governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘Bihar Elections’

Navigating India’s “perfect storm”

BeltTight

(photo credit:www.webmd.com)

It’s final now. The run of good luck PM Modi enjoyed has tapered off.

The monsoon is likely to be deficient by 12%. This would be the second year in a row. True, agriculture only accounts for around 15% of the economy and didn’t grow much last year either. But when you target 7.8% growth every basis point, added or lost, counts.

Manufacturing and services growth is already slow. Companies are at best cautiously optimistic but the caution makes new investment sticky. The money and jobs spinning realty sector, driven earlier by negative interest rates, is in a slump.

To complete the “perfect storm” scenario there are two important state level elections around the corner-Bihar later this year and UP in 2017. Neither state has BJP governments currently, so doing well in these will inevitably be a metric of how strong the Modi magic remains.

The good news of course is that every threat is also an opportunity. This is PM Modi’s opportunity to show that he is the Lion we think him to be.

Fiscal stability disaster prone

First, more will need to be spent on drought relief; restructuring of bank loans for farmers and income support schemes for farm workers. Delhi, admittedly with a miniscule rural area, has already distributed Rs 50,000 per hectare as relief for the farmers hit by the April 2015 unseasonal rain. FM Jaitley is possibly right that the drought will be localized in North and Central India. But these regions account for around 45% of the farmers. Retaining the targeted revenue deficit at 2.8 % and public investment at 14% of the budget will consequently be tough.

Postponed subsidy reform

Second, it is unlikely that subsidy corrections will now be possible this fiscal. Cheap electricity, water and fertilizer are here to stay with a possible relaxation of the tight minimum support price policy of the last few years.

Higher wage cost

Third, a significant expansion in the wage bill looms. For the armed forces it is the One Rank One Pension promise of the PM.  For the Civil Service the recommendations of the 7th Pay Commission are to kick-in from 2016. Luckily the wage bill is low by international standards- 1.6% of GDP and 14% of the budget. But even small incremental increases, unless accompanied by efficiency enhancing restructuring, are not affordable this year.

This perfect storm of shocks cannot be wished away. Better to deal with it upfront. Here are five suggestions:

Winning the market perception battle

First, don’t be cowed down by stock market fluctuations or seek to pander to them. These are short term adjustments by speculators and not reflective of annual economic prospects. Consequently, rather than play down the “perfect storm” scenario it makes sense for the government to highlight the extreme shocks they are battling with to keep economic growth growing. Even in this David versus Goliath scenario, what is key is to share a plan of action on disaster management; income support; and realigning revenue expenditure to retain the revenue deficit and investment target.

Nothing much was heard about the recommendations of the Bimal Jalan, Expenditure Management Committee (August 2014). But it could provide some useful strategic, short term revenue expenditure rationalization measures.

Cut the Red Tape

Second, stressful times also create an environment conducive for administrative reform. PM Modi’s can quickly lick babudom into shape through positive strokes. He should consider setting up a lean but empowered “Decision Support Team” in his office, manned by ten senior Joint/Additional Secretary level officers selected for their expertise in key sectors; their ability to persuade and their flair for collaborative performance.

They would be mandated to speak for the PMO and be tasked to work with the key ministries and state governments to cut through red tape holding up investment decisions. Working against weekly targets with real time feedback to the PM, the mantra for this team should be “ANA- Achievement Not just Activity”.

Those taking up such high tension assignments should expect to be on the fast track to become Secretaries to the GOI.  The PM is known to be cagey about trusting officers beyond a tiny circle familiar to him. This is not surprising given that he has never worked closely with the babudom in Delhi. But he should experiment by subjecting a larger group to the “agnipariksha” of performance. He will not be disappointed with the results.

Forget the optics of who gets the credit

Third, the knotty problem, particularly in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, is how to be proactive in the face of state governments, which have the incentive to rebuff such support as being politically motivated.

The farmer does not distinguish between the state and the Union government (Lokniti Survey 2013) – 58% held both the state and the Union government responsible for the sorry plight of agriculture. If farmers fall through the gaps of political finger pointing, they will punish both the BJP and the SP-in Uttar Pradesh and the JD (U)-in Bihar. The beneficiaries of apathy will be Bhenji (Mayawati- the BSP supremo) in UP and Lalu Yadav in Bihar. Doing little is not an option for the Union government despite some of the shine rubbing off on the SP and the JD (U).

Don’t rattle the private sector

Fourth, it would be a big mistake to take too seriously the campaign to paint the BJP as a consort of the corporate sector. When stern action is warranted, it must be taken transparently and without rancor or bluster. But a “Preet Bharara type” of regulatory action is not what we need. Jobs are what the average citizen wants, which only the private sector can generate them.

Strong arm regulatory actions against foreign investors are bad optics- both for investment and for citizen sentiment. If our regulatory agencies are seen to be handmaidens of the government, they lose credibility. But the government also loses by devaluing an efficient instrument for regulating the private sector in a hands-off, technical manner.

Sticky revenues

Fifth, boost revenue. The tax receipt scenario is grim. First, projections for the year were over optimistic at Rs 14.5 lakh crores (US$ 230 billion) around 16% higher than the previous year. Tax receipts are bound to slide with slow external and domestic demand and lower corporate profits, despite the 15% increase in the rate of service tax. A tax receipt equal to last year’s estimate of Rs 13.7 lakh crores (US$217 billion) or 9% more than the actuals of last year is the best we can hope for- 5% points due to inflation and 4% points due to growth of the taxable base.

Getting more tax payers into the net is a worthwhile but effort intensive option with limited upsides. In 2013-14 there were 47 million direct tax assesses. New assesses have varied between 1 to 3 million per year since 2011. Even doubling the number of new assesses helps only marginally in additional revenue.

Transferring the crown jewels to citizens

There is more upside in fast tracking disinvestment. Listed Public Sector Undertakings (PSU) account for 13% of the valuation of the Bombay Stock Exchange or around Rs 13.6 lakh crores (US$ 215 billion). Of this, some equity is already held privately by minority investors. But an additional 10% can be sold without diluting government’s majority control. The problem is that, in the past, Institutional Investors have been the primary takers for such shares. Retail investor appetite has been largely absent from the tumultuous stock market for some years now and market momentum has been primarily provided by Foreign Institutional Investors.

Selling PSU shares in large volumes, without transferring majority control to the private sector, dampens the market price. Even the private IPO market is slow. Government is wary of inviting the charge of crony capitalism by selling shares to large institutional investors at cheap rates.

On the other hand, selling directly to retail investors is more defensible even if the price is low. After all the “Crown Jewels” really belong to citizens. Dispersing the ownership of PSUs widely also meets multiple objectives. Why not borrow a leaf from Dhirubhai Ambani’s 1982 market making strategy and incentivize the retail investor back into the market?

Link disinvestment, as a sweetener, to the issue of government debt for retail investors only – special convertible bonds – with a fixed return for three years at the prevailing Government Bond rate. 50% of the face value could be optionally convertible on termination in 2018-19, into a balanced bouquet of public sector equity at a 15% discount to the then prevailing market price.

A sequenced, mega issue of Rs 1 lakh crores (US$ 16 billion) of an asset backed government security can reduce the short term risk profile of PSU equity investments and pull in finance from an alternative source.

Government must come out with an evidenced strategy to deal with the “perfect storm” India faces. Of course, the PM is a “lucky General”. The drought may not materialize; the world economy may sort itself out and the opposition in Bihar and UP may self-destruct. But waiting for this to happen may be pushing the Gods too far.

The budget of small things

jaitley 2015

(photo credit: dailymail.uk.co)

February is when the Indian Finance Minister (FM) gets flooded with unsolicited help from well-wishers on how to get his job done of presenting the Union government’s annual budget on the 28th.

This time, the flood is a Tsunami as a consequence of the Delhi state assembly electoral debacle for the BJP on the 10th February. Some fears are imagined. Others are real.

BJP only for the rich?

The BJP has traditionally been a party which works well with the private sector. If viewed through a “zero-sum” filter, this strategy could be perceived as working against the immediate interests of the poor. The classic example is whether electricity supply should be subsidized and if so to what extent and in what manner and whether the private sector’s bottom line concern for profitability can be consistent with an electricity subsidy for customers?

The “Davos mafia”- banks, big business and “growth” fundamentalists are keeping a hawks eye on everything the FM now says to detect signs of his wavering from the hard path of economic reforms announced by him last year. Their expectation is that he will resort to “populism” to placate the poor, with an eye on the nearing state elections in Bihar.

Will Bihar drive the budget?

The BJP cannot afford to lose Bihar. Doing so will surely crack the political invincibility of PM Modi. Some believe it is already dented by an ill-advised, last minute tactic in Delhi of pitting the PM versus Kejriwal, even though it was known as early as January 15th when the elections were announced, that the BJP was unlikely to win.  None of this environment is of the FMs making. But it hampers him greatly in being bold, outspoken and visionary on economic reforms- as he has shown an inclination to be.

Statistical flights of fantasy

It does not help that the Indian Statistics establishment has further queered the pitch by an ill-timed release of a new formula for calculating GDP which shows that the UPA government was doing fairly well on growth (6.9%) even in its last year (2013-14) accompanied by reduction in the trend rate of inflation (consumer price index) to 9.5% from 10.2% the previous year.

This raises the bar for the FM in FY 2015-16 to unrealistic levels in growth (>8.5 %?) and possibly also inflation expectations (<5% ?).

The dilemma of the FM is that if he follows a tough approach to economic efficiency he gets branded as heartless and gutless if he doesn’t.

Privatization can soften the subsidy cuts

Privatization of our clunky 277 publicly owned industrial companies; poorly governed 7 public insurance companies and 27 banks is a no-brainer to calm both the heart and the gut of the FM.

The share of publicly owned companies in the Indian stock market capitalization is 48%. If more of them were publicly listed this proportion would increase further.

The capital gains from privatizing- selling at least a 50% plus 1 share in publicly held equity to private investors is sufficient to meet the existing annual aggregate subsidy outlay of around Rs 4 lakh crores (USD 66 billion) for the next five years till 2020 with linked fiscal benefits from tax revenue on higher growth and profitability of these entities. Associated economic benefits like more jobs and employment would be additional.

The FM has the choice of either being fiscally profligate or remaining cautiously courageous whilst perturbing the entrenched interests which feed-off the public sector; a small proportion of unfit employees who would lose their secure jobs; petty contractors who have developed a nexus with public sector contracting authorities and Trade Union leaders. None of these are part of the 300 million poor people of India. Nor are they part of 90% of the workforce, which operates in the unorganized sector as contract labour.

The FM would be well advised to err firmly on the side of “financeable equity”. This objective points him to generate additional revenues to finance selected tax breaks and subsidies.

Here are three suggestions that could set the tone of the FY 2015-16 budget.

Metric of administrative efficiency

First, the FM should announce that this government intends to demonstrate its credentials of being an efficient administration by collecting more revenues from the existing taxes despite offering selective tax relief. This fits well with the already publicized drive against “black money” and the return of undeclared foreign assets of Indian national, residents.  This also reassures tax payers that the government intends to retain stability and predictability in the tax regime.

There is nothing like burning ones bridges to bring out the best in oneself. The FM did this last year by taking up the challenge of meeting a 4.1% Fiscal Deficit target for this year and 3.6% of GDP for the next. He should carry through this resolve now without opting for the “lazy” alternative of using the new, inflated GDP data to project a rosy revenue estimate.

Surplus income with small tax payers boosts demand

Second, the FM should demonstrate the government stated preference for “small government”; private finance lead investment and the market.

One equitable way of doing this is to leave more income in the hands of the small tax payer by increasing the income tax-free level from Rs 2 Lakhs per year (USD 3300) to Rs 5 Lakhs (USD 8200). This simple measure takes 90% of the existing assesses (around 29 million in numbers) out of the tax net but impacts only 10% of the revenue.

Pancaked, indirect taxes on consumption (customs/excise; sales tax; municipal taxes) drain 50% of the disposable income of such tax payers in any case, so there is an equity view point also along with the argument for the greater efficiency of a more focused and selective tax effort.

Increase tax revenue equitably and efficiently

India’s tax revenues need to be increased by at least 1% point of GDP but not by continually “milking” the narrow tax base available historically. This approach is neither efficient nor does it build political credibility amongst the tax victims –the salaried middle class. Imposing a new, low tax with a huge tax base as on stock or commodity market transactions and siphoning off a part of the windfall due to the crash in oil prices could be two such option.

Extending income tax to the creamy layer with huge agricultural assets on a presumptive basis is a must. Tax free agricultural income is the easiest refuge for rebranding “black money” as “white”. This loop hole needs to be stamped out.

Agricultural income tax is a tax resource reserved for the State governments. But the Union Government could incentivize States by offering a higher share of GST to states willing to introduce agricultural income tax. This would be in the spirit of efficient, equitable, cooperative federalism.

Third, the Jan Dhan Yojna for financial inclusion has opened 125 million new bank accounts during the last few months. The bulk of these accounts remain dormant. But despite such caveats, this is a good scheme. Recent work, including by Thomas Piketty illustrates that personal wealth is the biggest asset in incremental wealth creation. Why not extend then, albeit in a small measure, the key to wealth creation to the poor also?

Endow the poor for wealth creation

Dhan” (wealth) is an asset-something you own. It is a pre-condition for wealth creation. Why not open bank or Post Office accounts for the poor also? Of course the poor have no surplus to put into a bank. But the government can fill this gap by depositing Rs 10,000 (USD 164) into each of the bank accounts of all “poor” account holders as a 10 year fixed deposit from which only the interest income would be available to the account holder till maturity. To narrow the ambit and the financial implication of the scheme initially, only poor women and poor senior citizens (the most marginalized of the poor) could be eligible.

Fiscal fundamentalists will deride this measure as irresponsible in an environment when subsidies have to be contained, if not reduced. There are two reasons why their apprehensions are unfounded.

First, the small value of the deposit and its unavailability for withdrawal for 15 long years reduces the attractiveness of the scheme for would be scammers. The annual interest earned of Rs 800 (@8%) per account is not enough to attract fraud but sufficient to keep a genuinely poor person interested in the account as a source of additional income. For the Bank this provides a pool of valuable long term resources for their Treasury operations.

Second, the fiscal outlay, whilst significant, is not unmanageable. The likely pool of “poor” women and senior citizens would be around 200 million. If full coverage is targeted over a three year period, an annual budgetary allocation of around Rs 70,000 crores (only 18% of the existing aggregate allocation for subsidies) would be required. The spread effect, both political and economic, is hugely significant.

In comparison, the Union government alone spends an estimated Rs 4 lakh crores (USD 66 billion or 4 % of GDP) on subsidies. Much of this outlay is either lost in transit to the beneficiary (as in food subsidy- refer to Ashok Gulati, India’s brilliant agricultural economist) or the targeting of the subsidy is so vague (fertilizer and energy subsidies) as to benefit the poor only marginally. A “wealth and income transfer” scheme aided by the Unique Identification mechanism, where available, is likely to be more efficient and effective.

The recent developments in Southern Europe and now in Delhi should convince Mr. Jaitley that “demonstrated equity and inclusion” as a “brand” is in. Citizens do appreciate a tough “reforms” stance. But it must be balanced by effective instruments for income transfers to the poorest of the poor.

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