Way to kick start economy – Currency Devaluation or Fiscal Stimulus?

An edited version has appeared in Financial Express on 13 Oct 2017

Currency Correction or Fiscal Stimulus?

V Kumaraswamy

The feeling of sluggishness is palpable everywhere. There are talks of stimulating the economy by fiscal incentives etc. This can be a very innocuous medicine for reasons of (i) dosage, (ii) potency, and (iii) long lead time.

First the dosage. The government may throw Rs 50-60K crores as fiscal stimulus. This is about 0.4% of our GDP. Given the current moribund state of economy with 25-30% underutilised capacities it is too tiny to have any impact. The current closure of capacities or lack of investments have not become so for 1-2% poorer realisations or profitability. While the figures vary for different industries, it is substantial – more in the range of 10-20%. We need a correction of this magnitude. The gaps in our competitiveness with countries exporting to us like China, ASEAN and Korea is 10-15%; not a 1-2% pittance.

Next the potency and wastage. Any incentive will reach both Units operating at full capacity and units with low utilisation and poor profitability. Units which are closed or NPA currently could hardly be revived with a small ‘spread thin’ incentive. The incentives reaching units operating at full capacity will neither create incremental growth nor new employment. There will be a lot of wasted (applying where not needed) efforts.

Finally, the lead time. If stimulus is by way of Income Tax rebates, it will be a year or many quarters before the recipient feels it and reckons it in his decisions. If it is by way of Indirect tax cuts, the recipient knows that it is for a limited period and will not motivate him for taking a long term investment decision. We need some immediate actions and most fiscal measures take a long lead time to get results. It may be well beyond 2019 that one would see perceptible results.

The current problem

The economy is stuck at a low and unresponsive equilibrium.  The current economic impasse is born out of 3 main factors (i) high internal value of currency (low inflation targets resulting in high real interest rates), (ii) may be partially from it, high external value of Rupee and high real interest rates attracting too much forex flows which are beyond the capacity of economy to absorb and (iii) free trade with ASEAN which kicked in from Jan 2014 in full.

ASEAN FTA did increase supplies and kept prices under check. It made import parity as the main basis of price determination for many manufactured goods. But it also eroded domestic industry’s profitability since manufacturing prices have hardly risen to cover inflation of inputs in wages and inputs from agriculture. It delivered customer stable or reduced prices but took away their jobs. India’s growth is creating Jobs but in other countries!

Somehow inflation control has become the focal point of our monetary management in recent years just like fiscal deficit is for our Union Budgets. While the fiscal deficit control is understandable, in an open globalised economy when product of every description could be freely imported, supply shortfall induced inflation is out of question. From Pulses and rice, to apparels, to electronics and Ganesha and Navrathra idols everything can be imported these days. So supply constraint induced inflation is the least that RBI or the Government needs to worry about.

Ways to correct imbalances

The main contributory reason for our lack of competitiveness with other regional players is the high external value of our currency. The sooner it is corrected the better, either by devaluation or dis-incentivising inflows.   But devaluation can cause inflation. As is reasoned out below inflation can be phantom enemy if things are calibrated well.

The first thing is to reduce debt limits available to overseas investors and strictly adhere to such limits. There is nopoint accumulating reserves to earn 1-2% returns by paying 4-5% overseas as interest in $ terms.

Secondly, there could be a temporary tax on overseas investments into India. This can be even for ECBs, investments into government debt and all inflows which are not required for physical imports. Taxing interest on GOI bonds will lower their yields and contain inward flows. There could be a surcharge on inflows till the related imports also take place. These could be used for re-capitalising our banks.

As a corollary, Government can mandate that fresh foreign investments can only be in new government bonds issued, on which the GOI can offer much less interest rate. Such an exercise will help the GOI as well. Such issuances can be allowed for secondary trades may be a separate bond segment with lower interest will develop as a result.

Containing Resultant Inflation 

The Government should bite the bullet like it did with GST and correct the near 22% over valuation in one substantial go. It can reset $=Re at Rs 71-72, which is 11% correction.

Monsoon is good throughout the country and agricultural inflation may not be a risk. If in fact there is excess production, a good forex rate might help evacuate some surplus so that domestic prices don’t crash due to oversupply.

In the long term, a 11% devaluation is about $ 40 billion in added inflation. This on a GDP of approx. $ 2400 is about 1.6% – may not be unbearable. But it’s the short temr effect on imported products and their immediate derivatives and next level products.

Oil is the largest at 25% of import bill.  Government (state and Central) should put a price cap. Their duties (customs, Excise and VAT together) account for a third of final price. There can be a freeze for 12-18 months in Re-terms on these. Oil marketing companies which have expanded their margins in the last few months can be told to absorb a third and the rest can be passed on. An additional 3.7% inflation on oil will amount to about a 1% on final inflation. Gold and Diamonds are next. We should not bother with Gold (the costlier it is, the better) and Diamond is largely for processing and hence related exports will make up for the input inflation.

That will confine inflation largely to manufactured goods. Most prices today in manufacturing sector are determined by import parity prices. A 10-11% correction would most likely translate into a similar uptick in their prices, which could help several factories (most especially textiles) to start chugging again. In any case, buyers of manufactured goods have had it too good for the last 5-6 years without much inflation.

Protecting the pensioners and interest earners needs to be balanced with the interest of freshers in the job market. The total interest paid on all bank deposits and Small savings and MFs is less than 5.5% of GDP. If we remove the government pensioners and those who have not yet retired from this, it would not be more than 1-2%. The number of those entering the job market and finding themselves without jobs will far outnumber those surviving solely on interest.

Currency correction will also solve a lot of NPA issue. A 10-12% increase in industrial realisations will turn many industrial units from potential NPAs to preforming ones.

Superiority over fiscal stimulus

Currency correction will hit the problem where it is. The dosage at 11% on the total value of trade (both imports and exports) is huge. It will alter the domestic profitability substantially and have an immediate impact – from the following day morning.

Sure forex borrowers will suffer. But those who have covered their exposure need not worry. For those who have not covered or partially covered, they have made good gains for the last 12 years on the trot. Why should not they not be made a pay some back now?

An equilibrium cannot be corrected by fiscal stimulus which will be better for rectifying confidence issues.

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

Modi’s 500/1000 move may have sent him to stratosphere; but he has to be more convincing

 

I have a slightly negative view on the likely impact of demonetisation more especially the proportion of people who have to undergo the pain for catching a few (may be less than 1%) errants. In many cases the Govt may also know who those politicians/individuals are. So spoke to several people (besides several corporate types during the course of meetings) to gauge the mood; lucky I have not gotten beaten up yet.

First a Kaamwali (she wasn’t all that specific except that mentioned that she has just got Diwali bonus), a Receptionist in Mumbai at one the largest cement firms (she was inconvenienced but said that she supported Modi since it is required for the nation), an Old and frail Tamilian lady who needed some help with Kiosk check in, and my driver for the day. He with a bit of glee and satisfaction said “I had only Rs 3000 which I will exchange”. “Is it required? Do you support it?”. “Yes He has fixed all those **** (reference to some community). They have been asking for it, crooks. They were hoarding so much black money”.

A slightly serious looking Security staff who frisks you at Airport at CS in Mumbai.  When I opened the topic he was cross with me and put his finger on his lips to ask me to shut up. I trailed off with Modi’s name. His outlook took an about turn and asked in utter curiousness ‘Kya Kya Kya?’

I said Rs 500/1000. … he: yes yes. Me : Do u support it. Him: Yes sir.

Me: Why? Aren’t you inconvenienced?’

Him: ‘Yes sir. But that’s little’.

Me: So you can bear it.

Him: There is Hope sir now. I will bear it. His mouth was quivering. I was expecting an English response I was not prepared for an emotional response. I just patted him and said “great man Keep it up” and moved on.

 

2 jet pilots flying off duty. “Sir I can hope to buy a house now. They used to be asking so much cash… where will i go for that kind of cash. We support it”.

My next victim was a 5th std Master Kavya studying  in Singapore Public School in Dahisar seated next to me. Slightly on the studious side but very eloquent and fluent for his age. I took his mothers permission to talk to him for a few minutes.

He would have liked Clinton to come back, since she would have succeeded Obama who is a great friend of Modi. He likes Modi because he is the one to start Swatch Bharat which will clean up India.  They debated the effect of Rs500/1000 in the school.  The teacher briefed them on what ‘black money’ is. They had concluded that black money is not a fair system that some people bear and some people go free, it is cheating. He said that his parents would be greatly inconvenienced but still he supported Modi wholeheartedly.  ‘Its required for the Nation’. Views were erudite but he made his point in a manner befitting his age.

 

I was zipping thru most of Delhi and India Gate at 9.45 which was deserted like someone had announced that a nuclear bomb is going to be dropped there in an hour’s time. ‘Aaj Kya hai?’ I asked the Mega cab driver. ‘Logoan ke pass paise nahi hai’ he refrained. I thought I had at last found an ally and started a conversation. But he was more than a fan of Modi; he almost looked an appendage to him. Next 15 minutes he gave me a lecture on how Modi is good and how what he does is good and how it will benefit in the long run. I had no choice as his captive audience.

 

With 6 -7 others also, Modi seem to have scored a perfect 10 with this move – somewhat surprising for a debative society…he has managed to whip up a frenzy to ecstasy in support of his action. ‘Sock those Black Money B***ds’ seems to be the mood.

 

I did not expect such a one sided view from lower /middle income people.  So when I write this piece i know I’m in a minority. But still i present my sour grapes.

 

And Now the Sour Grape

Someone asked Deng Xio Ping the architect of Chinese reforms, on the 200th anniversary of French Revolution as to what its impact on Democracy was? He replied, ‘Too Early to Tell’. My instinctive reaction is to reserve my judgment on this recent chest thumping by Modi fans on his recent salvo (Mandatory Disclosure : I am a Modi fan myself, except i want to temporarily suspend that status on this issue till i get convinced on the benefits of his recent action).

What has been done is bold, no doubt. His speech was more patriotic, but it needed to be convincing more than being patriotic is my opinion. He could have told the nation on how much Black money he thinks is in circulation, how much the Government aims to garner thru this action, how much Taxes the Govt hopes to get as a one-time measure and how much on a running long term basis,  how much additional growth its going to create.

Most of all how am I as an individual going to benefit for the pains imposed on me – at least in qualitative terms. I have not earned a penny with tax dodge – rather I am yet to get so many I Tax  refunds (petty though) from the Govt since 1995-96. This is a pure compliance measure; so to impute any sense of patriotism is unwarranted, i reckon.

Half way into Modi’s term, i am far less convinced about his (or rather his cabinet’s) ability to deliver on the one most important thing – growth and with it employment for the rural, youth, newly graduating. I don’t think there is even a plot or story line leave alone a convincing plan. So i am not willing to be mesmerised by side shows, however impressive. If MMS was lack of action, Modi’s cabinet seems to be lack of ideas. Growth seems to be in an anaesthetic state. Just excessive focus on a few things  alone is not enough to run the country. And he hasn’t addressed the core issues causing black money – unreasonable stamp duties and Capital gains taxes alongwith election funding… in that sense the monster will sure take rebirth and start from zero again

When some Isreali said that even they would have been proud of India’s surgical strike, sure my chest went up 560 inches. Sure he is doing a great job of whatever he is doing; but then is he doing what all needs to be done?

While resolving strictly to comply with the rules, i am tempted to suggest the following actions:

Devalue our currency also – to may be around Rs 76/$ which is its true value. Impose a 30% tax on Chinese imports citing national security interests (their actions on Brahmaputra and POK).

It will create all the jobs that our youth and country needs.

To give a sense of balance, sure Demon’n will ease inflation and hence interest rates. It will make real estate more affordable and not prone to periodic price spirals and so people may not invest in them out of desperation but only when needed and look for better alternative investments. May reduce fees and prices of sectors thriving on black money like doctors and lawyers and some professional classes. It will motivate me more to pay taxes…but that alone may not convince the 99% abiding citizens to strain themselves (i thought so… but quick survey exposed my hollowness) to facilitate the government to catch the errant few.

With some serious disgust i should also mention that balanced debate seems impossible on this subject. Modi baiters throw all kinds of silly bile  … it won’t work, too draconian; what happens to A, AA, MA, BA,him, etc., will not succeed using anything from vile adjectives to heavy invectives. On the other hand Modi fans are rather obsessed – they talk as if this is the best thing that could have happened to the country since independence, this act required stature of Go… or such terms. You utter your reservations, abuse is not far away in time.

I am sorry. I am a big Modi fan myself. But i refuse to back him wholesale. I retain my right to be critical on certain issues or as in this case certain aspects of proposed action. To surrender this right of mine is an assault on reasoned debates and a vacuum of balance.

When we were descending I asked Kavya as to how he would like to be told by the teacher on any issue (i) Just be told by the teacher what to do in a stern way or (ii) she explains the matter, tells him about the risks and benefits and recommends that he acts. He didn’t hesitate to vote for 2nd option.

At last some consolation for me. Modi could have taken the convincing route than the prescriptive school teacher approach.