governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘currency’

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

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

 

Deep freezing India

deep_freezer

Terminally ill people are opting to deep freeze their body hoping for a cure some day which would make them come miraculously alive and be well. But would you opt to temporarily freeze 85 per cent of your bodily functions merely because you cannot compete with the explosive, short burst speed of Usain Bolt but are running well ahead of Haile Gebresellaise  – the Ethiopian long distance champ? Not likely, given the huge risks and the meagre reward.

Shockingly, the Government of India chose to do just that on November 8, by de-legalising notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000, which comprise 85 per cent of the Indian currency in circulation. This deep froze the world’s third (or fourth?) largest economy which was ticking over happily at a growth rate of just under 7 percent. It also irreversibly, hit the sentiments and the pockets of its most ardent supporters – the 400 million citizens who comprise the middle class earning between Rs 2.5 to 50 lakhs (US$ 3,500 to 73,500) per year.

Exit “old”black money enter “new” black money

If the government’s actual objective was to destroy black money, estimated at 25% of the US$ 2 trillion economy, think again. A widely dispersed “new black money” machine has already mushroomed, exchanging the frozen Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes into new legal tender at a cost of between 20 to 40 per cent of their face value. Many people prefer this route rather than declare their hoarded stocks and lose 33 per cent to tax -if the amount is the current year’s income- or 100 per cent as tax and penalty if it is undeclared income from previous years.

But not all sellers are owners of undeclared wealth. Many are ordinary people who got caught short on cash and are desperate to buy things they need — medicines, food or pay for transport to get home. The banks are inaccessible for exchanging currency and ATMs are by and large not operative. This mess will take at least till the end of the year to be straightened out.

In the meantime, scores of small establishments and workers will accumulate debts to pay daily expenses while the economy loses potential value added over this period. The direct economic cost for a two month deep freeze is at least 1% of GDP foregone. The loss of individual credibility from contracts not honoured because of a cash shortage; loss of savings or atleast the interest on it; the permanent shut down of small businesses due to bankruptcy and the consequential loss of self-respect even for hard working people. is far more permanent and immpossible to tabulate.

No to Black Money – but focus on its sources. 

gold

Who would oppose hunkering down systematically on black money? Surely not more than 15 percent of the “black” wealth  (undeclared to tax) is held as cash in Indin Rupees mostly to transact, not as store of wealth. Much of it is held abroad; invested in real estate bought partly in cash to save tax and invested in gold and diamonds. Going after the cash component, whilst neglecting the other “black” assets, is like impounding the fuel in the tank of a highly polluting car, in the hope it will reduce smog. So long as the car exists it will  find the fuel; smog will result and new black money will be generated.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has targeted election financing and corruption as the root of the black economy. But we are a long way from doing anything substantive. Even the accounts of political parties are not yet open to public scrutiny under the Right to Information Act. As for bureaucratic corruption it is a long haul with patient , deep surgery needed to unclog the pipes of good governance. There are no quick wins here.

High minded objective but low tech implementation

The declared objective is noble. But did we choose the optimum implementation mechanism? What have we achieved by the secrecy; the haste and the resulting action without adequate preparation – all of which are reminiscent of the anti hoarding drives against food grain traders of yore. Why not, instead, have given adequate notice of the government’s intention to crack down, specifying a future date? The efficacy of the step would not have been diluted. If anything, it would have been enhanced. Brandishing a big stick is better than using it.

stick

A notice period would have allowed better logistics to be in place — sufficient new notes; working ATMs and mobile exchange units for the unbanked. Ordinary people could have been educated and prepared for accessing the new currency. There was nothing to stop the tax authorities and the police from clamping down, during the notice period, on the activities of potential black money aggregators to dissuade leakages — just as they are doing today. After all social media and electronic surveillance has vastly increased the powers of government to monitor the activities of citizens.

Leakages are inevitable in any currency exchange programme. Around 53 per cent of our 400 million bank accounts are dormant. Many may be multiple or “benami” accounts of the same person. These accounts are viable vehicles to launder black money by paying the nominal holder of the account a small fee.

The government says it will not scrutinise deposits up to Rs 2.5 lakhs in each account. But even an average deposit of Rs 40,000 in each of the 200 million dormant accounts can convert Rs 8 trillion of black money in old notes into temporarily white money, in new notes. Other avenues are for small businesses to deposit their old notes as an advance in the accounts of their suppliers. Employers can similarly deposit advance salaries in the accounts of their employees.

The math of who holds how much currency

Thirty per cent of the Rs 14.5 trillion currency in the high denomination notes is held legitimately in banks and other government agencies as working capital. Another 30 per cent could be the legitimate savings in cash of around 170 million households, after excluding the poor households, and the cash working capital of the 10 million registered businesses in India.

This leaves 40 per cent, or Rs 6 trillion, as the potentially unaccounted wealth held as cash. The expectation is that the “black money” component, held in cash, will not be deposited for exchange because the depositors would then become liable to tax.  But don’t hold your breath — it would be very surprising if the amount extinguished is more than just 15 per cent or Rs 1 trillion. After all, the government’s tax amnesty scheme which closed in September 2016 required a sacrifice of 45 per cent of the amount as tax and penalty. It netted just Rs 0.65 trillion in undeclared money. In the late 1970s, when gold was smuggled into India because legal import was prohibited, a small proportion was regularly and ritually “caught” and confiscated by the customs authorities — a “nazarana” for retaining the “izzat” of the “sarkar”.

Much the same may happen now. Around Rs 1 trillion may fail to be deposited in the banks. This is the amount the RBI can write off from its liabilities, enabling the government to declare victory, while individual hoarders of black money take a haircut. With inflation at historic lows already, the two month economic deep freeze will push it down even further. The windfall in RBI resources could be useful in FY 2017-18 to boost the economy, which would still be reeling from the internal shock and disruption. But caution on stoking inflation is fiscally and politically advisable.

Fix whats broken  

Recapitalising public sector banks and waiving the debt burden of state governments can give decent economic returns if it kickstarts investment in projects or if it generates the necessary political capital to implement GST on schedule. Using some of this largesse to reduce the tax rate for low and middle income earners in FY 2017-18, particularly for senior citizens, may compensate them for the pain unnecessarily inflicted on them. Some significant salve is necessary to restore the credibility of the government as an efficient protector of the aam aadmi. There are two lesson from the mess. First, never fix what isn’t broken? Second, think before you deep freeze tomorrow’s lunch.

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age, November 20, 2016 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/191116/a-noble-objective-but-the-execution-is-faulty.html

 

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