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Posts tagged ‘Finance Minister’

Indian budget in the eye of a fiscal storm

Finance minister Arun Jaitley’s third Budget signals the mid-point of this government’s tenure till 2019. At the best of times, the honeymoon period would have ended by now.

jaitley jostled

Photo credit: in.news.yahoo.com

But it is unfortunate that the FM has to face a perfect storm of snowballing, fiscal liabilities in public sector banks; drought induced low agricultural productivity; international economic head winds; the additional cost of securing India in an increasingly insecure world and the consequences of populism- primarily the wholly unnecessary increase of 23 percent in government pay and pensions and the outcome of delayed reforms in subsidy.

Running out of fiscal resources

In comparison, the government’s budget kitty is woefully inadequate even without meeting the long standing demand for spending more on health and education; developing infrastructure; boosting rural incomes; extending the patchy system of social protection and enhancing long neglected defence preparedness.

cash box

Photo credit: Dreamstime.com

Consider that the total annual capital budget of the Union government last year was just Rs 2.4 lakh crore (just 1.7 percent of GDP). State Governments spend a similar amount. But public investment at just 3.4 percent of GDP does not compare well with the thumb rule for developing countries of at least 8 percent of GDP especially when you are also running a fiscal deficit of 4 percent also in the Union budget alone.

The mess in government banks

More worryingly, even this meagre public investment may not actually be possible if the fiscal mess emanating from public sector banks is to managed. Loans worth Rs 3.5 lakh crore in government owned banks are acknowledged as non performing (the borrowers have defaulted on repayments). Some provisioning for writing off these loans has been done but not enough.

The real risk is that a whopping Rs 2.7 lakh crore of loans have been dressed up by “restructuring” them. In essence rolling over non-performing loans (NPA) so that they exit the NPA classification. But whether the favoured borrowers can support future repayments is unclear. The RBI has come down heavily on such practices and directed banks to start provisioning against all stressed assets. Hence the spate of losses recorded in the quarter ending December 2015 by government owned banks.

Another worry is that government banks will need an additional Rs 1.8 lakh crore of equity infusion to comply with the Basel III capital adequacy norms. This takes the total capital requirement of government banks to Rs 6 lakh crores- just under 4.5 percent of GDP.

Even if the entire capital budget of the government is diverted for re-capitalizing government banks — it will still take two to three years before they get a healthy balance sheet. And what is there to stop the cycle of irresponsible lending from being repeated? After all, these non-performing assets were built up over the past several years. But none of the top honchos of these banks — present or past — have been called to account for this colossal deception.

Poor credibility of corporate governance in government banks

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Jugaad trumps systems; Photo credit: Alamy.com

Today, government bank equity is deeply discounted. The credibility of corporate governance in government banks has been dented. Worse still, there is no clear path for restoring stability. The direction preferred by the government is to retain the governance architecture of government owned banks with notional changes to enhance bank autonomy. Privatization of select government banks – a sure mood lifter for domestic and international investor community- has never been a preferred policy option.

Government ownership has benefits. For one, it notionally reassures depositors that their money is safe. Possibly this is why there is no run on deposits in government banks, unlike what was seen in Greece recently. Depositors and bond holders view government banks through the filter of sovereign credit. It helps that India has an impeccable record on meeting all its financial commitments.

But one trigger, which could escalate the financial risk sharply could be if oil prices start firming up subsequent to the production freezing agreements between Saudi Arabia, Russia and other top oil producers. This will stoke inflation in India; keep domestic interest rates high, thereby impacting investment and worsen the current account deficit. Add to this that sharply reduced public investment- a consequence of possible diversion of capital to clean the balance sheets of government banks, will also impact growth, jobs and incomes.

The poisoned chalice of trade offs

Government has a poisoned chalice it needs to sip from. If it brushes deep, bank restructuring under the carpet, it can postpone the day of reckoning- but only at significant medium term economic cost. A broken government banking system, which caters to 70 percent of banking needs, cannot sustain rapid private sector growth.

One option for maintaining fiscal stability, is for the government to access multilateral support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for restructuring government banks. IMF support reassures investors because it comes with a programme of structural and governance reform, including broad basing the share-holding of banks to non-government investors; professionalizing their boards and embedding oversight mechanisms to insulate them from succumbing to politically motivated loan melas or dodgy, private projects.

Government should shed the muscular stance

The down side is that going cap-in-hand to the IMF does not fit the muscular India story, which is the leitmotif of the BJP government. The BJP will worry that it will have negative political consequences in the forthcoming state elections in West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu and next year in Uttar Pradesh (UP). This is true. But none of these states offer credible political gains for the BJP in any case, except UP. The muscular approach can be abandoned without much grief. Its marginal utility is diminishing and reduced dividends are already visible.

One hopes that the government’s brand managers are reading the tea leaves correctly. This is not the time for soaring rhetoric or proclaiming achievements loudly. Far better to adopt a humble posture, point to the depressing state of the world and outline an agenda for dealing with adverse circumstances.

humble jaitley

The FM can be charming if he tries. Photo credit: freepressjournal.in

Three big steps out of the fiscal mess

First Mr. Jaitley must guard against 2016 becoming India’s 2008 “Lehman Brothers” moment. Lehman Brothers was a global financial services firm that filed for bankruptcy protection. This sparked off a domino effect which exposed deep financial irregularities across the banking sector. It also triggered the Occupy Wall Street movement. Ordinary citizens, disgusted by the extent of malfeasance in the financial world, took New York by storm and shut down the financial district. At the best of times, Indians are suspicious of big business and are quick to come out on the streets in protest. This is not the time to risk an “Occupy Dalal Street movement”.

Government must regain credibility by coming out strongly against all those who have connived to build up this huge quantum of non- performing loans — bank managers who were in decision-making roles, large corporate borrowers and those within the political establishment who may have turned a blind eye to such maladministration. Mr. Jaitley must also share publicly how deep is the rot and what steps the government proposes to manage the fall out.

Second, government should take this opportunity and opt for only a “holding budget” for 2016-17 — an accounting exercise to rationalize and consolidate past initiatives. The bottom line is to insulate income support for the poor and allocations for agricultural production from the fiscal mayhem. Health, drinking water and sanitation and education allocations should be held at 2014-15 levels relative to projected GDP.

Finally, the government must increase gross tax collection over the next two years from the low of 10 percent in 2014-15 to 12 percent of GDP- last achieved in 2007-08. The GDP growth projections of 7.5 percent lack credibility when triangulated with the ground realities. Lower growth will impact tax revenues negatively. Services tax is a progressive tax, which primarily affects the well off. Raising the rate by 2 percentage points could generate an additional Rs 30,000 crore. Taxing capital gains from the sale of equity and the receipt of dividend beyond a threshold level, is another option for reducing income inequality and plugging a big hole in the tax net.

Government already spends more than it earns on revenue expenditure. We still run a revenue deficit of nearly 3 percent of GDP, which we fund by taking loans. Hence, the increasing burden of interest payment. Trade-offs will have to be made if the unwise commitment – amounting to Rs 100,000 crore – on the 7th Pay Commission recommendation is implemented.

So are we in the eye of the storm? And could we be on the cusp of a potential financial emergency? We should act before a flash point triggers this eventuality. A modest budget for 2016-17, enhancing tax collection by selectively increasing the effective tax rates and sharply focused allocations for value enhancing public expenditure, is the only way out of this mess.

storm

A storm brews around Rajpath, New Delhi. Photo credit: gizmodo.com

Adapted from the authors article in Swarjyamag February 24, 2015 http://swarajyamag.com/economy/indian-budget-in-the-eye-of-a-fiscal-storm

Jaitley’s Maiden Budget Mujra

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“Mujra”, the traditional PakIndia dance of seduction honed in glittering Lahore, immortalized by the ever beautiful, dusky Rekha in Umrao Jan, a classic film by our very own desi, aristocrat, designer Muzaffar Ali. Mujra is a dance of deception. The idea is for the danseuse to so mesmerize the viewers, that their head gets delinked from their heart and money slips through their loose fingers, like a snake escaping from fire.

All Finance Ministers have to be expert Mujra dancers. This will not be difficult for Arun Jaitley. First, he is a lawyer and those of his ilk are masters of deception. They apply the art of “need to know” whilst arguing in court. The need being to win the case of course. Second, Jaitley is a Panjabi. Amritsar, just an hour away from Lahore, rejected him for Patiala Royalty. But all Panjabis, on both sides of the border, know that when Royalty comes calling, others have to step aside.

Finance Ministers stamp their personalities on the speech they make on budget day in Parliament. Only the Mujra of the speech is different. The budget proposals have remained much the same since the Union Jack made way for our Tiranga in “our tryst with destiny”.

Manmohan Singh radiated “good intentions” and technical competence but was as dry as the Gobi desert

Yashwant Sinha, a babu, was all technical arguments and feigned “savoir faire”, as babus are when they stop being babus. Technically correct, but forgettable.

Chidambaram was Tamilian guile and sophistication coupled with brains sharper than a pair of “Shun” knives. But off-putting with his so very deliberate speech, which seemed consciously slowed, to enable the rest of the World to catch up with him.

Jaitley is different. In his latest avatar he is a cuddly as a Panda and larger now than a Sumo wrestler. But his personality radiates from his heart, which is as solidly Panjabi, as Amritsari Fish. His style is argumentative erudition bordering on the pedantic and mildly adversarial. He needs to watch that. Budget session is all about consensus, not contest.

But don’t be fooled by the style, the special smile, the sensuous, sliding look through the sides of the eye or the fluttering hands of the Mujra dancer. Look past the flashing diamonds on display. Look closely at the core service being offered and then and only then, make up your mind to loosen your purse.

Here are seven core indicators to signal whether or not the Finance Minister is serving you well.

First, has be budgeted for a decrease or an increase of the Fiscal Deficit over the FY 2013-14 budget? Forget the 2014-15 interim budget presented by the UPA it was worse than Mujra. It was pure American “smoke and mirrors” designed to set impossible benchmarks for the next government, which UPA was sure would not be them.

The Fiscal Deficit in India is the difference between the total income of the government plus recoveries of loans and what it intends to spend, loan or gift over the next year. It is financed by borrowing at between 8 to 9% per annum. If it is being spent on the salary of an absent policeman or a sleeping babu, there is no way the government can get a matching “economic return” on that amount. So be very wary if the Fiscal Deficit is increasing in nominal terms over 2013-14. If it remains at the same “nominal “level you are winning because inflation has eaten away 8% of last years value. The Fiscal Deficit in 2013-14 was (hold your breath) Rs 5,24,530 crores or Rs 5,254 billion.

Do not be fooled by sops like a reduction in the excise duty for automobiles or enhanced allowance for setting off EMIs against Income Tax on loans taken for buying property. Do not rejoice even if the Income Tax Free limit is raised. Inflation can eat away these “notional” gains faster than water flows through Delhi’s clogged drains.

If you are not a senior or a super-senior citizen and earn Rs 600,000 a year pre-tax, an 8% inflation eats away Rs 48,000/- of your income. Compare this with “Mujra” gains FMs tend to give:

  1. A 5% point reduction on the excise duty for a car worth Rs 600,000 comes to only Rs 6,000 per year over the five year life of the car.
  2. The FM would need to raise the “free of income tax” limit from Rs 200,000 to Rs 300,000 and similarly raise the upper limit of the band in which you pay Income Tax at 10% above the free limit, from Rs 500,000 to Rs 600,000, just to neutralise the likely impact of inflation on your purchasing power. A change in Income Tax rates on this scale is very unlikely to happen.

Of course, if you are one of the 18 million lucky ones, working for the government, or if you are one of the estimated 10 million government pensioners, you need not bother about inflation. The government meekly and automatically adjusts babu salaries (including allowances) and pensions, twice a year, for inflation, which ironically, is caused by the loose fiscal policies; inefficient expenditure decisions and corruption within the government.  

If you are not a babu and still under the age of 28, try and become a babu to get the “life-long” immunity from inflation. It’s a one-shot vaccination. If you have crossed that age limit, your only option is to not spend/save at least 8% of your monthly income because you will need it later in the year to cope with rising prices.

This blog intends to discuss one “citizen budget indicator” a day till July 9, 2014 so watch this “Mujra” space closely. 

The first indicator is the budgeted estimate for Fiscal Deficit: (1) Rs 5000 billion. Rating: Outstanding (2) Rs 5300 billion. Rating: Good (3) Rs 5700 billion or more: Rating: Poor              

 

  

PM Modi’s second governance test

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Success attracts its own supporters. Narendra bhai epitomizes the success of merit and dedication. It is not surprising therefore, that supporters, including erstwhile critics, both national and international, are thronging his doorstep for a darshan.

There are visible signs that the public adulation has not gone to his head. He has shot down an attempt to curry favor with him by BJP governments, by revising the textbooks with a chapter devoted to him as a role model. This is very welcome and good news.

But a big governance test will confront him over the next two months.

Can he support the Finance Minister deliver a “realistic” budget which does not fudge either revenue receipt or expenditure- two favourite tricks of budget managers to fool the public, adopted by the UPA2 in its last budget? Second, can he reduce the fiscal deficit below the level of 4.9% in 2012-13; the last “normal year” data available. The Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act 2003 targeted a maximum Fiscal Deficit level of 2% by 2006. We never achieved that level. The best was 2.7% in 2007.  A plan to reach close to this over the next 3 years, by reducing it by 0.5% point every year is sorely needed.

Growth fundamentalists will shout that this is retrogressive. His advisors eager to “kick start” the economy and show dramatic results will advise him to throw fiscal caution to the winds and spend his way out of the economic downturn. But none of the growth fundamentalists can guarantee that “kick starting” growth by public spending actually adds jobs for the poor. Indeed the evidence is adding up to quite the reverse conclusion. Public spending windfalls (as in the Common Wealth Games), line the pockets of the top 1% of Indians, whose business margins soar and of shareholders, whose equity capital appreciates (on which there is no tax at all!). But the impact on jobs is likely to be lagged or minimal.

Narendra bhai’s best bet is to listen to his RBI Governor who is the protector of the poor and the salaried middle class, against the ravages of inflation. The PM should let the RBI Governor set inflation management targets and measures, without restraint. This approach is not sexy, stodgy and reminiscent of IMF style fiscal fundamentalism.

But the short term strategy of boosting the stock market and growth numbers through massive public spending, would be dangerously negligent for an economy, like India, where over 60% of the people are poor, unskilled and live mostly in rural areas and are unable to access jobs in the market economy. For 40% of the people living in urban areas, who are poor, inflation is a bigger calamity, because wages are stickier than prices.

Unearthing black money is being considered as a revenue earning measure, which could painlessly increase the spending power of the government. It also sounds like a “win-win” solution since it responds to the high moral objectives of good governance.

But Narendra bhai, must consider that, Black Money is the lubricant, which keeps the economy ticking today. There are more than 300,000 new, unsold flats clogging the inventory of builders and investors because growth prospects are uncertain. Much of the real estate boom was driven by Black Money fueled speculation, betting on high growth to keep the Ponzi scheme going. But the boom in construction activities did create jobs. A war on black money will directly impact any revival of the listless real-estate market, the economy and jobs. Timing is everything in successful governance reforms. Black money has many negative consequences. But the time to become like Denmark is in a boom, not during a bust.

There are no short cuts to fiscal stability. Cutting back on the governments wasteful recurrent expenditure (which comprises 80% of total expenditure); enlarging the tax base and better tax collection are key priorities.

In this context, good governance, would dictate that tough, unpopular decisions need to feed into the 2014-15 budget:

(1)    Target a real reduction in revenue (current) expenditure of 10% over the previous year. Over 50% of the current expenditure comprises interest payments and subsidies. Salaries account for only 8%. As a result, the wage bill is rarely targeted. But just by restructuring Railways into a corporation and the Postal Service into a bank and a corporation, nearly 50% of the wage bill can be taken off the public payroll. Other benefits from corporatization would also accrue.  

(2)    A majority of central government officials, including in the ministries of coal, power, steel, mines, oil and gas, chemical, fertilizers, civil aviation and telecom spend their time, second guessing, remotely managing or monitoring Public Sector Enterprises. This is a wholly unnecessary job. Transfer the lot of them to the concerned PSE. This will automatically reduce the size of most ministries. Appoint professionals to the Boards of these PSEs, instead of the “shoo-ins” we have today. PSEs are not the “jagirs” of the concerned administrative ministry. “Shoo-ins” are popular today, as Directors of PSEs, because the concerned Minister and the PSE management are comfortable with them. But they do nothing for improving the efficiency of the PSEs.

(3)    A second, large chunk of central government employees spend their time administering development schemes implemented by the state governments, but funded either wholly or partly. by the center (central sector schemes). These are wasteful tasks. Hand the task of monitoring such schemes over to NGOs. Send the concerned ministry officials to these NGOs on deputation and get them off the government’s payroll.

(4)    Cut back the long chain of command in Ministries. Today a file passes through at least five levels of scrutiny (i) Section Officer(ii)Under Secretary(iii) Deputy Secretary-Director(iv) Additional Secy.-Special Secy.(v) Secretary. This is way too long. The Secretary should be at most the third level dealing with a file and not the fifth.

(5)    Filter all incomplete and new projects for their private employment and poverty reduction potential. Fund only the ones with the best “social and economic returns” and review what to do with the “politically sensitive” but wasteful, other projects. Bridges to nowhere and empty but beautifully carpeted roads, are “pork”, not development.

(6)    Finally, target fitting the “core” ministries (External Affairs, Defence, Home, Finance, Power, Coal, Mines, Transport, Agriculture, Industrial and Urban Development, Social welfare and Women and Child development), into the space available in the glorious North and South Blocks, which was meant for them. Make space for them, by shifting the PMO into the Rashtrapati Bhawan complex, which is conspicuously vacant. Lease the vacated Bhawans, along Rajpath, to the private sector to earn additional revenue. This will also spare us the drab view of Soviet era, building blocks.

This is the nit-picky governance agenda which the UPA never attempted. A bloated central government, with lots of fingers pointing at each other, is not compatible with Narendra bhai’s ambition and our expectation of effective governance.

Achieving the Fiscal Deficit target for 2014-15 of 0.5% point below the 4.9% actual deficit in 2013-14 by reducing the current expenditure of the central government, is the PMs second test in governance.  

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