governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘accrual accounting’

Us versus Them

IAS

Prime Minister Modi addresses young IAS officers – the elite civil service of India, February 16, 2015.

“Tribes” exist in India other than the ones provided for in Part X of the constitution. The largest is the “Tribe” of government servants – to be distinguished from the even larger body of public servants.

Sheltering under the benign glow of the Ashoka Pillar lions, this tribe is the worst afflicted by the “Us versus Them” syndrome. The “Them” in this case being private entities, derisively called “box wallahs” during the colonial period. This is odd for an economy where the private sector contributes around two thirds of value added. How can we develop more empathy between the two “tribes”?

Bridge the chasm

First, systematically bridging the chasm between government systems and private sector processes can help. Yes, private business works for profit whilst government works in public interest. But both work in the same economic environment. There is little reason then, for such a wide chasm in systems and processes.

mamta

Winds of change: Firebrand Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee “Didi” of West Bengal has Amit Mitra previously of FICCI (a premier business association) as Finance Minister. Seen here rapping with Kolkata industrialists. Photo credit: The hindu.com

Better accounting systems

One such chasm is the system of accounts used by the two. Government follows the cash based accounting system. The formal private sector uses accrual based accounting. In a cash system, the focus is on cash-in and cash-out. But the cost of future liabilities and potential receipts foregone tend to be overlooked. Government can afford to do this. It can print money or just raise taxes to bridge the deficit. But like in a Ponzy scheme, fiscal unsustainability catches up and eventually ends the party, although at huge economic cost. Government already disciplines itself with strict constrains on public deficits. We should not relax this constraint.

But it is also important to transparently cost our contingent liabilities and share these with citizens. We do not do this very well. As a result, even government managers lose sight of these because the eventual cost of adopting the business-as-usual approach is hidden. Similarly, the opportunity cost of indifferent asset management is largely ignored within government. Accrual accounting helps generate such future costs.

Factor in the cost of risk

Second, government routinely underestimates the cost of risk incurred from operations. For example, government cars or buildings are never insured against loss or damage. Project estimates never factor in risks like the cost of time overruns or cost creep, despite a long trend line of evidence to the contrary. The cost of failing to meet targets is left open ended.

Consider the case of nuclear power. Our strict liability law requires private suppliers to bear the risk of damage from contamination. But the real risk is borne by a publicly owned General Insurance Company and indirectly by the government. It is the same with public sector banks whose losses from massive bad loans in the past, are now being borne by the government. Government must be more transparent whilst accepting risk. Accrual accounting unearths the data required for factoring in the risk of failure.

Government as a participant

Third, government is unused to be a mere participant in the commercial eco system. This derives from its sovereign mandate to be a rule maker and regulator. It also has sovereign functions. No one would want to replace the Indian army with private military contractors. Citizens prefer better policing to paying for private guards. No one wants unelected non-state entities to make our laws. Similarly preserving natural resources and the provision of public goods are best regulated by the government and not by markets.

But modern governments have added on a host of non-core social and economic functions, including the actual delivery of public services. Some of these can be outsourced  to the private sector – electricity supply or transport services. For others building “Chinese walls” between officials who discharge sovereign functions- like formulating policy, proposing legislation and developing programs – and others who implement programs and projects can internalize private sector concerns into the government.

Government entities like the Indian Railways; defence production units; public research laboratories; drinking water utilities; irrigation departments; public works departments; public institutes of tertiary education and hospitals can be usefully extracted from government, into publicly owned corporations subject to all the regulatory requirements as the private sector.

Stepping out of the “confining glow” of government and becoming a public limited corporation, even if it is 100 percent owned by the government, changes the organizational culture. In colonial days, financial relief to rehabilitate drought hit farmers was handed out by District Collectors. Since the late 1970s we have used public sector banks for this purpose. Today, crop insurance is the financial backstop for failed crops. This will incentivize even private banks to expand rural lending for profit. And farmers will not have the incentives they have today to exchange loan forgiveness for votes.

In the Union government alone, 66% of the 3 million civilian staff can be hived off to corporations. If this mammoth task seems undoable, look back to 2000, when the Department of Telecommunications (DOT) was restructured and 320,000 staff hived off into the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) leaving the DOT with just around 3000 staff.

Copy-paste the Telecom story

Telecom grew unshackled once the government stopped worrying only about protecting BSNL.  The empowered regulator -Telecom Regulatory Authority of India- in sync with the government since 1999, developed a fiercely competitive market. Private providers cater to 90% of the market. Subscribers have increased from a paltry 0.3 per 100 in 1999 to 88 per 100 population – pretty close already to China, which has 95 per 100 but at a per capita income five times higher than India. Indian telecom tariffs are a fraction of what they were in 1999 and are the lowest in the world. A telephone connection with a direct dialing facility was the preserve of business and the elite, fifteen years ago. Today a mobile is in the pocket of the common man and has become a can’t-do-without tool for empowering women. Low cost, high quality wireless internet access is expected to double, the 300 million internet users today, by 2019.

This transformation was achieved by deliberate, visionary steps taken to restructure the government and the telecom market for growth and efficiency. Application of these principles, across all sectors, can liberate the economy from the shackles of inherited, institutional constraints; bridge the “us versus them” chasm and squeeze out the fat in government.

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Digitally savvy India’s young are its future Photo credit: Globallearninggroup.com

 

Budget 2015: Swap higher outlays for efficient spending

jaitley dnaindia.com3  

(photo credit: http://www.dnaindia.com)

A cold Republic Day had FM Jaitley looking dapper under his stylish cap as he snuggled into his overcoat on a rain lashed Rajpath munched nuts and broodingly watched the parade go past.

PM MODI’s OFF-SWING

Was he fleshing out what he would say in his budget speech to the Indian Parliament just one month away?  Should he bowl a leg-spin veering sharply left towards equity or an off-swing veering right and towards growth? Around him, on its 66 Republic Day, Modi India was visibly exhilarated celebrating its “off-swing” to the right.

China, possibly stung by this sudden change of events, after the cozy, bon homie of the recent jhula swing on the banks of the Sabarmati, retorted by clasping Pakistan even tighter as an eternal friend. Meanwhile the Greek “loony left”, united with the “loony right” to aspire to become a sovereign debt defaulter with the rest of Southern Europe waiting to follow, should their anarchic tactic succeed.

SOVEREIGN DEBT STRATEGY

Avoiding payment by default is not a new strategy. Latin America similarly exploited the short memories of lenders with serial debt defaults.  In contrast Asia, in general and India, in particular, has been very puritanical about its debt obligations, never having defaulted even once in the last forty years, though we came close to it in 1991.

Whilst morally correct, it is unclear if this is a good fiscal strategy. Standard and Poors rates India sovereign debt BBB-, the same as Brazil (which defaulted thrice-1983, 1986 and 1990 in the last 40 years) and lower than Peru-BBB+ (which defaulted twice in 1980 and 1984). From this perspective, debt default is not about “prestige”, “national honour” or about financial rewards. It is merely a game of brinksmanship to be played with the market, if it serves us well.

Was FM Jaitley pondering the merits of doing a Latin America; borrowing recklessly to finance a populist, public investment binge, which “growth-wallahs” are crying themselves hoarse demanding?

Borrowing more is the “soft” option to reforming expenditure since tax collections have dipped. Our borrowing capacity for FY 2015-is limited by a Fiscal Deficit (FD) envelop of 3.8% of GDP, down from the target of 4.1% in the current year. Even the higher FD level severely constrained resources though this constraint remained hidden. The previous UPA-II government put so many non-fiscal barriers on investment-lengthy environmental approvals; land acquisition constraints and contractual inconsistencies which ensured that the project stream froze thereby avoiding additional cash outflows.

The present government is working overtime to unclog the pipes and clear payment arrears. These have built up over time but they do not show up in the budget. Unlike Indian companies, the government follows the “cash” and not the “accrual” accounting system. Both unpaid current liabilities and uncollected current assets are not accounted for in the annual budget. This loop hole enabled the previous government to “sell our future” by collecting arrears whilst falsely showing a robust budget allocation.

GROWTH AND INFLATION

Indian “growth-wallahs” are prepared to risk inflation if it means pushing growth to 7% from the 5.5% it is likely to record in the current year. But the trade off, at the margin, between growth, inflation and jobs is unclear. This is dangerous ground for those living on the edge.

Growth is just a meaningless number for the average citizen. Jobs are welcome of course. But we do not have a “jobs filter” that can assess competing investment.  We do not even measure changes in employment through the year. In comparison inflation is an everyday reality which the poor and the urban lower middle class have to battle with daily.

If there is a choice between growth and more inflation, the FM would be well advised to choose containing inflation to below 5% even at the cost of chugging along at a 6% growth level.

PUBLIC INVESTMENT IS HIGHLY INEFFICIENT

The real question is if the domestic and international private sector is unwilling to invest, as for example in Nuclear energy, how can it be desirable for public investment? Clearly, an unhelpful institutional context makes these investments into “lemons”. Unless the root causes of their unviability are addressed, such projects are neither good for the private nor the public sector.

Public investment stoked growth is strongly dependent on the efficiency of public expenditure and the avoidance of “pork”- gold plated projects which fail to provide social returns and jobs. Excessive investment in new renewable energy (a rapidly evolving technology) has precisely this risk.

NO BUBBLES PLEASE

Of course the stock markets will not be enthused by such fiscal caution. But who really gains from the irrational financial exuberance (or despair) of stock markets except a few savvy speculators with deep pockets- not all of them Indian either.

Real Estate is another sector which should be left to lag not lead growth. It is a safe haven for “black money” fed speculation. Five years of cheap money since 2009, high inflation and massive corruption are the drivers of the Indian realty bubble. We have to guard against such bubbles, which consume the savings of the middle class, as in Japan (1980 to 1990) and more recently in the US (2004 to 2012).

LOOKING BACK TO THE FUTURE

One stratagem to inject conservatism into the budget would be to project the FY 2015-16 budget on the growth and revenue numbers which were achieved in 2014-15.

Looking backwards to define the fiscal envelop will further constrict spending estimates. But this would be a useful, albeit unorthodox mechanism, to drive better collection of tax and non-tax revenues and contain “pork” in the spending estimates.

If there are “happy” surprises – revenue exceeding estimates or growth exceeding forecast levels, the surplus generated could be allocated to pre-defined schemes in a supplementary budget later in the fiscal year. Leaving something on the table is good strategy anyway to keep stakeholders engaged and responsive.

Our biggest worry is that populism will trump reason. Subsidies are the elephant in the room of fiscal responsibility. Rationalizing them has become a political hot potato with potentially high political costs. This is why reform needs to be both well timed and appropriately sequenced.

LIMITED REFORM WINDOW

FY 2015-16 is the only reform window available to India for the next four years. If we can’t do it now we never shall. The 2016-17 budget shall be populist since Bihar (2016), UP (2017) and then Rajasthan, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh go to the polls (2018) followed by National Elections in 2019.

Can we, for starters at least, legislate a cap on subsidies just as there is a medium term trend and cap on FD? We don’t know enough about the extent, substance, nature and social impact of subsidies. Why not make these aspects more explicit by changing the way in which we present the budget documents?

Two subsidy reform steps are immediately doable.

First, making petroleum prices market determined is a no-brainer in the present scenario of cheap energy. This will plug one gap in the subsidy envelop.

Second, rationalize agricultural subsidies which are provided through multiple mechanisms; assured purchase prices for cereals; cheap fertilizer; cheap power; cheap irrigation water; no tax on income and minimal tax on land. Despite these subsidies, rural wages remain low and migration to urban areas is the only options for landless workers and marginal land owners.

These subsidies have only served to create a class of elite “millionaire” farmers; a tiny fragment at the very tip of the 600 odd million strong farming community. Why not use it to better target the poor, rural folk instead? An additional advantage would be that the rural poor have a significant overlap with Dalits and Muslims, neither of which are part of the BJPs traditional support base.

Will FM Jaitley grasp the moment and push through reform or do we have to wait till 2020 for substantive change?

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