces the stress on our fiscal position, improves the external balance and also impedes inflation.

However, these advantages of a strong rupee must be evaluated against the numerous downsides. Reduced employment and the loss of revenue from GST for those state governments, where producers have shut shop because of cheap imports. Consider also that a strong rupee actually encourages Indians to go on holidays and shop abroad rather than at home. This impacts retail trade directly. It simultaneously makes India an expensive tourism destination, versus options in East Asia.

Look to the RBI to set a predictable “real” exchange rate for the Rupee

A belief in a “strong” INR is as shallow as male machismo. Neither is a “weak” Rupee the answer. Setting the right “real” level for the rupee (accounting for domestic inflation), to optimise the complex trade-off, is best left to the Reserve Bank of India, which has the expertise and the information to strike this delicate balance. The rest of us must desist from creating false shibboleths of national strength. Our strength is best demonstrated by balancing our trade account without imposing prohibitive import or export tariffs; making our budget revenue surplus so that borrowings only finance investments and by following a need-based strategy for allocating resources for human capital development and social protection. None of these three milestones have been achieved yet.

collaboration

Grow up well India, collaboration is better than conflict; maximalist negotiating positions are self-limiting and the high from winning has diminishing utility unless the agenda ahead is compellingly uplifting.

Adapted from the authors opinion piece in The Asian Age, August 19, 2018 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/210818/grow-up-india-time-to-set-an-uplifting-agenda.html

Unbundling State effectiveness – current perspectives

dreams

Context is everything. No one model exists of an effective State. Hugely diverse countries like India can benefit from a modular approach enabling sub-national jurisdictions to shape their State architecture taking into account their context, the available resources and their dreams. The last is important. “Dreams” -as opposed to short-term ambition- are a mix of inherited drivers for action. They determine who we want to be- a long term goal. Consider, that in the long term – any period after 20 years – every factor of production that appears fixed today -technology, natural resource use, and human capital- can be changed.

Core sovereign functions

A large part of the modern sovereigns effort relates to overcoming negative “externalities” (war, insecurity, crime, environmental degradation) or enhancing positive “externalities” (sanitation, public health, basic education, transport, energy and communication networks). An externality is a cost which cannot be allocated to any one entity or a benefit which is not enjoyed by just one individual. This results in the need for “collective action” to finance and execute plans to deal with externalities.

Dealing with the problem of “collective action”

Using State executive agencies to deal with externalities was the pervasive form of “collective action” till the 1970s. Experience shows that those State interventions, which work “along the grain” and align with public sentiment are effective. Consider the baffling, continuing insecurity in Kashmir despite a massive deployment of security forces. A wider domestic and diplomatic engagement with the root causes of Kashmiri disaffection could help. Note that in sharp contrast, China deals with Uigur resentment in its Xinjiang province with a heavy, repressive hand. If the Economist is to be believed, it keeps 1 million Uigurs – more than 10 per cent of this Muslim minority group- in detention camps for “re-education”.

Hybrid options for “collective action”

Hybrid options for “collective action” have emerged over the last four decades. These unbundle the core sovereign functions from those which can be undertaken by private entities. Private contractors perform even routine security functions; lease out, maintain and even operate equipment for government agencies. Government can get things done by others rather than do them itself. But using this model extensively requires government agencies to change its skill set from project implementation to project design, contracts, finance and monitoring. There is insufficient evidence that government is making that transition. Public Private Participation (PPP), with the private sector putting in capital and bearing the implementation risk, has died in India.  Government was unable to make the functional transition to design and manage contracts effectively for mutual gains. Private investors used the mechanism as a way of earning riskless returns using bank loans. The term “Public” in PPP gave banks carte blanche to extend loans to “lemons”- projects with dodgy financials.

Bridging information asymmetry

Managing information asymmetry is also a key sovereign function to reduce the transaction costs to efficient levels and allow market to grow. Legislating standards like “weights and measures” makes trade more efficient; making rules for disclosures on operational and financial results by business, makes stock markets more efficient; regulations for public disclosure of product contents, as in medicines and food, protect public health. These are “in situ” measures to bridge the information gap between buyers and sellers within a given market structure.

Making markets competitive

Non -competitive markets induce inefficiency and impede growth. On the supply side, the government’s job is to avoid cartelisation by existing suppliers and regulate the level of market dominance of individual suppliers. The Competition Commission of India, backed by appropriate legislation is the vehicle for doing this.

Aggregating demand is the flip side option to keep markets competitive. User’s cooperatives are one traditional option. Government owned demand aggregators, like the Energy Efficiency Services Limited (EESL) are another option. EESL reduced the retail sale price of energy efficient LED bulbs by 75 per cent over 2012 to 2015 just by buying and distributing at scale. Private demand and supply aggregators like Amazon and Flipkart are newer options which operate like mini-markets reducing transaction costs for both sellers and buyers.

Markets – building blocks of the future

Global ideological polarisation around the usefulness of markets for reducing transaction cost and spurring competition via innovation came when China, under Deng Xiaoping adopted, in 1979, what later came to be known as “capitalism with Chinese characteristics”. Collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, signalled the end of Soviet Union style socialism and the ensuing ideological polarisation around markets.

Bumbling liberal democracy versus totalitarian efficiency

Political Science became simpler post 1990 as nations clustered around two major clusters. The larger chunk consists of nations which align with, or aspire to, the western model of governance – democracy, multi-party elections, citizen rights and public sector governance reform to minimize the direct intervention of the government in the economy. India fits squarely into this set.

A smaller set of nations, with China in the lead, subscribe to the supremacy of the Party as the mediator between the State and the people. State control remains pervasive via public investment and Party cadres in key positions in the private sector. The “national interest” dominates citizen interest. Controls on family size (till recently), continuing controls on domestic migration and a weak judiciary are the downsides.

The “middle kingdom” shines

china shine

The spectacular economic success of China over the last four decades, including in reducing poverty below 3 per cent, provides powerful evidence that the State can function as effectively as the private sector. This model produces results but also future tensions in an artificial short-term, trade-off between citizen rights and economic progress. If development empowers people, how will a system based on the sacrifices of the many for a few, shake-off the bonds of political subservience it engenders?

Listening to discordant voices or ignoring “noise”

China has the managerial freedom to implement decisions without catering to the “noise” from political opponents or muted public opinion. Curiously, this is not too different from what Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla wants. By taking Tesla private he can avoid the relentless scrutiny of shareholders and the discipline of market expectations.  In India the need for consensus is a brake distorting efficient solutions. Consider the case of the Goods and Services Tax.  The GST, an efficient tax reform, languished for over a decade. In 2016 the Union government conceded managerial ground to the GST Council. It agreed to make implementation “revenue neutral” for state governments. A back stop Union government guarantee protects against short fall in tax revenues. The potential risk of “moral hazard” is the risk.  Multiple tax rates, knowingly sacrifice the efficiency gains from a single rate of tax. But the architecture now exists; systems are stabilizing, the rates can be adjusted based on experience. Listening to the people via the state governments has paid off.

Living with the “nuisance” of judicial review

China has no patience with judicial review of its decisions. This makes the government and the Party supreme. India is a liberal democracy, even though we chose to call it “socialist” in 1976 via an amendment to the constitution. The power of “public interest litigation” effectively restricts the ability of the government to undertake significant change, except via constitutionally aligned legislation.

The initiative of the Vajpayee government to privatise State Owned Entities in 2000 quickly ground to a halt. It became impossible to implement the legislative changes required to change the public ownership of state owned enterprises like ONGC, what have statutory status since 1956 or banks, which were nationalised by legislation in 1969 and select private industries nationalised in the 1970s.  “Reform by stealth” – the Indian approach, truly has its limitations.

India, stolidly elephantine moves

Elephant

It is instructive that one and a half decades after electricity reforms were initiated in 2003 there are privatised electricity distribution utilities in the national capital of New Delhi but a State Electricity Board, created under the Electricity Supply Act 1948, continues to function in the state of Kerala – the last bastion of the Left.  India assimilates multiple ideological regimes, per the local context.

Local governments bring innovation and accountability

Successive Finance Commissions have devolved more resources and responsibilities to local bodies. But Panchayati Raj, the third level of government, embedded in the Constitution in 1992, remains sparingly implemented. One third of the annual growth in the pool of Union tax revenue must be incrementally, directly devolved to local government, as shared benefits. This will enhance local ownership of the growth process and facilitate empowered grassroots leaders to grow into future national leaders.

A nation of itinerants

train stations

Decentralisation brings to the fore, multiple potential threats – the problem of equitable allocation of funds; ideological permissiveness and political dismemberment. These are real threats.  But India has stabilizers built into the constitution– free migration and the rule of law. So long as our laws promote non-discrimination and equality, the market for work and liveability will make a person vote for national integration with her feet and move to a place, where she feels secure and productive.

One fourth of Indians do not live in the place where they were born. This is why the Aadhar unique digital identity, with appropriate safeguards for private information, is vital to secure seamless access to public services anywhere in this country of itinerants.

There is a curious dichotomy today. The world looks at India as a major determinant of its future. But we, within India, are still staring at our navel awaiting enlightenment from without. It is time we claim our place in the Sun by making our actions speak for us.

 

From the authors opinion piece at the Law School Policy Review, gust 19, 2018 https://lawschoolpolicyreview.com/2018/08/19/unbundling-state-effectiveness-current-perspectives/

Grandfather stranded power assets equitably

Coal

Economic reform has few friends. This truism is visible today as the 2003 de-licensing of power generation capacity is being unfairly fingered as the culprit for the Rs 1 trillion bank debt turning delinquent due to pending or actual bankruptcy of the power projects.

De-licensing of power generation delivered what it was supposed to – capacity addition in thermal generation exceeding the planned capacity addition over the period 2012 to 2017 by 30%. Fingers are also being pointed to low coal production or the prohibitive price of imported gas as additional culprits. This is disingenuous.

Drivers of stranded power assets

The primary reason why installed generation capacity remains underutilised is that distribution utilities have failed to develop new markets for electricity and are stuck at unreasonably high levels of operational inefficiency. The CRE/ICRA 6th Annual Rating for Distribution Utilities July 2018, rates just 7 out of 41 distribution utilities with a satisfyingly high performance. But remember that rating standards in India are contextually determined to offer an incentive for improvement. Lowering transmission and commercial loss below 25% accrues incentive points. International standards would be way better.

The average loss in distribution utilities, during FY 2016, after accounting for subsidy received from government, was Rs 0.65 per unit (kWh) sold. Is it any wonder then that distribution utilities have failed to absorb the available supply of electricity. Actual users have to undergo forced power outages till the utilities can generate cash to pay for purchasing electricity from the grid. Constraints on the supply side have been unplugged by reform. The problem lies in stodgy utilities failing to aggregate potential demand.

India night lights

SHAKTI a transparent, effective resource allocation mechanism

Union government steps for reducing financial stress in the power sector date back to 2017. SHAKTI (Scheme for Harnessing and Allocating Koyala (Coal) Transparently in India) skillfully used the auction methodology to allocate up to 80% of the assessed need for coal supply to 11 generators (31 entities applied but only 14 were found to be at a reasonable stage of project completion) . Generators without any coal linkage, bid for coal supply from Coal India Ltd. by agreeing to reduce their approved levelized tariff , thereby sharing the gain with their customers. Bids for reducing tariff by 4 to 1 paise per unit (kWh) were received. This was commercially smart rationing of coal supply to favour the most efficient generators.

RBI shakes complacent defaulting promoters awake with looming insolvency

Debt Recovery

Why has the debate around stressed power assets gained currency today? Election time, which we are clearly into, is a good time to press for benefits. This applies to requests for extending the time period beyond the 180 days allowed to promoters to rectify a loan default. Under the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code 2016, promoters or their associates, become ineligible to bid for the assets during resolution proceedings. This severe penalty is meant to spur promoters to fulfil their loan repayment obligations and pay banks back on time.

Timely negotiated settlements better than the judicial option 

Draconian penalties are of little use when the default is due to a systemic shock. The Enron private power fiasco 1992-1999 was sparked by spiralling of imported gas price. Negotiations, rather than judicial options, finally resolved matters. In 2005, NTPC, GAIL and MSEB acquired the assets in Dahbol, Maharashtra abandoned by the bankrupt US company.

Enron solution redux- neither desirable nor feasible

Dahbol involved only 2GW of abandoned assets. Today, 10 GW of gas generators are stressed, like Enron. In addition around 12GW of coal fired generators are also stressed after excluding those which have benefited from the SHAKTI initiative. The stranded asset problem is more than 10X of the Enron problem. The bank loans – mostly of Indian banks – at stake are around Rs 1 trillion. Is there a way out causing the least disruption to embedded economic incentives?

Reduce the cost of coal based generation by lowering the implicit and explicit “tax” imposed on it.  

The most direct route would be to end the extortive levies on coal production and transportation by rail. Rahul Tongia and Puneet Kamboj of Brookings India recommend making the railway freight charges cost reflective. This would also make Indian Railways competitive with road transport, to which it has been losing market share.

Currently, coal transport by rail is charged more than the cost of service. This is an implict tax on freight which subsidises passenger traffic. The resultant excess freight cost feeds into the cost of electricity generated. This increases the cost of electricity by Rs 0.21 per unit (kWh) amounting to Rs 108 billion per year.

In addition, there is an explicit tax on coal via royalties, levies and coal cess. These increased from Rs 200 per tonne in 2011 to Rs 800 per tonne in 2017 pushing up further the cost of coal based power.

Why should electricity consumers pay to subsidise rail passengers?

Quite unfairly, it is the honest electricity user who is indirectly subsidising rail passenger traffic – that too in a poorly targeted non-merit way. Freight charges should become cost reflective and the levies on coal production reduced to Rs 400 per tonne. IR should generate the additional revenue required for keeping passenger fares reasonable, from commercial development of their physical assets.

Subsidise rail passengers explicitly via the budget

There is also a good case to use the revenues from coal cess and other levies for this purpose. Rail transport is more efficient and environmentally less toxic than road transport. Switching to electric rail from road, reduces the import burden imposed by using petro products. A direct subsidy of Rs 150 billion should be allocated to IR specifically for adopting cost based freight charges in the 2019 budget. Lowering the cost of coal based power will improve the finances of distribution utilities and enable them to buy more power, which would feed into the financials of coal based generators.

Spread the pain of low availability of domestic fuel across all thermal power generators

Why not replicate the SHAKTI auction template to allocate a portion – say 50% – of the annual coal demand to all generators (those owned by the Union, state governments or the private sector) whilst retaining the existing allocations for the remaining one half. Electricity prices at the grid would reduce. The principle of price competitiveness (electricity supply) as the door to preferential access to scarce domestic coal will incentivise all generators to become efficient.

competition

Grandfathering existing contracts is the gold standard of contracting norms. But extraordinary circumstances call for innovative options. When the available resources fall short of demand, the principle of efficiency of resource use overrides historical rights in a merit order system. New generators win the efficiency battle, hands down.

Adapted from the authors opinion piece in TOI blogs, August 9, 2018 https://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/equitable-grandfathering-needed-in-thermal-power/

The price of democracy

beggar

Prof. Ashutosh Varshney of Brown University calls India an improbable democracy — poor, impossibly heterogeneous and multicultural, and ironically, only its colonial heritage keeps it going. So has our hubris cost us plenty?

Why we are not China

Forget comparing ourselves with China today. Are we at least on the same path? No, we are not. Assume a lag of a decade between China’s 1979 takeoff — Deng Xiaoping’s reforms — and India post-liberalisation in 1991. Second, assume that GDP growth is a decent proxy for national effort. Judging by the results, we have tried only one-third as hard as China to grow three decades into the reform process. Have we been tied down, like Gulliver, by democracy’s Lilliputian ropes?

Money or efficiency make the world go around

There are only two ways of increasing growth. Increase investment or increase the efficiency with which capital is used. The latter is tough but critical. Efficiency and stability invite foreign capital in, build supply chains and boost “federated” exports — many economies get a say and a share in the final product. Making the world your shareholder makes politicians more responsible — barring outliers like US President Donald Trump — and who knows, his unorthodoxy might well work for the United States.

Wasting scarce capital

Amravati

India is hugely capital starved. Sadly, it has not done well either in using capital efficiently. And it is not just the public sector alone which is wasteful. A generalised trend of wastefulness springs from poor monitoring systems available to the government, shareholders and citizens, none of which can easily check the data by triangulating information sources.

Over-designed public projects

Bengaluru airport has had charging points in its parking lot since 2008 for electric cars, which will not use them till 2030 – if then. You pay for casually over designed projects. The building of Amravati, the new capital of Andhra Pradesh, represents all that is wrong with our democracy with politicians free riding on tax payers.

Frank admissions of failure are as important as bragging about success

Finance secretary Hasmukh Adhia has admitted that the GST network has failed to provide end-to-end digitisation. We knew this. But speaking honestly and responsibly endeared him to the public. Unfortunately, no one is to be held accountable for this glitch.

Adhia

Cheap finance induces waste

Wasteful use of capital is hardwired into a system which prices capital cheaply. Most business folk will moan about the high cost of funds in India. But the fortunes, domestic and overseas troves of real estate barons and industrial tycoons were built on negative interest rates, with inflation boosting prices but diluting the real interest cost of a bank loan to zero over a 10-year period.

Four matras for democratic success 

Can we take remedial measures? The times are tough. But bad times never last. More important, are we primed to take advantage of the next uptick cycle in world economic growth? Possibly not. Here is a four-point mantra for getting there.

Efficient public services

online

First, the new national government, later this year or in early 2019, must tackle the long-ignored task of public sector reform. It is shocking that economic duality has widened since 1947. The average citizen and business is streets ahead of the government in the effective use of 21st century technology to make employees accountable. Can you imagine how the government would change if the bottom five per cent of employees were sacked every year for poor performance or if the courts disposed of cases quickly? Just focusing on achieving these two and keeping everything else on hold could retrieve democracy in India.

Make data accessible on citizen aspirations & preferences, government performance and business governance 

Second, know your citizens. Make all residents and citizens identifiable, traceable and accessible. Aadhaar is the answer. Make registration for Aadhaar painless and self-declaratory — the ability to cancel out duplicates is supposed to be built into the system — enhance its accuracy in identification; mask the private information better and multiply improved digital recognition equipment. Populate data for citizenship, electoral rights and public benefits, using Aadhaar as the base platform. Transfer all public benefits through bank accounts. Roster all government officials, below 40 years of age, irrespective of grade or cadre, to serve as field-level facilitators wherever they are posted, with specific mentoring targets, to help citizens access their benefits.

The BJP and some regional parties (Trinamul Congress, AIADMK, the Left parties) who have a cadre are ramping up to do this. Down this route lies the threat of democratic abdication. A citizen must be served by the government of the day, not tied to the apron strings of a particular party for accessing benefits.

Link official accountability with efficiency in use of capital 

Third, change public incentives and processes. Switch from lazy budgeting of inputs to specific outputs, achievable over two years and outcomes over five years. Form teams of specifically identified officials to programmes and projects; ensure that there are no transfers and the team remains intact for the next five to 10 years. This will ensure more responsible budgeting; development of job commitment and expertise and improve outcomes. China does not shuffle its officials about needlessly. They stay tied to specific tasks for long periods — many forever. We encourage our officials to forum-shop from one cushy position to another.

Stop fiddling with markets

markets

Fourth, walk the talk. Withdraw the government from being a market participant and it will work better. Markets are like forests. Naturalists like Pradeep Krishen say it is enough to fence barren land off from predators like goats to allow a forest to regenerate. Going with the grain of nature doubles results. Anything else is wasteful and inefficient.

Stop fiddling with markets and they will find their level. Focus on diluting, not alleviating, the pain of those who lose out from markets. Just that can consume all of the government. Do not dilute the bite of markets if you aim for efficiency. Equity initiatives must be front-loaded to enhance competitiveness, not installed at the end of pipe to shackle markets. Caste-based reservations for education, jobs or benefits are an end-of-the-pipe option. They gel perfectly with our real strategy of steady but inefficient, slow growth.

Democracy is not the reason for our woes. It is what we do with it that’s troubling. Democracy implies at least a 50 per cent chance of not getting re-elected. The great Mughals would not have approved of the risk profile. Neither, it seems, do our rulers today.

Adapted from the author’s opinion piece in The Asian Age, July 9, 2018 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/090718/price-of-democracy-a-4-point-growth-mantra.html

Show the middle class some love

middle class

The Indian middle class is a diverse set – professionals, public servants, skilled factory workers, the self-employed in the gig economy and smaller business folk who earn enough for daily needs, educate their children, access healthcare adequately and still have a surplus after consumption. High aspirations are what distinguish them from the hopelessness of the poor and the inherited arrogance of the rich.

Governments delight in extorting the private surplus available with the middle class via tax, purely because it is easier done than unravelling the legal defences and accounting labyrinths which protect the income and wealth of the rich.

The income tax anatomy of the middle class

Budget 2017-18, vicariously defined the middle class as having an annual income between Rs 5 to 50 lakhs. The rich got a surcharge of 10 per cent on top of the marginal top income tax rate of 30 per cent plus an additional cess of 3 per cent, increased subsequently to 4 per cent, for an annual income above Rs 50 lakhs.

A punitive, marginal tax rate of 20 per cent plus cess, on income above Rs 5 lakhs distinguished the middle class from the poor  Annual income up to Rs 2.5 lakhs (around Rs 4000 per head per month for a five member household) is not taxed. This is where being poor ends. Income above this level and till Rs 5 lakhs is taxed at a moderate 5 per cent plus cess. This low-tax, income slab provides a platform for inducting the poor, who are gritty enough to claw themselves into higher incomes levels, into the tax paying habit.

Income tax rates are reasonable

How a tax matrix affects real households is where the rubber meets the road. So how does the government’s tax policy look from the household upwards? Assuming a household of five persons, income per head per month of less than Rs 8,000 or more than Rs 80,000 is either too poor or too rich to qualify for being middle class. This  taxonomy captures the middle class fairly accurately.

GST rates are arbitrary

Problems arise if the impact of the Goods and Services Tax on the lower end of the middle class is computed. The effective tax rates have increased for most items of middle class consumption – branded products, white goods, eating out and holidays in homestays and mid-range hotels. For the large numbers of the middle class who provide services as consultants or on contract in the gig economy, the GST summarily appropriates 18 per cent of the billed revenue if it exceeds Rs 20 lakhs a year. Small suppliers of services do not have the market power to get their corporate customers to bear the tax, even though the latter are legally responsible to pay the GST on receipt of services. Reducing prices to fully or partly absorb the GST is their only choice.

Why is there no standard deduction for costs in services?

There are no standard deductions of costs available for services. Even depreciation on a vehicle is not allowed as a cost.  Oddly small retailers with a turnover of up to Rs 1 crore can claim a standard deduction of 30 per cent for costs. Such glitches are disincentives to declare revenue and completely contrary to the GST dharma of incentivising tax compliance.

Progressivity in GST on services is poorly designed

Oddly the GST is not imposed on the marginal amount of revenue from services exceeding Rs 20 lakh. It applies across the entire revenue. The message it sends is that it is foolish to use banked transactions for revenue from services beyond Rs 20 lakhs annually.  The income effect of such taxation illustrates the absurdity of the structure. The net income, after deducting notional costs of 30 per cent, from an annual billing of Rs 21 lakhs is Rs 17.5 lakhs. The imputed tax imposed by GST on net income is 26 per cent. Add to that income tax of 20 per cent. The post-tax disposable income gets slashed to just Rs 14 lakhs or 54 per cent of gross income. In comparison someone who keeps her billing of services restricted to Rs 20 lakhs pays no GST and therefore has a higher net disposable income of Rs 16 lakh!

Why does cross border supply of services not have a free-of-tax limit?

Arbitrary taxes on turnover are highly discriminatory and inhibit competition. Consider that no GST is payable if services are provided within a State up to Rs 20 lakhs. But all cross border supply to another State attracts GST. In the United States, cross border online supply of services are not taxed, creating a converse unfair advantage for such supply, versus local supply. This was struck down last week by the US Supreme Court. What can possibly be the logic of inhibiting competition by taxing cross border supply below the annual taxable limit of Rs 20 lakhs?

 

Fuzzy economic assumptions on the relative merit of public or private expenditure & savings

By taxing both income and consumption at punitive rates, the government drains the surplus available with the middle class, which could have been used more efficiently for higher consumption – triggering higher production or more savings, leading to more investible funds. We are fuzzy about a fundamental trade-off between being an efficient, rationally-taxed, private sector-led economy — a mantra which every government since Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s has sworn by — and a punitively-taxed, state investment led, low efficiency economy — which is what we have become.

It does not help that the tax base remains despairingly low and the same law-abiding citizens and entities get taxed ever more by each succeeding government. The tax base of individual assesses of Income Tax is around 60 million. The tax loophole of agricultural income being tax exempt is a major inhibitor for growing the base significantly. The GST has around 11 million registrants. But tax compliance is said to be a low 70 per cent. The tax buoyancy is coming from bleeding the already compliant.

farm house

Despite extortionist taxes for the middle class, the tax to GDP ratio is stagnant at just below 12 per cent, because of massive evasion and statutory loopholes for avoidance. Inequality is increasing with income and wealth concentrating within the top 1 per cent. Inequality and tax impunity are “dhili” (loose) foundations for building a sharing economy.

This summer, as our political elite relax in the soothing cool of the leafy and shaded Lutyens’ Delhi, spare a thought for the middle class and show them some love. They also vote, you know.

Adapted from the authors opinion piece in The Asian Age, June 30, 2018 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/300618/its-time-govt-shows-the-middle-class-some-love.html

India’s geopolitical choices till 2040

Trump

Every passing day, America plays the truculent, ageing diva on the wane, whilst China exudes a quiet, confident gravitas. Their chosen global roles, however, do not reflect the fundamentals of either country.

America is one of the few developed countries with a robust economy, relative to its overwhelming size. It grew smartly at an average of 2.5 per cent over 1990 to 2016 (versus world growth 2.8 per cent). In Europe and Japan, ageing and poor economic policies are slowing down the revival process, post the 2008 slowdown. But America, thanks to its ‘open-doors’ policy for talent, its zeal for innovation and a super-educational architecture, has rebounded –– even though President Trump continues to play to the injured sentiments of middle America, which sees growth and jobs as a zero sum game.  But psychologically, America is shrinking into a smaller island of prosperity than it needs to be. The mood of the nation is to cut its losses overseas, lock the doors and count its millions. This is akin to voluntary national euthanasia.

China Russia

China, despite much less going for it physically, is psychologically expansive in its ambitions – eager to fill the gaps opened up by a receding America. In 2016, GDP at US$ 9.5 trillion (constant $ 2010) was roughly where America was in 1990. Despite high levels of inequality, which concentrates the incremental growth and wealth at the top, President Xi enjoys enviable domestic support. The average Chinese is gung-ho about occupying centre stage in global affairs.  Strategic allocation of its surplus for investments overseas has created an alternative variety of quasi sovereign international finance which, to put it bluntly, seeks to “immizerise”- to twist Professor Bhagwati’s signature concept-  the beneficiary nations who accept its cheap loans.

China investment

Inability to repay the loans followed by benevolent ever-greening of the loans, will bind the beneficiary nations into a long-term, largely one-sided financial relationship, reducing once independent nations to vassals. The Chinese will try and stretch out this symbiotic arrangement till they either supersede or take control of the United Nations and related institutional arrangements for management of international affairs. China might become the largest economy by 2030, and by 2040 indentured nations will have little choice except to bow to Chinese dominance, much like an addict wanting her next shot at any cost. It is unclear, however, if China will have the staying power to continue to splurge cash on winning friends till then.

Their game plan is not very different from what America itself followed post-1945. Financing the reconstruction of Europe and Japan bound these countries to America, creating a politico-economic group which represented 66 per cent of world GDP in 1960. Back then, America itself accounted for a heady 40 per cent of world GDP.

G7

This set of “friends of America” (FOA) still account for around 58 per cent of world GDP. But America’s share has shrivelled to around 18 per cent of world GDP. This is the core of President Trump’s angst. Whilst the FOA group has grown significantly since 1960, under American protection, they continue to be free riders when it comes to spending big bucks on global security. Indeed, avoiding large outlays on defence expenditure has enabled these economies to divert resources for growth and social welfare.

The truant behaviour by POTUS at the Quebec G7 meet should be viewed in this context. One can even make the argument that the trade wars are not so much directed at China but at America’s own allies – a wakeup call to start paying the bills for global domination. America is set to become an international wallflower after a half century of global domination.

China grew spectacularly at just under 10 per cent per year over 1990-2016. But to achieve somewhere close to the critical mass – 30 per cent of world GDP- needed for global domination, it will need to grow for twenty more years at 4 per cent above the rate of world growth. But unlike America, it does not yet have a set of permanent allies, who could pump up the group share.

SCO

India is a likely candidate for such friendship. Russia and India share traditional bonds which have deepened through the purchase, by India, of defence equipment. A bloc comprising China, India, Russia and Iran (CIRI) can pump up China’s economic heft to around 45 per cent of world GDP by 2040. China and India, respectively, would account for around 30 and 10 per cent of world GDP.

Admittedly, CIRI would be a grouping of convenience. The Friends of America group, in comparison, are glued together by history, culture, religion & race (other than Japan) and the liberal democratic State architecture.

It is unclear which way India should turn. India will be an easy fit into the FOA group because of shared liberal democratic values; history and language. India could bring to that group the demographic energy, at a scale they lack. But it is in the CIRI group, that India could play the more substantive role, including by providing much needed soft power to pull-in other nascent liberal democracies. In neither group is India likely to be the decisive partner over the next 20 years, which hurts our ego.

switzerland

A third pragmatic option is to play Switzerland on an international scale. Remain a neutral, trusted adviser to both groups – neither antagonistic nor subservient to either whilst remaining focused on shared economic growth domestically. International credibility to chart this principled course would depend upon developing a domestic eco-system reflecting these principles. This course suits Indian aspirations for leadership best. But are we, ourselves, ready to live by an elevated moral and human code?

Also available at https://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/indias-geo-political-choices-till-2040/

Follow the money to tackle the fiscal perfect storm

Piyush Goyal 2

Piyush Goyal, the interim finance minister, will need to be a lucky general if he is to overcome the triple challenge of widening trade and fiscal deficits and lacklustre private investment.

Exports – India’s achilles heel

Despite our comparative advantage of cheap, skilled labour and entrepreneurial zeal, export pessimism is endemic — unlike in China. Last year we imported goods worth $460 billion, while exports were just $303 billion, leaving a trade gap of $157 billion. We try and cope with the trade deficit by mimicking the American economy — minus the pull of its global currency. We maintain a strong, stable rupee and high interest rates to encourage inward financial flows of capital to plug the deficit in the external account and protect our foreign reserves.

Our saviors – inward remittances from Indians in the Gulf

Gulf workers

We are blessed that our valiant expatriates in the Gulf states regularly repatriate their foreign earnings to finance their families struggling to survive in India. Net inward remittances — around $70 billion per year — cover around one-half of our trade deficit. The inward flow of foreign direct investment and “hot money” flowing into our equity and debt markets provide the residual foreign exchange for imports.

Aping America’s strategy to manage its external account, is out of context

A chronic trade deficit forces us into economic contortions. One such is high interest rates to generate demand for the rupee, never mind that it permanently disadvantages exports and makes domestic production uncompetitive, versus imports. A new monetary policy announcement is due later this week. If the Reserve Bank of India increases base interest rates, it will be in line with its inflation targeting, rupee strengthening and external account stabilisation objectives.

High interest rates can kill our nascent economic recovery

The consequences for the domestic economy will be harshly adverse. Cheap money and a realistic exchange rate is what drove the Chinese juggernaut for years. Admittedly, it can also create bubbles. But private investment is at risk. The emerging political uncertainty and the yet to be completed corporate insolvency processes — affecting 15 per cent of bank assets — are investment dampners. Higher interest rates could well be the straw that breaks the donkey’s back. Public investment is always a poor substitute for private investment. It comes with the enormous risk of misallocating capital hugely, including for political ends.

A circle of wealth excluding the poor?

Political economy considerations also conspire to maintain the inward financial flows of “hot money”, which boosts stock market valuations. Over the last two months, foreign portfolio investors have sold a net amount of around $3 billion of Indian assets roiling our thin domestic stock and debt markets — eroding the wealth of 40 million equity holders. But it matters little for over 200 million other families, who continue to squirrel away their meagre savings into interest-bearing bank or post office savings accounts, or in gold.

Look beyond tax revenue to fund burgeoning expenditure

HAL

The Central government is constantly walking on a razor’s edge to achieve fiscal deficit targets – which is necessary to avoid stoking inflation. It is a tough call to choose between allowing oil spikes to pass through to consumer prices at the cost of stoking inflation and consumer anger, or to absorb the price increase within the general government finances, at the risk of blowing the fiscal deficit targets. The win-win solution is to find a source of additional non-debt financing, till the full benefits of GST kick in over the next five years. One option is to monetise the public investments made thus far in industrial entities, infrastructure and land.

Find a non-tax source to replace the cushion provided earlier by low oil prices

Ashok

During 2015-18, the government reduced the fiscal deficit by one per cent of GDP because of the availability of additional revenues of Rs 2 trillion from cheap oil. The government should target raising Rs 4 trillion over 2018-20 by monetising public assets, including the sale of equity in public sector undertakings. These capital inflows can help keep the fiscal deficit within three per cent of GDP. This is not easy. Embedded vested interests, which benefit from such investments, would create hurdles. Political capital will have to be spent.

Sell our “crown jewels” and monetise completed publicly financed projects 

NALCO

The disinvestment ministry was notionally empowered last year to discharge a limited mandate with respect to managing government equity in PSUs. But disinvestment remains a programme of simply selling government equity, when the stock market is high, to plug the fiscal hole and keep the fiscal deficit in check. 2017-18 was a landmark year. The government sold equity worth Rs 1 trillion due to very adroit management and with help from deep-pocket publicly-owned entities like ONGC, which bought into HPCL and other institutional investors who generated the demand pull. This was a one-off. The target this year is 20 per cent less at Rs 800 billion.

Air India is a high-profile disinvestment, which can stem the annual loss borne by the government. The 2016-17 loss was Rs 58 billion. Not enough to break the budget but unnecessary, and hence wasteful. No bids were received for it. Blame the flight of international capital to “risk-free” investments. Blame our fragile domestic political environment prior to the general election. But also blame low appetite within the administrative departments to let go of the PSUs that they control.

Don’t mimic the UPA – discipline departments which fight to retain PSU assets 

Air India

It is astonishing how quickly political capital can fade. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s signature theme was that his writ runs in the Central government. But the foot-dragging in the Air India disinvestment case seems to illustrate that this might have changed. Admittedly, Air India is an iconic brand. For long, you felt you were home once you boarded Air India — remember that familiar smell of curry? Selling it, specially to a foreign investor, is like the British selling Jaguar-Land Rover to the Tata Group. Pragmatic but heart rending. We have yet to become business-like about our crown jewels, as the British have. We sell our assets past their expiry dates and then wonder why we got peanuts.

Focus, diligence and smart choices can make a difference

Success in navigating through this perfect storm will depend on avoiding the bureaucratic gut instinct for “tax terrorism”; monetising public assets in mission mode; monitoring expenditure closely and ensuring fiscal discipline, while absorbing the oil price increase and providing for higher farm gate prices — two politically inescapable imperatives. If the finance minister is lucky, oil prices will subside; America’s tempestuous and unpredictable President will lapse into hubris and the domestic political landscape will change for the better. But don’t wait for it to happen.

Adapted from the authors opinion piece in The Asian Age, June 6, 2018 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/060618/a-fiscal-storm-looms-dont-wait-for-godot.html

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