governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘Warren Buffet’

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.

gatesbuffet

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

Winning Aged Votes via Budget 2015

old man

(photo credit: http://www.gettyimages.com)

For the small, timid investor and retirees, Provident Funds and Postal Savings were the investment vehicles of choice till 2000. Interest rate liberalization resulted in a progressive decrease in interest levels on long term deposits from 12% to 8.5% per annum.

The reform was sensible. Government could not afford to subsidize the growing gap between what Provident Funds assured investors and what they earned from investments-mostly in Government debt. This strategy also aligned with the objective of growing stock markets by incentivizing small investors to divert their savings to equity.

THE AGED BORE THE BRUNT OF INTEREST RATE REFORM

What the government forgot or disregarded, was that fixed return investments are the natural and appropriate choice for the aged, small investor, who treasures liquidity; safety and simplicity in transactions; characteristics typical of deposits and debt investments. Not everyone can be like Warren Buffet-the Sage of Omaha, who remains an equities guru, at age 83.

Consequently the negative impact of financial reforms has been borne by those who were least capable of doing so- the aged, retiree without an inflation indexed pension. There were two reasons why this happened.

First, high inflation, higher than the nominal interest earned, has reduced “real (inflation adjusted)” returns from interest to negative. If the interest earned is 8% per annum whilst retail inflation is 9% per annum, the investor is earning no “real” return at all. Instead she is paying an “implicit”, additional 1% on her investment to the government as “Inflation Tax”

Second, even on such negative real return, “explicit” income tax is levied at the applicable rate on the nominal return further reducing the real return to the investor and enhancing the “Inflation Tax” paid to the government.

What hurts even more is that dividend income is tax free but interest is taxed. There is a theoretical logic to this asymmetry. Dividends are paid out of the post-tax profit of a corporate. Since tax has already been paid by the corporate, on this value stream, it need not be paid again by the shareholder. Unlike dividend, interest paid by a corporate to a depositor is a “cost” and is set-off against revenue to reduce its taxable profit. Since no tax is paid by the corporate on this value stream the taxman is right to charge tax on interest in the hands of the receiver

Notwithstanding the soundness of this general principle, a solid case exits for exempting interest from income tax.

First, timid, small savers, particularly the aged, have no alternative financial instruments for investing their savings.

Financial pundits may counter that such investors should invest in the risk averaging, Mutual Funds available in the market. But Mutual Funds (MF) themselves tend to shift from equity into debt based investments in a stock market downturn, as happened during 2008 to 2013 (SEBI Annual Report 2013-14). After deducting administration costs, the returns available to MF investors, are not significantly higher that what they could get themselves from deposits.

It does not help that the Indian Stock Market, like other emerging markets, is highly volatile. In 2013 volatility in the Indian stock market was 17% as compared to 11% for the DOW and 12% for the FTSE (Bloomberg-2014). Volatility dissuades aged, timid, small savers from such stock market based instruments, since they have a strong preference for certainty of nominal return.

Second, Inflation management in an open, developing economy, hugely dependent on energy import is tricky. Our record, whilst much better than Latin America, is nevertheless worrisome for an aged person dependent on a fixed income. The government has demurred in offering inflation indexed, real interest rate, saving instruments for retail investors. Possibly the financial risks associated in offering such an investment are considered too high. How then can one expect an aged retiree to bear the inflation risk?

NARROWLY TARGETED TAX BENEFITS

Clearly, the universe of aged Indians are not all under privileged or timid or naïve investors. The cynical could well ask why should the likes of Rahul Bajaj- the illustrious, Indian industrialist, age 76 need special exemptions on interest income or for that matter senior government pensioners or retired senior employees of the formal private sector.

We hold no brief for them since they can look after themselves. In any case it is unlikely that this set allocates a significant proportion of their savings to fixed return deposits. They don’t need to since they have their inflation indexed pensions as a fall back.

Our plea is for the junior level retirees from the formal sector and all retirees from the informal sector. Assuming that 90% of the 62 million aged (5% of population above the age of 65-2011 census) are retirees from informal employment and further assuming that 30% of these-mostly in urban areas- have no income other than from savings, the target beneficiaries would be around 17 million aged people.  Most of these may not even be income tax payees. Those who are taxable would probably pay tax at the lowest tax bracket of 10%.

Consequently, the exemption is narrowly targeted at the deserving and is unlikely to result in significant loss of tax revenue.

POLITICALY CORRECT

There is widespread expectation that the FM would raise the tax free income level from Rs 3 Lakh (for senior citizens) towards Rs 5 Lakhs per year. This is a welcome but generalized benefit and not a specific benefit for the 17 million aged, lower middle class, urban retirees – all of whom are voters.

The BJP has been unfairly targeted for being tardy on social protection. The 2014 national election generated heated debate between “callous growth” and “virtuous equity”- a falsely projected zero-sum choice.

Expectedly, the FM will seek to correct this impression in the 2015 budget. But it is tough to implement efficient social protection schemes on a tight budget. Even efficient, rich, developed economies struggle to walk the thin line between providing perverse incentives to beneficiaries to become economic drop-outs and ensuring the adequacy of social security.

In the meantime, please Mr. FM, spare a thought for the average, pension-less, retiree from the informal sector. Save her from the perils of sinking her savings in unregulated “high return chit funds” in desperation, just to make her two ends meet. Exempting interest earned by individuals from Income Tax is a good way of doing this. There is no better “win-win” than this.

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