governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘public investment’

Let billionaires manage the global commons

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Photo credit: huffingtonpost.in

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s pledge to give away 99 per cent of his shares in the company, assessed at $45 billion, is the most recent in a series of over 138 billionaires who have signed the “giving pledge” to donate 50 per cent of their fortunes to charity. The 500 top billionaires in the Forbes list have a net worth of $4.7 trillion. Donations to charity, in the US alone, amount to over $300 billion every year.

Compare this with the fate of the pledge to stop climate change, proposed at just $100 billion every year from 2020 onwards. The nations of the world are scrapping over who should pay how much. Nothing better illustrates the ascendancy of the “box wallahs” (big business) versus the public bankruptcy of nation states.

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photo credit: http://www.cnbc.com

The leaders of 190 nations of the world and their extensive delegations could have more effectively sought an appoint-ment with the 1,826 billionaires in the Forbes list with a net worth of $7.5 trillion — equal to around 10 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product. With an estimated annual income of around $150 to $200 billion they could potentially make up for the international intransigence in funding the global commons.

Private wealth has always been a metric of success, especially if it is built up within one’s lifetime, if it is legitimate and if some of it is used to do good deeds. Could the talent, which has demonstrated private success, be institutionalised for achieving similar success in global public affairs?

This rhetorical question merits consideration because the governance record of multilateral institutions has been pretty lacklustre, particularly in matters related to promoting the global commons. And time is running out.

Cynics would assert that billionaires are created from unpaid taxes, which they are big enough to avoid paying, unlike common folk. Others may baulk at trusting rich folks with the world’s future — after all many have grown their private wealth at public expense — as is the case with oil, mining and tobacco companies.

Why trust those who don’t walk the talk?

But it sounds somewhat ridiculous that the heads of 196 nations should have more “voice” in managing our future than 138 billionaires who are willing to pledge more money to charity, than all these nations can collectively gather over the next two decades, to protect the global commons.

Big is not beautiful

Have we ballooned the functions of nation states way beyond what they can efficiently do? Is the nation state a “fit for purpose” entity for the new, integrated world order of this century and beyond?

It is conventional to think it necessary to limit the power of the state versus the human rights of citizens — a concept embedded in the principle of the rule of law. It is less conventional to think it necessary to limit the economic functions and fiscal powers of the state. The success of “developmental” states, like China, in sharply reducing poverty and spurring economic growth has bolstered the case for fiscally empowered, intrusive or “nanny” states. The world and India are rediscovering the virtues of public finance-led growth.

This is a sharp departure from the conventional wisdom, which prevailed from the latter half of the 1980s till the 2008 financial crisis, that private investment and management trump public finance options in effectiveness. The 12th Five Year Plan (2012-2017) — incidentally possibly the “last supper” for planning in India — reflected this earlier consensus by relying on private investment for around one half of the plan outlay. The definition of “private investment”, of course, was somewhat disingenuous. Loans taken by a private firm from a publ-ic sector bank were categorised as private investment. Today, such loans, particularly to private infrastructure developers, have turned sour and increase the non-performing assets (NPAs) of publicly owned banks.

Minimum government equals maximum governance

Fiscally muscular, democratic states, with expansive public ambitions, are wasteful and inefficient. Their instinct is to throw money at the problem. This is always the politically safest option though it may not be the most efficient “value for money” alternative. Examples abound. Why is it easier to construct a village school building than to staff it with teachers? Why are public buses in Delhi, bought just five years back during the Commonwealth Games in 2010, increasingly seen on the roads in a breakdown condition? In both cases, a fiscal windfall — a central scheme or a high-prestige project — makes available the capital investment, but there is no link with sustainable revenues for keeping the asset operational over its useful life.

India’s electricity supply industry is another case in point. In the First Five Year Plan, large-scale public investment was the planner’s choice for rapid electrification. More than six decades on, distribution utilities — primarily publicly-owned and managed — have an accumulated loss of $50 billion despite two previous bailouts in 2012 and 2002. Sadly, even on the most easily achieved efficiency metric of transmission and distribution loss, only the private utilities and some public utilities in Maharashtra, Gujarat and West Bengal perform well. In others, between a quarter to one half of the energy input into the grid, never gets billed to customers.

The core developmental function of the government is to regulate by setting standards of performance and by financing the delivery of public goods and services, which the private sector would otherwise have no incentive to supply. In India, unfortunately, our first response is to propose the direct delivery of public goods and services via state-owned enterprises. This in-house option is often preferred as being less time consuming and more controllable. There is also the implicit comfort that no one gets punished for the inefficiency of the public sector. But officers rooting for private sector service delivery face the challenge of having to stand ready to be hauled over the coals for the slightest mishap.

If our concern is jobs and better service delivery, it is only private investment and management which can generate results. Open the gates to the innovative genius of public-spirited billionaires. Why look a gift horse in the mouth?

Adapted from the authors article in the Asian Age December 10, 2015 http://wwv.asianage.com/columnists/let-billionaires-save-world-605

Budget 2015: Swap higher outlays for efficient spending

jaitley dnaindia.com3  

(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?

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