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Archive for the ‘Tax’ Category

Fiscal 2018-19: Revive shared hopes

shared growth

Normally, the fate of the next fiscal is sealed even before the year begins. Barring windfall gains, the economic engines of value addition are quite stable — business keeps running and salts away its surplus; the government similarly keeps churning out public goods; and individuals — particularly us Indians — keep squirrelling away something for a rainy day, even out of our meagre earnings. But who can predict shocks?

But India is vulnerable

oil 2

India remains very vulnerable to external shocks — changes in the price of oil, the monsoon, the cost of guarding against external aggression, the state of the world economy and domestic events — more specifically elections, as these take away whatever mindspace the politicians have for sustainable development.

Fiscal 2019 will be election fodder

Fiscal 2018-19 is littered with state-level elections followed by the national general election in the first quarter of the next fiscal. Consequently, expect “plug the hole” type of fiscal tactics to be rampant in the government. Borrowing from banks to invest back in them is one such tactic to stick to the targeted fiscal deficit. Borrowing long but promising to liquidate short-term liabilities is another. This is great fiscal accounting. But that’s where it ends.

Growth data just one metric of government performance

There is a world, beyond the fiscal math, in which we all live. Did you feel the change economically in 2014-15 when economic growth jumped from 4.7 per cent in 2013-14 — the last year of the UPA government — to 7.4 per cent — a jump of nearly three percentage points?

Narendra Modi

Yes, our hopes soared with Narendra Modi’s elevating optimism and high energy. Yes, he made us believe in the future. We felt that we had put a large part of our colonial baggage behind us. But at the ground level, nothing much changed because GDP growth data is just that — numbers which are useful for nerds to track policy impacts and take corrective actions. It’s like the speedometer on your car. It can tell you when you rev up or slow down. But it tells you very little about when you will get to your destination. So please don’t tie your dreams to data. Treat it with the caution it deserves.

Ignore rarified metrics – the stock market & growth, focus on your economic reality

Fiscal 2017-18 will end with a real GDP growth of 6.5 per cent, helped by low inflation, versus 7.1 per cent last year. If you didn’t notice the upswing in 2014-15, you are unlikely to be substantially affected by this year’s downtick. Or for that matter by the uptick to seven per cent growth next fiscal, as the “satta market” for growth (if there is one) would predict. The stock market valuations, as measured by the Sensex, rose by 29 per cent over 2017 with just 6.5 per cent growth. Consider also that the market capitalisation of the top 10 family-owned business groups rose by 46 per cent. Clearly, the business biggies don’t live or die by GDP growth data, so why must you? Far better to hone your own tunnel vision of the economy — real stuff which matters to you, and leave growth rates to the genteel debates between the macro policy wonks.

Telescope 2

If you are one of the 20 million students graduating next year, judge the health of the economy from the availability of jobs. For 118 million farmers, who eke out a living on land holdings of less than two hectares, keeping a lookout for the timing and adequacy of the monsoon means much more than GDP growth. For 21 million large and medium farmers, who account for the bulk of the surplus food grain produced after meeting the needs of the family, it’s the government’s minimum support price for your produce, the cost of fertiliser and availability of water and electricity, which will determine your well-being. The point is that each of us has a specific reality which is only loosely tied to the GDP growth data.

Tying our well-being to the GDP growth rate is seeking false comfort when the numbers rise and equally false despair when they fall. The last two fiscals have been costly. Demonetisation in the third quarter of fiscal 2016-17 and implementation of the Goods and Services tax in this fiscal year were both major disrupters for businesses and their employees. But these are behind us now.

Reduce income tax rates at the lower slabs to compensate for tax reform related pain  

Over time, business entities who survived earlier by not paying tax will disappear. They will be substituted by more efficient, possibly scaled-up substitutes. But all that will take time, well beyond the next two fiscal years. Till the efficiency impacts of tax reforms kick in, the government must take steps to insulate citizens from the pain, just as it held state governments harmless — by insuring them against a fall in their tax revenues.

Paytm

Citizens, particularly those who took to digital payments and bank transactions with gusto, find they now pay, not only the GST, but also the income tax (possibly never paid before) of the seller. Direct and indirect tax rates must be reduced to keep household budgets stable, till the efficiency impacts of tax reforms kick in.A fiscal bridge is necessary.

Overshooting the fiscal deficit target is ok to preserve capital outlay

Reforming governments factor in fiscal turbulence. If reform translates into collateral pain for consumers, it is dead in the water. We are battling a perfect storm of reforms — restoring the health of banks; reforming the tax structure to improve compliance while reducing transaction costs and dealing with the additional costs of mitigating climate change. It can’t all be done painlessly.

This pain must be shared. The government must abandon its managerial instinct to stick to the budgeted fiscal deficit target of 3.2 per cent this year — in fact it already has. For the next fiscal, the “glide path” for the fiscal deficit must be kept stable, as advised by the majority opinion in the N.K. Singh Committee on Fiscal Reform. Even at 3.5 per cent, the fiscal deficit will be 15 per cent (0.6 basis points) less than the 4.1 per cent achieved in 2013-14. When the facts change, one must change one’s opinions and tactics. That’s the way to shared growth.

Adapted from the author’s opinion piece in The Asian Age, January 6, 2018 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/060118/be-flexible-on-reforms-ensure-pain-is-shared.html

Aadhaar – catching crooks & criminals

UIDAI members

The Aadhaar fever started in 2009, when the UPA government was in office. It encountered turbulent times in 2014 when the government changed. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a technology enthusiast, was persuaded to look beyond the past at the opportunity it gave to reduce official discretion and corruption, whilst targeting and delivering public services.

Inspirational achievements: Speed, scale, low cost & sustainable institutions

The results have been impressive on three counts — speed, cost and sustainability. First, the system was scaled up at breathtaking speed. Around 15 citizens were digitally registered every second, over seven years, assuming a 60-hour week.  Registering 1.2 billion residents out of around 1.3 billion, in a country spanning 3.3 million sq km is by itself a “never- before” achievement.

Second, unbelievably, this feat was achieved at a nominal cost of Rs 73, a little more than $1, per person. The norm for biometric identification anywhere else has been at least $10 per person. Clearly, frugal Indian innovation was at its best here.

Third, Nandan Nilekani, the single parent of Aadhaar, moved on in early 2014, serially to politics, social impact ventures and today heads Infosys as its non-executive chairman. Small, effective public institutions — UIDAI had a sanctioned staff of just 115 in 2009 — tend to be helmed by charismatic banyan trees — leaders who allow nothing to grow under their horizontally spread branches. But the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which he first headed, continues to flourish, which speaks volumes of its sustainable management systems and the quality of successor chairpersons.

Why, then, the angst?

So why then the public angst against Aadhaar? Three reasons come to mind — all of them related not to the technical effectiveness of the system itself but the manner in which it is proposed to be used.

Illegal immigrants are rich political fodder

First comes politics. Illegal immigrants from Bangladesh — between three million to 20 million — along with legal immigrants from Nepal, have acquired voter IDs and ration cards. They are difficult to distinguish from their neighbours. But it has also suited the government politically, till now, to not identify such immigrants. Aadhaar can upset political calculations. Targeting Aadhaar at residents — a more inclusive genre — than citizens was a compromise solution. But the threat remains that this powerful data set will feed into culling voter lists of duplicates or ghosts and weeding out passports wrongly issued to people who were never Indian citizens.

We are all “crooks”

Second is the scale of disruption associated with ending corruption. Consider that 14 per cent of Indians, or 180 million, have a driving licence. But one-third are fake and many more are improperly given to ineligible drivers — a key factor in road fatalities.  290 million Indians have a unique number called PAN, required for filing income-tax. But 80 per cent are not authenticated with the Aadhaar database. This illustrates the poor integrity of the tax database.

Big bang reform catches headlines but induces a push back

Third, managerial ambitions have outrun executive caution in graduating the pushback from those adversely affected. From being a back-office tool, Aadhaar has become a digital shortcut to cull ghosts from the burgeoning food security scheme; weed out manipulations in income-tax submissions; introduce a security check over phone connections or use big data to link bank accounts, phone numbers, vehicles, houses, financial investments with each biometrically identified individual. Aadhaar is the shortcut to dig out our dirty secrets. And no one likes that.

Protection needed against low data integrity at time of issue & poor connectivity for authentication of Aadhar

aadhar center

Section 7 of the Aadhaar Act 2016 specifies that Aadhaar shall not be the sole arbiter of identity for accessing public benefits.  Section 5 makes it obligatory for UIDAI to get those, who lack identity documents — children, women, the specially-abled, senior citizens, workers in the unorganised sector, nomads are mentioned — covered under Aadhaar by other means. The intention is clear. The State must devise methods to include all residents in the database and ensure, till then, that the flow of public benefits to eligible recipients continues uninterrupted. Similarly, the onus for protecting the privacy of the individual is on the State. The government has no option except to align with the law. Indeed, it seems to have already diluted its hard stance on the timeline for the implementation of Aadhaar.

Rolling back or stalling the program a poor option

Two options present themselves for the way forward. First, the government could downsize its ambitions for Aadhaar and allow other modes of identity verification to continue till the availability of Aadhaar becomes universal and, more important, the hardware for authenticating Aadhaar is widely available. This is unlikely, in the short term, till the Bharatnet fibre cables have been laid and are operational in all gram panchayats. Just one-fourth are connected today. But the more real downside here is of a slide into never-ending inertia. This seems alien to the present government’s style.

Prescribe fall-back identity authentications with better oversight over the quality of initial data capture 

AAdhaar alt

The second and better option is to deal with the fears of activists who have petitioned the Supreme Court against linking bank accounts and phones with Aadhaar. With respect to privacy, the fact that the State will be able to trace individuals behind phone conversations or bank accounts seems innocuous. On the contrary, both security and tax revenue considerations point to this being desirable, if not essential.

Better branding: disseminate tax and security advantages of Aadhar widely

The government has advertised the Aadhaar principally as a means to transfer benefits to citizens in a more targeted manner and thereby optimise the public subsidy on such benefits. But this is only part of the story. Aadhaar is a significant tool in increasing tax revenue and bringing criminals to justice. What is in it for those who do not enjoy social security benefits? They must be made aware of how Aadhaar creates a trade off between privacy on the one hand and public finance and security on the other. It must be re-branded as a broad governance tool. It should take a cue from what President Obama said about privacy concerns. No individual right, against the State, is perfect. It must needs bow to the larger public interest.

Theoretically, any information, available with the State, can be misused to violate the privacy of an individual. But surely an income-tax officer using the Aadhaar authentication to check if you have included all your bank accounts in your tax return does not fall in that category. What about a duly authorised police officer who traces the owners of phone numbers talking about crime or a threat to public security? Protocols for tapping phones and accessing details of private bank accounts already exist. The Aadhaar link simply makes it easier and faster to catch crooks and criminals.

recovery ITGovernments rely on their credibility to gain the trust of citizens. Safeguards for individual rights do help. But only for governments that are public-spirited and well-intentioned. Once this is no longer the case, the only recourse is to voice your opinion through your vote, and good luck to you on that.

Adapted form the author’s opinion piece in The Asian Age, December 13, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/131217/aadhaar-fever-unveiling-secrets-to-secure-india.html

Moody God of bond markets

bond_mesopotamia_

The international bond market, with an outstanding volume of around $22 trillion, is the final arbiter of a country’s destiny. Bonds, unlike loans, can be traded, or “marked to market”. This makes trustworthy credit ratings, like Moodys’, critical to give pricing signals. Since there is a market, even discards are recycled. Discards are called “junk” bonds. Their outstanding volume is $1.3 trillion. They are traded at insanely high returns up to 12 per cent per annum as compared to AAA-rated bonds, where the yield is just four per cent. India had an investment grade rating of Baa3, which Moodys upgraded, on November 17, to Baa2 (stable outlook).

Rating the sovereign

A sovereign credit rating reflects the country risk. It serves as a “glass ceiling”. Bond issuers from any country can never have a credit rating higher than their country’s rating. India has not issued a sovereign bond overseas thus far. But government-owned companies and private entities access the international bond market. This is one reason why the rating upgrade is welcome.

It is a win-win for India. The upgrade increases the incentive to invest in India. The Reserve Bank must be vigilant to sanitize the potential of such inflows to strengthen an already-overvalued rupee, which is hurting export competitiveness. But our stock market is already inflated in the aftermath of demonetization by the surge of domestic savings, seeking refuge from a dull realty market.  This may dampen the inflow of “hot money”.

Sovereign rankings

The upgrade pulls us ahead of Italy (negative outlook) and level with Uruguay, Colombia, Spain, Bulgaria, the Philippines and Oman. We remain behind Panama, which has a positive outlook and can be upgraded to Baa1 to join Thailand, Mauritius and Slovenia. In the next level (A3) are Mexico, Malaysia, Peru, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta and Iceland. China floats high above at A1 — four rating segments above us.

Unpacking the Moodys rating

The Moody’s rating methodology is complex. First, a country is fitted into one, of three possible levels, for each of the 25 indicators. These are then aggregated into 11 sub-factors using assigned weights. The sub-factors in turn are aggregated into four factors using assigned weights. There is a mechanism to “fine-tune” the final rating using qualitative assessments – this is where confidence-building measures help.

Massaging the numbers

The highest weight — 50 per cent — is for the risk probability of default on interest payment or redemption of the bond. Risk is assumed to increase with higher levels of income inequality and lower scores on the World-Wide Voice and Accountability index (both reflective of political stability); higher reliance on external debt; higher borrowing need relative to revenue; weak banks; imbalance between foreign exchange receipts and expenditures and higher reliance on foreign investment.

Fiscal strength gets a weight of 25 per cent, related to lower nominal and trend line of debt to GDP levels and lower interest payments relative to revenue and to GDP.

Institutional strength has a of weight 12.5 per cent. Countries scoring higher in the World-Wide Government Effectiveness index; the Rule of Law index and the Control of Corruption index get higher marks.

Economic strength has a weight of 12.5 per cent. Higher real growth with lower volatility of GDP; higher nominal and per person national income and a better score on the World Competitiveness Index all ensure higher scores.

Labouring through this long explanation of the methodology becomes rewarding because it points us to a prioritised pathway for improving our credit rating.

Push the right buttons

First, remember that in today’s networked world, not only is it important to do the right thing generally but one must also push the right buttons. Our credit rating depends on our score in the five independent indices, mentioned above, relating to – voice and accountability, rule of law, government effectiveness, control of corruption and competitiveness. The Niti Aayog has demonstrated how our score and rank can be improved in the Doing Business Survey. Similar effort, in these five indices, can directly improve our overall credit rating.

Fastrack four priorities

Second, consider that four initiatives — (1) reducing inequality via direct transfers and NREGA to supplement low incomes; (2) funding investments through tax revenue and domestic private savings via financial inclusion and market development; (3) strengthening the resilience of our banks by shrinking the size and functions of weak banks and recapitalising the strong banks; and (4) increasing export earnings by removing the import bias for a “strong” rupee, can together improve one half of the overall score. These four areas should have a very high priority.

Go easy on piling up debt

Third, stabilising the aggregate public debt to GDP ratio is necessary. This contributes to one-fourth of the aggregate credit score. Moody’s recognises that this ratio shall increase from 68 per cent in 2016-17 to 69 per cent in 2017-18.

headload

It may even be higher, if real GDP growth this year is less than 6.7 per cent. State government debt has increased by Rs 2.7 trillion (1.5 per cent of GDP) due to financial engineering in acquiring 75 per cent of the stressed assets of electricity utilities through UDAY (electricity restructuring) bonds. An additional source of stress is the proposed recapitalisation bonds, particularly if financed from public funds. Financing the capital needs of strong banks through private equity would be far better, even if government equity must be diluted to 26 per cent. At the very least, the market would force adequate internal restructuring. Sharply reducing the revenue expenditure by 10 per cent can bridge the “effective revenue deficit” (0.7 per cent of GDP) and release fiscal space for virtuous allocations. Revenue expenditure — other than interest and capital grants —is budgeted at Rs 11.2 trillion this year.

Diligent nudging will show results

The Moodys’ rating methodology has evolved beyond the pure commercial intent of repaying lenders on time, to assess systemic sustainability and happy citizens.

The ball is now in the government’s court to navigate the tightrope between short-term welfare priorities and medium-term fiscal stability and growth. Political sagacity, restraint and technical wizardry in choosing the right boxes to tick will determine if the finance minister can widen our smile.

Adapted from the authors opinion piece in The Asian Age November 21, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/211117/after-the-upgrade-can-fm-widen-our-smile.html

FM Jaitley’s press meet – more lobs than ground strokes

Jaitley lobs

What was Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley’s press conference on Tuesday all about anyway? If the intention was to gain eyeballs, it succeeded. But if it was to allay fears about the Indian economy, it failed. Here is why.

Misguided choice of communication medium

First, the optics were all wrong. The finance minister had just returned from the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in Washington. The timing required talking up the economy in a more artful way, drawing on international trends, in rethinking the role of the State in development. Instead, the assembled press corps got drab statistics. The naysayers remain unconvinced that the economy is doing fine. Presenting alternative indicators — other than those already in the public domain — could have helped. For example, the government has reduced risk by conferring residency tax benefits for local administrative offices of multinational companies. Similarly, GST revenue is marginally more than the targets for the first quarter.

Recycled “kosher” ideas for fudging data on the fiscal deficit

Second, the key “announcement” was a proposed outlay of `2.1 trillion for recapitalising public sector banks over two years. This was presented as a “bold” step. But how is it going to be achieved without relaxing the fiscal deficit target of 3.2 per cent of GDP this year and 3 percent next year? The budgeted outlay, for capital support to publicly-owned banks is just Rs 200 billion till FY 2019. Where will the “additional” resources come from? The how and when remains a mystery – though speculation, some of it inspired by the views of Chief Economic Adviser, Arvind Subramanian, abound.

FM Jaitley unhappy at being trapped

The finance ministry has a long, credible tradition of technical expertise. The Prime Minister can get away with making generic promises, as he has done in Gujarat, of a tax amnesty for small business, for past misdeeds. But finance ministers are required to be very precise. They can’t waffle. They must not seem to be led by advice, whispered into their ears, while a press conference is on. This, unfairly, makes the finance minister look feeble, or worse, being led by the nose.

arvind subramanian and jaitley

Mr Jaitley fell squarely into these traps. To his credit, he looked decidedly unhappy and uncomfortable while doing so. It is inconceivable that this media jamboree was his idea. Just back from Washington, where “best fit” fiscal practices are the main discourse, resorting to fuzzy announcements, which create high expectations and uncertainty, is not par for the course.

It’s the politics stupid

So what explains Mr Jaitley going down this route? After all, the Budget is just three months away. The sanctity of placing new budgetary proposals before Parliament, prior to revealing them to the public, is a sound convention. The only explanation is that the press meet was convened to boost the feel-good factor prior to the Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat elections, due over the next two months. Recapitalising banks sounds good. Building infrastructure sounds even better. If this was the intention, Mr Jaitley was right to look uncomfortable. Nothing stops the Union government from doing its job, even as state elections are being held. But a red line must be drawn at presenting significant new fiscal proposals, that are not already embedded in the existing fiscal roadmap.

Stick to your instincts Finance Minister

Mr Jaitley’s instincts remain sound. He will try hard not to breach the fiscal deficit target. He will resist reducing the capital outlay. He must also resist forcing cash-rich, listed publicly-owned companies to subscribe to the special recapitalisation bonds proposed to be floated by public sector banks. Listed, publicly-owned companies must be managed by their boards, and insulated from politics, at least with respect to their investments. Anything else is very unfair for the minority shareholders and the Securities and Exchange Board of India is duty-bound to resist such moves — however bizarre that may sound!

Deepen equity divestment in publicly owned banks & companies

Generating Rs 580 billion by selling-off government equity held in excess of 51 per cent in banks is a good idea for a start. A better idea is to dilute government equity even further to 26 per cent without relinquishing effective control. The government does not need more equity to ensure that the public interest continues to be served. We must resolve the legal obstacles which prevent such dilution of equity.Using disinvestment proceeds to inject public finance into private companies, which create growth and jobs, is a great idea. But doing so via the chosen long route of public sector bank recapitalisation is worrisome. Unless management systems are restructured, politicised loans and NPAs will persist. This cannot be achieved by 2019.

Use equity divestment proceeds to refinance private NBFCs for MSME business

What can be done is to use disinvestment resources to refinance private banks and non-banking finance companies, who in turn finance end-use borrowers, including small and medium enterprises (SME), to scale up operations. The unmet financing needs of SMEs are estimated at Rs 65 billion. But this could be an underestimate, not least because of their widespread use of cash or unbanked transactions. The share of manufacturing SMEs in GDP is seven per cent, or just under 50 per cent of total manufacturing GDP. Their most immediate financing need is to discount their invoices and thereby reduce the 60-to-90-day payment cycle which saps their cash reserves.

Scale up private, boutique, supply-chain finance providers

Private specialised companies offering boutique supply-chain financing already exist. The largest is reputed to be the New Delhi-based Priority Vendors Technologies Pvt Ltd. founded by Kunal Agarwal in 2015 (http://www.priorityvendor.com)But these early entrants tend to finance only the payables and receivables of large, star-rated corporates who buy from, or sell goods and services to, smaller ancillary firms. There are 5,000 large corporates. Compare this with 1.6 million registered SMEs.

We have barely scratched the surface of the potential for supply-chain financing. Saturation levels of financing can alleviate the cash crunch, at the firm level, caused by the GST regime of advance tax payments coupled with the delays, in “matching” tax credits, earned on purchases, before they can be used by firms, to pay taxes.

Jaitley ground strokes

India is replete with good ideas. The finance minister could have unleashed an array of nimble steps, which can lubricate the economy, reduce risk and create jobs. But, by not grounding Tuesday’s press meet around a friendly conversation about the nitty-gritty of unleashing private potential and mitigating the hardships arising out of GST, this opportunity was lost. There will surely be another time. But will we be prepared by then to grasp the tide at its flood?

Adapted from the authors article in The Asian Age, October 26, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/261017/wheres-the-big-idea-fm-got-optics-wrong.html

Recapturing growth with stability

jaitley make believe

All governments game their performance metrics. Smart governments guard against falling for the make-believe themselves. The BJP stumbled in believing that India had earned an entitlement to grow, faster than China, at eight per cent per year. Well-intentioned measures — to end black money, resolve the stressed bank loans and reform indirect taxes added to the crowded agenda and disrupted entrenched business interests. Growth was bound to suffer because India depends significantly on private entrepreneurship and capital.

Look for low hanging fruit

The government does not have the luxury to cry over spilt milk. It needs to keep delivering public services. Implementing structural reforms — making labour markets less rigid, reducing the regulatory overburden on business and improving poor infrastructure, cannot be done within this year. We must, instead, look for the low-hanging fruit to maintain macro-economic stability this year in the hope of higher, even possibly eight per cent growth, in 2018-19.

Depreciate the INR to real levels to boost exports

suresh prabhu 2

Suresh Prabhu, the new minister for commerce, just days into his job, is already evaluating possible incentives to kickstart export growth, which has languished since 2014. Realigning the Indian rupee to more realistic levels could be his best bet. INR was at Rs 63.90 per US dollar four years ago, in September 2013. Since then higher inflation in India versus the United States has eroded the real value of the rupee. The overvalued INR not only makes exports uncompetitive, it also makes imports cheap, which hurts domestic manufacturing, constrains new investment, inhibits growth and job creation.

Low inflation & oil prices mitigate the risk of imported inflation

Of course, there are negative consequences of depreciating the rupee. A weaker INR and a higher than targeted fiscal deficit might induce a flight of foreign, hot money, anticipating higher inflation. But with inflation at historically low levels — the consumer price index below two per cent — and oil prices relatively stable, high inflation does not appear to be a near-term risk. More important, any slack due to the flight of foreign hot money can be mitigated by domestic investors with idle savings, desperately in search for rewarding investments. A cheaper rupee also has the virtue of discouraging gold imports, which have surged in recent months, by making gold more expensive, relative to the returns on financial investments.

Imported oil and defence purchases will become more expensive

Another downside is that depreciating the rupee by nine per cent makes oil imports, consumed domestically, more expensive by around Rs 30,000 crores. Allowing this additional expense to pass through to retail prices can spur inflation. This means reducing the royalties, taxes and cess on petroleum.

Low growth will also reduce tax revenues

Also with slower GDP growth, the increase in the aggregate tax revenue will be lower. Growth was budgeted at 11.75 per cent (7.5 per cent real growth and 4.25 per cent inflation). The actual nominal growth may not exceed nine per cent (six per cent real growth and three per cent inflation). The shortfall against the target would be of around Rs 30,000 crores. This makes the total revenue shortfall around Rs 60,000 crores.

Wisely, GST glitches already factored into the budget

An additional uncertainty this year is that the Goods and Services Tax might reduce the net tax levels due to the new facility of netting-off taxes paid on inputs. This has caused a flutter in the first two month of July and August with 65 per cent of the GST revenue recorded being set off against input tax credit on pre-GST stock of goods. But fortunately, this possibility had been anticipated and factored into the rather conservatively targeted increase of 6.9 per cent for excise and service tax, whereas customs and income-tax revenue were budgeted to grow by 11 per cent and 20 per cent respectively over the previous year’s collections.  Consequently, the risk of GST collecting less than the targeted amount is minimal.

Relax marco indicators Revenue Deficit & Fiscal Deficit sparingly

The targeted revenue deficit (RD) is already 1.9 per cent of GDP versus the maximum permissible under the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act of 2 per cent of GDP. This limit reduces the scope for borrowing, to fill the revenue shortfall, to around Rs 16,000 crores. It would increase the fiscal deficit (FD) from the targeted 3.2 per cent of GDP to 3.3 per cent of GDP — not a very significant departure and still considerably better than the FD in 2014-15 of 4.1 per cent of GDP. Also, there is no shortage of liquidity in the domestic market, so the government can borrow without crowding out the private sector. But it would be unwise to waste the hard work of Arun Jaitley, Finance Minister to reign in the FD to 3.9 of GDP in 2015-16; 3.5 of GDP in 2016-17.

Find the money – cut non merit subsidy & fat revenue budgets, not additional debt.

Hefty cuts in revenue expenditure amounting to a Rs 60,000 crore will be needed to maintain the RD at two per cent of GDP.  A targeted approach could be to reduce non-merit subsidies. These include LPG and kerosene subsidy in urban areas. The differential between rural and urban wages should enable urban residents to pay for clean, commercial energy. Reducing the subsidy on urea (Rs 50,000 crores) is an environment-friendly option. The department of expenditure has expertise in identifying and cutting fat budgets. Barring defence, security, social protection, human development and infrastructure, significant reductions in budgeted revenue expenditure are possible to keep the revenue deficit at a maximum of two per cent of GDP.

Incentivise bureaucracy to be decisive & business friendly

tax admin

Balancing the budget judiciously merely manages the negative outcomes of low growth. Removing constraints on exports can add to growth. Similarly, addressing GST glitches and minimising the compliance burden can significantly improve business sentiment. Notwithstanding our administration being colonial in structure, it works quite well under stress with targeted, short-term deliverables. Achieving six per cent growth this year, with fiscal stability, is one such challenge.

Adapted from the authors article in The Asian Age, September 23, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/230917/recapturing-growth-what-govt-should-do.html

 

FM Jaitley, aim for the sweet spot

Manmohan Jaitley

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, recently released a book titled India Transformed — 25 years of Economic Reform, edited by Rakesh Mohan, at the appropriately historic Nehru Memorial Library. After the obligatory photo-op, Dr Singh turned to finance minister Arun Jaitley and with a beatific smile, handed the book over to him, as if, symbolically, he was satisfied that he could hand over trusteeship of the economy, to the three-year-old NDA government, and walked off, disregarding the speech he was scheduled to deliver.

The reform baton passes on

It was indeed a poignant moment and well chosen, for the economic baton to be handed over. The high-decibel criticism by Left-oriented, liberal public intellectuals of the economic vacuity of the BJP government’s economic policies continues. But the fact is that we are now at a cusp, an inflexion point. In all likelihood, we shall do substantially better on inclusive growth. This may sound incredulous at a time when growth, industrial investment and exports have fallen from the earlier upward looking trend line. But a dip in the industrial investment and growth rate are natural short-term consequences of the BJP having finally walked the talk on corruption.

Pressing the economic accelerator is not enough

Over the first three years, the NDA merely pressed the accelerator harder on the positive legacy of the UPA — rural unemployment support, fast-forwarding Aadhar, digitisation of commerce and banking, financial inclusion, space technology competitiveness, making electricity surplus, making access to telecommunications even more affordable, better transport and urban infrastructure, disinvestment of minority shares of state-owned entities, ensuring fiscal stability and progressively higher financial devolution to sub-national governments, including local governments.

Burying past negativities is good but not enough

It also did very well to bury the negative legacy of the UPA. The biggest achievement is in fast forwarding of expenditure programmes without the viral outbreak of corruption scandals seen earlier. More positively a three-pronged action plan is in place to make public systems resilient to corruption.

GST – the corruption buster

First, getting the GST is the biggest legislative and operational achievement to dampen corruption and enhance value addition by integrating the national market. Glitches remain due to poor drafting of rules which burden the small, honest taxpayer. Many such are the obsessive dedication to maximising revenue, even at the expense of simplicity. As usual the pain is being most felt by those least able to bear it — ragpickers — at the bottom of the urban food chain – their daily income have halved because the “kabadis” (junk yards) they sell plastics and glass to, are playing safe on the likely new tax liabilities. Small individual consultants or homeowners,  who live in one state but get work or rent from another, re similarly caught in a bewildering tax reporting spaghetti.

Bankruptcy & NPA resolution – The crony capitalism killer app

Second, is the frontal attack on crony capitalism — identifying the borrowers who have defaulted on Rs 12 trillion owed to banks, getting the Bankruptcy Act operational and signaling public sector banks that there will be no more “Mundra scam (1950s)” type telephone calls from the government. Reaffirming that sensible lending shall be rewarded and inept or corrupt lending punished.

Big brother must watch use smart analytics

Big data

Third, the proposed use of “big data”, including data from social media, to zoom in on potential tax evasion and crime. Taken together, these actions lay the systemic capacity for reducing corruption.

Aim for the sweet spot

cricket sweet spot

Whilst perfecting its drive at real sector reforms, here are the four “tests” the government must pass.

Defang the trade Unions

First, the unleashing of genuine privatisation (offloading of majority shares in a state-owned entity) as proposed in the long-delayed case of Air India is the winner. It sends the signal that India is open to efficiency enhancing financial restructuring. That it intends to free up existing public capital to create new public goods — jobs, physical infrastructure, improved social services, like health and education, whilst fresh private capital gets infused into the commercially viable supply of private goods — air and rail travel, steel, metals, petroleum and electricity. The Labour Unions are up in arms. This is where privatisation flagged in 2003 under Minister Arun Jaitley and Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee. Can the Modi-Jaitley team de-fang the inward looking, protectionist, labour “aristocracy” comprising the Trade Unions – the bedrock of the moribund CPI(M)?

TU

Grow private banking rapidly

Second, financial sector restructuring to make state-owned banks commercially viable. Uday Kotak, of the Kotak Mahindra Bank, surely over-stretches when he advocates the  wholesale exit of loss making public banks and their substitution by private banks. But clearly, the strategy of incremental privatisation, as done earlier to enhance telecom, aviation or electricity generation, will pressure state-owned banks to become competitive. This should also circumscribe the ability of the government to use banks like ATMs for populist goodies.

Nail large. serial loan defaulters as criminals 

Modi nail

Third, the strong action proposed for making collusive default on bank loans a criminal act is commendable. It brandishes a big stick for potential defaulters. The intention is virtuous. But experience shows that criminals, especially rich ones, find it easier to evade the law than poor innocents. To avoid this perverse outcome, criminal powers should not be delegated outside the judiciary. The record of tax tribunals and quasi-judicial agencies is not sanguine enough to empower them with criminal powers in addition to their economic mandates.

There is no option except to reform the judiciary through incentives and structural changes in judicial governance. This is a tough nut to crack, but shortcuts will give rise to the miscarriage of justice, vigilantism, and massive public resentment — specially in the middle class, which will be the most impacted in cases related to property and small business.

Remain a classic, fiscal fundamentalist

Lastly, the finance minister’s determination to maintain macro-economic stability has been amply demonstrated. This resolve must not weaken even during the run up to the 2019 general election. This will be the biggest economic win,lo if achieved. The report of the N.K. Singh Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Committee 2017 embeds too much flexibility to provide credible guidance for the future. Fiscal fundamentalism is better.

cricket defense

Good politics must also be good economics. There is an appetite now amongst voters for hard reform. This, by itself, is a tribute to the credibility of the NDA government. A populist pre-election budget would be seen by the voters as an early admission of defeat. That is not the winner’s way.

Adapted from the author’s article in The Asian Age, August 9, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/090817/hard-reforms-vital-nda-needs-to-shun-populism.html

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/

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

Can GST make Hasmukh Adhia smile?

Hasmukh

Hasmukh Adhia, India’s revenue secretary, is finance minister Arun Jaitley’s chief aide for rolling out the Goods and Services Tax. Contrary to his first name, he never smiles, at least not in public. But even he can now take a break and smile. The GST juggernaut is careening ahead. In just over a week, India would have leapfrogged into the league of economies which have walked the talk on rationalising indirect taxes.

Noose tightens on black money generation

card pay

Photo credit: Imagesbazar.com

So what will Mr Jaitley and the GST Council have achieved on July 1, 2017? First, this collegial team of finance ministers, across the Central and state governments, would have fired the first, potent salvo against black money. Demonetisation; tax raids; getting back overseas black money caches — all pale in significance, compared to the institutional impact of GST. Consider, that the most vocal protests against GST have come from dry fruit traders, cloth merchants and jewellery makers. These businesses have been traditionally cash heavy. Of course, the intrepid evader will still have tax leak holes left open. Agriculture, food items and the business in booze remain yawning gaps in the tax revenue security architecture. But the message is loud and clear: the rope is shortening. So watch out!

Lower net indirect tax, lower prices to spur demand

shopping

Photo credit: Imagesbazar.com 

Second, the massive discounts being offered on pre-GST clearance of the stock of consumer durables suggests that prices of these goods will reduce. An entity, empowered to investigate and ensure that net tax reduction benefits are passed on by manufacturers and dealers to consumers, is in the offing. The history of such clunky, intrusive executive action is not encouraging. Due to information asymmetry, determining the cost breakdown of products externally, is invariably inefficient. Either the enforcement agents get compromised or they end up harassing manufacturers and suppliers for trifling results.

But in truth, it really doesn’t matter. Inflation levels are at historic lows — below three per cent per annum; the monsoon is progressing well and global demand remains damp. Babus and their counterparts in the public sector — around 18 million households — have all either been given or will soon get pay revisions. They are itching to spend the windfall.

Clunky “inspector raj” to check price rise – a bad idea

Even if the entire tax rationalisation bonanza is retained by manufacturers and dealers, it will still generate surpluses for private investment — in debt servicing, realty and equity markets. Improving the revenue steam of corporate India is vital for getting over the gargantuan NPA problem, which is bad cholesterol for growth. The good news is that most product markets are competitive. Digital marketers have cut retail margins to the bone. Even the market for services is hyper competitive — think telecom. This makes it tough for corporates to retain extra normal profits.

SMEs & Trade pay the price for becoming accountable – high compliance cost

Also, undeniably, tax rationalisation has come at a cost. The actual transaction cost, for business, to comply with digital GST processes is unknown. But GST provides a huge opportunity to India’s IT developers to innovate low-cost compliance and oversight options — particularly for value segments produced by small and medium industries. These could be perfected at home and marketed worldwide as context-specific solutions for developing countries. In 2013, at a conference in Washington, the World Bank president asked Nandan Nilekani why he wasn’t rolling out Aadhaar across the globe? Mr Nilekani responded that he was too busy at home and had no time left for solving the problems of the world. This single statement projected India’s enormous domestic, digital market potential far better than the glossies, which international consultants and governments routinely produce touting themselves. These digital opportunities have multiplied by several degrees with GST.

Multiple rates align with multiple objectives 

Third, the agreed-upon somewhat clunky architecture for GST reflects compromises made to achieve the twin overriding concerns — protecting the poor and ensuring fiscal neutrality for all governments. In the absence of a direct cash transfer framework, continuing tax exemptions on mass consumption goods and services is a reasonable policy option. Given the federal structure and the plurality of our polity, there never was an option to the consensual approach adopted by the GST Council. Meeting the revenue concerns of state governments has inevitably led to six GST rates. The highest rate of 28 per cent is designed to be used for neutralising any revenue loss for state governments.

Multiple rates result in efficiency loss due to tax leakage from misclassification of goods to a lower tax rate. A good example is the amorphous classification of a storage battery as a computer peripheral (lower tax rate) versus use for backup lighting needs (higher tax rate). Multiple rates also increase the accounting load for keeping track of tax credits and debits. But the economic benefits from early implementation of a less than perfect solution far outweigh the opportunity lost from a prolonged wait for the BJP to come to power in all the states, thereby enabling a best practice single rate template to be imposed from above, China style.

Fourth, GST is good for jobs. It gives a boost to “Make in India” by withdrawing the tax advantage for imported manufacturers. Importers pay Central state tax at four per cent as special additional customs duty. But domestic products are taxed at the rates of state sales tax, which are generally higher. This disadvantage for domestic production will vanish with GST. Imports, in addition to customs duty, will pay additional customs duty at the GST rate applicable for domestic products.

Flexible implementation arrangements – to muddle through the knots

Finally, the finance minister has consistently adopted a firm but nuanced, practical stance on the implementation schedule. Recognising that small-scale industry and traders are lagging in preparations, he has agreed to defer the filing of returns by two months. Assurances have also been given that the GST rates could be adjusted if the net tax burden gets distorted or gets unbearable. A government that is open to negotiating beneficial outcomes for all stakeholders and still retains the will to keep the national interest foremost is quite clearly operating at the tax-related good governance frontier. Smile, please.

Adapted from the author’s article in the Asian Age , June 23, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/230617/its-time-to-smile-gst-to-usher-in-a-new-era.html

Jaitley black money

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