Time to move away from prescriptive macro policy making

Indian economy seems caught between tight fiscal targets prescribed under the FRBM review and a government which treats it as cast in stone despite being faced with the current crisis.

The best example of failure of the prescriptive approach is the Eurozone. The prolonged sluggishness of the Eurozone is caused mostly by the restrictive tight inflation targeting (influenced largely by Germany’s phobia for inflation given its post WWII memories), fiscal deficit targets and debt/GDP ratios which were good for a select few countries but out of context for most of the rest. Those who were already better gained in relative terms but those who were not aligned already have gone into prolonged sluggishness and some into economic coma. But on overall basis, Eurozone has not gained; it has been a massive loser – a sinkhole which the Chinese have expertly filled in to their advantage.

Prescriptive and market distorting intervention in agriculture products has been around in India for a long time along with minimum wages in labour markets. But in the recent years such an approach has been extended to other areas of macro management. Prohibitive pricing under Land Acquisition Act has virtually put it out of reach. Inflation management which was largely situational or contextual has become tightly prescriptive, where the midpoint 4% has operated more like a hard-stop cap. FRBM was loosely operated till 2016. With a rigid fiscal target and glide-path and Debt/GDP ratio, it has started impacting other macro variables like output and employment and government investments, besides putting breaks on response to a 6-sigma kind of event like Covid.

Such a prescriptive approach is born out of a lack of faith in markets’ efficiency and its self-correcting nature. Fixing targets for macro-economic variables like inflation, interest rates, fiscal deficits are as detrimental to the efficiency of free markets and its equilibrium seeking ways as fixing minimum or maximum prices in individual commodity markets or fixing quotas or tariffs, or licensing in micro markets.

A circuit breaker in stock markets at 10% and 20% might make sense, but at 3 and 4% they will affect free functioning of markets and its adjustments to new information or assimilation of the effect of other economic factors. The trouble with tight constraints is that they start affecting other factors and force them to operate at sub-optimal levels. As an example, anyone seeking air tickets or hotel rooms on internet will know that the more the conditions or filters one puts, the lesser the number of options that gets thrown up. The recent prescriptions have operated like ‘binding constraints’ in a linear programming language reducing the value of outcome than act as circuit breakers.

Free of any prescriptions major macro variables like inflation, investments, fiscal deficits, CAD, exchange rates, growth and output interact with each other influencing and being influenced by others so that the markets seek optimal or equilibrium ways. Such interplay also keeps the others in check so that they don’t escape their gravity. The experience of communist countries has proven that market based equilibrium have been far more enduring and self-sustaining with fewer glitches. Prescriptions should be like circuit breakers for extreme 3-sigma events like East Asian meltdown, Dotcom bubble and 2008 and Covid.

Are there risks in letting markets play

Will inflation, for example, run away to 20-30%. Or interest rates go sky high and snuff out all investments. Or Exchange rates break loose and settle at Rs 120/$. In an open economy where most commodities as well as finances can be imported or exported there is little risk in a general inflation shooting through the roof – import parity prices will ensure domestic prices cool down. Sudden swift exchange rate variations are to release pent up pressure. If the exchange rates fall far too steeply, higher exports and greater incentive for overseas Indians to bring back money will soon cool it down. Any spikes in interest rates will increase the investments attractiveness and bring in moneys from savings here and overseas and cool it down.

Unless the government resorts to absurd 30-70% increases in MSPs (as it did in 2008 and 2010) extreme food inflation is unlikely. With our excess stocks and production of food grains there is no need for food inflation fears; surely in contingencies we have enough forex reserves to import food and cool down prices – something markets will do anyway.

Safeguards

Safeguards if any should be limited to extreme events – specified or emerging- something that has a 1% or 2% chance. For some most essential items like food it may be necessary. But even in such areas it may be better to let the market find its level but compensate the vulnerable through cash transfers.

During the 10 years before 2013, we have had some of the best growth years when the inflation range has been 4-10% and fiscal deficits were in the range of 6.4% to 3.3% with an average of around 4.7%. Surely there was a causal connection between these various factors, when they were managed with caution than prescription. To aim 4% and 3% respectively tantamount to ignoring these causalities and give hygiene factors the status of main deity. These then operate as constraints which pull down the potential of others.

When the history of China’s stupendous rise from 1980 to 2020 is examined carefully 2 things might become clear. FED’s Volcker’s constricting inflation control during the 80s diluted US’ investment spurs and helped China to grow green shoots and the self-negating Eurozone policies of the last 2 decades helped consolidate it further. Europe, once the cauldron of new ideas in many facets of science and technology and corporate governance is regrettably having to shield itself from Chinese investment invasion now.

Before we learn about Chinese manufacturing excellence, we might learn some lessons on how they have managed their economy.

India seems fatally infatuated to Eurozone ways and replicating the resultant sluggishness.

India can sustain a fiscal deficit of 6%

A sustained and synchronised recovery path

The three important reason for the currently stagnant economy are (i) a monetary policy which is not synchronised with the fiscal (ii) disconnected with the rest of world in real terms in an increasingly open economy and (iii) mistaking risk aversion for sustainability (of government debt and deficits). Our FRBMs are forcing the government think more like an individual in retirement mode: pay off debts and resist fresh ones as if its sources of income are to dry up soon.

Considering the current strengths, the following can be the action agenda for getting out of the current rut. The aim is to have integrated fiscal and monetary policies. The sustainability of these are demonstrated later.

  1. RBI to maintain real interest rates (RIR) at +/- 0.5% of select competing countries/economies. This will preserve India as an attractive investment destination for inbound investments besides staying competitive for domestic investor. This has become disengaged of late due to nominal anchoring in an open economy, as can be seen in the chart. Since 2013, our Real Interest Rates has gone off into a different orbit.

Slide2

  1. RBI to target a GDP deflator of 6% p.a. for the medium term. This together with RIR will establish the target nominal interest rates. Within this food and essential inflation may be targeted at 3-4% to ‘protect the poor’.
  2. Government to aim at Tax GDP ratios in line with other countries (those chosen for real interest rates) – increase it by 2-3% over next 5 years.
  3. Target real growth rate and spend as if we are growing at 7%. If government continues to spend at 7% when the economy is growing at 10%, lower spends will cool down the economy and when the economy is growing at 4% act as a booster – an automatic stabiliser.
  4. Central Government to increase its debt levels to 52.5% from the present 47.8%. The overall debt limit is to be 60%, with 7.5% being kept as ‘Cushion’ to be tapped only for tackling extreme exigencies like prolonged war, events like oil shocks, extreme natural national calamities, 1997/2008 type of contagious external shocks, etc. Any deviation to be brought back to these levels within 2 years of economy retracting to the anchor assumptions of 7% real growth and GDP deflator of 6%.
  5. Government to switch over to accrual accounting from cash accounting and integrate extra budgetary resource (EBR) within the meaning of fiscal deficit. (One reason why the interest rates for the government has not fallen in line with the steep fall in fiscal and primary deficit numbers is the EBRs and Government compete in the same market for the same investors. And since there are multiple agencies placing essentially the same instrument, the pricing power of the central government gets diluted).
  6. Although Industry and agriculture are State subjects, CG will play the stabilisation and balancing role for business cycles.
  7. Subsidy list and quantum to be agreed between states and centre. Subsidies to be limited to basic necessities of food, clothing, shelter, and creating conditions for equality of economic and social opportunities including education, skills, basic healthcare and hygiene. All other subsidies to be part of state budget for which a limit as % of States GSDP to be applied. No subsidies to be mandated on non-government players.

Sustainable glide path

The above are tested below for sustainability of debt/GDP levels, primary and fiscal deficits. These are demonstrated below using standard equations laid out by IMF, Economic Survey (2016-17) and FRBM review committee report.

The government should increase its debt to 52.5% in 3 years. This would involve much higher primary deficits on which additional interest will have to be paid. The governments revenues grow at nominal rates of growth say 13% year on year. But Primary deficits which add to debt have to be serviced at 7-8% only. So one has to balance and equate the additional taxes with serving costs of PD. This is signified by the FRBM review in its report as pdt = (gt-rt)/(1+gt)*dt  (derived from the equation in page 54 of report). Table 1 captures the sustainability.

A primary deficit level of 2.3% is consistent with 52.5% debt/GDP levels and 8% GOI borrowing rate. Based on the above assumptions it is possible to sustain a fiscal deficit at 6% at the Central Government level alone. If we want to rein-in the states, we can mandate them to maintain NIL primary deficits. The sustainable fiscal deficits are given by FDs = Dt * (g/1+g), where FD is sustainable fiscal deficit and g is nominal growth rate. Table 2 lays out the sustainable debt levels across various growth rates and debt levels.

Slide3Table 3 lays down the glide path based on above recommendations. The switch over from cash to accrual accounting might gobble up 2-3 lac crores, which is accommodated by the higher PD targets in Yr1. Since there are already ‘incurred’ expenditure the inflation effect will be muted. By Yr 2, it can keep ready viable public projects. As can be seen, it is eminently feasible.

 

Government has enough firepower to spend its way out of recession

Government is needlessly self-shackled.

V Kumaraswamy

The Government looks like a batsman wanting to play only copy book orthodox shots in death overs of a T20 cricket match. The wherewithal and the government’s ability to spend are far better than when we faced sub-5% growth last. Yet the government seems morally shackled and too ideologically paralysed and unaware of its fiscal strengths.

The virtuous looking dogmas that is sustaining the present pall of gloom are (i) that the fiscal deficit targets given are inviolable and the present situation does not call for any counter cyclical action due to shortcomings in FRBM Act or the Review Committee, (ii) the Inflation Targets (4 +/- 2%) developed by the RBI are a kind of moral or constitutional obligation, (iii) better prices mean better welfare for the people and (iv) the masochist pride over currency values – an overvalued currency is a sign of strength.

The assumptions behind false prides attached of currency values and welfare effect of cheaper prices needs to be shed. But here we will see how despite the vastly superior financial fire power at its disposal, the economy is unable to take benefit of it – rather such inaction seems to be the root cause of the problem. The assumptions concerning fiscal and inflation bounds need to be revisited by more pragmatic economists.

First the monolithic way Inflation targets have been prescribed. It will be tough to find in economic history how a fledgling economy trying to graduate from lower income to low middle contained its inflation at 3-4% or those who grew at 7-8% with such low inflation consistently. Any growth will expand demand which will mostly increase the prices while interacting with an upward sloping supply curve. Even if the current excess capacities, will require better prices to restart. There are no flat supply curve commodities especially with people’s growing quality and brand consciousness. The more the demand growth fuelled by growth in economy the more the inflation is likely to be. To prescribe a 4% central rate and follow it up with hysterical reaction even when the economy gets close to it is a sure way of supressing demand. It appears that over the last 3-4 years the low target of 4% has pulled down our growth rate to 4-5%.

No doubt the poor need protection. But when the same poor is borrowing at 3.5% per month and in some daily loan cases that much for a day, to target interest rates’ closest economic cousin inflation at 4% to protect them seems absurd and ill conceived.

Second, the fiscal deficit targets. The dissent note of the former CEA points out several lacunae in the approach and final recommendations of the recent FRBM review Committee. The report is not comprehensive nor does it deal with appropriate counter measures for various contingencies. The 3% wait either ways before Government can act is far too wide and as the ex CEA points both magnifies over heating and further depresses an economy in distress.

The government has to be complemented for the way it has built the Balance Sheet strengths of the economy but the costs it is paying is too much in current terms. Chart 1 calculates the revenue receipts, expenditure and subsidies as a % to GDP for the period 2008-09 to 2018-19 and compares how these % measure up if 2008-09 is the base year.  As can be seen, revenue receipts of the central government have fallen by 5% but the expenditure has fallen by 20% and subsidies by 32%. Even if the fall in subsidies is due to plugging of leakages, it still means contraction of government expenditure going into private hands. Moral issues aside, it will still have its economic impact. The Central Government’s capital expenditure have moved but in narrow range (albeit downwards) and have not compensated for it. Government’s fiscal rectitude has of course brought down the CG’s debt as % to GDP from 56.1% to 47.8% and the fiscal deficit from a high of 6.46% to 3.34% today. It has been commendable but it has also taken its toll.

The difference between the nominal growth rate (g) and the (nominal) interest rates that the government (r) borrows is an important measure of how sustainable the deficits can be, and ‘g’ is most likely higher than ‘r’. The government’s ability to raise taxes is a function of nominal GDP but it has to pay only ‘r’ to sustain such deficits. But as Chart 2 shows despite our great fiscal restraints, this gap has been on continuous decline, reflecting an unexplained inability to use its strength to bring down yields on government securities.

One reason may be the ‘black’ fiscal deficits – amounts parked outside through extra budgetary resources or instruments issued by CG allied institutions which compete for the same kitty as CG’s debt on eligibility criteria and hence are having their impact. And if there are multiple agencies placing essentially the same instrument, the pricing power of the central government takes a beating. Even if in the short run, it may be irksome it may be more prudent to consolidate the black and white fiscal deficits and manage them as one.

Given its enormous strengths the Government should be bold enough to cast aside (at least for sometime) the needless and contextually out-of-sync inflation and fiscal targets and spend its way to revive the economy. The government can as a first measure raise upto 1-2% of GDP and firstly clear all its pending bills (to NHAI contractors, Fertiliser subsidies and capital expenditure payments for railways and defence) that every Govt does to manage fiscal numbers. Since these expenditures have already been incurred in the past most likely there won’t be inflation from these. The balance can be for newer capital expenditure or paying off state GST dues.

I hope the government overcomes academic impositions with practical actions.

frbm 1

frbm 2

The Governments Formalisation drive may be unwittingly shrinking the economy

The current government has stayed focused on both formalization of the economy and digitization. The first focusses on bringing more of the unorganized economic activity into the formal fold by means of GST, making it uneconomical for others to deal with them, ensuring registrations under various laws governing manufacturing activity and income tax laws. While informal need not necessarily mean evasion, in practice a large proportion of them were. Informal estimates which put 45-50% within formal folds are putting formal economy in the 70-75 % now within a span of 5 years.

It has sought to push digitization by linking most of its subsidies to bank accounts, opening Jan Dhan accounts, and pushing for more digitized payments across all sections.

Both have laudable objectives. They reduce incentives for evasion, provide a level playing field for tax complaint entities besides spreading the tax base so that the burden falls more equitably on all the players rather than a select few, and increase the tax-GDP ratio.

While the salutary effects are already visible, what may have missed our attention is that such formalization may have inadvertently shrunk the economy leading to poorer growth. This article examines how indirect taxes like GST may have caused this.

Effect of Taxes

Our economy was a mixture of formal and informal sector with their various levels of evasion of taxes and dodging of other laws. With the benefits of tax evasion many of the informal and unorganized units in many industries were cost-competitive and enjoyed a fair share of the markets. But with the ‘imposition’ of indirect taxes many of them have become uncompetitive (the dotted bars representing them have moved to the right and hence unable to supply the market, in the middle graph).

It is not that all informal units will fall by the wayside. Several units in Sivakasi, Vapi, Manesar-Dharuhera, Baruch-Ankleswar, Meerut-Moradabad industrial estates – all with a fair proportion of such informal units are very competitive. They have a far better mix of India’s cheap or competitive resource (Labour) and efficient capital utilization. They will survive even after paying taxes.

The net effect of this is that tax collections of the government goes up which is a transfer from the pockets of surviving informal sector units to the government. Market prices go up and volumes adjust downwards due to price increase.

Profitability of previously tax compliant units will go up due to price increase, but of those in informal sector who are still competitive will turn worse.

In the top graph 5 of the 7 units in informal sector were competitive supplying 850 units in the market of 1350 units. After formalization and recovery of taxes from all, only 3 of the previously non-tax compliant units supplying 500 stay competitive and the balance 4 with a capacity of 850 units become unviable.

The shrinking of economic activity

How much economic activity in private sector will shrink will depend on the elasticity of demand of various newly taxed industries. Where demand is inelastic (like food and essential items) people will reallocate from other expenditure lines and maintain purchase volumes in which case volumes may not shrink much. But in discretionary items like purchase of cars or houses, people may not substitute but postpone the decision or downgrade their quality. People might settle for a smaller car or move farther out of city or reduce the size of purchase. In the above case, prices have gone up from say Rs 47 to about Rs 56 and volumes have shrunk from 1350 units to about 1250 units – a fall of 8.5%. If the demand is very elastic and people didn’t want to spend more than Rs 47, volumes would have shrunk to about 900, a fall of 33%.

While nominal incomes may shrink or expand depending upon whether the price effect overwhelms volume reduction, in real terms there will be a shrinkage due both to price increase and volume reduction.

Effect on overall Economy

Taxes need not always result in economic shrinkage. In many cases it is just a transfer from one pocket to another – Government in this case. World over Governments are more compulsive spenders and it may end up boosting the economy also.

An increase in direct taxes may not have any effect on the current volumes or price – it is just a reallocation of profits between the government and the enterprise. But since such taxes will reduce post tax returns on capital employed (ROCEs) and if the Cost of Capital also don’t reduce in tendum, they will impact investment demand directly – a phenomenon being observed now. We have seen a phenomenal increase in entity registrations under income tax, while the cost of capital have been stubborn, which is most likely to have affected the investments in informal sector.

In the case of indirect taxes, it does transfer resources and if the government spends such taxes collected there should be no effect on economy. Shrinkage in one sector will be made up by expansion in areas where government spends its the taxes so collected.

But the current formalization drive is an overall effort and would have most likely shrunk most private sectors as explained above leading to shrinkage of overall private sector economy. The government is not compensating this shrinkage by spending whatever it garners from this drive. It has instead been shrinking its own level of spends (as % of revenue and GDP). Fiscal deficit which were 6.46 % in 2009 and 5.91% in 2011 have shrunk to 3.42% of GDP by 2018 indicating in a sense that a lot of collection is going into reduction from previous levels. Thus when both private sector and Government expenditure is shrinking, the overall economy is bound to shrink.

It is to be recognized that units in informal sector employ more people per output and less capital than formal or organized sector, since employees can be downsized far more easily than capital assets. This also probably explains the job losses or joblessness of our growth story, more so after the formalization drive has gathered momentum.    

 

Formalisation

Misplaced Hopes on MSP

Misplaced hopes on MSPs

V Kumaraswamy

There is some growing frustration over governments procurement of key grains under its Minimum Support Prices (MSPs) not being to lift the open market prices of those commodities and benefit the farmers. What the policy makers and economists forget is that our MSP procurement is not an end in itself but has to be studied with its end use – distribution of such procurement under our PDS programmes and how they work at cross purposes.

Effect of MSP procurement

It is generally assumed or hoped that once the MSPs are increased the open market prices would also rise in sympathy. There is insufficient realization that such procurements hardly create incremental demand. The government has limited flexibility in increasing the quantities procured under MSP which may be a surer way of enhancing prices and how increasing farm productivity from the current levels only harms the farmer interest not help them.

The effect of procurements under MSP is quite often overestimated. It is necessary to visualize the impact of procurement operations to separate reality from hope and wishes. Lets try and understand the impact through graphical exhibits. Picture 1 orders the demand from the buyers at various prices in decreasing order of prices. The thick ridge line at the top forms the demand curve as is depicted on the left side. Any procurement by government agencies at any price leads to a kink (drawing on right side) in the normal demand curve as is shown on the right picture. It shifts the demand curve horizontally in proportion to the quantity bought (dd’ in Picture 1) at the price point equal to the MSP for the crop.

 

demand supplyIn Picture 1 due to the governments initial extra demand the total demand increases but as we will see later once the government supplies the same though PDS, the effect is neutralized.

mspdsinterplay

Picture 2 studies the combined effect of demand and supply of the same commodity as in Picture 1. The normal (without intervention) demand curve DD’ is represented by the solid blue line which shifts to Ddd’d” (partially dotted line) after procurement.

The supply curve is shown as SS’ (in solid Red line). The market price without any government intervention settles at P(free).  When the Government intervenes and procures dd’ from the market at the MSP price indicated it will move the market price of independent sellers or buyers which will not be

equal to the MSP: it will settle at lower levels. Where it will settle depends upon the elasticity of the supply curve; the flatter it is, the lesser will be the price increase. In agricultural markets there are many tiny suppliers whose cost structure hardly differs from one to another since many inputs come heavily subsidized or free to most players. Hence supply curve is often flat and highly elastic. The market price will settle at P(MSP) which is way lower than MSP but higher than the free market price of P(free).

It is a fallacy to think that hiking MSPs from the current levels will result in higher open market prices. Unless the quantities procured are increased from year on year (which will keep pushing the dotted d’d” segment further and further to the right), mere yearly MSP increases will have nil or negligible impact on open market prices.  Where P(MSP) settles will depend more on the width of dd’ than where it is above the P(free) levels. (MSPs below the free market prices are useless anyway). That’s the reason why formulas like 50% over all-in cost of farmers will prove innocuous, except benefitting those fortunate to sell their crops at MSPs directly by the Government.

Given the current levels of buffer stock in FCI go-downs, any significant increase in procurement quantities will be a hazardous exercise.

Effect of PDS distribution on prices

The crops procured under MSP are used in supplying them at cheaper (than free market prices) cost through the public distribution system to end consumers. This has the effect of changing the supply curve from SS’ (without PDS operations) to Sss’s” (partially in red dotted line in Picture 2 right side). This will lower the open market price which may even settle at levels lower than the initial free market price, as is the case in Picture 2. Will the total quantities bought and sold expand as a result of these operations? It will since production will increase due to price support and so will consumption since people more people at lower levels could afford to buy more due to lower PDS prices.  The difference between procurement and PDS supplies will be accretion/depletion to buffer stocks.

Way Out

The production of agri commodities has been surplus to requirements for several years running. The buffer stocks with FCI is far more than norms and the credit to FCI from banking system at uncomfortable levels. One way would be to export the surpluses and not supply the same back in home markets through PDS. Or sell it to private sector for food processing. Alternatively, it can allow food processors and exporters to procure crops at MSPs and reimburse the difference between market price and MSPs to them. At least the handling/storage loss can be reduced. Simultaneously, the govt should reduce the size of PDS physical distribution and reimburse the consumers through Direct Benefit Transfers even if the consumers buy their requirement in open market.

A method to tweak the supply curve by partial rationalization of subsidies on inputs to increase the market prices and thus benefit the farmers was also explored in this paper (How the Agrarian Crisis can Be Eased, June 24, 2019).

It is time we realized the areas where MSPs and PDS can be effective and where they can’t be and not be fooled by misplaced faith and theories.

Why India’s GDP numbers may be right; but so are its doubters.

Why Arvind Subramaniam is right; but Government is not wrong.

Link to the article in Businessline: https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/gdp-both-subramanian-govt-may-be-right/article28657586.ece

The ex-CEA has argued that the figures of GDP growth are exaggerated. He may be right but equally right may be the government. The tension will ease if one recognizes that it is possible to grow for some period of time without the total amount of goods and services consumed by community not increasing at all. The reverse is also equally feasible. This can happen with increase and decrease in % terms in the domestic content in value addition, or better productivity (or fall) of natural resources, etc. The crucial bridge between the two sides may be the efficiency gains and shifts in the structure of economy in the last few years.

Let’s examine the impact from efficiency gains. Business line published a few weeks ago (GST on the Highway dtd June 4, 2019) the story of a reporter’s journey with a truck driver from Chennai to Bhiwadi. He reported reaching the destination in 42.35 hrs instead of the 4 days it used to take not so long ago. The driver saved 2 days for his owner and as a bonus pocketed the petrol he managed to save from the 400 litres allowance he was allowed for the trip.

This was confirmed to the writer by an official of a leading transport company who claimed it takes 44 hours to reach Madurai from Dharuhera (Haryana) these days instead of the 4 days previously carrying cars. Only 15% of potential savings have come from GST so far; balance has come from better roads and better driver crews who operate as a team. Let’s construct (with some lenience in calculations) the effect of such savings on GDP in different scenarios.

 

Impact on GDP from Logistics savings (of the reported case)
 

 

 

Scenario —>

Before After
1 2 3 4
Customers final bill remains same; Transport company’s profits go up. Customer takes the savings (other than Drivers bonus) Customer takes away all the savings
Petrol (assumed for illustration) Ltr 400 300 300 300
Lorry Hire (day) Days 4 2 2 2
Driver gets paid for (Days) Days 4 2 2 2
Drivers Bonus NIL Petrol savings of 100 litres (assumed) NIL
Petrol price Rs/Ltr 70 70 70 70
Driver’s wage rate Rs/day 1200 1200 1200 1200
Lorry Hire rate Rs/Day 5000 5000 5000 5000
Composition of GDP
Petrol Rs 28000 21000 21000 21000
Wages to Drivers Rs 4800 2400 2400 2400
Bonus to driver from Savings Rs 7000 7000
Lorry Hire Rs 20000 10000 10000 10000
Profits to Transport Company (say) Rs 20000 32400 20000 20000
GDP (Price Paid by Customer) Rs 72800 72800 60400 53400
Fall in GDP 0 (12400) (19400)
Fall in GDP in % 0% -17% -27%

 

The volume of final services (real GDP) has not gone down but the nominal GDP has fallen sharply. If the final price remains due to market demand and supply, both real and nominal GDP will remain same. If the consumer pays less, GDP will fall due to the efficiency gains, unless there is 50% increase in other economic activities to absorb the truck and driver’s time (unlikely) or we start measuring value of driver’s leisure as equivalent to value of wages.  Here the quantum of services enjoyed has not gone down and so the real GDP should not go down. But the real GDP this is usually measured by using deflators, even real GDP will show a decline.

Paradoxical but that’s the exact reason (but contrarian effect) why big earthquakes and natural disasters are big boosters for GDP growth.

How Arvind Subramaniam and Government may both be right

India’s new normal growth looks 7%. But there have been drop in the exports in the last 5 years of some commodities like rice, raw cotton, meat and oil cakes;  construction activities have been hit, GST and demonetization have hit some cash dependent or tax evading activities, China dumping has clipped the growth in steel and tyre industry. But these may have been made good by growth in insurance services in rural areas, banking services through Jan Dhan, massive spread of LED bulbs, construction of toilets on a massive scale, etc. These may well have compensated for the decline in other areas and the Government’s stance of 7% growth may well be true.

Revisions in the GDP calculation approach takes years and they lag changes in the structure of the economy by a considerable time. Hence it is quite likely that many new sources of growth are not captured properly. Without these services in the estimate samples, the ex-CEA’s estimates may well be true.

But the real joker in the pack may be the efficiency gains in the economy. The last few years have seen significant gains in several areas. LED bulbs have grown rapidly saving huge amounts of electricity. Industries have also invested significantly in energy and utility savings. Banking has gone largely digital  cutting down long queues and wasted time; so are airline and railway tickets. Solar energy has replaced capex with opex and led to vastly reduced levels of consumption of fossil fuel. Digital books vastly reduce the consumption of paper; Netflix reduces trips to the theatre.

As illustrated in the table, such efficiency gains have a dampening effect on the GDP. The greater the gains accrue to the final consumer lower will be the GDP and growth.

And the impact from reduction in corruption. DBT reach the beneficiaries without leakage alright. But they have also taken away the jobs of several intermediaries and fixers. This has contributed to loss of several layers of jobs, even as it resulted in convenience, reduced costs, and saved loads of time for beneficiaries.

With the impact from the above factors, the GDP may have fallen as contended by of ex-CEA.

But GDP calculation is not a perfect maths.  The entire GDP calculation of Zambia is done by a single individual. A minister in Robert Mugabe’s cabinet likened measuring GDP to “trying to use a tape measure to figure out how much Coke is in this glass.” GDP is not measured by double entry book keeping; it is based on sampling with all the deficiencies that come with it. The Ex CEA’s approach is even more remote. The rapid changes that have been observed in the last few years especially since 2008, the urbanization and formalization since GST cannot be captured or compared with static sampling approach, size or methodology.

One wishes that the ex-CEA had not adopted an alarmist approach and present India’s GDP as some kind of methodological fudge. Without an examination of reasons, chains of causation, Working Paper no 354 looks more like the statistical appendix in the Economic Survey. If he had examined the reason behind fall in electricity consumption ratio (for example) from pre 2011 period, he could perhaps have come up with appropriate suggestions for perfecting the system.

Nevertheless, assuming his figures are correct, if the 4.5% has come about due to efficiency gains, better ICORs, reduced project implementation times, cost savings, and lesser inconvenience to consumers why should we be ashamed of it. These would only improve the competitiveness of Indian industry and services.

Selective Rationalization of Subsidies might solve the Agrarian Crisis

 

Link to Businessline: https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/how-the-agrarian-crisis-can-be-eased/article28128069.ece

The current agrarian crisis in India is a product of two factors (i) failure to recognize when Green Revolution started giving diminishing returns and taking steps to come up with alternatives and (ii) economic impact of subsidies, which this article examines – both man made and policy failures.

The current crisis can be summed up as diminishing soil fertility, sinking water table, increasing costs (all effects of green revolution) and poor returns to farmers, periodic unaffordable spikes in key commodities, periodic excess production which are dumped on the roads ruining several farmers and a huge burden on the government.

The policy failures have arisen due to not recognizing the nature of demand and supply curves for agricultural commodities. The demand is highly inelastic – in a market which consumes 100 kg tomato if one supplies 125 kgs the prices collapse, since not much demand is there for the excess. Contrarily, where it is supplied 75kgs only, the prices skyrocket since everyone wants to garner their daily supplies.

The Graph plots the demand and supply of a typical agri crop. The cost buildup of various suppliers is arranged from lowest to highest and its ridge on top becomes the supply curve. In agriculture the demand curve is steep and supply curve is relatively flat. Where this is the case the market price is closer to supply curve. This leaves a huge consumer surplus (excess of what the people are willing to pay and what they actually end up paying) and thin profits. Where the demand curve is flat but supply curve the price line stays closer to demand and hence smaller consumer surplus and higher profits for producers.

Many people have argued for breakup of cartelization of middlemen and dismantling or reforming APMCs as the panacea for better farm gate prices.  This is as naïve as it can get. The middlemen are performing important functions like taking immediate delivery of perishables, financing farmers, storage, connecting with customers and markets, inventory holding etc. which we forget. If left to government agencies they would mess it up.

Sure most farmers are small (crops from 2-3 acres to sell) and their reach is at best the village boundaries or at best 4-5 kms. How do they perform all the functions the middlemen do? At the Mandies of course it is a case of ‘many sellers’ versus a ‘fewer buyers’. But it is foolish to think that fewer numbers by itself creates usury pricing power.  Most markets should have at least 40-50 buyers (or middlemen) versus may be 500-1000 sellers. But this is statistically enough to create conditions of undistorted trade. Imbalance might creep in if there are only 3-4 on one side and can collude overtly or covertly. Most suggestions on ‘reigning in’ middlemen for tackling agrarian crisis is bound to be ineffectual.

But the real problem is the supply curve‘s flatness. This is largely the result of governments ill-advised subsidy policy which makes no discrimination whatsoever on the various input subsidies to agriculture. When everything from electricity, water, seeds, fertilizer, interest, MSPs, are given free or subsidized without any limits of land holding or size, it leads to similar cost structures for most suppliers and hence the supply curve becomes flat as shown in Graph (Before segment). Even if all mandies are handed over to the farmers, with such a curve, their profitability is unlikely to improve much.

The solution should revolve around exploiting the inelasticity of demand. The sure fire solution is to make the supply curve more elastic and harvest a huge ‘consumer surplus’ (which is what the middlemen do – they don’t take away farmers’ profits; they take away consumers’ willingness to pay).

This can be achieved by rationalizing subsidies. This can be done by restricting subsidies to only those holding 2-3 acres or to the first 2-3 acres only for even for larger farmers. With precise targeting through DBT, it is possible in the current scenario. Or it can be graded like 100% of current levels for 2-3 acres, 50% for 4-8 acres and nil thereafter, like in the graph. This will increase the cost for larger farmers (all units with ‘L’ label on x axis) and induce a steepness (as shown in the After situation in the graph).

Rationalization of Subsidies

Effect of rationalizing subsidies

The prices as is seen in the graph will raise (in the illustration from Rs 69 to 84). This shifts a portion of consumer surplus to producer profits. This will mostly benefit the small and marginal farmers. This transfer is perhaps much needed. We cannot have a society where 55-60% of people get a share of 15% of GDP.

The quantities bought and sold will fall. But given the inelasticity of demand, it will be relatively much less.

The larger units which lose a part of their subsidies will become uncompetitive in their traditional crops. They will diversify into other commercial crops or crops for which there are no subsidies now so that they won’t suffer in relative terms versus subsidy supported small farmer.  This is an important necessity. Our food grains production is in surplus and for increasing its income, diversification is a pre-requisite.

This will also partially address the rural income inequality problems.

Governments finances

The Government will save a lot by curbing subsidies going to larger farmers. It can reduce the crops procured under MSP since the market prices would have substantially moved to enhance their incomes. This would have come from consumers who were willing to pay, hence may be without much pains (other than a onetime price adjustment as inflation). The Government may have to spend a part of its savings on covering some poorer marginal sections (who are net buyers of food) through higher PDS subsidies.

A portion of PDS procurement can be reserved for organic farming by larger farmers. With the promising growth for organic products the world over, it could give an early mover advantage.

The Government need not do this rationalization for all products. It can start with those where there are surplus buffer stocks. If prices of those products move up, consumers will diversify their consumption basket to other products and their prices of unsubsidized products will also start moving up. Larger farmers would gravitate towards such products.

Macro Imbalance and the need for a new framework agreement

My article in Businessline today.

The chorus for reduction of Real interest rates as the panacea for the current economic stall is getting louder. From commentators to administrators to economists that seems the only item in the menu these days.

Interest rates (nominal and real), Inflation, Forex rates and Reserves, Investments, Capital Account convertibility and Foreign Investment Flows (all from the input or causative side) and Growth, Output and Employment on the resultant side are all intricately interconnected. There seems a need to look at things comprehensively and evolve a framework agreement between RBI and the Government reflecting this reality.

Illustration of Inter connectedness and imbalance

People buy things in advance if either it is likely to be costlier in the future when they need it or for de-risking (like Gold and Real estate). But what if the realized prices later consistently prove to be less? Would people still buy upfront or would it indicate some discrepancy? Lets see it in the context of forex rates.

The actual rates post facto have consistently been lower (far lower) than the Forward rates (rates quoted today for $ that will be delivered say 3, 6 months later).

The first one is determined based on the difference in inflation rates and the second one based on difference in nominal interest rates. If the Real Interest Rates are deducted from nominal, then the movement in both should be determined by difference in inflation. This should hold but for changes in outlook and situational factors and the policy induced difference in Real interest rates.

The persistence of actual rate being way less than Forward rate represents a serious imbalance and causes plenty of problems in domestic competitiveness, flow of foreign currency, investment absorptive capacity, etc. For example, if apples (representative of a basket of goods) are selling at Rs 50 in India and $1 overseas, then exchange rate should be ideally 1$ = Rs 50. Say, next year Indian apples have suffered an inflation of 10 per cent and have gone up to Rs 55. But apples overseas have suffered an inflation of 2 per cent and gone up to $1.02. Then the exchange rate should be Rs 55/1.02 = 53.93. But if the exchange rate is kept at say Rs 51, then the Indian exporter will get 1.02$ X 51 = 52.02 Rs /apple while he is able to get Rs 55 selling it domestically. Why would he export? To overcome this, we should allow the Re to correct. This will happen if we match the $ supplies into India with its net imports

Contours of a new framework agreement 

The framework agreement between the Government and RBI should cover all the essential variables not just one or two in isolation. Such an agreement should cover the following.

Limits on Forex Inflows: The inflows should be calibrated to match the absorptive capacity of the economy and its investment needs.  While Capital account convertibility can remain, RBI has to limit the quantum either at total levels or under each major sources of inflow. Reserves are a costly loss making insurance asset (much like Gold in individuals’ hands) whose cost are far more than the difference between interest earned and paid. It has effect on the real economy. The limits can be +/- 1-2% of what is required to plug the CAD or 6 months imports +/- 2 weeks.

Maintenance of Competitiveness: Competitiveness comprises two elements – the physical and the currency. Physical competitiveness comes from technology, scale, skills, IPRs, and natural resource endowments over which neither RBI nor Government may have control. Currency needs to stay competitive which can be achieved only if it floats freely to reflect the inflation differential.

Forex rates: RBI should be mandated to maintain the REER values within 2/3% of Re’s REER value after correcting the massive divergence now on a one-time basis.

Recalibrating REER Values: Again instead of using the general inflation numbers of the countries it should be the inflation of major input costs (including interest costs) of goods and services traded between India and its major trading partners. This basket may keep changing but there are real dangers of monolithic baskets or even currencies as a whole which are governed by many factors other than what determines competitiveness.

Real interest rates – Real interest rates should be mandated to be within 5-10 bps spread over interest rates in competing countries and those investing into India. High real interest rates and overvalued currency may encourage debt flows more than investments in real assets and FDIs.

Inflation: Divergence between estimated actuals and realized actuals after the end of period is difficult to control even for items like Forex rates where almost all participants are educated, trained and hence rational. It becomes even more hazardous in inflationary expectation. It’s time we move on to inflation targets for 3-4 major groups. Food inflation is far more politically sensitive and socially damaging than perhaps white goods or real estate.

Stability of Laws:  The last 4-5 years have seen sudden sharp changes in rules governing provisioning, NPAs, default status, etc. and levels of support to distressed assets even those which are clean but facing stretched cash flows. Changes should factor in reasonable adjustment period.

Quid Pro Quo

If these are corrected, governments should undertake to do the following:

  • To stay within the 3-4% fiscal deficit targets,
  • To smoothen MSP increases based on fundamentals rather than subject to political whims and fancies,
  • To curtail interest declared on mandated savings like PF, PPF etc.,and
  • Not to announce arbitrary minimum wages.

The current economic impasse is arising out of highly overvalued currency, uncompetitive real interest rates, inflows far in excess of absorptive capacity and inflation which looks more western and 1st world’s. The entire burden of causing growth and employment hence falls on the elected Government which has to substitute for the private sector which has been rendered uncompetitive due to these imbalances.

A comprehensive agreement on the above lines would go very far in kick starting growth and employment once again.

Flexibility and Agility are Virtues

Ironically almost a century ago, as the noted economist Irving Fisher in his The Money Illusion quotes Reginald McKenna, Chancellor of Ex-chequer UK as follows: “Since the War, central bank reforms have been instituted in Albania, Austria, Chile, Colombia, Germany, Hungary, …India, Russia, South Africa. In all these countries, except India, not one central bank has copied the Bank Act of England; but with that exception, all have adopted some system which is similar to the Federal Reserve Act” which provides for an ‘elastic currency’… the greater elasticity of the Federal Reserve System (is) the main reason for the higher prosperity of America”.

What was true then of America is true today of China which has proved far more nimble footed and what was true of Bank of England is true of RBI, which treats cast in stone monolithic approach as a virtue.

(The writer is the author of Making Growth Happen in India, Sage Publications).

 

Time to shed excessive fixation over inflationary expectation in Monetary Policy Making

The Last 3-4 years inflation control has become the dominant theme of our monetary policy making with just a lip service to growth and even lesser concern for what is needed most by the democracy – employment. Inflationary expectations have become the mascot of inflation and taming it has become a near exclusive fixation. the current approach fails to incorprate lessons from the recent advances in behavioural economics
Inflationary expectations have stayed stubborn and unrelenting at 8-10% even while CPI inflation has been has been drifting downwards to around 3-4% for several months.
There are some fundamental issues with expectations of individuals.
Firstly, do retail consumers (unlike equity investors) from whom data is gathered for consumer inflationary expectations have sufficient information and expertise to predict inflation even if they are the ones who are affected? People dislike risks and as Daniel Kahneman theorises people dislike losses twice as much as they like profits. There is hence a tendency to overestimate risks and the losses especially the non insurable ones. Even RBI itself has been consistently overestimating inflation.
Secondly, mind comprehends or estimates prices more based on purchase cycle. For example, a vegetable or fruit purchaser might think or worry about what will it be in the next two weeks. But it will be futile to ask him for an estimate of prices 26 or 48 weeks hence. RBI data gathering does not reckon the purchase cycle.
Thirdly, the nature of human mathematical comprehension itself and translation thereof into annual numbers. Even if they knew rightly that the weekly inflation of two different items are 0.2% and 0.5%, they will most likely come up with annual numbers in the region of 6-10% (instead of 11-30%). RBI’s data on various class wise inflation expectation figures reveal how the expectations are in a significantly narrower band than the experience of the preceding few weeks or months which should have had a significant influence on their expectations. Vegetables prices vary by as much as 40% between March and September (RBI’s Mint Street memo 19), yet this is never captured in the expectations reported which stays flat at 8-10% for most of the times.
How much do expectations drive actual behaviour.
This is the most crucial question that would govern the success or failure of the current approach. Unless it can be demonstrated that people’s behaviour (in direction as well as quantum) is consistent with their inflationary expectation using it will be as perilous as a trap shooter shooting before the bell and hoping that somehow the clay pigeon will show up where the shotshell goes.
How much inflationary expectations will affect consumers buying behaviour depends on several factors like the life cycle of the product itself, per transaction costs, costs of advancing or postponing buying decision and the alternative (even if short term) investment avenues and cost of funds (borrowing costs).
A 15% annual inflationary expectation in real estate might make many to advance their purchase of house sooner than later more so if the financing costs are lower and perhaps even reallocate from other items to beat the market. But the same inflation expectations for petrol and diesel prices (roughly 1.12% on monthly cycle basis) may not make a car or 2 wheeler owner to tank up on empty cans to cover his next purchase. The same rate (0.264% on weekly cumulation basis) would not make anyone to stock up on vegetables especially given the cost of preservation and possible deterioration.
The House owner will most definitely compare his cost of borrowing with his expected price increase in house prices to make his purchase decision. But for articles of daily consumption or even white goods the household consumers are unlikely to be swayed by inflations of the range one is talking of in India. This can be gauged by the discount quantum announced during festive seasons or season end sales in India – upwards of 15-20% of sale and in some items 40% or one free for every one purchased and so on. One does not hear of 1-2% off on discount sales open only for 1-2 days (a 2% discount ending in 2 days translates to a cumulative 3500% p.a.) even for ‘definite to be purchased’ articles of consumption like clothing, household supplies etc. It does not have any impact. Even the pensioners may not be influenced to stock up even when their savings may be earning just 6-8% annual interest rates.
Unless inflationary expectations translate to rational choices by consumers, the current approach will on most occasions result on excessive action. And as RBI’s data clearly proves that as far as India is concerned, inflationary expectations are not necessarily rational expectations.
Only when inflation becomes high (say 20-25% for India) and the interest rates are way lower in comparison or in a hyper inflation (like in Venezuela now), would people be driven to rush their purchases fuelling the price increase further. The current approach at inflation levels of 4-6% seems like having a foot firmly on the brake pedal as a precautionary measure while driving at 1 kmph. Actually many end products in agri and manufacturing sector are crying for a better inflation to neutralise their cost increases.
A case for differentiated approach
There is good case for junking our inflation control focus of monetary policy making. If our economists have faith in their own icon, Philips (after whom the curve linking inflation and unemployment is named), even in short run they would be forced to conceed that a low inflation is a leading likely cause of the current unemployment crisis. We can just use the last 2 months or quarters inflation to decide what to do and should it be necessary convene the review meetings at closer intervals whenever necessary.
Rather than a single objective whatever the inflation, we should move a into differentiated approach depending on levels of inflation. Upto 4-6% inflation we should focus on job creation, between 5-8% may be on growth and employment and thereafter inflation control can take primacy.
Our industrial capacity utilisation is stuck at about 75% for a long time now. The lowest hanging fruit to be harvested for employment and growth is to put the unutilised 25% to use. It would take a bold approach to identify the more viable ones amongst these and provide them with 4-6% working capital, which could make them chugging again. A growth of an additional 2% will deliver more goods and services to the consumers and tame inflation and create employment far better. But such a sensible approach would be blasphemous to our orthodox theorists.

Income Transfers – is it the most effective solution.

Link to Businessline Article: https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/are-unconditional-cash-transfers-desirable/article26762792.ece

Just recently Congress has announced its promise of income transfer of Rs 72,000 for the poorest 5 cr families costing the Central Government Rs 360,000 cr., potentially becoming bigger than our Defence Budget.

One side of evaluation is the feasibility of mopping this amount without fiscal stress. But the other side to look at is whether this is the most optimal solution to bring about the desired impact on the target,  which is what we will focus on.

Inequalities of Income arise from three other forms of inequality (i) inequalities in human capital (levels of health, literacy, skills, etc.), (ii) Inequalities in Opportunities (in education, jobs, etc.), and (iii) inequalities in living conditions.

In the long term, these can be corrected only by better healthcare, education and skilling, creating sustainable jobs and the industrial competitiveness to create jobs, housing and medical infrastructure for poorer sections, etc.

But in the short to medium term (say 3-5 years) the inequalities can be more urgently addressed by ‘redistribution’ of wealth, income, reservations etc.

Thomas Piketty, the renowned French economist classifies the redistributions into two categories – Direct and Fiscal. Some examples of direct redistribution to labour are fixation of minimum wages more than required to compensate for inflation and gains in productivity, prescribing social contributions, ESIC, etc. This increases the cost of labour for employers who may shift to mechanization and thus has a negative fallout in terms of jobs created for the target.

Fiscal transfers tax the richer through income taxes or a wider cross section through indirect taxes like GST. This has the beneficial effect of not increasing direct cost of labour thus not decreasing demand for labour. The scheme in discussion falls in this category. Let’s see the demerits.

Firstly, this form of income transfer is addictive. The amount is too huge to be spent on short term measures without measures to set right the structural defects of human capital inequality. Once started the political system especially in India simply lacks the will to withdraw it even when the purpose is achieved. But more importantly the political system forgets its duty to address the long term issues feeling absolved with quick fixes. We have seen this in reservations, free electricity, etc. A scheme of this magnitude simply cannot ignore the need for balance between the short and the long term. The scheme should spend at least 60-70% in addressing inequality of human capital and the balance in income transfers.

Even if it is not able to take any steps for long term correction, it can make the 60-70% as conditional entitlements like attend adult education and dinner will be free, attend prenatal counselling and child delivery and all inoculations will be free, acquire a skill and one year’s apprenticeship is free, have and use toilets and get one gas refill free, etc. Unconditional entitlements are prone to Chakma Baboon syndrome – any sign of withdrawal can result in attack and even killing – in this case political suicide and hence no political party will dare withdraw.

Secondly in the words of Piketty, ‘the cost of substantial fiscal redistribution would be considerable, because it would decrease the return on investments (for individuals) in human capital and thus decrease the incentives for individuals to make such investments …’. Illustrating, if wages earned by a 8th std pass is Rs 60,000 on average and that of a 12th std pass Rs 90,000 per annum, his family will decide on sending their wards to school based on these incremental returns on investments. However, if Rs 72,000 is guaranteed, the incremental returns to investment upto 8th std and 12th std becomes Rs (-) 12,000 and Rs 18,000 per annum respectively.  If in the neighborhood it is not shameful to be uneducated, the family might conclude why educate anyone upto 8th std to earn Rs 60,000 when he can sit at home and get Rs 72,000. This will save them their investments. This outcome will seriously dent our ability to address the long term issues.

Thirdly, researches on the impact of neighborhood, family status and social settings have led to conclusions like, ’inequality of educational opportunity is reproduced from generation to generation’, ‘students from modest background are less motivated to pursue lengthy courses of study’, ‘(it is) the immediate social environment that inequality inevitably originates’. The surroundings have a huge inertial impact on perpetuation of inequalities and need far greater and immediate attention to get the basics right. Widespread initiatives like sending some bright students to different settings so that they have demonstrative impact, forcibly setting toilets in the poorest 10-15% of families in poor neighborhoods so that it creates peer pressure on others to follow suit, setting up model farms with improved agricultural practices, model houses in slums, etc. should be initiated to tackle this highly underappreciated impediment on equalizing inequality.

To give credit where due, given the labour market conditions (high levels of unemployment), fiscal transfers are a far more effective tool than increments in minimum wages and other mandated payments by employers. Given high possibilities of mechanization, minimum wages would have driven more enterprises away from labour and worsened the problem.

One way perhaps to strike a balance may be to issue equivalent value coupons eligible for exchange in areas we desire them to consume – education, purchase of food, clothing, building materials for housing, use in public toilets, buying medical services, payment of insurance premiums for crops, life, cattle etc.

A succession of poverty band aids starting with loan write offs, educational loan write offs, transfer of Rs 6000 per family and now this Rs 72,000 to the bottom 5 cr people is a clear sign and admission of failure of our reforms to address the concerns of the poorest sections of our society.

Income transfer looks not the most optimal solution at present. Even so, one wishes that if it gets implemented the information does percolate properly and every one of the families take due advantage of it to get out of poverty for sure, without leakages plaguing this initiative as well.

(The writer is author of Making Growth Happen in India)