governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘growth’

Can GST make Hasmukh Adhia smile?

Hasmukh

Hasmukh Adhia, India’s revenue secretary, is finance minister Arun Jaitley’s chief aide for rolling out the Goods and Services Tax. Contrary to his first name, he never smiles, at least not in public. But even he can now take a break and smile. The GST juggernaut is careening ahead. In just over a week, India would have leapfrogged into the league of economies which have walked the talk on rationalising indirect taxes.

Noose tightens on black money generation

card pay

Photo credit: Imagesbazar.com

So what will Mr Jaitley and the GST Council have achieved on July 1, 2017? First, this collegial team of finance ministers, across the Central and state governments, would have fired the first, potent salvo against black money. Demonetisation; tax raids; getting back overseas black money caches — all pale in significance, compared to the institutional impact of GST. Consider, that the most vocal protests against GST have come from dry fruit traders, cloth merchants and jewellery makers. These businesses have been traditionally cash heavy. Of course, the intrepid evader will still have tax leak holes left open. Agriculture, food items and the business in booze remain yawning gaps in the tax revenue security architecture. But the message is loud and clear: the rope is shortening. So watch out!

Lower net indirect tax, lower prices to spur demand

shopping

Photo credit: Imagesbazar.com 

Second, the massive discounts being offered on pre-GST clearance of the stock of consumer durables suggests that prices of these goods will reduce. An entity, empowered to investigate and ensure that net tax reduction benefits are passed on by manufacturers and dealers to consumers, is in the offing. The history of such clunky, intrusive executive action is not encouraging. Due to information asymmetry, determining the cost breakdown of products externally, is invariably inefficient. Either the enforcement agents get compromised or they end up harassing manufacturers and suppliers for trifling results.

But in truth, it really doesn’t matter. Inflation levels are at historic lows — below three per cent per annum; the monsoon is progressing well and global demand remains damp. Babus and their counterparts in the public sector — around 18 million households — have all either been given or will soon get pay revisions. They are itching to spend the windfall.

Clunky “inspector raj” to check price rise – a bad idea

Even if the entire tax rationalisation bonanza is retained by manufacturers and dealers, it will still generate surpluses for private investment — in debt servicing, realty and equity markets. Improving the revenue steam of corporate India is vital for getting over the gargantuan NPA problem, which is bad cholesterol for growth. The good news is that most product markets are competitive. Digital marketers have cut retail margins to the bone. Even the market for services is hyper competitive — think telecom. This makes it tough for corporates to retain extra normal profits.

SMEs & Trade pay the price for becoming accountable – high compliance cost

Also, undeniably, tax rationalisation has come at a cost. The actual transaction cost, for business, to comply with digital GST processes is unknown. But GST provides a huge opportunity to India’s IT developers to innovate low-cost compliance and oversight options — particularly for value segments produced by small and medium industries. These could be perfected at home and marketed worldwide as context-specific solutions for developing countries. In 2013, at a conference in Washington, the World Bank president asked Nandan Nilekani why he wasn’t rolling out Aadhaar across the globe? Mr Nilekani responded that he was too busy at home and had no time left for solving the problems of the world. This single statement projected India’s enormous domestic, digital market potential far better than the glossies, which international consultants and governments routinely produce touting themselves. These digital opportunities have multiplied by several degrees with GST.

Multiple rates align with multiple objectives 

Third, the agreed-upon somewhat clunky architecture for GST reflects compromises made to achieve the twin overriding concerns — protecting the poor and ensuring fiscal neutrality for all governments. In the absence of a direct cash transfer framework, continuing tax exemptions on mass consumption goods and services is a reasonable policy option. Given the federal structure and the plurality of our polity, there never was an option to the consensual approach adopted by the GST Council. Meeting the revenue concerns of state governments has inevitably led to six GST rates. The highest rate of 28 per cent is designed to be used for neutralising any revenue loss for state governments.

Multiple rates result in efficiency loss due to tax leakage from misclassification of goods to a lower tax rate. A good example is the amorphous classification of a storage battery as a computer peripheral (lower tax rate) versus use for backup lighting needs (higher tax rate). Multiple rates also increase the accounting load for keeping track of tax credits and debits. But the economic benefits from early implementation of a less than perfect solution far outweigh the opportunity lost from a prolonged wait for the BJP to come to power in all the states, thereby enabling a best practice single rate template to be imposed from above, China style.

Fourth, GST is good for jobs. It gives a boost to “Make in India” by withdrawing the tax advantage for imported manufacturers. Importers pay Central state tax at four per cent as special additional customs duty. But domestic products are taxed at the rates of state sales tax, which are generally higher. This disadvantage for domestic production will vanish with GST. Imports, in addition to customs duty, will pay additional customs duty at the GST rate applicable for domestic products.

Flexible implementation arrangements – to muddle through the knots

Finally, the finance minister has consistently adopted a firm but nuanced, practical stance on the implementation schedule. Recognising that small-scale industry and traders are lagging in preparations, he has agreed to defer the filing of returns by two months. Assurances have also been given that the GST rates could be adjusted if the net tax burden gets distorted or gets unbearable. A government that is open to negotiating beneficial outcomes for all stakeholders and still retains the will to keep the national interest foremost is quite clearly operating at the tax-related good governance frontier. Smile, please.

Adapted from the author’s article in the Asian Age , June 23, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/230617/its-time-to-smile-gst-to-usher-in-a-new-era.html

Jaitley black money

Indian Economic Survey 2016: Bewinderingly optimistic

Arvind S

Arvind Subramanian Chief Economic Advisor- GOI: Rising star and Rajan clone?

The Indian Economic Survey is an annual document that is wrongly titled. The data it reveals is overpowered by large dollops of economic wisdom, literature and policy analysis. Arvind Subramanian, India’s Chief Economic Advisor and the key author of this year’s Survey, has clearly burnt the midnight oil liberally in making the Survey a reader’s delight, even for one who has only a nodding acquaintance with economics, gleaned primarily by pursuing the pink papers.

Running hard to stand still

The key guidance the general public has been looking forward to, is the credibility of the near miraculous GDP growth rate of 7.6 % recorded this year and in that context, prospects for the next year. Unfortunately, clarity still eludes the average reader. Whilst generally optimistic about the government’s ability to improve on the performance this year, the survey is curiously negative on growth prospects for next year (7 to 7.75%), which it says would be strongly dependent on world growth reviving rather than domestic reform being implemented. Running hard to stand still is not a very good incentive for public sector reform. Consequently, India should brace for lower growth next year.

Better fiscal administration but significant legacy problems

The Survey makes the point that over the last year India has done more than most of its peer countries- those with an investment grade of BBB, including China, to retain macroeconomic stability per the index of macro-economic vulnerability developed in the Survey last year. But it simultaneously notes that the quality of assets in government-owned banks has been deteriorating since 2010. This is complemented by the overleveraged position of large business houses who are finding it difficult to service these loans because market conditions are adverse and both the top-line and their bottom-line have taken a hit. Exports have reduced by 18% last year and the competitiveness of domestic suppliers even to meet domestic demand is dodgy. The domestic steel industry being the most recent example.

The popular explanation for the logjam in corporate funds has been that the financial stress of big corporates has less to do with inefficiency or injudicious resource allocations by them. The blame is pinned on government projects not progressing smoothly over the last few years of the previous government resulting in corporate funds getting blocked unproductively.

gadkari

Minister Nitin Gadkari doing the impossible- shaking the dust off moribund highway projects

But over the current year Minister Nitin Gadkari has revitalized the implementation of a large number of projects in the highways sector. Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu has similarly awarded more than double the level of contracts in railways than was the trend earlier.

prabhu Minister

Minister Suresh Prabhu -improving the plumbing of  Indian Rail – a colonial legacy and democracy’s neglected child 

State governments have also enhanced public investment per the Survey which states that the combined public investment increased by 0.8% of GDP over the first three quarters of the current year versus the previous year with state government contributing 46% of the investment.

Why then does corporate loan servicing remain a problem? Is it just a time lag issue before public expenditure decisions kick in and funds flow resumes to corporates? If this is the case  the salutary effects should be visible next year. Or is it that the loan defaults have less to do with poor implementation of government contracts than with the “smart” arbitrage strategy of big corporates to borrow domestically in an unreasonably strong rupee, post 2013 and salt investments away safely overseas? Is it not necessary then to keep the rupee at aggressively competitive levels to avoid the incentive for “carry trade”, boost export competitiveness and price the fiscal impact of imports- particularly oil, realistically?

Does a high risk fiscal strategy make sense?

If the economy could chalk up a relatively high growth rate of 7.6% this year, despite the adverse conditions, why then is there a clamour for more liquidity and lower interest rates to kick start private investment and to fund higher levels of public investment in the coming year?

Would it not be sensible to stick to fiscal rectitude and keep the fiscal deficit target at 3.5% of GDP and hope for the same growth rates next year particularly if domestic actions will count less than world growth and demand?

Does it not make sense to guard against the risk of inflation- particularly drought induced food inflation? Our poorly integrated agricultural markets and inadequately prepared public management structures for managing food inflation by using market mechanisms are unlikely to be effective to deal with the risk of such inflation should the next year also be dry.

Oil prices remain volatile even though the survey is sanguine on the potential for an oil price increase. Whilst there is still no agreement amongst the top oil producers for limiting production, India is badly placed, being heavily (85%) import dependent, to bank on low oil prices continuing. Adequate fiscal space must be reserved for dealing with an oil price shock. These could be occasions when drawing down capital from a highly capitalized Reserve Bank of India (the survey labels it second only to Norway in being highly capitalized) can help without increasing the debt burden.

At least Mint Street is like Norway – we like that

Drawing down RBI reserves to fund dodgy capital investments in the public sector is a bad idea. It would be ok in Norway but not if accountability levels are low.Oddly, to an average India, the fact that we are close to being like Norway, as least with respect to the RBI is comforting and gives hopes. Indians are notoriously miserly and magnificent savers.

rajan RBI

RBI Governor Raghram Rajan – firm as a Norwegian rock: photo credit: businessindia.com

Tax revenue complacency

The survey skirts around the advisability of increasing the ratio of tax to GDP above the 10% achieved last year. It appears  complacent that tax buoyancy in the first three quarters of current year exceeds the average of the last three years- particularly for indirect taxes. The full year’s data would only be available with a lag but the budget documents would show if this happy trend has persisted in the last quarter also and whether the revenue deficit is indeed on track as a consequence.

Ignoring the impact of committed and contingent revenue expenditure

The significant burden (Rs 100,000 crore) imposed by the 7th Pay Commission has been dealt with lightly. Enhanced government salary and pension can increase expenditure by 0.6% of GDP for the Union government alone and threaten the revenue deficit target. The jury is still out on its possible beneficial impact on stimulating demand.

More importantly, the survey deals unduly summarily with the issue of enhancing rural income support and social protection as necessary adjuncts of macro- economic stability. Marco-economic stability can be the first victim if India’s political stability is compromised by concentrated high growth, which is not reflected in shared prosperity. The survey notes that 42% of Indian households are dependent on the rural economy. What it does not mention is the low ability of 60% of households to adapt to income shocks emanating from loss of insecure jobs, medical emergencies or other social obligations. Food for this segment accounts for approximately 40% of their expenditure. Rural wages are down 2.5% this year. Around 40,000 jobs have been lost per the Labour Bureau’s September 2015 report. Even the IT industry has reduced jobs and IT majors like INFOSYS -under a new leadership- are automating processes and putting employees out to pasture. These ground signals fit the survey’s assessment of India being in a hard place. But the survey is short on the best options for dealing with this economic shock.

The historical inadequacy in dealing with out-of-control and poorly targeted power, fertilizer, food, water, public transport subsidies hinges around the inability of elected governments to be seen to be heavy handed with income strapped households. These resultant fiscal pressures amounting to around 5% of GDP (all of government) can only escalate in the highly charged political environment during the next two years on account of state level elections.

A soft Railway Budget- harbinger of the main budget?

The Rail Budget 2016-17 could be a harbinger of such populism. Despite a large number of facilities and passenger amenities being announced there was no increase in the passenger fares which recover on average only around one half of the cost of services. Air India continues to be heavily subsidized. Loss making PSUs continue to sap public resources. How credible the fiscal consolidation plan can be in the face of these risks remains unclear.

Hopefully the Finance Minister will show the way on Monday in the Union Budget 2016-17. We await with bated breath.

Adapted from the authors article in The Wire February 26, 2015 http://thewire.in/2016/02/26/the-bewildering-optimism-of-the-economic-survey-22864/

Finance Minister or supermom

mom

Will Finance Minister Arun Jaitley protect wailing babies; photo credit: mubasshir.blogspot.com

High expectations in the near mystical ability of any finance minister to find a balm for all economic ills is common across all Budgets. Like all of us, finance ministers are egoists. They respond to expectations, like a supermom does to wailing babies.

The chorus of expectations from finance minister Arun Jaitley in Budget 2016-17, is no different. Growth fundamentalists expect a growth-oriented Budget — presumably heavy on infrastructure and investment. One may well ask then, why the accompanying demand for lower interest rates or for more investment than last year? Last year’s investment-lite Budget — just 1.7 per cent of the gross domestic product — pulled off GDP growth of 7.6 per cent, if government data is to be believed, despite the depressing economic environment.

Low social sector allocations

Social sector fundamentalists fret about low allocations for education and health — the building blocks of tomorrow. In the last Budget, the proportion of devolution to state governments was increased by 10 percentage points as per the recommendations of the 14th Finance Commission. Basic and secondary education, and primary health are state government mandates as per the Constitution. It is, thus, up to the states to get on with the job of prioritising social sectors in their spending.

Inadequate spend on defence

Security groupies worry about our poor defence preparedness. But they simultaneously support large pay and pension increases for the men in uniform who significantly outnumber the amount of modern equipment available to equip them with. No one seems to be thinking about reducing boots on the ground and using the money saved to upgrade much-needed equipment in this age of drones, airborne rapid action deployment and missile warfare.

air force

India’s aging fleet of fighter jets; Photo credit: indianexpress.com

Creaky infrastructure

Business, meanwhile, slouches about in the shadows, cribbing privately about the slow pace of the over-hyped initiative for rapid infrastructure development like the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor which is a confusing mishmash of railway lines, transportation hubs for improving freight movement and murky land deals for providing the usual real estate sweetener of houses, offices and malls. The fact that the Japanese are funding the railway freight component was probably its strongest point since both, the availability and cost of domestic funding, are at a premium for long gestation ventures. Ditto for the Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train.

plans

More plans than progress; Photo credit: dnaindia.com

As if all this was not enough to put any human into the ICU, public sector banks, egged on by the Reserve Bank of India, have chosen to make the December 15, 2015, quarter their “show and tell” moment.

Domestic shock: high levels of stressed bank assets

Whilst the financial cognoscenti may have known for years, the average depositor is just about finding out about the rot in government banks. Loans worth Rs 6 lakh crore have been extended over the years to borrowers who had no intention of paying them back. Instead of writing-off these loans when they soured or providing reserves against a potential loss, government banks have been dressing up their accounts to look good on paper by restructuring the unpaid loans. In essence, kicking the bad loans football down the road into the lap of the Bharatiya Janata Party government and Raghuram Rajan, governor of the RBI.

The result is that unless the government steps in and coughs up possibly Rs 4 lakh crore to recapitalise government banks over the next two years, bank finance will remain difficult to get and, even if available, it will be expensive. Despite the high margin these banks charge between the rate at which they get finance from the RBI and the rate at which they lend to borrowers, dodgy sets have reduced their profitability and affected growth. As a consequence, the market has sharply marked down the value of the equity of listed government banks.

Three trade-offs before the Finance Minister

Should Mr Jaitley bite the bullet and provide for reviving the government banks or should he keep this on hold and push public money directly into new infrastructure projects? The first option compromises short-term growth, the latter medium-term growth.

Mr Jaitley has to also choose between living with the unwise commitment to increase government pay and pension by 23.5 per cent or enhancing social protection and rural income support. The former helps the middle class, the latter the poor.

Another choice is between theory and practice. Should he stick to a fiscal deficit target of 3.5 per cent of GDP for 2016-17; increase tax revenue by hiking the rate of service tax; levy capital gains tax on equity and income-tax on dividends or should he play to the God of all things — the lack-lustre stock market — and keep tax rates low but blow out the fiscal deficit target?

Unfortunately, much as he may want, the finance minister cannot play supermom and please all. One hopes that he will bite the bullet and set about capitalising government banks — the engines of growth. Hopefully he will also set in motion fundamental reform in government banks. One extreme but useful step could be to explore support funding from the International Monetary Fund in the event of domestic or external shocks — like another drought or a sharp increase in oil prices — disrupt his plans.

The government of Gujarat has shown the way and the President’s address hit the right notes on safeguarding the allocation for social protection, rural income support and human development. The middle class may have to wait for their salary bonanza till growth-driven revenue buoyancy enhances the fiscal space available for such largesse.

To be cannily pragmatic or rigidly correct

The supermom character of the finance minister should kick-in whilst managing the trade-off between retention of the fiscal deficit target, tax revenue enhancement and managing stock market expectations. This is where the finance minister’s judgment will be key in doing something for everyone without disappointing all.

Our friendly Jats in Haryana have made their point with characteristic aplomb. By summarily cutting off the supply of water to Delhi they established a clear quid pro quo between water for Delhi in return for reserved government jobs for themselves. They seem to have won. Mr Jaitley could learn from their earthy pragmatism.

Who said that supermoms have an easy life?

Jaitley in parliament

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in  Parliament: Adept at keeping hopes alive. Photo credit: oneindia.com

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age February 26, 2015 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/finance-minister-or-supermom-261

NitiAyog’s China style CEZs a big, bad idea

Bad ideas are as resilient as cockroaches — the only living being guaranteed to survive even a nuclear holocaust. Both have a tendency to resurface even after being squashed.

One such bad idea, originating from the Niti Aayog, is to revive the plan of special economic zones (SEZ) on a much larger scale as a carbon copy of SEZs in China. It’s called coastal economic zone (CEZ).

Shenzen

Shikao area, Shenzen at dusk. Photo credit: Xinhua

The ostensible drivers are the need to create more decent jobs- NitiAyog says these are generated only by large industries- and the desperation to revive exports. Both objectives are above reproach. It is the strategy to get there which is perverse.

India is not new to the concept of enclave development for export manufacture. Export processing zones (EPZ) have existed since 1965 when the first one was established in Kandla-Gujarat, followed by Santacruz electronics export processing zone in Maharashtra. These gave way in the 1980s to the stand-alone 100 per cent export oriented units. Next were SEZs with a legislation to support them in 2005.

Niti Aayog’s CEZ proposal focuses on coastal development. Nothing new here — 68 per cent of the 329 notified SEZs existing in 2015 were in eight coastal states. The only problem is that coastal states are far richer than the hinterland so CEZs will make them even richer enhancing spatial inequality.

The big change is that only two CEZs are envisaged, each of 2,000 to 3,000 sq km, to simulate the network benefits of regional development. Compare this with the 626 sq km notified for 390 SEZs, of which just 6 per cent or 25 SEZs exceed two sq km in size. But do we have excess land of this magnitude?

Consider, if Goa wants a CEZ. It must cede 50 per cent of its area of 4,000 square kilometers. With regulatory powers in the CEZ transferred from the chief minister to Union government appointed development commissioner, Goa would effectively revert to the status of a Union Territory.

goa beach

Goa. Photo: Wikipedia.

Should Kerala want a CEZ, it needs to convert 10 per cent of its land area into a “deemed foreign territory” managed from Delhi. How well this will go down with the fiercely combative citizens of Kerala is anybody’s guess. Contiguous states can join hands to reduce the area surrendered by each. But this could invite administrative complexity and delays in harmonising norms and work practices across states.

The NitiAyog paper says Shenzen in China before it became the first SEZ had just 300,000 people. Today 11 million people live there. Only problem, in coastal India the average density of population is around 940. In a 3000 square kilometer area there would already be 3 million living there.

So is the CEZ proposal just old wine in a new bottle? And is it pragmatic?

Tax havens are yesterdays means of boosting exports

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) surveyed 100 developing country export zones in 2015. They concluded that islands of excellence, with special set of laws, rules and practices — as proposed in a CEZ — can create enormous political risk by excluding others from development. Political risk is not an issue in single-party, authoritarian China. But India cannot afford to segment development and exclude large swathes of the “cow belt” where a large number of the poor exist. Unlike China, we have an open domestic migration policy. This makes segmented development politically impractical, especially on the scale envisaged in the CEZs. In any case, in the emerging plurilateral international trade environment, it is questionable if tax breaks and investment incentives are the route to trade competitiveness or whether strategic membership of free trade agreements will be key.

Enclave development for exports are “walled gardens” of the real world

Indian SEZs were primarily tax arbitrage havens with the added sweetener of access to land. The relative export competitiveness of SEZ units versus exports from the domestic trade area, declined significantly in 2013, as soon as the exemption from Minimum Alternative Tax was withdrawn in 2012. This shows that state-driven market distortions do not boost exports in a sustained manner. Another reason why the SEZ scheme floundered was that import taxes and licenses got rationalized across the board and it became easier to import for export across the country. Coupled with the advatngaes of free access to the Indian market locating outside the SEZs became more attractive. SEZs remain a favourite for IT industries, which are mainly export driven and have a culture of enclaved bubbles.

Freedom_Park

Freedom – Bangalore style Photo; wikipedia

There is no alternative to maintaining a competitive exchange rate; managing inflation and broad based, deep administrative reform to enhance exports.

Between 2006 and 2014, 1.4 million jobs were created in SEZs — an impressive 50 per cent of the total increase of 3 million in private employment. But it is unclear if these were all new jobs or the result of existing domestic area export units simply shifting into a SEZ to avail tax advantages.

Land scams accompany if Union government usurps what should be done locally

Consider the 2014 report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG): “Land appeared to be the most crucial and attractive component of the scheme (SEZ)”. In a replay of the coal mining scam, the regulatory gaps emanating from the constitutionally mandated division of oversight between the Union and the state government were exploited. The Union government notifies and de-notifies SEZ land. But it turns a blind eye to the responsibility of the state governments to ensure against scams in the acquisition and subsequent use of such land. Instances of inclusion of ineligible land for notification; allotment of land far in excess of need and protracted non-use of notified land by SEZs, all resulted in the diversion of SEZ land for more lucrative commercial exploitation.

The suspicion of mala-fide intentions is strengthened because state governments sold land, acquired for public purpose prior to 2007, to developers rather than giving it on lease, which would have retained their oversight over its use. Estimating the resultant undue benefits is tough without a forensic audit. It is telling that documents relating to 47 SEZs, including most of the biggest ones, were not provided to the CAG for audit by the Ministry of Commerce.  But even with what was handed over to CAG the results are shocking.

73 per cent of the land notified for nine SEZs in three states was for “restricted” use only – forest, defence and irrigated land, which was not eligible to be notified. Operations started only on 62 per cent of the 456 square kilometers of land notified till March 31, 2013. In eighteen SEZs, operating across eight states, only 17 percent of the 42 square miles notified was actually used for “processing” against the norm of using at least 50 per cent. With large amounts of unused land available, private developers successfully approached the government to de-notify SEZ land which could be used for more lucrative commercial purposes. Assuming that just 25 per cent of the 456 sq km, notified till 2013, was misused, the potential extra-legal earnings would have been to the tune of Rs 4,500 crore — minor pickings by the standards of contemporary scams.

Good policy is never backward looking and can benefit from past errors. If CEZs are to be headline-grabbers in the 2016 Budget, they must have caveats: No new land should be acquired for them. If land is needed the private developer should follow the negotiation route popularized in Punjab and now by Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh; No fresh public finance should be available for CEZs; All additional infrastructure needs must be funded by the private developer; Instead of the Union government, the state governments should be in the driver’s seat; and, states should enact their own CEZ legislations (as was done by Rajasthan in labour laws) which could be approved by the President, if constitutionally required.

Adherence to the fiscal deficit targets requires conserving public finance. Developing the richer coastal areas runs contrary to the Prime Ministers vision of development for all. Most importantly, getting directly involved in land and urban development — both of which have been fertile ground for scams — is unwise for a reformist Union government. This high risk strategy is not the best option for sustainable gains in private investment, employment and exports.

port

The duality of Indian ports: Photo credit : alamy.com

Adapted from the authors  article in Asian Age March 17, 2015 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/z-coastal-economic-zones-590

 

Prime Minister Modi says Ni Hou

Ni Hou

(photo credit: india.com)

Arun Shourie- minister in the earlier NDA government and senior BJP leader was being strategically alarmist when he went public on May 1 warning Prime Minister Modi against succumbing to the seductive spell, which the Chinese put on Pandit Nehru (India’s first Prime Minister) eagerly accepting his diplomatic largesse and support whilst remaining firm on giving nothing in return, which was not expressly bargained for and agreed.

Mr. Shourie has a flair for the dramatic and an uncanny ability to be evocative in his speech, sweetly hitting hardest, where it hurts the most. The Chinese “betrayal” of Pandit Nehru’s “brotherly” love by invading India in 1962 broke Nehru’s heart and spirit. He succumbed to the body blow two years later. China supporters maintain that unclear messaging from India forced China to retaliate since it perceived India as being bent on unilaterally disturbing the status quo along an un-demarcated Himalayan border between the two countries. Be that as it may, the China-India 1962 war, in which, despite heroic, determined but futile resistance from an ill-equipped and poorly led Indian army, China soundly trounced India, has left an open wound for India, which is still raw more than five decades later.

One doesn’t need to go back to 1962 to be sure that China is not a natural ally for India. We are just too similar with few complementarities and hugely competing priorities.

India-China, twins separated at birth?

Both countries are in a race for fuel, which neither have and both need to grow their economies and feed their people. One out of every three humans is either Chinese or Indian. China is racing to achieve high income economy status (per capita GNI> US$ 12,746) whilst India is striving to be an upper middle income economy-where China is today (per capita GNI> US$ 4,125). Both need to find export markets to fuel their growth. Both are relative “outsiders” to the high table of developed countries and both are jostling for space. Both peoples are hugely entrepreneurial and compulsively competitive. But there the similarity ends.

Even twins grow differently

India is barely at the threshold of being a lower middle income economy but its international, political engagement is larger than its economic heft. China is already an upper middle income economy but traditionally prefers to remain below the international diplomacy radar and boxes well below its weight, except when it perceives its national interest directly at stake.

India is a democracy of long standing, grounded on the compulsion of complex heterogeneity and plurality. China is a largely homogenous, beneficent, authoritarian meritocracy.

India is has been institutionally and ideologically networked into the developed world due to its colonial heritage and the facility with English. But it is a recent and somewhat unwilling, entrant to the international trade and investment value chains. China’s culture and values are unique and somewhat autarkic but its planned tapping of developed country knowledge, innovation, research and technology market has worked well. Its pragmatism, easy adaptation to change and determined implementation of a growth strategy by integrating into trade and investment value chains, sets it apart from even its East Asian neighbours, most certainly India and previously communist countries.

Given the lack of complementarities and the visibly rivalrous character of the relationship why has Prime Minister Modi steadfastly wooed the Chinese?

Why China eyes India

China knows well what it wants from India. It wants to service India’s booming market with cost competitive goods and services. This is why a bilateral trade target of even US$ 100 billion per year is rather limited for China. Given a choice it would rather shoot for US$ 200 billion so that it can buy into India’s growth prospects for adding at least 1% to its GDP growth over the next few years.

Growth is flagging in China. This is worrisome for the leadership which has built its credibility by “filling people’s pockets to shut their mouths”- a snide reference to the grand political bargain in which Chinese citizens agree to trade in individual freedom for material gains.

India has a trade deficit of 50% of US$ 37 billion with China. Bilateral trade is US$70 billion.  This is higher than the aggregate trade deficit which is 20%. Further expansion of trade will likely worsen this deficit, since China is a more efficient mass producer of goods. Trade with China is consequently only a lever for India with which to negotiate alternative benefits in investment; security cooperation and mutually supportive diplomatic stances in multilateral fora.

So what is it about China which should excite India?

China made Indian Gods

Rather than predictably moan about the trade deficit with China Prime Minister Modi should praise the Chinese people for their achievements.

First, thank them for sending affordable goods to India thereby directly benefiting Indian consumers and forcing Indian industry to become competitive through attrition of uncompetitive businesses.

Second, thank China for being a role model for developing countries on the following three counts. (A) Illustrating the virtues of savings and investment led growth, particularly in manufacturing (B) Establishing the necessity of increasing public investment in human development and social protection (C)  Providing to the developing world a model for enhancing employment, jobs and rapid reduction in poverty

Third, invite them to visit India as Tourists, Students, Scholars and Friends so that our great cultures can learn from each other directly.

The gloved fist

Much has been made of the Chinese excursions into India even as President Xi was eating Dhoklas with Prime Minister Modi in September 2014.  Was this part of an elaborate Chinese plan to remind India that sipping green tea together does not mean China will give up its claims on Indian territory? Or were they a Peoples Liberation Army game plan to stab the reformist Xi in the back and undermine his international credibility? We may never find out. But what it does illustrate is that diplomacy is like sleeping with snakes-one has to sleep light, remain vigilant, move slowly but definitively and remain calm and unperturbed by the ensuing rattles.

Chinese cash

Should we fear Chinese investment in India? Clearly they have the cash and we have the need for it. One reason why we need the cash is to generate jobs. This means that the standard Chinese model of project implementation which relies on Chinese expatriates does not suit our needs. Rather they should build Indian skills in project implementation in keeping with their celebrated record in project implementation.

Partnership with Indian companies is the best model for Chinese investment in India so that social benefits and tax revenue flows downwards to the people of India whilst corporate profits flow to China. Other than a very short negative list of investments in sensitive border areas, Chinese investment should be welcomed. In fact co-partnership in international value chain related production can be of mutual benefit in services, engineering and chemicals.

End game

Prime Minister Modi’s China strategy must needs be minimalist. India looms too large in China’s neighbourhood for comfort. China will pull no punches in consciously trying to establish its dominance in South Asia and thereby cramp Indian influence. This is very similar to the effort India spends on cultivating Vietnam now and Taiwan earlier to the chagrin if China.

The best that India can hope to do is to stop China from playing “spoiler” in India’s unfolding growth story. Chinese support for Pakistani Terror or Maoist rebels in east India is an illustration of such proxy efforts. The best way of neutralizing “spoilers” is to co-opt them into the game as active participants. We must encourage China to develop significant investment stakes and trade links with India so that they too benefit from India’s growth. Actively encouraging highway and rail links across borders is a good place to start. India must aim to become “too big” in the Chinese investment portfolio for it to stall Indian growth- this is what “protects” the US.

It is inconceivable that Mr. Shourie is oblivious of this imperative to reach out to China. Could it be then be that his highly publicized “missive” to the PM was just a charade, dreamt up by the BJP “dirty tricks” department, to build up PM Modi as a strong and forceful leader with the reach; the credibility and the strategic depth to ignore inner-party, high level resistance to warming up China-India relations? In other words was Mr. Shourie’s advice given with the full knowledge that it would be ignored?

Similarly, could it be that the recent government action against Greenpeace and the Ford Foundation for crossing red lines by supporting activities against the national interest, were also initiated to project Mr. Modi’s government, ahead of the China visit, as being strongly nationalistic, able and willing to cock a snook at the US, just to illustrate, that India is not wedded to any traditional power block.

Far-fetched or not, PM Modi leaves for Beijing on a stronger wicket, as a friend of China, than he started with in September 2014, in part, thanks to Mr. Shourie.

Shrimatiji awaits achche din

Reposted from The Asian Age May 5, 2015 where it first appeared http://www.asianage.com/columnists/shrimatiji-awaits-achche-din-800

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India is on a roll. The “helicopter-top down” view looks good. Growth is to be 7.5 per cent this fiscal and 8 per cent by 2018 (World Bank’s India Development Update report 2015) outdoing China, which cannot but be a matter of satisfaction. We are now besting China at their home grown “game” of sustained growth.

Home loan rates are also down. Stalled infrastructure projects are being restarted. Government is “intervening” decisively with upfront public investment to reduce the commercial and political risk for private investors. There is more “method” now to the earlier “madness” in the allocation of natural resources like spectrum and coal mining rights. Gas exploration regulations have been “tweaked” to make them more “investor friendly”. On land acquisition, state governments are showing the way though political rhetoric still trumps consensual problem solving.

Overseas, India is stepping up to the plate forcefully. The global narrative on India is changing. Canada is selling us uranium once again. India’s risk-averse nuclear regulatory framework is being applied innovatively to fit with the international risk sharing, contractual norms. India is once again a part of the global and regional public decision-making chain.

A signal of strategic maturity is India turning down the offer to bid for the 2024 Olympic Games. The growth dividend from such mega public events is iffy. More importantly, this is a frank recognition that it is not yet time for India to party.

How do things look bottom up? High expectations but fewer results just about sum it up. The common woman is still waiting.

That inflation is no longer surging is a relief. More importantly, the subtle but unsavory regulatory dispute between the Reserve Bank of India and the ministry of finance is resolved. Both now have bright lines defining their separate roles for growth sustaining, macroeconomic stability. This augurs well for the poor, who suffer the most from inflation and instability.

The average Indian household is not resilient to “shocks” principally because their pockets are so shallow. Food, cooking gas or kerosene and electricity constitute more than 50 per cent of an average Indian’s household budget despite subsidies. All three perch on an unstable stool of administered prices.

There are huge political economy barriers to making food supply fiscally sustainable. But shaping food demand away from the monoculture production of water intensive, risky crops unsuited to the local agro-climatic conditions can drive local jobs and reduce subsidies.

India is trapped in the Green Revolution led productivity enhancement of fine cereals — rice and wheat — which led to south India consuming chapattis and the north wolfing down dosa, thus creating a pan-India balanced, administered market.

Cereals are a staple diet for the price-sensitive poor because of subsidised retail supply prices. But, more worryingly, administered high farm gate prices — used as an inefficient instrument of income assurance for farmers — have led to fine cereal production, crowding out other weather-resilient local crops. Weather-resilient coarse cereals and legumes languish for want of research and fiscal support.

No surprise then that a fine cereal-intensive diet has become the diet of choice even of the middle class (30 per cent of the population) which, whilst not rich, is not desperately poor either. One-third of even the wealthiest children in India are malnourished, not because they don’t eat enough but because they don’t eat healthy.

A second revolution must herald the end of the great Indian tradition of a cereal-intensive diet. The time is ripe for a second revolution in food demand. Six hundred million Indians, who can afford to eat healthy, need to move to a more balanced combination of lentils, milk products, fish, meat, vegetables, fruit and coarse cereals. Doing so could create the demand incentive for food growers to diversify away from the subsidised monoculture of wheat and rice into more weather resilient local food varieties and packaged options.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the gold standard for illustrating the ability of positive outreach and communication to shape opinion and events. He should lend his heft to a campaign for revolutionalising food demand away from fine cereals to more sustainable local substitutes. Associating private sector partners in research and NGOs in extension work for developing and mainstreaming these substitute crops would also be a rich source for productive, new jobs for our science graduates.

Energy (transport and cooking) is the second big-ticket spend for households, which is why cooking fuel and road and rail passenger fares are subsidised. But low oil prices are precariously dependent on the continuation of the current US and Saudi strategy to sanction Iran and Russia by bleeding their oil revenues. This is a temporary factor. Similarly, normalisation of world economic growth is likely to boost oil prices in the medium term, upsetting the “happiness” apple cart for both retail consumers and the stability of the foreign exchange balance of the country.

In electricity, the neglected, dominantly state-owned distribution utilities are crying out to be fixed. Some of their angst relates to their own inefficiency — they continue to lose 27 per cent of the electricity they buy due to theft, collusive metering and poor operations. But below-cost tariffs for domestic and agricultural users have resulted in an accumulated loss of Rs 100,000 crore ($16 billion). This is recognised by regulators as due to the utilities but remains parked as a notional asset with no assurance of when or how utilities are to recover it.

Things have now come to a head. Poor utility finances are holding up the conclusion of power purchase agreements with generators, which in turn negatively affects the operationalisation of 20,000 MW of new investment in generation and shall ultimately impact consumers with either poor quality or higher prices.

At the heart of improving the life of the common woman is to drive hard for stability, reduce the risks she faces and move quickly to dilute the inevitable shock. Traditionally the government has focused on the latter — better disaster management is one of them. But the far more fundamental work is to enhance individual risk resilience. Jobs help the most in meeting this objective.

Realty is a jobs-intensive sector. The construction splurge of the previous years — driven by bank loans available at low and mostly negative interest rates — created a two years’ over-supply of “inert economic assets” which generate no jobs post construction because they are empty shells. The challenge is to fill these empty spaces — shops, offices and homes — with people who are willing either to rent or buy and use them.

Intervening administratively — rent control and allocating vacant space, as done in the past, or even worse, caps on the sale price of property — would be a ham handed, extremely leaky approach out of step with the times.

A better way is for municipalities and banks to provide price disincentive — higher property tax and higher interest rates for loans on properties kept vacant. Having to pay more on vacant properties can discourage speculation, drive better utilisation of inert investments and generate social returns — jobs for people and taxes for the government.

A year is a lifetime in an intensely contested, democratic polity. This is why the government must squeeze out the “fat” in the system whilst planning for the future. Over the past decade, we had much more of the latter and very little of the former. Given the head winds building up, it is critical for the government’s longevity to redeem its compact with voters by delivering real, near-term, fiscally neutral improvements in consumer welfare. Think long but act now should be the mantra

The budget of small things

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(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.

Budget 2015: Swap higher outlays for efficient spending

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(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?

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.  

Myopic Urbanization

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Divisive economics is worse than divisive politics. Proponents of Urbanization are the loudest proponents of economic divisiveness. The vision they subscribe to is of shinning cities connected by corridors of gold, glittering like diamonds in a waste land of the rest of Bharat. Their justification is that the rest of the World has adopted this approach. But India constitutes 17% of the World’s population and around 33% of the World’s poor people. It is for us to define “good practice” in development, not to blindly follow international examples, which do not relate to the context of India.

A second “best” defense of “urbanization wallahs” is that it is “inevitable” so best to plan for it. The “inevitability” is related, yet again, to the manner in which growth has happened in the past and not to the specific prospects for India in the future. The fact that even by 2039 only 50% of the population is expected to be in “urban areas” is glossed over, whilst making the inevitability argument. In any case we must not succumb, further than we already have, to the “everything is written” syndrome. It is for Indians to write their own destiny.

Here are three reasons why a divisive focus on urbanization is retrogressive.

First, people tend to fall into the category the State creates for them. Caste, gender, religion are traditional fault lines created by “Authority” such as it was defined since ancient times. None of these provide any progressive social value today. The modern World identity of Urban versus Rural is as corrosive.

The needs of a shopkeeper in a village or a city are much the same; a serviceable road linked to the habitations of their bulk suppliers and customers; electricity for extended business hours, storage of perishable goods and medicines; security of life and property; a collection service to collect the trash generated by customers and sanitation facilities; customers with money in their pockets and a bank in which to safely put her money and access credit; telecommunication links to remain in contact with current events and clean water. Why would we want to discriminate in the standards of supply of these public goods between urban and rural areas? By creating “urban” and “rural” labels we are perversely creating a modern fault lines around which antagonistic interest groups start to coalesce. Please stop this. We have enough fault lines as it is. It doesn’t help when power elites benefit from the touting of urbanization.

Second, sustainable development is indivisible. You cannot steal from the future to make the present pleasant. You cannot fatten the urbanite at the expense of the rural poor. In our democratic society, you cannot cordon-off urban development from rural prosperity as China can and does. Urban centric development is self-corroding due to unlimited in-migration from rural areas in much the same way as international immigrants storm the national borders of developed countries, spawning land and migration mafias and vote banks. Cities and rural areas are organically linked as a sugar factory is linked to the cane fields; a steel factory to the iron ore mines and an electric power generating station to the coal mines, the water or solar, wind or marine energy harvesting area.

 Area based “indivisible” development optimizing on the comparative advantage of each development area has been a standard development tool. Why have we abandoned it? Let us instead abandon the decrepit slogans of the past and opt for integrated development which maximizes value generation using resources which are available locally whilst benefiting from India’s vast, common, domestic market and the liberalization of international trade. Innovation in India need not be limited to cities it has to be a fundamental credo of growth.

Third, the literature tells us cities benefit from the economics of agglomeration. That is why incomes are higher in cities and businesses happy to locate there. Population density is higher so it is cheaper to provide public services. Product markets are larger so scale economies kick in for suppliers and effective competition can pass on the benefits to consumers. Finally, the human element; traditional identities (religion, caste and gender) are replaced by modern identities in the anonymity of cities; professional human networks leverage human capacity and aspirations change. In a recent survey, two thirds of Lady Shri Ram College alumni (admittedly an elite Delhi college for women pulling in the best) viewed their professional identity as the primary one, even over gender.

All these are indeed the virtues of cities, but should they also not make the cities self-financed? Do they justify the subsidies provided by the State to keep cities alive and humming at quality-of-life standards far above rural areas? Collection of user charges even in metros is rarely more than 40% of the cost of providing services. Revenue collected by cities from their own sources (by taxing residents and from their real estate and other assets) only meets slightly more than 50% of their expenditure. The rest is grants from the Government of the related State or the Government of India. Development schemes which are off-budget for Cities but are directly funded by the Central Government, like the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission further add to their kitty of goodies. A full accounting of the actual distribution of the government’s resources between urban and rural areas, including expenditure on education, health, science and technology, industry would further skew the allocation in favour of cities, where the elite reside. This resource allocation bias for cities is indefensible.

Relying on urbanization for economic growth is an end-of-the-pipe option, like a housewife resorting to RO filtration to drink clean water as against the State cleaning the rivers and other ground water sources. It is expensive and exclusionary.

Ignoring the human cost of migration from the villages to cities, in search for work, including the life cycle social costs of predominantly male migration, in large numbers, is scary.

Lastly, in the context of the recent democratic trend of targeted social disruption as an instrument of political power, cities are powder kegs waiting to be blown up. A “soft” State, like India, cannot cope with the unleashing of such violent and disruptive, social pressures.   

 

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