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Jaitley’s Budgetary Trident

Jaitley trident

In these cynical times, slim is the market for big ideas, unsupported by facts and figures. The Finance Minister’s 2018-19 budget proposals have met the same fate.

The three big picture proposals –a price assurance scheme covering all Kharif crops at a minimum 50% above their cost of production; boosting agri-product exports from US$30 billion to US$ 100 billion and NamoCare – providing free health insurance for 500 million poor Indians – are being referred to, snidely, as preparation for the state elections this year, closely followed by general elections by in April 2019.

There is some justification for the criticism. The means for supporting these transformative activities are not transparently embedded in the budget. Where is the money to do all this, demand the naysayers?

Imagining the future

hospitals

Piyush Goyal, Minister for railways, remarked, in response to a similar question asked of him on ITV, that those who lack the imagination to think big, are forever dissuaded from “parting the seas” (not his phrase) by the accounting problems. There is some truth in what the Minister says.

NamoCare the game changing first fork of the trident

Let’s take NamoCare first. The budget provides a mere place holder of Rs 20 billion as premia. No estimate of the likely premia were shared. In subsequent press meets numbers ranged from Rs 100 billion (@Rs 1000 per family) to Rs 400 billion were shared by different official spokespersons. Such waffling does not inspire confidence.

Lazy pre-budget preparations are typical outcome of a party having overwhelming majority in parliament. Over time parliament is viewed as a mere inconvenience. It stops being, the key forum to get genuine buy-in for proposals in public interest.

There is little doubt that NamoCare is in the public interest. Heath coverage in India is abysmal. Well-off citizens, government officials and politicians are publicly funded to seek medical treatment in private hospitals rather than risk the vicissitudes of government hospitals. Citizens spend two thirds of the total spend on private health care.

It is in this context that NamoCare could be a breathtaking transition. This writer has a Rs 5 lakh health cover from a government insurance entity. Extending a similar health care cover, for free, to 100 million – the bottom 40% – Indian households, is a huge step towards universal wellness. It also shreds the status quo today, where “class” determines the quality of public service available to citizens. NamoCare is the great leveler.

Is NamoCare unviable and likely to bust the budget? The minimum likely premia is around Rs 5000 per family. This is the existing cost for a Rs 2 lakh family health coverage. Scaling up the turnover can l distribute the risk reducing costs. Scaling up the coverage will enable the government to negotiate down the cost of medical treatment with the health care industry.

Think of NamoCare as a viability gap public funding program to improve the quality of diagnosis and healthcare, rather than the cosmetics surrounding the industry today. Many private hospitals look better than fancy hotels. But the quality of health care may not match up. It is not as if, “best fit” healthcare models are not available in India.  Sankara Nethralya, in Hyderabad, is one such which combines “cut rate” prices with international quality health care.

Despite multiple private insurance companies, only around 210 million Indians (17% of the population) has in-hospital medical care cover of the generic type proposed under NamoCare. The market would be enlarged by 2X when NamoCare comes through. This means a massive incentive for expansion of the private health industry to serve the poor. It is the equivalent of Unilever’s shampoo in a sachet to level product use between the rich and the poor.

But most interestingly, once the bottom 40% are covered along with the top 20%, it is inconceivable that the middle 40% would remain outside the market. Full coverage of the Indian population within five years would create a private health care market at globally unprecedented scale. This is what the Finance Minister meant when he called NamoCare an aspirational proposal.

NamoCare emulates the success of the government financed scaling up of the market for LED bulbs, accompanied by a steep 75% reduction in the price of bulbs, without subsidization, using purely scale economy effects on production.

Critics of the proposal should think of the outlay on NamoCare as a demand boost for kick starting investment in private health care which incidentally is an employment intensive services.

The rural fork

The second fork of the trident are a revised scheme for assuring cost plus purchase of all Kharif crops or direct payment of the difference between the administered price and the market price (if it is higher) to farmers. This aligns with the pilot being implemented by Madhya Pradesh.

Clearly the direct payment option is superior although “big data” based oversight system would be necessary to ensure that “viability gap” payments are not made for the same produce, repeatedly, as was the case with the famous Integrated Rural Development Program financed cattle, in the early 1980s.

The real issue here is whether this is an equity enhancement support scheme or a productivity enhancement scheme. There is much truth to the criticism that the practice of assuring administered prices is inefficient. It promotes the status quo in which big farmers gain at the expense of small farmers who anyway do not have much surplus to market.

Also, it plays to the fanciful view that small farms are more productive than large scale mechanized farming, by making the existing farming practices seem viable. This can only prolong the pain in the context of doubling the productivity of farming. However, one half of rural income comes from farming. Changing the status quo must be done sensitively, aligned to employment opportunities in nonfarm activities, generated by growth.

Agri-exports to be liberalised

Another aspect of the rural fork of the trident is the most potent albeit the most innocuous. Mr. Jaitley has promised that agricultural exports would be liberalized. Their export can increase from $ 30 billion to their full estimated potential of $100 million. Total exports are around $ 270 million, so the target is substantive.

The minimum export price for onions has been slashed to zero – as if in response to the Finance Ministers budget assurance. But the truth is that we have a bumper harvest of onions this year and prices have crashed by around 20% over last year’s kharif crop arrival in Maharashtra – the key producer of onions.

We need to do away completely with the practice of putting regulatory controls on the domestic marketing, exports and imports of agriproducts if we are to develop a robust and productive farm sector. Farmers will be watching out for follow on measures to walk the talk of liberalizing exports.

The fiscal fork

The third fork of the trident was on the revenue side. After a gap of two decades, long term capital gains tax was reintroduced on equity. The stock market expectedly slid by around 2%. Should we worried? Dr. Manmohan Singh once famously brushed aside the stock market as a metric for the mood of investors. Stock market short term movements are created by punters who try and make a killing by anticipating or even creating the public mood.

So, hang onto your stocks. The downturn is temporary. By holding on you spoil the game for professional “Bears”, who short-sell stocks in the hope that they can buy them back cheap, after you have disposed off your stocks.

Others are worried Foreign Portfolio Investors (FPI) will exit triggering a long-term downturn. FPIs are driven by relative profit. Even after a 10% tax on capital gains, the Indian market remains vastly more profitable that what they make back home. Even if they exit following a “risk” derived algorithm, they will be back, once the bottom line starts hurting and if growth in India holds up.

Exit by FPIs could be a blessing. The INR exchange rate could drift down to more realistic levels, diluting the disincentive for exports and pricing imports at competitive levels.

Competitive exchange rates, is a preferred option for Make in India than the selective enhancements in customs duty on imports of electronics proposed in the budget. Beyond the WEF rhetoric, there are good reasons for using trade to enhance domestic competitiveness.

Without competitive pricing, medium term capital allocation signals get distorted; generate anomalies and stranded cost like our stranded capacity of 30,000 MW in power. Poor capital allocation is the consequence of cheap bank capital, industrial slow down magnified by an export slow down; the 2016 demonetization shock and the crippling, but healthy, impact in 2017-18, of GST, on manufacturers, who profited primarily, by operating in the black economy.

Mr. Jaitley’s trident is a powerful instrument to enhance equity, generate growth with “good” work and bring about transformational social changes in India. Not supporting is being short-sigh.

Also available at TOI Blogs Feb 4, 2018 https://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/jaitleys-budget-trident/

FM walks the budget plank gingerly

happy kisan

The Union Budget 2018-19 appears an honest and judicious construct when first viewed on video. Reading the fine print takes some of the shine off, going by precedent. The biggest relief is that there has been no substantive deviation from the path of fiscal discipline. The fiscal deficit for 2017-18 is pegged at 3.5 percent of GDP. This is 0.30 per cent higher than the budgeted estimate for this year.

But it is well within the 0.50 leeway recommended by the N.K. Singh Committee report on Fiscal Responsibility and Budgetary Management. Disruptions caused by GST still linger. Banks need to be recapitalised to expand new credit and public investment pushed because the private sector is still sitting on its funds. The stage seems set for walking through the door opened by the FRBM committee, in the interest of growth and jobs.

More reassurance comes from the fiscal deficit target for 2018-19 set at 3.3 percent of GDP. This re-establishes the declining trend for fiscal deficit towards the magic number of three per cent of GDP, which has eluded us so far.

Marginalised agriculture gets a break 

On the expenditure side, agriculture and rural development take centrestage. This is welcome against the backdrop of agrarian distress and farmer suicides. Ajay Jakhar of the Bharat Krishak Samaj points out that an Indian farmer commits suicide every 40 minutes. No wonder then that Mr Jaitley outlined, in great detail, many of the specific measures proposed to reverse this trend.

One popular, but possibly ineffective step is an assurance that all the crops notified for the kharif cycle will be covered under the minimum support price (MSP) scheme. This means that if market prices fall below the cost of production plus 50 percent as margin for the farmer, the government will stand committed to make good the difference (as is being done in Madhya Pradesh now) or to physically procure the produce.

Ajay Jakhar

But representatives of farmers’ interests are not satisfied. They want the methodology for setting costs should be spelt out in a participative manner to ensure that a meaningful MSP is assured. The downside of an MSP type of production incentive is that it kills innovation and discourages crop diversification away from those covered under MSP. This way of assuring farmer incomes also privileges the traditional “Green Revolution” areas in the North, which unfortunately are not well endowed with the natural resources — water, for example — to sustain intensive modern farming. On the other hand Eastern India, has all of nature’s bounties, but it is too far away from the national capital-oriented policy making we follow. Consider how different things would have been if Lord Hardinge had not decided in 1911 to shift the capital of the British Raj from Calcutta to Delhi.

Agro-products exports to be liberalised – $100 billion potential

Other big-ticket items in agriculture are a more than doubling of the outlay for agro-processing industries to Rs 14 billion and assurances that the export of agri products would be liberalised to boost their exports threefold to their potential of around $100 billion. Corporate tax on income was also reduced from 30 percent to 25 percent for firms with a turnover upto Rs 2.5 billion (US $35 million) benefiting 99 percent of the registered firms in India.

Bamboo the new “green gold”

bamboo2

For the Northeast, a Mission for Bamboo – now recognised as a grass and not a tree to facilitate its commercial cultivation – with an outlay of Rs 13 billion. Two new infrastructure funds — one for fisheries and aquaculture and another for animal husbandry — at a total outlay of Rs 100 billion. Crop credit would increase by 10 per cent to Rs 11 trillion in 2018-19 and lessee farmers would be facilitated to access crop credit from banks — something which they cannot do today and have, instead, to rely on rapacious moneylenders.

The budgetary outlay for rural roads, affordable houses, toilets and electricity extension of Rs 2.4 trillion will leverage five time more funds from other sources and generate work for 10 million people, per the Budget documents.

NamoCare is bigger than ObamaCare – health-equity in motion

Big changes were also announced in healthcare. A new flagship scheme will provide in-hospital medical insurance to 100 million poor families with an insurance cover of Rs 5 lakhs. Compare this with the measly cover now available of Rs 30,000 only under the Rashtriya Swastha Bima Yojana. The outlay on health, education and social protection increases by around 13 per cent over the 2017-18 spend to Rs 1.4 trillion. Simultaneously, the three publicly owned general insurance companies – National Insurance Company United India Insurance Company and Oriental Insurance Company are to merged to create a behemoth conservatively valued at Rs 4 trillion and listed on the stock exchange. Listing would enable the government to progressively hive off equity in them to the public and generate the estimated Rs 1 trillion per year premium to fund this mammoth programme, nick-named NamoCare after ObamaCare of the US. The scale of the ambition embedded in the program is breathtaking. A Rs 5 lakh cover is what even the well-off deem sufficient as health insurance. More importantly it signals that for the government the life of the poor is as valuable, as that of a well off person.

Incentives for generating employment rather than buying machines

The government proposes to extend the existing scheme under which it meets the cost of a contribution of 12 percent per year towards the Employees’ Provident Fund contribution in the medium, small and micro enterprises to all the manufacturing sectors. The idea is to increase the attractiveness of employing young job seekers by reducing their cost to the employer for three years, by which time it is expected the skills they acquire will make their value addition viable on its own.

Infrastructure development – falling short

The highlights for new projects in infrastructure are that 99 smart cities have been selected with an outlay of Rs 2.4 trillion,  against which projects worth around 10 per cent of the outlay are ongoing and projects worth one per cent of the outlay have been completed. The government expects to complete 9,000 km of highways in this year. Bharat Net, the fiber connectivity programme, is also proceeding apace. The Railways will spend Rs 1.48 trillion on capital investments, mostly in new works in 2018-19. Six hundred railway stations are to be upgraded.

The nominal GDP in 2018-19 is estimated to be 11.5 per cent  higher than in the current year. The total expenditure next year is around 10 per cent higher than the estimate for 2017-18 of Rs 22.2 trillion. On the revenue side, the big increase is an estimated increase of 53 per cent (after accounting for the fact that GST was collected only for 11 months in 2017-18) in GST revenues next year by around Rs 2.6 trillion to a level of Rs 7.4 trillion, and a conservatively assessed Rs 20,000 crores from the new capital gains tax of 10 per cent on equity sold after holding it for one year. The huge increase assumed in GST and the undefined budgetary support for “NamoCare” make sticking to the 3.3 fiscal deficit target a bit dodgy in 2018-19.

FM keeps his gun-powder dry and in-reserve

Jaitley budget 2018

But who knows, maybe the finance minister has some artillery hidden up his sleeve.. Disinvestment has been assessed conservatively in 2018-19 at Rs 80,000 crores, against the achievement this year of Rs 1 trillion. The bank recapitalisation support of Rs 80,000 crores is expected to leverage new lending capacity of Rs 5 trillion. One cannot but  feel that some of the expenditure estimates are a bit conservative relative to the ambition embedded in the programmes.

The good news is ending 2018-19 with a higher fiscal deficit but equal to this year’s at 3.5 per cent is no big deal from the view point of fiscal stability, if all of it is pumped into infrastructure and other investments. But for the Narendra Modi government, which takes targets seriously, it would be an unhappy ending.

The blog and the article mistakenly mention the estimated value of a merged insurance behemoth as Rs 400 trillion. The error has now been corrected in the text. I am deeply embarrassed by this snafu. A more reasonable number is Rs 4 trillion. Regrets.

Adapted from the authors article in The Asian Age February 1, 2018 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/oped/020218/fm-walks-the-talk-honestly-and-judiciously-but-very-diffidently.html

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