The Irrelevance of CCI in an Open Economy

https://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/decoded-relevance-of-competition-commission-of-india-in-an-open-economy/1193644/

Like particles behave unpredictably under zero gravity in Physics, in economics what works well in a closed economy may not work that effectively in an open economy and vice versa.

The current controls over monopolies, anti-competitive practices, abuse of dominant positions and mergers exercised by Competition Commission of India (CCI) seem inappropriate for an open economy.

Somehow, from the days of Joan Robinson whose work on imperfect competition is the basis of such market interventions, lesser prices are taken to mean better consumer welfare in our socialistic mindset. Indian telecom market which has expanded solely based on cheap and cheaper prices is an example of how unremunerative  prices can destroy consumer welfare and lead to shoddy services: you cannot even say ‘I love you’ to your beloved on cellphones these days without 3-4 call drops in between.

As it stands today, India is a considerably more ‘open economy’ and particularly more so since ASEAN-FTA, trade agreements with S Korea and Japan from where virtually most goods are available at zero duty at cheaper import parity prices and from China despite duties.

Most manufactured goods can be freely imported – so how can anyone (or in collusion) control or manipulate prices and fix them beyond import parity prices? Conversely, if the Indian prices are lower despite nil-duty imports, it only signifies domestic industry being competitive – so what’s the grouse anyway. Indian firms would be exporting in such cases.

In an open economy the comparative competitive landscape is not just Indian firms alone but includes other relevant supplying countries say China, ASEAN, Japan, Korea and some others, over which CCI has no control. Controlling only the domestic subset leads to loss of competitiveness. Bangladesh and Vietnam have taken a huge part of our share in Textile trade (the prime reason for bleak domestic employment scenario is textiles, potentially our largest employer) due to scale economies: average firm sizes in BD and Vietnam are 10-20 times that of India’s. In some cases, a single machine or unit in China manufactures what the entire Indian industry manufactures or consumes. Scale is an essential component of efficiency and competitiveness and restrictions on them are self-destructive.

Indian regulators have often gotten into the morals of pricing – the very antithesis of free markets. Indian agri produce markets are the most ‘perfect’ competitive – many tiny producer sellers and many individuals buying: the ideal of any Robinsonian economist. Yet from time to time, Tomato and Onion prices fluctuate like an ECG graph whose needle has come unhinged – much more violently than tractor prices, airline prices, white goods, and electricals. Should the CCI get into controlling Onion and Tomato prices and underlying market practices? These have more impact on the daily lives of more people on the brink than many manufactured goods.

Does collusion work in India. Price is the main driver for most consumer decisions in India. Its not unusual to find a Mercedez buyer  bargain for a free key chain. In markets where demand curves have high elasticity there is very limited scope of manipulating prices by firms: small hikes in prices will drive away lots of customers to alternative products. Competition legislations are relevant more for inelastic demands.

Collusive price hikes would lead to reduction in sales in price sensitive markets. But who would volunteer to take these cuts like Saudi Arabia does for Opec? If demand is weak, most players would want to jostle with others and gain market share. If demand is inelastic and hefty price increases are possible with small cuts in production (very few such examples in India: can washing machine manufacturers cut production by say 5% and achieve 25% price jumps?), will any player cut his volume and watch others make money at his expense? Preposterous.

As economist William Baumal concluded over half a century ago, firms are more guided by sales maximization and other such proxies than profit maximizing in their behavior.

Collusion requires co-operation. Where sly and open evasion of every rule or tax-laws are the norm, gentlemen agreements or voluntary self-controls in India is unthinkable. We are terribly competitive in our behavior: otherwise you won’t see such uncouth queue jumping or impatient driving or ‘one for each day in year’ number of national level political parties. Giving up for greater good is just not in our bloodstream.

The right focus

Why be concerned with B2B transactions when both parties are informed, experienced and likely to behave rationally and not psychologically pressurized? Far more collusive behavior is witnessed in B2C transactions say between a doctor (prescribing tests upon irrelevant tests, refusing an operation unless you pass the ‘show me the money’ tests) drug firms and diagnostic labs or between lawyers, a legal system completely under their thumb and hapless clients. To focus on such B2C transactions would be far more welfare additive. CCI should focus more on beefing up enforcement and delivery of consumer protection laws.

Competition laws should definitely be concerned where the products or services are priced below their variable costs. A society not paying variable costs is wasting resources. Such cases in telecom, power and petroleum pose huge systemic risks to the financial system.  In any case why would an Ola or Uber recover less than variable costs unless it is to drive away competition and start exploiting when others have folded up. Such practices are a matter of larger concern, but don’t seem to merit the attention of our CCI.

Competition laws should not be concerned with products can be imported at zero duties or are being imported in large quantities despite duties or products of discretionary expenditure. Why be concerned with scale or prices of consumer electronics, white goods or cars except to ensure that contractual obligations are adhered to and people are not ‘cheated’. Let the consumer choose to stay away, if they are not satisfied with service – after all it is discretinary.

Competition laws should kick in only when firms reach one-half of ASEAN’s biggest capacity. It can be applicable for life saving drugs or non-discretionary products. Others can be followed up based on surveillance or based on grievance from end users.

There are several areas where there are no market structures or performance of existing ones is poor. The commission should work out structures in those areas (example: market structures for electronic wastes, scrapped automobiles, vehicle parking, rural finance and insurance, Public distribution systems, etc.)

CCI in our open economy context seems more a status symbol pining to belong to economic fashion street.  If Make in India refuses to get up, sub-scale will be one key reason and legislations like CCI will have a lot to answer for. India badly needs to consolidate and scale up for cost competitiveness.

The Art and Need for Creating Employment

Link to FE 29/5/2018:  https://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/the-art-of-and-need-for-creating-jobs/1184633/

If there is one thing that is common to every government since reforms they all had a growth consciousness but equally they all lacked an employment creation strategy. Employment it needs to be realised is like the insulin that delivers the sweet benefits of growth to the individual citizens. Otherwise growth accumulates like sugar in the blood as inequalities in society with their own adverse consequences.

The chart shows the employment in formal sector versus the economic growth over the last 40 years. Unfortunately, reforms have preferred cost cuts over ensuring adequate levels of government services and preferred efficiencies over employment in private sector. If only post reforms had created employment at half the rate as before, it would have taken care of the army of currently unemployed, a ticking time bomb. An employed and hence an engaged mind would tackle several of our social ills far better than investments in tightening surveillance or even infrastructure. Even the 1.3% uptick in the last few years may be more due to informal employment turning formal.

Presentation1

Unsatisfied needs – the basis of all markets and economic activity

Demand or an unsatisfied need is the basis on which any business is created. Meeting an existing demand with an established market and pricing mechanism is a safer approach to success. But, ingenious minds come up with IPL which fulfilled a latent demand (which perhaps even the customer didn’t know existed) for after day entertainment. Our telecom sector saw explosive growth by satisfying India’s motor mouth urges, never previously anticipated. But this requires foresight, some daring, financiers willing to take the bet, besides creative minds to come up with the relevant package of practices.

Demand for Government services arises out of public goods, constitutional rights like justice, safety, protection of property, ensuring equality of opportunity besides some commercial activities. It sometimes is required to serve needs where users may not be willing or able to pay commensurate prices.

Art of creating jobs – an example

Huge negative value is being imposed on the citizens by our unclean surroundings, waste and litter, sewage drains masquerading as rivers, un-cleared urban wastes spilling over to drive ways etc. There is sure a demand for neatness, cleanliness and hygiene, even if all those desirous of the service may not have the ability to pay for it.

India’s employment from rag picking and waste collection is abysmally low at 0.1% of population whereas similar activities employ 0.7% in South Africa, 0.5% in Brazil, 0.6% in Lima (Peru) as per ILO. The GDP from these activities in advanced countries vary from 2.5% to 3.8%. Employing the people required (say 50 lacs at even 0.4% of population) won’t affect other sectors since these skill sets are low and there is an excess supply in the labour market in any case.

The main missing link is who will pay for the services. At the macro level given the direct and indirect benefits it may be worthwhile re-distributing 1-2% of GDP through taxes and expending it in tackling wastes. But there are other ways. Elsewhere, nearly 30% of value of wastes generated are recovered and reused. There are people in various income classes whose desire for ‘cleaner surrounds, safe drinking water, litter free zones’ are more intense and more can be recovered from them for cross subsidizing the lower income strata. Hopefully the net unrecovered portion can be contained to 0.6-0.7% in the initial periods. People taking employment under these schemes could be made to give up all other subsidies.

The direct and indirect benefits of cleaner surroundings should also be taught to the citizens creating over a period of time greater ‘demand’ for them and higher willingness to pay for them. Or higher willingness to move into areas where such services are recovered at higher charges. The capital required for creation of each job in this sector is way lower than industrial or service sector jobs, private or public sector. The skill sets can be developed a lot easier with minimal training.

The open sewages in our cities, unclean rivers, garbage, etc.  are all a huge source of opportunity for employment creation. Of the various links in the supply chain the only missing link in this case is the poor ability or unwillingness to pay arising out of poor sensitisation of benefits and income. In the case of IPL virtually all the links were missing or invisible and it required some genius still to spot the opportunity and put all the links in place to create the ‘market’.  Similar opportunities exist where just one or two links may be missing and some creative thinking can add substantially to GDP, welfare and employment.

The disproportionate fatal accidents per vehicle is an opportunity to set right the systems by employing people (may be a lac or two) and adding positive welfare value. Our ill-disciplined roads, haphazard parking in crowded areas, rampant littering, usage of killer plastics are all potential opportunities of employment at low incremental capital investments. Our collapsed criminal policing and investigation (in deficit by at least 5 lacs); delayed judiciary can easily create new jobs for twice the existing number. Our deficient healthcare as Dr Shetty points out has a 50 lac employment potential at ‘fit for purpose’ doctors, nurses and service levels.

Government at both central and state level should identify ‘demand’ and need for its various services and ways to fulfil them rather than just run after roads, ports or infrastructure: our governance infrastructure for policing, justice, safety, protection of property, education and primary healthcare are in far greater levels of deficit.

Hiding behind our awful deficit of government services and under-development, chaos and disorder is a latent demand which could create 3 crore new jobs at comparatively low capital investment. This level of additional employment would have most certainly returned the incumbent government in 2014 despite all other troubles and could make a difference in 2019 as well.

This level of employment can be created at 1.8% of our GDP at Rs 100,000 p.a. wage levels. It requires some ingenious minds in the government to identify and fit the missing links in each case. The government should perhaps leave the return based (ICOR, IRRs and Paybacks) growth to private sector and chase newer indices like Incremental Employment per Capital Invested (IECI) for itself –a compromise of efficiency for employment.

Tribal protection or Poverty Preservation

The article with the above title has appeared in Financial Express of May 16, 2018.

Link: https://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/tribal-protection-or-poverty-preservation/1169401/

 

Conversations with an Ex-Naxalite

Warning: I have generally decided that Grammar and spelling are useless appendages. If you are not in that genre, pl pardon. Naxalism, for the uninitiated is domestic militancy or localised terrorism.

This was about 8-9 months back. My driving licence had been suspended and i had to rely on Ola and Uber on holidays.
It was twilight and i had hailed an Uber to get back home from Noida. When the cab arrived, I tried to put 3-4 bags with me beside the front seat before taking the front சleft seat as I always do.
‘How is the day treating you Sir’ Came a confident voice – more of a CEOs than a cab driver. I must have murmured some response since i was still at tucking in the bags between my foot/legs and seat.
Once he started driving, i said everything was fine; the day had treated me all fine. I was looking into his face which had the rediance and lustre of say a Kabir Bedi with a 4-5 day cultivated bread which always stays that way.
Me: Are you from Bihar? (I have generally found that people from Bihar and Jharkhand are loquacious and keep yapping and many times excessively to my discomfort dishing out advice on advice even if unsolicited.
No Sir. I am from south- western orissa -Korapur district.  We have a factory in the adjoining district and so know something about the district and naxalite movement in adjoining areas within Orissa, northern Andhra and Chattisgarh.
Somethings I learnt from him about naxalites during the ensuing conversation:
1      It is not like you people think – that naxalites live a life of complete seclusion from the rest of society – in a demarcated land island with boundaries. they move in and out of society. Most of them do farm work during sowing, transplanting or harvest times in the adjoining villages. during slack or non season (or people permanently unemployed work) their activities peak. Most people know them and their families and activities. people in the vicinity dont have the same level of animosity towards them as people distant from the scene.
2      It is only the top 2-3 who dont mix with or expose themselves to the rest of society. They are nearly completely cut off – and some more people who are not known to move around. But mostly they move in and out of the society.
3      The recruits are drafted based on 3 criteria: Physical strength, ability to execute gruesome pain or crime and thirdly loyalty.
4       There are pay scales and cadre depending on the skill levels and experience and years with the movement and of course ‘performance’. They are all trained in their assigned activities.and there is specialisation.
5       the area under their influence has shrunk slowly. It is more or less finished in Andhra Pradesh. (as someone else confirmed in the late 1990s prominent guys in AP from the affected areas felt unsafe or scared even in Hydrabad; now you can drive thru the areas even at night). In Orissa and southern tip of Cgarh their is a marked downscaling of activities.
6      Many of them have moved into Government contracts – road construction, etc. The Govt knows it and has been helping it along. The local politicians and MLAs (who help them with some moneys sometimes) and sometimes even the police help them along.
7       Govts also dont make too much of their past crimes or issues or hound them or their families. there has been a practical approach in the last 10-15 years which helps in normalising their relationship and rehabilitating.

My mind started weighing the new insights with my pre-existing ones item by item saying yes, no , possibly, unlikely and likely as so on. And i muct have fallen silent for a while.
Driver: ‘Kya hua Ji suddenly completely silent’
‘No No just getting frustrated with the jam. I must have reached home by now. We are not even half way through. By the way can i ask you a personal question?’
Yes

Me: Haven’t you thought of joining the naxalite movement yourself. By what you say, it is not as dishonourable as i once thought it was.
He turned and sized me up for may be 20-30 seconds. I was unnerved for those few moments. Not knowing what was in store.
‘Yes I was’.
Hmmmm… i was a bit relieved now.
‘I was a good student normally topping my class and school right thru. suddenly at the 10th std board exam much to the surprise of my teachers, family and self i plugged in 2 subjects. I gave the papers again 12 months later but failed again. I realised my heart was not in it any more. I was loitering around, no work and leaning on poor parents during the time. almost for a year and more. It singed me that i should earn something and thats when i decided i will take it.

But then i was short on physical parameters. But then since i was good with my science, they agreed to train me as a ‘doctor’ (their brand). The training lasted for 3-4 months. I used to stay with my family and they used to pick me up whenever required.
But then it was mostly during night times at whatever time … 10 pm one day and nothing for a few days and then 3 am – very erratic. It took a toll on my health, outlook and general wellbeing. I was getting disillusioned even while the money was OK.
I must have been on duty for 9-10 months – say about 15 months with them.

I was looking around and a sardar offered migration to Canada and i went to Toronto. There it was … I was hold up for 45-50 days. I didnt have money … so was hardly moving out … mostly confined to the garage level shelter. It was not that the sardar wasnt trying but then it was not easy. I lost hope and decided to forget the Rs 2 lacs i had spent from my familys and self savings and loans and came back to India.
As luck would have it, i found employment as a travel desk operator with a French MNC office in Delhi. I looked decent and spoke good English so i guess i was lucky with that one.
Me: So do you know Mr Nathan?
Him: How can i not know him. He was a top boss. He used to live here only in Mayur Vihar somewhere. (actually the Gman was our beighbour for 4-5 years and moved to deep south on voluntary retirement).
Him: I was with them for about 3-years or so.

So why did you quit such a cushy job?
I thought i knew travel management well and so thought of starting a cab service and after some trials and errors started driving for Uber and Ola. For the last 3 years.

Me: So whats the status of Naxalism now?
Him: Havent really been following. Hardly visit my home town these days. Next time i go there i will find out. Meet them. may be some of my friends will be there.

And then there was a long pause.
I looked at him and now asked him ‘So its your turn to go silent now?’.
Him: After some long pause. In a completely different tone now. The gleam and glitter in his eyes gone and voice not exhuberant or decidedly hopeful like in the beginning.
Dont know sir. I manage to make Rs 15-20,000 a month doing this driving and my wife makes some 10-12 doing some office work. (some catering or some such thing). We have a daughter in 3 std and one 3 years old.

But dont know where i am going in life or what next. feeling lost not knowing what to do. I am just 34 and have so many years ahead. Not a great feeling. And saddled with responsibilities.
Me: Oh nothing new. Sounding bouyant  and pontificating (dont know if thats the proper way to respond). Welcome to the world of people trying to figure out their place under the Sun. It happens to everyone … between 32 and may be continue for you for the next 4-5 years.
even Vivekananda could not escape it. (he didnt seem all that convinced and i wasnt sure if he was taking in what i was saying).
even if you thought you had figured out, many other thoughts and doubts will wash that clarity in no time and you will feel desolate again. You will try to figure out the meaning of life, your purpose and so on. (That was the Philosopher myself for his benefit. Lucky he didnt say Enough. Shut up now and wait till we reach the destination).
I dont think much conversation took place for the last 7-8 minutes. he must have gone deep into introspection.
We reached home may be in 45-50 minutes where it should have taken 20-25 minutes normally. I paid him.
Him:“Hope we meet again soon. Hope fursat milega apko. Please store my number.
Yes I will. You too.
‘Sir you are brilliant conversationist. I enjoyed it with you”. (what a lie. he must have spoken for 90% of the time. and i became a brilliant conversationist!). In any case i rarely am at at the receiving end of such compliments and hence gracefully took it saying ‘No it was all because of you”.
And forgot to store his number.

Make in India spoilt by persistent low manufacturing inflation

A Copy of this appeared in Financial Express on 12-03-2018. Link: http://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/make-in-india-delivery-patchy-heres-why-rethinking-is-needed/1094828/

V Kumaraswamy

Make in India is one of the key cornerstones of the current government to raise growth rates and create employment. It has been almost 4 years since the Make in India was launched with much hope and fanfare. The Government has initiated several useful steps and reforms to actualise it. The most recent upgrade in credit rating and 30-odd points jump in Ease of Doing Business will get us some mileage.

But it is clear that the delivery of Make in India is rather patchy. Several reasons have been advanced for its lacklustre show – highly overvalued currency, unfavourable ASEAN FTA, tight and unyielding monetary policies, very high real interest rates, high logistics costs etc. All of them have a degree of truth.

But it has to be recognised that beyond all these, an entrepreneur or corporate will invest only if they get remunerative prices returns are competitive to what the other sectors yield. This last aspect has not been addressed at all by the Government or inflation conscience keepers. Had this single factor been corrected, Make in India would have had a far better report card to show.

Nature of Indian Manufacture

Indian manufacturing is not high tech where heavy engineering, high end electronics, aircraft and space crafts, ship building etc. dominate. It is relatively low to medium grade in its maturity. It has a heavy dominance by industries which prepare or convert produce from agriculture for domestic consumption.

To give a few examples: Textile sector (the biggest industry by employment) is dependent on agriculture for cotton supplies and silk which can account for about 60% of final product costs, Sugar industry on sugarcane, Cigarette on tobacco, Beedi industry on Tendu leaves and tobacco, Vegetable/ cooking oil industry on sunflowers, groundnut, sesame, Food processing industry on wheat, maize, fruits, fish, poultry and Dairy industry on milk. Roughly 40-45% of Indian manufacturing sector depend on agricultural for their inputs. And a few more for inputs from Mining.

It is important to maintain a balance between input and output prices in these sectors and they should ideally move in tandem, if the manufacturing sector has to stay attractive for investments.  In India since agriculture feeds industry and industrial final goods are sold to those in rural and agriculture areas, any persistent imbalance could hurt both.

Our Manufacturing Prices are down 41% since 2004-05 in relative terms.

Terms of trade in international trade means the prices a country gets for its basket of export goods versus what it pays for its imports and how the relative price moves over a period of time. In domestic trade it means how the prices which a sector gets for its output moves in relation to the prices it pays for its inputs from other sectors.

From 2004-5, the terms of trade have been relentlessly moving against Manufacturing. If the manufacturing sector has had to pay 165% more for its key inputs from agricultural sector, it has been able to recover just about 57% from its customers. If Agricultural input prices are taken as the base, the manufacturing sector is getting nearly 41% less today for what it sells to other sectors compared to what it pays for agri inputs. (see Chart)

WIN_20180312_21_17_06_Pro

At one level it helps transfer of income from non agriculture sectors to rural and agriculture sector and thus corrects income skewedness. But a consistent increase of this magnitude has continuously eroded the margins of the manufacturing sector to unattractive and unsustainable levels leading to lack of enthusiasm in investing.

Reasons

Year on year for almost a decade and half, Agri inflation has been more than parity. This has come about by steep and arbitrary increases in Minimum Support Prices (MSP) announced by the Centre for many crops, especially in 2009-10, 10-11, 12-13 and 13-14 possibly due to electoral compulsions (see Table). Although MSPs are restricted to certain crops, farmers tend to gravitate towards higher MSP yielding crops till the yield per hectare for other crops equalises with those under MSP. Thus MSPs impact transmits with a lag on other crops as well. One has witnessed a similar phenomenon in rural wages consequent upon implementation of NREGA.

On the other hand,  ASEAN FTA agreement has more or less put an effective ceiling on the prices that manufacturing can recover for its end products. Free trade has more or less made recovering cost inflation through domestic price increases an impossibility over the years. India’s over-valued currency has played a spoil sport on top of these.

Need for Correction

India’s growth story to continue requires Indian manufacturing to expand and diversify and create employment for those released from rural and agri sector. As the sector saddled with the responsibility of creating jobs for those entering the market, it should be the one which is relatively more attractive. Unfortunately, things are exactly the opposite for the last decade and a half relentlessly.

Ease of doing business can contribute to encourage entrepreneur by making the state machinery less intimidating but it cannot alter the base investment arithmetic of Return on Investments (ROIs).

Year Wise Inflation for Mfg and Agri Products                     (2004-05 = 100)
Year Mfg Inflation Agri Inflation Agri Inflation / Mfg Inflation
2005-06 2.4% 3.4% 140.3%
2006-07 5.7% 8.8% 155.4%
2007-08 4.8% 8.0% 167.0%
2008-09 6.2% 9.9% 160.9%
2009-10 2.2% 13.1% 589.6%
2010-11 5.7% 17.0% 297.9%
2011-12 7.3% 7.8% 107.6%
2012-13 5.4% 10.0% 185.5%
2013-14 3.0% 11.2% 370.7%
2014-15 2.4% 4.7% 195.8%
2015-16 -1.1% 3.4% NA
2016-17 2.6% 5.0% 195.0%

 

The approach announced in the recent Budget for MSP fixation might lend stability and certainty. If the MSPs are linked to the input prices which should include manufactured items like fertilisers, pesticides, seeds, etc. the inflation of manufactured products would have a decisive say in the agri inflation and hence MSPs. They would get inter locked.

Details are awaited on the exact scheme. Even if a margin of 50% is built in (which should take care of imputed interest, rent and profit besides inflation of inputs), it would build some parity and hence rein in persistent deterioration of adverse terms of trade against manufacturing.

Even so the heavy backlog built up since 2004-05 would need to be corrected if manufacturing is to see green shoots again. The States also should have a say in the future FTAs; they should have a choice of what industries and products to offer for free imports and what products to seek exemption from our overseas importers. States should also have a say in the fixation of MSPs.

A Rebalancing Budget – bottom up from the poorman’s kitchen

An edited version of the article appeared in Financial Express on Feb 21. Link:

http://www.financialexpress.com/budget/how-this-years-union-budget-reflects-a-great-grip-on-and-an-understanding-of-the-poor-mans-budget/1073485
This is perhaps the Budget with the widest sweep since independence – in terms of the % of people whose lives it will impact: mostly positively. Our budget pre or post reforms have shown excessive focus on industries, stock markets, and standard deductions and personal investment incentives for the salaried class. Not many of them would have had an impact on more than 20% of the people.Budgets have mostly been elitist; the economists’ macro sense stopped with fiscal deficits and growth numbers and hardly cared of how benefits were delievered at the door step of the common or poorer man.
Budget – a link in the chain: Poverty and what is being done within and outside budget.
The problems of the poor are (i) low incomes and (ii) high variability even in that limited income, and (iii) very high interest rates which kills all commercial ventures by them.
The Government has announced a MSP pricing formula, which will hopefully push more incomes into rural areas more systematically. Gas connections and proposal to buy surplus electricity from solar sytems will add to their comfort and income. Healthcare in rural areas will also create good employment and enterprise opportunities. And as Dr Devi Shetty (of Narayana Health) points out (TOI, Feb 1), there is great opportunity for paramedics and nurses with 2-3 years’ education after 10th and 12th capable of creating jobs for 5 million of them. This budget will create the demand for such services. If only we had tackled healthcare first thing after independence, may be even population would have stabilised by now.
In the last 2-3 years, the Government has tried to substantially tame the volatility in rural incomes. Crop insurance has already increased significantly -may be to 40% of farm produce during current year from negligible levels 3 years before. Life insurance of 2 lacs (for Rs 12) is already taking effect. The Budget has laid out a blue print for tackling the next most significant reason for debt trap of poor – health emergencies. With these the variability of poor family’s cash flows will come down sharply over time..
GST is formalising the economy. A more formalised economy widens the reach of cheaper formal credit from Banks. This can in turn bring down the interest rates facing the poor. It will come down from 750 – 1000% (the interest rates facing pushcart vendors according to RBI ex-Governor Dr Subba Rao. Page 266, Who Moved My Interest Rates) to a more sanguine number. Imagine what can be achieved if the costs for them comes down to 30-40% per annum which is what a Rs 3 lac crores additonal allocation and Mudra initiative, direct delivery mechanisms, Aadhar authenticated loans, Jan Dhan, etc. can achieve. Entrepreneurship can bloom in rural areas.
The Government has to work on a few more things. One is animal health, which also throws rural poor into debt traps. Agri productivity has been increasing year on year by 2-3 % on average but bumper crops only play spoil sport due to high price elasticity. MSP helps, but food-processing and exports are the real solutions.

Rebalancing gains and losses

The Government’s actions in the last 18 months is fundamentally re-balancing the economy – bringing in large sections into the formal fold by GST, DBT, Jan Dhans and Digitisation, into the tax net (both direct and indirect), and in the manner of intervening into poor households’ family budgets and welfare and most importantly bringing in the rural sector to mainstream economy. This is happening at a rapid pace and is bound to throw up some gainers and some losers. It is but inevitable that the rich 1% who are garnering 73% of annual incremental wealth (Oxfam) will lose to the balance 99% who garner a measly 27% of the wealth as of now.
But this rebalancing will also open up great opportunities. Even if it is just a transfer of wealth and income from rich to poor, since the marginal propensity to consume (MPS) of the tranferee poor is 90-100%, instead of the 50-60% of the rich, it will still create conditions ideal for consumption led growth.
Those who doubt the growth potential of the budget are missing the long term potential. Our consumption base is far too low. Its only the top 20% of population (income wise) who count for anything. When the penetration level of a basic hygiene item like sanitary pads is as low as 17% and that of adult diapers in low single digit, there is a compelling need to expand the base. This budget kickstarts the cycle. Better incomes at rural and urban poor levels will enable better FMCG growth in the immediate 2-3 years. Healthcare products and services will follow suit and create significant opportunites in the ensuing 6-7 years. Without this expansion, our growth would have been slave to a minuscule % of population which it has been so far during reforms.

Critics and their failure to see opportunities

A persistent fiscal deficit of over 4-6% (see accompanying table) seemed alright to tackle the global meltdown whose effect on India proved to be marginal, but a marginal slippage while effecting very fundamental structural changes seems unpardonable. How myopic and hippocritical!.
Fiscal Deficit as % GDP
Year        %
2007-08 2.5
2008-09 6.0
2009-10 6.5
2010-11 4.8
2011-12 5.9
2012-13 4.9
2013-14 4.5
2014-15 4.1
2015-16 3.9
2016-17 3.5
2017-18 3.5
Source: Economic Surveys

Little do those who lament lack of tax cuts appreciate that their economic efforts are rewarded by the society by higher incomes and wealth. The nation has given them access to market and the consumption basket and they need to pay or this access. Without this access, their wealth can never come about – it is two way transaction. Its sad that so much noise is being made about LTCG, when a retired pensioner cannot index his interest incomes and pay tax only on real interest rates.
Of course some of the initiatives will take 7-8 years to clear the cobwebs of culture, habits and bureaucracy to take full effect.

This budget reflects a great grip and understanding of the poorman’s budget and constraints on his reaching ‘escape velocity’ out of his hunger and poverty. It has constructed a national budget from the common man’s – women and men – kitchen upwards and each of his budget line items, so that inclusion of various kinds, delivery of programmes, poverty and hunger removal become integrated with budget making.

The usual commentators including the economic fraternity have scarcely picked up the fundamental directional shifts. They have dusted and delivered the same old cribs. In Cricketese, they are playing hook shots to yorkers because that is the only one they know.

(The writer is CFO JK Paper and Author of Making Growth Happen in India)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With Due Apologies to Pensioners

This appeared in Financial Express on 13th December, 2017 http://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/myths-on-pensioners-busted-check-out-the-real-and-false-arguments/971509/

Inflation Proofing Pensioners – the real and the false arguments

V Kumaraswamy

Our tight inflation targeting in the last 6-7 years are sought to be justified on (i) stable prices being a pre-requite for sustained growth and (ii) that pensioners who largely on interest income should be protected. Such targeting is being achieved by RBI through higher interest rates regime. Similar argument is advanced against correcting our over valued currency.

That the pensioners have suffered in the last few years and will suffer heavily if we loosen controls on interest is a big myth at this point in time when coming out of low growth inertia and near nil new employment creation seems so vital.

Have they suffered in recent times?

The main argument is that the pensioners with fixed income will suffer capital erosion through inflation and will have less and less real capital base to earn their future incomes. If interest income remains constant but expenditure keeps going up year on year due to inflation, progressively they will be left with smaller amounts to consume.

Table 1 clearly shows that this argument is clearly overdone in the last 4-5 years. Ever since the 4% CPI inflation target has been articulated and rather doggedly pursued by maintaining higher interest rates, inflation has fallen steeply whereas the interest rates have not traced the same trajectory.

From 2005-06 till 2011-12, the interest on Bank Term deposits were 1.5% more than the WPI inflation and 0.7% less than Consumer Price inflation. Since then, interest earners have had it good and the interest rates have been more than both – by a whopping 5.6% over WPI and 1.5% over Consumer Inflation.

 

Table 1: Interest Rates and Inflation – Pre & Post 2012
Period WPI Inflation @ Inflation Consumer Prices # Interest on Term deposits @
Ave 2005-06 to  2011-12 6.6 8.8 8.1
Ave since 2011-12 2.3 6.4 7.9

Source: @ from RBI; # from World Development Indicators.

But why the all-round feeling of being left out by the Pensioners now as the social media would have us believe when in real terms their income is 3 times compared to the period before 2012. In the years since 1991 except for a brief period between 1998 to 2002 asset prices have always been going up, in many years faster than inflation. When there is asset price inflation there is the wealth effect which makes us feel wealthier and prone to spending more, as articulated by economists. But once again in the last 3 years, real estate prices have hardly gone up. Without this illusory wealth effect backing, pensioners may be feeling poorer off.

Class of Interest Earners and Pensioners

People in agriculture tilling the land are unlikely to be living on interest income. They till as long as they can and then reply on family as the social security net on reverse mortgage of sorts – family supports them on the understanding that on death, his property will pass onto them. This is 50-60% of rural population. Landless labour are unlikely to be hit due to interest rate variations; they would need a safety net of a different kind. Non- farm rural labour is unlikely to be living off bank deposits.

People who are largely living on interest income are most likely urban or middle class. Most of them hedge their bets and have houses, gold etc. as safety nets and only a portion of their savings is in interest bearing instruments.

Amongst these are retired Government employees, whose pension is adjusted for inflation from time to time if they have been in service before 2004. They are a substantial proportion among pensioners. Those who joined after 2004 are unlikely to have retired by now.  Those who are most likely sufferers are those who retired from private service. Let’s see what proportion these are.

The total term and savings deposits of the banking system as of Sept 2017 is about Rs 114 lac crores and with the MF, Small savings and Public deposits it would be about Rs 130-135 lac crores, which is about 80% of our GDP. The comparative figures for US is more than 150%.  At an average rate of 6.6% this would give an income of Rs 8.91 lac crores or 5.5% of GDP.

From the above, we have to deduct the interest accruing to people still in service and Government pensioners. The income accruing to those who are surviving on interest alone is likely to be less than 2% of population.

Effect of Currency Devaluation

One of the strident and stubborn arguments against correction of our overvalued currency is that it will lead to inflation and hurt the interest of pensioners. The Urjit Patel Committee has summarised the several studies (see Table 2) on India estimating the inflation over the short term and the long term from a 10% movement in Rupee versus USD. With the singular exception of Ghosh and Rajan, the resultant incremental inflation (from currency alone) is likely to be 0.6% in the short term to about 1.5% over the long term. This is hardly worth the scare given the real income of pensioners have risen 3 times since 2012.

 

Table 2: Impact from 10% Depreciation of Re vs US $
Author Period Covered Short Term Inflation Long Term inflation
Khundrakpam (2007) 1991 – 2005 0.5% in WPI 0.90%
Kapur and Behera (2012) 1996 – 2011 0.6% in WPI 1.20%
Patra and Kapur (2010) 1996 – 2009 0.5% in one qtr WPI 1.5% in 7 qtrs
Patra et al (2013) 1999 – 2013 1.5% before 2008 crisis 1% after Crisis – WPI
Ghosh and Rajan (2007) 1980 – 2006 4.5%  to 5% in CPI  
Bhattacharya et al (2008) 1997 – 2007 1% – 1.1% in CPI 0.4% to 1.7% in CPI
Source: RBI – Urjit Patel Committee Report

 

Pensioners Vs Job Seekers 

Should our monetary system be so sensitive to such a small proportion of GDP and the group of people behind that (less than 2%). A 2-3% drop in interest rate in line with inflation would help the investment climate substantially especially in utilising capacities lying idle. The number of new job seekers is about 0.75 – 1% of total population each year.  For years on end the job creation has suffered and they will far outnumber Pensioners and its time their aspirations are also met.

Deposits till death.

If term deposit interest rates spread inflation had been same post 2012 (as between 2005/6 to 2012), Banks would be now saving Rs 164,000 crores on the incremental deposits of Rs 40-odd lac crores. If similar reduction had accrued on Central Government’s net additional borrowings, it would be an additional Rs 74,000 crores. These amounts saved would be sufficient to take care of those who purely depend on interest for survival.

The real sufferers can be taken care of by special deposits which can yield 2 % over CPI inflation s.t minimum of 5%. The deposits can be on joint names of spouses and on death of the latter to die, the deposits can be given over to the designated nominees after deducting tax. If prematurely withdrawn by depositors, the interest can be recalculated as per past prevailing interest rates and the balance of deposit paid to the depositor. Those who are entirely dependent on interest alone could be easily taken care through this mechanism from the potential savings as earlier estimated.

The writer if CFO of JK Paper and Author of Making Growth Happen in India (Sage).