governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘RBI’

Follow the money to tackle the fiscal perfect storm

Piyush Goyal 2

Piyush Goyal, the interim finance minister, will need to be a lucky general if he is to overcome the triple challenge of widening trade and fiscal deficits and lacklustre private investment.

Exports – India’s achilles heel

Despite our comparative advantage of cheap, skilled labour and entrepreneurial zeal, export pessimism is endemic — unlike in China. Last year we imported goods worth $460 billion, while exports were just $303 billion, leaving a trade gap of $157 billion. We try and cope with the trade deficit by mimicking the American economy — minus the pull of its global currency. We maintain a strong, stable rupee and high interest rates to encourage inward financial flows of capital to plug the deficit in the external account and protect our foreign reserves.

Our saviors – inward remittances from Indians in the Gulf

Gulf workers

We are blessed that our valiant expatriates in the Gulf states regularly repatriate their foreign earnings to finance their families struggling to survive in India. Net inward remittances — around $70 billion per year — cover around one-half of our trade deficit. The inward flow of foreign direct investment and “hot money” flowing into our equity and debt markets provide the residual foreign exchange for imports.

Aping America’s strategy to manage its external account, is out of context

A chronic trade deficit forces us into economic contortions. One such is high interest rates to generate demand for the rupee, never mind that it permanently disadvantages exports and makes domestic production uncompetitive, versus imports. A new monetary policy announcement is due later this week. If the Reserve Bank of India increases base interest rates, it will be in line with its inflation targeting, rupee strengthening and external account stabilisation objectives.

High interest rates can kill our nascent economic recovery

The consequences for the domestic economy will be harshly adverse. Cheap money and a realistic exchange rate is what drove the Chinese juggernaut for years. Admittedly, it can also create bubbles. But private investment is at risk. The emerging political uncertainty and the yet to be completed corporate insolvency processes — affecting 15 per cent of bank assets — are investment dampners. Higher interest rates could well be the straw that breaks the donkey’s back. Public investment is always a poor substitute for private investment. It comes with the enormous risk of misallocating capital hugely, including for political ends.

A circle of wealth excluding the poor?

Political economy considerations also conspire to maintain the inward financial flows of “hot money”, which boosts stock market valuations. Over the last two months, foreign portfolio investors have sold a net amount of around $3 billion of Indian assets roiling our thin domestic stock and debt markets — eroding the wealth of 40 million equity holders. But it matters little for over 200 million other families, who continue to squirrel away their meagre savings into interest-bearing bank or post office savings accounts, or in gold.

Look beyond tax revenue to fund burgeoning expenditure

HAL

The Central government is constantly walking on a razor’s edge to achieve fiscal deficit targets – which is necessary to avoid stoking inflation. It is a tough call to choose between allowing oil spikes to pass through to consumer prices at the cost of stoking inflation and consumer anger, or to absorb the price increase within the general government finances, at the risk of blowing the fiscal deficit targets. The win-win solution is to find a source of additional non-debt financing, till the full benefits of GST kick in over the next five years. One option is to monetise the public investments made thus far in industrial entities, infrastructure and land.

Find a non-tax source to replace the cushion provided earlier by low oil prices

Ashok

During 2015-18, the government reduced the fiscal deficit by one per cent of GDP because of the availability of additional revenues of Rs 2 trillion from cheap oil. The government should target raising Rs 4 trillion over 2018-20 by monetising public assets, including the sale of equity in public sector undertakings. These capital inflows can help keep the fiscal deficit within three per cent of GDP. This is not easy. Embedded vested interests, which benefit from such investments, would create hurdles. Political capital will have to be spent.

Sell our “crown jewels” and monetise completed publicly financed projects 

NALCO

The disinvestment ministry was notionally empowered last year to discharge a limited mandate with respect to managing government equity in PSUs. But disinvestment remains a programme of simply selling government equity, when the stock market is high, to plug the fiscal hole and keep the fiscal deficit in check. 2017-18 was a landmark year. The government sold equity worth Rs 1 trillion due to very adroit management and with help from deep-pocket publicly-owned entities like ONGC, which bought into HPCL and other institutional investors who generated the demand pull. This was a one-off. The target this year is 20 per cent less at Rs 800 billion.

Air India is a high-profile disinvestment, which can stem the annual loss borne by the government. The 2016-17 loss was Rs 58 billion. Not enough to break the budget but unnecessary, and hence wasteful. No bids were received for it. Blame the flight of international capital to “risk-free” investments. Blame our fragile domestic political environment prior to the general election. But also blame low appetite within the administrative departments to let go of the PSUs that they control.

Don’t mimic the UPA – discipline departments which fight to retain PSU assets 

Air India

It is astonishing how quickly political capital can fade. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s signature theme was that his writ runs in the Central government. But the foot-dragging in the Air India disinvestment case seems to illustrate that this might have changed. Admittedly, Air India is an iconic brand. For long, you felt you were home once you boarded Air India — remember that familiar smell of curry? Selling it, specially to a foreign investor, is like the British selling Jaguar-Land Rover to the Tata Group. Pragmatic but heart rending. We have yet to become business-like about our crown jewels, as the British have. We sell our assets past their expiry dates and then wonder why we got peanuts.

Focus, diligence and smart choices can make a difference

Success in navigating through this perfect storm will depend on avoiding the bureaucratic gut instinct for “tax terrorism”; monetising public assets in mission mode; monitoring expenditure closely and ensuring fiscal discipline, while absorbing the oil price increase and providing for higher farm gate prices — two politically inescapable imperatives. If the finance minister is lucky, oil prices will subside; America’s tempestuous and unpredictable President will lapse into hubris and the domestic political landscape will change for the better. But don’t wait for it to happen.

Adapted from the authors opinion piece in The Asian Age, June 6, 2018 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/060618/a-fiscal-storm-looms-dont-wait-for-godot.html

What the cash crunch foretells

Parliament's winter session

Conspiracy theorists are hard at work to identify the drivers behind the ongoing cash crunch, that has left the automated teller machines (ATMs) in cities and towns across large parts of the country dry. There is much finger pointing between the Reserve Bank of India and the commercial banks, both private and public sector, each accusing the other of being responsible for inefficient operations. It is unusual to see this level of discord, bordering on acrimony, between a regulator and the regulated entities.

Commercial banks bear the brunt of fuzzy policy objectives

The banks allege that the supply of high-value notes has dried up. The Bank Employees Union alleges that a shortage of imported printing ink at the currency press in Nashik could be one reason. Alternatively, this could be a covert attempt by the government to correct a problem dating back to the November 2016 demonetisation — the incomprehensible introduction of a Rs 2,000 note to replace the Rs 1,000 note as a measure to reduce black money. Phasing out the offensive new high-denomination note and stepping up the printing of new Rs 500 and Rs 200 notes instead is a more obvious and welcome blow against black money. The Ministry of Finance says Rs 70,000 crores worth of such “Hi-Value” notes can be printed in just one month. The value of such notes in circulation on March 31, 2017 (the last public data available) was Rs 7.5 Lakh Crore or ten times the value of such notes printable in just one month. So why a shortge ?

RBI waffles with poor communication

The Reserve Bank, unconvincingly, denies that there is any cash crunch and alleges the inefficiency of banks in properly allocating the available cash. Could this be a surgical strike by the banks and ATM service providers who have got unsettled by the criminal investigations into fraud or are upset with the March 2018 decision of the RBI to end the incentives for installing cash recyclers and ATMs for low-value notes? Was it their intention to embarrass the government by engineering a cash crunch to coincide with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visits to Sweden and the UK for the Commonwealth Summit? Possible, but far-fetched.

Cash remains king

cash is king

The most plausible reason is that the economy is reverting to its pre-demonetisation levels of cash held by the public of around 12 percent of GDP versus the hugely constrained post-demonetisation level of 9 percent of GDP in end of March 2017. Expectations were exaggerated on two counts. First, that the black economy would permanently be reduced. Second that digital and banked transactions could become uepreferred options. The second has indeed proved true. The use of cash by those who declare their incomes to tax, or even those below the tax levels, has reduced significantly.

But the big stick and carrots embedded in the Goods and Services Tax to incentivise the switch to banked transactions are not widely experienced yet. Systems and reporting compliance are clunky and curiously disadvantage the small, honest entrepreneur. Other small businesses may be unviable with a tax load.

RBI – bitten by the bug to ration currency, & create the “statistical” basis for “digital victory” 

Anecdotal evidence of how cash transactions are done show that post demonetisation, Rs 2000 has replaced the earlier Rs 1000 note as the preferred stock of currency held by high value entities and individuals. Unfortunately, RBI has squeezed the printing of this note. Prior to demonetisation, for every Rs 1000 note available, there were three Rs 500 and three Rs 100 notes. Post demonetisation, for every Rs 2000 note available, there are eight Rs 100 notes but just two Rs 500 notes available. RBI has curiously enlarged the relative supply of the highest value note (which is used mostly for individual stock of currency)  at the expense of having more transaction related currency in Rs 500 notes- possibly hoping that transactions would move to digital rather than remain in cash post demonetisation.

More importantly, not only has the overall quantum of currency, relative to GDP decreased, but even the share of Rs 500 and Rs 2000 notes, by value, in the total stock of currency has decreased, from 86 percent pre-domentisation to 73 percent in end March 2017 – possibly in expectation of individuals banking surplus stocks of money.

The ground reality is that the cash-based supply chain of goods and services is a subset of the demand for cash contributions, related to electoral politics. Highly contested elections are scheduled for mid-May in Karnataka and later this year in several other states. Cash resources will be needed to buy SUVs, print advertisements and motivate the lethargic population to vote.

Election Commission hesitates to adopt T.N. Seshan’s (ex-Chief Election Commissioner 1990-1996) muscular credo on mandate

ECI

Oddly, there is not a peep out of the Election Commission of India (ECI), which is charged with the responsibility of ensuring that election spending remains within the implausibly tight limit of Rs 20 to Rs 28 lakhs per candidate for Assembly elections. The EC has adopted an “end of the pipe” strategy. The intention is to catch the crooks once they show their hands via excess expenditure. A more proactive EC could have recognised the red flags of unusually high cash withdrawals unearthed by the media. It could have directed the Karnataka government to report on the ensuing potential for subversion of the code of conduct and the measures being taken to heighten border vigilance, to clamp down on cross-border transfers of cash. One can imagine former chief election commissioner T.N. Seshan diving through this open door for enhancing the regulatory ambit of the ECI. But today’s election commissioners appear to be content, at least overtly, with a narrower definition of their mandate, strictly as per the law.

RBI – a regulator at odds with its “caged parrot” status 

To speak the truth, the glory days of Indian regulatory institutions are over. Even the RBI, the first to be legislated into existence in 1934, is going through strained times. Demonetisation had spread the apprehension that the RBI was led by the nose from North Block in New Delhi. The extent of wilful defaults in the bad loans of public sector banks, often the consequence of ever-greening of impaired assets and plain fraud, also points a finger at the RBI for exercising inadequate oversight.

RBI governor Urjit Patel had appealed to the government through a public address on March 16 to bring public sector banks into a uniform regulatory arrangement as applicable to private banks. Domestic and international professionals support the broad thrust of a uniform regulatory arrangement for all banks. But the subsequent expose of the yawning deviations in ICICI Bank and Axis Bank from gold-standard board governance have cut the ground from under the governor’s feet.

Public credibility of commercial banks at its nadir

Mutual funds are upbeat about the prospects for equity investment in private banks. But the average person is inclined to quietly diversify away from private banks to the safe haven of public sector banks. Private insurance and healthcare are similarly perceived as being exploitative of the average consumer. It does not help that the Financial Resolution and Deposit Insurance Bill 2017 was worded so ambivalently that it fanned a deep seeded fear of savings deposits being sequestered as equity for resolving bankruptcy. Finance minister Arun Jaitley has been at pains to assure people that deposits up to Rs 1 lakh per account will remain guaranteed. But ministerial assurances provide very little comfort when elections are around the corner.

A common thread across this turbulence is uneven support from the government for beleaguered institutions and the absence of informed participation, quite unlike in the GST Council. RBI governor Patel bravely sat out the storm around the hasty implementation of the questionable policy option of demonetisation. But the Pandora’s box of crony capitalism has taken its toll. These are challenging times. Deeper bench strength, within the government, of trusted fiscal and financial expertise would help.

Adapted from the authors opinion piece in The Asian Age, April 21, 2018 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/210418/what-the-cash-crunch-foretells.html

Moody God of bond markets

bond_mesopotamia_

The international bond market, with an outstanding volume of around $22 trillion, is the final arbiter of a country’s destiny. Bonds, unlike loans, can be traded, or “marked to market”. This makes trustworthy credit ratings, like Moodys’, critical to give pricing signals. Since there is a market, even discards are recycled. Discards are called “junk” bonds. Their outstanding volume is $1.3 trillion. They are traded at insanely high returns up to 12 per cent per annum as compared to AAA-rated bonds, where the yield is just four per cent. India had an investment grade rating of Baa3, which Moodys upgraded, on November 17, to Baa2 (stable outlook).

Rating the sovereign

A sovereign credit rating reflects the country risk. It serves as a “glass ceiling”. Bond issuers from any country can never have a credit rating higher than their country’s rating. India has not issued a sovereign bond overseas thus far. But government-owned companies and private entities access the international bond market. This is one reason why the rating upgrade is welcome.

It is a win-win for India. The upgrade increases the incentive to invest in India. The Reserve Bank must be vigilant to sanitize the potential of such inflows to strengthen an already-overvalued rupee, which is hurting export competitiveness. But our stock market is already inflated in the aftermath of demonetization by the surge of domestic savings, seeking refuge from a dull realty market.  This may dampen the inflow of “hot money”.

Sovereign rankings

The upgrade pulls us ahead of Italy (negative outlook) and level with Uruguay, Colombia, Spain, Bulgaria, the Philippines and Oman. We remain behind Panama, which has a positive outlook and can be upgraded to Baa1 to join Thailand, Mauritius and Slovenia. In the next level (A3) are Mexico, Malaysia, Peru, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta and Iceland. China floats high above at A1 — four rating segments above us.

Unpacking the Moodys rating

The Moody’s rating methodology is complex. First, a country is fitted into one, of three possible levels, for each of the 25 indicators. These are then aggregated into 11 sub-factors using assigned weights. The sub-factors in turn are aggregated into four factors using assigned weights. There is a mechanism to “fine-tune” the final rating using qualitative assessments – this is where confidence-building measures help.

Massaging the numbers

The highest weight — 50 per cent — is for the risk probability of default on interest payment or redemption of the bond. Risk is assumed to increase with higher levels of income inequality and lower scores on the World-Wide Voice and Accountability index (both reflective of political stability); higher reliance on external debt; higher borrowing need relative to revenue; weak banks; imbalance between foreign exchange receipts and expenditures and higher reliance on foreign investment.

Fiscal strength gets a weight of 25 per cent, related to lower nominal and trend line of debt to GDP levels and lower interest payments relative to revenue and to GDP.

Institutional strength has a of weight 12.5 per cent. Countries scoring higher in the World-Wide Government Effectiveness index; the Rule of Law index and the Control of Corruption index get higher marks.

Economic strength has a weight of 12.5 per cent. Higher real growth with lower volatility of GDP; higher nominal and per person national income and a better score on the World Competitiveness Index all ensure higher scores.

Labouring through this long explanation of the methodology becomes rewarding because it points us to a prioritised pathway for improving our credit rating.

Push the right buttons

First, remember that in today’s networked world, not only is it important to do the right thing generally but one must also push the right buttons. Our credit rating depends on our score in the five independent indices, mentioned above, relating to – voice and accountability, rule of law, government effectiveness, control of corruption and competitiveness. The Niti Aayog has demonstrated how our score and rank can be improved in the Doing Business Survey. Similar effort, in these five indices, can directly improve our overall credit rating.

Fastrack four priorities

Second, consider that four initiatives — (1) reducing inequality via direct transfers and NREGA to supplement low incomes; (2) funding investments through tax revenue and domestic private savings via financial inclusion and market development; (3) strengthening the resilience of our banks by shrinking the size and functions of weak banks and recapitalising the strong banks; and (4) increasing export earnings by removing the import bias for a “strong” rupee, can together improve one half of the overall score. These four areas should have a very high priority.

Go easy on piling up debt

Third, stabilising the aggregate public debt to GDP ratio is necessary. This contributes to one-fourth of the aggregate credit score. Moody’s recognises that this ratio shall increase from 68 per cent in 2016-17 to 69 per cent in 2017-18.

headload

It may even be higher, if real GDP growth this year is less than 6.7 per cent. State government debt has increased by Rs 2.7 trillion (1.5 per cent of GDP) due to financial engineering in acquiring 75 per cent of the stressed assets of electricity utilities through UDAY (electricity restructuring) bonds. An additional source of stress is the proposed recapitalisation bonds, particularly if financed from public funds. Financing the capital needs of strong banks through private equity would be far better, even if government equity must be diluted to 26 per cent. At the very least, the market would force adequate internal restructuring. Sharply reducing the revenue expenditure by 10 per cent can bridge the “effective revenue deficit” (0.7 per cent of GDP) and release fiscal space for virtuous allocations. Revenue expenditure — other than interest and capital grants —is budgeted at Rs 11.2 trillion this year.

Diligent nudging will show results

The Moodys’ rating methodology has evolved beyond the pure commercial intent of repaying lenders on time, to assess systemic sustainability and happy citizens.

The ball is now in the government’s court to navigate the tightrope between short-term welfare priorities and medium-term fiscal stability and growth. Political sagacity, restraint and technical wizardry in choosing the right boxes to tick will determine if the finance minister can widen our smile.

Adapted from the authors opinion piece in The Asian Age November 21, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/211117/after-the-upgrade-can-fm-widen-our-smile.html

India’s pressured public institutions

BOOK REVIEW
Rethinking Public Institutions in India
Devesh Kapur, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Milan Vaishnav (Eds)
Oxford University Press
548 pages; Rs 995

Rethnking Pub Inst in India

Public institutional reform has a stale air about it. There are plenty of options but little action. The sombre packaging of this book adds to this gloom. Possibly, the “monkish”, value-for-money branding is a consciously adopted tactic, setting it apart from the current trend favouring glitz and hype. The authors appear to be flinging a dare — that in their case substance needs no gloss. They are right.

PBM

The editors’ academic pedigree is reassuring. Pratap Bhanu Mehta is the best-known of them, a public intellectual extraordinaire and the acknowledged voice of evidenced, liberal political thought.
Devesh
His co-editors Devesh Kapur and Milan Vaishnav are US-based academics.
milan vaishnav
This new publication is a follow-on of a 2007 publication Public Institutions in India: Performance and Design co-edited by Messrs Kapur and Mehta.
The contributors are an eclectic mix of UK-, US- and India-based academics and Indian civil servants, serving, repositioned or retired. What is common is their deep and systematic association with public institutional development and an enviable record of publishing their work and opinions.
Are public institutions in India doomed?
So, are central public institutions going to seed? And does that explain India’s future challenges? The introductory chapter, written by the editors, provides an elegant, broad sweep of drivers and trends in institutional malaise, highlighting areas where performance has been dangerously below par. But the helicopter view is a mite too one sided, veering to a dark view of the state of national institutions.
Institutional resilience outnumbers the failures 
A more nuanced and refreshing view emerges from the succeeding chapters, each about a single institution. James Manor, writing on the Presidency, exquisitely details how this apex institution, despite the occasional failures of individual incumbents – think Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed who signed on the dotted line to impose emergency in 1975 and Giani Zail Singh, who was not averse to being actively political – has been a steady hand, safeguarding constitutional propriety and citizen rights from potential executive and legislative transgressions.
Errol D’Souza, reviewing the Reserve Bank of India, describes its pugnacious success in enlarging its regulatory space, solely through its performance-driven credibility. E Sridharan and Milan Vaishnav pen a fluid and attractively rendered tale, about the Election Commission of India, which has similarly earned its spurs. Eighty per cent of Indians trust it because of its remarkable conduct of timely, fair and efficient elections. Madhav Khosla and Ananth Padmanabhan describe how the Supreme Court has nurtured the public’s trust by courageously and consistently ruling in favour of equity, inclusion and fair play. However, they warn that dark clouds loom unless justice is delivered more efficiently.
Navroz Dubash writing on new infrastructure regulatory institutions – the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission (CERC) and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) – acknowledges that in the initial years both had to fight severe challenges from publicly-owned monopolies and their patrons in government. Two decades on, they are the arbiters of positive change. The CERC has overseen competition in bulk electricity supply. The Trai has curated highly competitive private telecom customer services and tariffs. However, Dubash correctly points to the need for enlarging the regulatory space such that all actors – the Parliament, Judiciary and the Executive become active players in negotiating regulatory outcomes, with the Regulator playing the balancing role,
Institutional failure more visible in sub-national entities
“State failure” is a malaise more visible in sub-national institutions, which have failed to imbibe the positive changes taking place in related central public institutions. State governors, legislatures, the lower judiciary, state public financial management institutions, electricity regulatory commissions, vigilance departments, and election commissions are often severely blemished. T R Raghunandan woefully records that institutions of local government remain ignored, underfunded and underused, except in Kerala, Karnataka and West Bengal. Consequently, inclusive growth suffers and an opportunity is lost for embellishing and inculcating local traditions of results-based democratic functioning.
But there are black sheep at the national level too
Not all national institutions, despite inherited advantages, have developed benignly. Parliament is one such. M R Madhavan ruthlessly excavates the reasons it has lost the public trust. R Shridharan similarly unravels why the Central Vigilance Commission, India’s anti-corruption agency, and its investigative arm, the Central Bureau of Investigation, have failed to establish their credentials. The former is merely a tool, to be used selectively, by the executive against its own officials. The latter is at its nadir. The moniker “caged parrot” accurately reflects why it has lost credibility in the fight against corruption.
The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India, the supreme audit institution, gets mixed reviews from R. Shridharan and Amitabh Mukhopadhyay. The CAG is uniquely placed and significantly empowered, to guide and assist Parliament to exercise granular oversight over the executive. Its path-breaking exposure, under Vinod Rai, of massive inefficiency and financial impropriety in spectrum and coal allocations lifted its public profile. But, in its “independence”, also lies the danger of it being ignored, through a “conspiracy of silence”, between a dysfunctional Parliament and a pliant executive.
The civil service, particularly its elite component – the All India Services (AIS), which constitute 0.03 per cent of the total civil employees and just 1 per cent of the Group A employees of the Union Government – have unambiguously failed. K P Krishnan and T V Somanathan admit that nothing has changed for the better over the past decade. Recruited on merit, this tiny elite thereafter enjoy the rents accruing from that initial, one-time achievement. But the authors shrink from endorsing that the AIS be phased out and its functions reallocated to the specialist cadres of the Central Services — these constitute 99 per cent of the Group A civil employees, who currently fester despondently.
This is a multi-layered, exhaustively referenced publication, which surgically exposes the dark side of public institutional dysfunction. But it also provides sufficient evidence of institutional resilience, on which an enlightened political leadership can build. A must-have, for all those who either belong to, or wish to join, the frustratingly uplifting community of public institutional developers.
Adapted from the authors review in Business Standard June 15, 2017 http://www.business-standard.com/article/beyond-business/public-institutions-under-scrutiny-117061401505_1.html
raj ghat
Raj Ghat – Gandhi ji’s memorial keeps the flame of “independence” alive

Deep freezing India

deep_freezer

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

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

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

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

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

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

No to Black Money – but focus on its sources. 

gold

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

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

High minded objective but low tech implementation

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

stick

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

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

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

The math of who holds how much currency

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

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

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

Fix whats broken  

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

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

 

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/

Gov. Rajan gets it wrong this time

Gov Rajan

(photo credit: economic times.com)

RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan got it horribly wrong when he amended PM Modi’s “make in India” program by adding a “make for India” byline in his FICCI address yesterday.

What on earth could he have meant? Was he implying that the domestic economy should be further insulated from foreign competition? That is the only way domestic industry can be induced to make only for India, rather than for the World, including India?

How does this “home centric” approach fit with his view, reiterated in the same FICCI event, that the economy needs to be more open. In an open economy business “makes” for markets worldwide because production and value chains are transnational and product standards, designs and prices converge across the globe squeezing out fat.

Indian industry did “make for India” pre the 1991 liberalization. The result was a small, fat big-business set; high prices; shortages and shoddy goods. The biggest achievement of liberalization is a convergence of product standards towards international levels because of import competition and the ample and ready availability of goods- except where government erroneously continues to believe that fixing maximum prices for goods and services can work. It does not, as we can see in electricity supply and now in drugs and pharma where shortages are resurfacing.

Exhorting Indian industry to restrict itself to the domestic market is an ominous sign of the export pessimism rampant in the pre-liberalisation period. Does this also mean that Governor Rajan will keep the INR unreasonably strong to keep imports (petroleum products) cheap at the expense of export competitiveness?
Surely the defence manufacturing we are initiating is not just meant for domestic consumption. Unless Indian armaments are in regular use in conflicts and wars internationally, how can we possibly be sure of their quality or get the “consumer” feedback for quality enhancement?

Maybe Rajan’s “rock star” status as an economic wizard got the better of him. After all, PM Modi’s penchant for acronyms and by-lines has now become national mania, rendering intelligible conversation impossible, littered as it now is, with 3AAA and 5Cs. But trying to best the PM can be fatal, even for an outstanding, independent regulator. Even the US President would look askance at the Fed. Chair speaking, out of turn, outside her circumscribed official ambit.

But on matters more related to his current charge, he got things right, as usual. In a downturn, especially with inefficient and wasteful government machinery, it is a better to leave income in the hands of the earner rather than transfer it to government via higher tax rates. The “income effect”, enhanced by the low inflation target of Gov. Rajan, induces consumers to spend and feeds into demand led private investments which is good for jobs and growth.

The conundrum, if tax rates are to be relaxed or if tax exemptions for savings enhanced, is how to balance the budget?

Here is a list of the “low hanging fruit” available.

First, our traditional expertise in going around with a begging bowl is best. PM Modi is prescient in aggressively seeking external grants and concessional funding from the word go. The challenge now is converting pledges into cash flows.

Second, ruthlessly cut revenue expenditure, particularly on general administration. This is a necessary “evil” to show that the government means business.

Third, our annual public investments are barely 12% of total expenditure. This requires stopping gold-plated construction and using the existing space better. Witness the new, palatial External Affairs Office complex in Delhi, which remains underused because it is far from the South Block-located-PMO. Anyone housed in the new office attracts the unwelcome tag of being farther from the powers-that-be than even the mother ministry.

Using the available space rationally, simply by squeezing government servants together can help. Today, senior officers occupy office rooms often much larger that the living room of their government allotted homes. Notice how even mid-level government officers do not work in “row cubicles”, as in private firms and there are no common-use spaces for work meetings. Every office is designed to accommodate a “durbar” suitable in size for the concerned officer – this is reminiscent of the hierarchy of “Princes”, established by the “Raj”, based on the number of guns fired in salute of a Prince.

Slashing perks like liberal use of office provided phones and cars and a cut on travel budgets are also necessary, albeit symbolic measures, for flagging the need for economy.

Fourth, more substantively, using the existing government investment in State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) more aggressively can help. For starters, increase the dividend payout ratio from 44% to 66%. This adds around Rs 25,000 crores to revenue – only 1.4% of the total budgetary resources – but sufficient to increase the central plan expenditure by a hefty 25%.

Higher payouts and consequential constrains on accessing internal resources will also force SOEs to become leaner and look for alternative PPP models for financing operations and investments. Listing more SOEs on the stock exchanges and launching an aggressive privatization program can leverage the economy; attract foreign and domestic private investment and create more fiscal room for Greenfield public investments.

Governor Rajan in right in predicting strained economic circumstances in the near term. But hiding behind the default option of producing only for our huge domestic market and hapless domestic customers, is not the answer – nor is tight market segmentation between the domestic and overseas markets possible. God save us from anyone advocating a back-to-the-future strategy of turning resurgent India into a fortress.

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