governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘markets’

Funding the Republic

tricolour

The tricolour flutters happily at the Peer Makhdum Shah Dargah in Mahim, Maharashtra, hoisted by the peer’s devotees, as a symbol of the Indian Republic being alive and well. 

India is a Republic. But often it feels as though only the Union government must carry the can for doing unpleasant things – like levying tax on those who have the surplus income to add to the national kitty or getting heavy with tax evaders. Of course it is a juggalbandhi. The Union government invariably wants to grand-stand and hang on to financial muscle power so necessary to play “big brother”. State governments are only too keen to accept the federal goodies being thrown at them and thereby avoid the pain of efficiency enhancing structural reform in politics and in government. To be fair, the financial and political firepower of the Union government and individual states is asymmetric in favour of the former. This makes it difficult for a state to chart a lonely, unique, development path. The good news is we may be coming to the limits of this asymmetric sharing of development responsibilities.

The Union lacks funds for its core functions

Consider that rapid infrastructure development and public investment to strengthen competitive markets have become the stepchildren of the annual Union Budget process. This continues a trend, started by the previous government, of shoring up state government finances, at the risk of being stingy on spending in areas of its own core, constitutional mandate.

The Economic Survey 2017 notes that state fiscal deficits reduced sharply from 4.1 per cent to 2.4 per cent of the gross state domestic product (GSDP) over the last 10 years, since state governments adopted the Fiscal Responsibility Act. Enhanced Central transfers to states and reduced interest payments, courtesy debt restructuring, benefited states to the extent of 1.8 per cent of GSDP. To their credit, most states used the additional fiscal space to cover the revenue deficit and lower the fiscal deficit to below the target of three per cent of GSDP.

But how long can the Centre play the role of a responsible elder brother, darning his own clothes, whilst buying new ones for his younger siblings?

India’s poor infrastructure constrains growth. Low spending on infrastructure also limits job creation — something India needs. The Union government expenditure on infrastructure has increased from 0.6 per cent of GDP in 2015-16 to an estimated 0.9 per cent of GDP in 2017-18. But it remains inadequate. Adding the state government and corporate — public and private — expenditure on infrastructure totals less than three per cent of GDP in 2017-18 versus the five per cent of GDP we should be spending.

broken-bridge

Dodgy infrastructure: the bane of the Republic. photo credit: indiamike.com

Repairing the broken system for bank credit and private investment

Bank and corporate finances are the second black hole which the Centre’s Budget was unable to address. Banks have accumulated bad loans to the extent of `12 trillion, or 17 per cent of their assets. The Economic Survey 2017 exhaustively discusses the “twin balance sheet problem” — of banks that must write down at least one half of the bad loans and of large private companies that face bankruptcy, for failing to use the loans productively over the past eight years.

construction

The finance minister has been explicit that the government should not bail out the private companies who made bad decisions. This is well-intentioned but difficult to implement.

There are 13 public sector banks that account for 40 per cent of these bad loans. Merging them with efficient banks can mask the problem for some more time. But such mergers can spread rather than contain the contagion. Selling or closing a failed public bank or enterprise requires courage and conviction. Our inclination is to retain the “crown jewels” no matter how tarnished they get. Air India has got a capital infusion of Rs 1,800 crores in 2017-18 on top of the Rs 5,765 crores over the last two years.

Fifty private companies account for 71 per cent of the bad loans. The public mood is for the government to go for their jugular. This will make it politically difficult for the government to fund write-downs of debt. But vigilantism against corporates can rock the growth story, which we can ill afford.

judge

A fast track quasi-judicial process must distinguish between “wilful” and unintended default, caused by systemic shock. Different rehabilitation regimes should be determined for the two categories of defaulters. Wilful defaulters should be pilloried. The downside is that picking and choosing defaulters, itself can perpetuate what this government abhors — crony capitalism.The finance minister has allocated Rs 10,000 crores in 2017-18 for recapitalising banks. This is a placeholder. All eyes are trained on the additional resources unearthed by demonetisation. The RBI is yet to disclose the value of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes which remain undeposited. This may be around Rs 1 trillion. Transferring the resultant excess sovereign assets, from the RBI to banks, can buy some breathing room.

Second, the incremental tax collection from demonetised “black money” deposited in banks, can fund infrastructure development or recapitalise banks, as it dribbles in over the next two years. This windfall was to be distributed to the poor as cash support. But recapitalising publicly-owned banks, albeit with more vigorous oversight and more transparent and intrusive stress tests, has a higher priority. More credit for corporates translates into more investments, more jobs and higher economic growth. These are the fundamentals that must accompany fiscal stability.

More “give” rather than just “take”, needed from States

We are in the middle of an incipient financial emergency, which can be triggered by a shock. The RBI cautions against thinking that inflation has been tamed. Other than food and oil, where prices remain low, inflation hovers just below the red flag of five per cent. This limits the headroom available to overshoot the fiscal deficit red flag of three per cent of GDP.

The Centre needs considerable fiscal slack to fund infrastructure development and recapitalise the banks. State governments can help by enhancing their own tax resources. Imposing income tax on agricultural income and vigorously collecting property tax are low hanging fruit available to them. These measures can add around one per cent of GSDP to their resources. This will enable the Union government to scale back the long list of Central sector schemes for human development and social protection and use the funds instead for its core mandate — developing infrastructure, markets and a competitive private sector.

gst

The Goods and Services Tax Council meets: State’s follow the take rather than give strategy. 

States may well ask why they should bother, since they were never partners in the illicit gains from mega crony capitalism. But this would be short-sighted. Faltering economic growth adversely affects all boats. An increase of six per cent in economic growth boosts state government tax revenue by one percentage of GDSP with more jobs in tow. But above all, cooperative federalism must have some give — along with the take. This is the time for states to give to the Republic, as equal partners in national development.

Adapted from the author’s article in the Asian Age, February 14, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/oped/140217/to-raise-resources-give-and-take-needed.html

CM Kejriwal’s plunging popularity

Kejriwal plunge

(photo credit: fundamental.bogs.com)

How justified is Mr. Kejriwal, the Chief Minister (CM) of Delhi in assuring auto rickshaw (tuk tuks) owners and drivers -his niche supporters numbering around 100,000 – annual rate revisions in tandem with rising costs, when he denies a similarly supportive regulatory regime to the three private companies which supply power to consumers in Delhi?

As a Dilli-walla, who has not had to use an inverter during the last five years because electricity is available on tap- a saving of Rs. 5000 per year- it seems obvious to me that privatizing electricity supply has been the biggest boon for citizens.

But to sustain supply at a reliability level of 99.5%, the DISCOMS have to buy sufficient power to meet peak load and maintain the wires, related transmission and distribution equipment and meters sufficiently well, to avoid breakdowns and to meter consumption accurately. Privatisation has given Delhi what only Bombay (also privately supplied) used to have a two decades ago – reliable electric supply.

Build institutions, don’t undermine existing ones

The Delhi Electricity Regulatory Commission’s (DERC) consistently fair, participative and effective decision making has supported this achievement. Not surprisingly, a recent independent survey, done by the premier Jaipur based, consumer advocacy institute- CUTS, which reviewed institutional arrangements and consumer perception, assessed the DERC as the state electricity regulator most responsive to citizen grievances.

It is consequently, decidedly odd, that the Mr. Kejriwal should try and undermine the institutional credibility of the electricity regulator by insinuating that the private DISCOMS are being favoured by the DERC tariff determination process at the cost of consumers.

Most recently Mr. Kejriwal has alleged that the newly appointed in-charge Chief Secretary (who apparently was not his choice) is also in cahoots with the two Reliance power DISCOMS.

Mr. Kejriwal has erred in mixing up the issue of whether or not the CM should choose the Chief Secretary with the unrelated issue of whether, or not, the person appointed to that position, by the Lt. Governor, has the right credentials to occupy that post.

On the first issue, good governance norms would dictate that, at the very least, the CM should be consulted and preferably should concur in the appointment of the Chief Secretary (CS). After all, unless the CM and the CS trust each other, government will become dysfunctional. The worst thing for a government is to admit publicly that it is out of control. This holds irrespective of the legal position that the Lt. Governor is not bound to seek the CMs advice on the issue since Delhi is only a “make believe” State Government with limited functions.

Populism is not sustainable

The Kejriwal government is coming across as populist, anti-reform and anti-organised private sector. Add to this the constraint that being recent rulers, with no administrative experience, it appears ham-handed at doing what it wants. The result is that even good intentions get warped by inept execution.

Why Messers Kejriwal and Sisodia seem bent upon wasting time and political capital on burnishing their populist image, even though there are still more than four long years to go before elections, is puzzling.

That Mr. Kejriwal looks to the common man for his support is welcome. After all more than 40% of Delhi residents live either in slums or in slum-like colonies. But more than “freebies”- like cheap power and free water- what each of these “slum dwellers” want is a better life for their children and a job.

Generating new jobs

Generating 1 million “good” jobs in Delhi over the next four years is a colossal task and the CM would do well to focus his energies on this task. He will need the active collaboration of the private sector to achieve this goal. The continued availability of reasonably priced, good quality electricity will be crucial so tinkering with what is working well (privatized electricity utilities) is dangerous and irresponsible.

It is all very well to grandstand by dis-allowing the entry of multi-brand retail in Delhi. In any case, these space-intensive, “deep pocket” entities which seek to provide a “complete shopping experience”, would rather locate in adjoing NOIDA or Gurgaon, where commercial space is cheaper. But what does the government plan to do to “clean up” the existing local market places and make small shopkeepers more competitive?

Why not create new jobs by servicing public spaces better with private security; better maintenance; toilets; take-a-break-spots; green spaces and parking facilities to enhance the shopping experience.  The popular Dilli Haat (market) started two decades ago is one such example.

Make the rich pay for using public road space

Delhi has around 2 million cars. Most of them are parked overnight on the streets and adjoining side-walks. Why not charge car owners for this privilege, especially at a progressive rate? Rate progression would mean that for every incremental car per household, the rate increases. Even a flat charge per car of Rs 500 per month would yield an additional revenue of Rs 1000 crore per year (rule-of-thumb basis) equal to 3% of the 2015-16 Budget estimate of Rs 35,000 crores.

The incremental proceeds could be used, in the colony where it is collected, to provide and maintain colony roads; drains; sewage systems; street lights and water supply systems. More importantly, the fee will provide a disincentive to own multiple cars; encourage owners to dump old, unused cars and free up public parking, cycling and walking space.

Public transport

The CM should also note that whilst today electricity in Delhi is of the same quality as in Mumbai, the same cannot be said of the public buses. Ensuring a 24X7 public transport system, which is secure and accessible within a maximum ten minute walk from any urban mohallah (community), is an enormous challenge which goes beyond just buying more buses. Meeting this public transport infrastructure gap will hurt he CMs support group the most – the 100,000 auto rickshaws who provide an inefficient, insecure and costly substitute for public buses. But it can garner the CM the support of 60% of the 25 million Dilli-wallas who can only afford to travel by bus.

There are still more than four years to go for the Delhi elections and it is sad to see the Kejriwal government not using this time to deliver substantial gains to Delhi citizens. Grandstanding by “taking on” the Government of India via the Lt. Governor is unlikely to get it votes. Delhi is not a city which tolerates “whiners”.

BJP ruled municipalities provide no “benchmark” competition

The only silver lining for Mr. Kejriwal is that the three Municipal Corporations, all controlled by the BJP, are even worse. It is shocking that the Modi “magic” has not brushed-off on its local worthies and the municipalities remain mired in inefficiency and corruption.

Far from setting governance standards which would force Mr. Kejriwal to up his game and perform better, the Delhi municipalities are making it absurdly easy for Mr. Kejriwal to “shine” by comparison. This is shortsighted of the BJP and bad for Delhi citizens.

End game

Mr. Kejriwal has already lost the support of the middle class. Sadly he is in danger of losing the poor also, unless he takes service delivery beyond the level of rhetoric. He knew the limited character of the Delhi government before he contested. If he now feels constrained for power he has to wait till 2017 when he will get a chance of consolidating his power base in the three municipalities. Alternatively, he has to wait till 2019 in the hope of getting a congenial partner at the national level, who will cede fuller powers to Delhi State.

Either way he has a clear three years in which he can focus on improving what lies squarely within his ambit today- electricity supply, roads, public lighting, water, drains, sewage collection and treatment and social services. Even this seems a handful given the shallow bench strength of the AAP.

Restart: The last chance for the Indian Economy

Restart

Mihir Sharma’s book (Random House 2015) is the one for you if you are a policy wonk but at a loss for arresting sound bites; a businessperson looking for bright and engaging things to say at your next meeting; a student of economics, politics or sociology grappling with the question why things are so difficult to do in India; or an expatriate keen to remain in touch with the undercurrent of “happening” things in India

Priced at Rs 1.38 per page this is an attractively packaged book for the itinerant reader, which is possibly the only kind of reader available today, in this networked, audio-video afflicted world. Its six parts consist of 68 handy chapters, each of just two to three pages, with its very own evocative title – very readable just after take-off; before landing or in those rare moments between the last public announcement and the arrival of the meal trolley.

Mihir is a master at reeling in the reader and keeping her engaged with very stark opinions, some of which are seemingly evidenced but all of which are likely to strike a chord in the reader….gosh! Wish I had thought of it that way or…wish I could have said that!

He is an entertainer at heart and pulls no punches in going all out at doing just that.

This is not however a 101 quickie to brush up on the Indian Economy complete with a statistical abstract. The relentless but sparkling wit is uplifting for those who like the play of language and know English well; have the time to be titillated and have a rudimentary awareness and interest in the Indian economy and politics.

For those who don’t share these interests “Restart” will most likely nudge them to delve deeper into more serious tomes on the subject or at the very least start reading the newspaper Mihir currently works for-Business Standard.

Despite the tough talk and brusque tone of the book, Mihir is at heart a romantic with a touching but wholly misguided belief in the possibility of “clean” or moral” capitalism.

Crony capitalism can’t “make in India”

He castigates Indian industrialists, as government stooges and mere rentiers, living off their ill-gotten gains gathered in cahoots with an obliging and corrupt government. This naïve 1990’s belief peddled by the multilateral and bilateral donors, principally to assure tax payers at home that their money is not going down the tubes as aid, assumes that it is possible to do business “nobly”.

Sadly the murky history of business fortunes, not just in India, but across the world, does not substantiate this belief except in the new age IT world where innovation trumps connections. But vast amounts of wealth is generally acquired by outwitting the next guy and hanging on to as many monopolies as one can. As Warren Buffet put it- owning the only bridge over a raging river is the best investment.

One would expect Mihir, the realist and straight talker, to defend business a bit more and castigate the government a lot, for perpetuating the crony capitalism we see around us. The job of business is to protect the bottom line of its shareholders in whatever environment it operates in. It is the job of the government to create the right environment.

Poor regulation and worse infrastructure-the missing link

His vision of manufacturing led growth and jobs is “old word” of huge assembly lines like in the US and China. In this world the key to competitiveness is producing to scale. No space here for the virtues of micro, village or small industry. Mihir uses harsh words, albeit deservedly, for industrial and labour regulations, which constrain scaling up by small but outstanding entrepreneurs.  This is now conventional wisdom. But are poor regulations really the key constraint to create an additional 6 million jobs a year or is there considerable scope for additional employment creation just by improving the abysmal and pervasive shortage of infrastructure-an outcome of poor governance and worse public decision making over the last decade?

The urban pot of gold

He subscribes to the view that there is no substitute for rapid urbanization- again something which has become conventional wisdom. Villages are sinks of depravity per Mihir. His analysis of why Indian cities do not live up to his expectation of being social modernisers- breaking down traditional social cleavages and forging new, modern identities is that they are not built as work places and instead are just better places to live in than villages.

Could his view be shaped by the cities he has lived in? Jamshedpur, the TATA exemplar industrial town; the ageing but genteel Calcutta with its heritage of absentee landlords languidly taking in the country air as their barge sailed up the Ganges on their annual soiree to collect rent and its more modern but still investment starved, going-to -pieces, version of Kolkata; babudom afflicted Delhi and Chandigarh where nothing is produced but files? Would he have a different view of he had grown up in Tirupur, Ludhiana or Dhanbad- workplace associated developments all. Is this vision also founded on a premise that good, rewarding work has to be associated with industrial activity? In Mihir’s words good work is that which produces things other people value and will pay for.

Washington calling?

He subscribes to the Washington consensus theology of markets, price decontrol, delicensing and private investment led growth to solve problems and unclog the pipes of the economy. But curiously, he is silent on the associated conundrum of increasing inequity in assets and income, highlighted by Thomas Piketty recently with concentration of wealth in the top 0.1% of the world population which threatens the consensus around growth and possibly throttles any chance of developing a less “angry” society sharply divided between the “haves” and the “have nots”.

The chicken or the egg of social change and economic development

Ironically, albeit correctly, for Mihir social change is fundamental for economic development. His silver bullet for social change, growth and economic development is to “get women working”. This may sound odd to those who believe women already do that and more, though not necessarily in a formal workplace. Consider that across the hilly and tribal regions of India it is women who are the “workers” at home and in the forests and yet this does not automatically lead to women’s empowerment or substantial change in aggregate economic outcomes.

Indeed, the evidence seems to show that it is economic development which provides new entry points by delinking financial reward from ritual status allowing those previously marginalized by culture, ethnicity or religion to empower themselves. This, in fact, is one key driver for migration of the marginalized to where work is available.

But this book is not about options or prescriptions for change. That will follow, one hopes, possibly in a Steven Levitt (Freakonomics) type problem solving sequel to Restart. This book is designed to perturb our placid intellect; churn the mind; force it to react, even aggressively, to challenge Mihir’s outrageous, cynical, trite, trivial and acerbic but always delightfully insightful, in-your-face, logic.

The publishers have been unfair to Mihir Sharma by marketing “Restart” merely as a book on the Indian economy and its problems. Yes, Restart does use the economy lens. But it is actually about all-of-India, in the style of a Ramachandra Guha epic- minus the scholarship.  This is of course as it must be because decision making, attitudes and behavior, which are at the heart of Mihir’s discourse, are interlinked processes.

Is this really the last chance for the Indian Economy as the title claims? I would seriously doubt that. These are turbulent times, which India is negotiating quite well, thank you. But I would have titled the book as “Restart: A pill to shake up India”.

 

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