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

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

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)










Is it Time to rework our Monetary Policy Framework?


My article with the title above (different in title between the Print version and e-paper version) appears in Financial Express today.


The government seems to be in a bit of bind over both employment and growth, not for all its as own making. One of the chief contributory to this morass is the inappropriate way the objectives of our monetary policy have been fixed or evolved over the last 6-7 years. The Chart shows clearly the increasing misalignment between the inflation, external value of Rupee (as reflected by REER) and the interest rates caused by the recent shifts in our monetary policy. The Chart uses the WPI instead of the new found CPI which is 57% out of control of RBI’s policies as the report itself admits.

Two main components as it operates in our Monetary Policy Framework are (i) to target a consumer price inflation of 4% with a tolerance of 2%. Both the variable and its levels are recent developments, and (ii) to aim at orderly conduct of the forex markets without seeking to target any particular rates.

Fundamental flaws

Firstly, in both these, the targets are fixed without reference to any end goals in mind. As if these are desirable self-actualising end-goals in themselves. In economics everything is interconnected – inflation, interest rates, growth, employment, productivity, cost competitiveness, etc. To seek a deterministic nominal goal in a web of influences looks naïve at best.

Secondly, the objective that the economy desires to achieve may vary depending upon the stage of growth. It can vary for the same economy from time to time. For EU it is kick-starting growth now, for China is to stabilise it at a high rate, for Japan it is to grow – any growth – even if very low by international standards. For US it was achieving any growth after the meltdown but now slowly crossing over to stabilising inflation. A nominal fixed target does not address these contextual concerns.

Thirdly, economics is mostly about balance and trade-offs between what in general are opposing interests – buyers and sellers, producers and consumers, workers and producers, savers and investors, inflation and growth and so on. One isn’t sure how a nominal deterministic inflation number can work towards an optimal or at least desired equilibrium between savers and investors, between domestic investments and imports at all times even in the medium term.

Lastly, as is explained below, there is excessive and suicidal reliance on the nominal rather than real variables, which is what may be causing the current problem.

No basis

There seems no theoretical basis for the inflation targeting or its levels – not from IMF, not from Basle norms which aims at financial stability or RBI. While nothing can be exact about economics and hence a band is necessary for targets, a 2% tolerance on 4%, is like permitting Usain Bolt to run on his track or the adjacent tracks on either side and the penalties for trespass being imposed 2 Olympics away.

Just orderly movement of forex rates is no policy. When it is clear that it has a significant impact on domestic capacity utilisation, jobs and growth to just aim to only curb the volatility but not be concerned with the values is naïve shirking, much like driving without violating any traffic guidelines or speed limits but towards a wrong destination. By keeping the currency over valued for far too long (over a decade now), we are re-creating conditions of 1991 crisis.

Way forward

Keynes had brought out the true nature of the real and the nominal economy, the rigidities exhibited by the real and how to tweak it by using the nominal to achieve real goals. The current constant 4% inflation (nominal) target can in no way balance the interests between savers and investors, forever. The government should move to a 2% +/- 0.25% real interest rate regime. Whether the inflation is 4% or 9%, such a real interest spread of 2% will be a fair compensation to savers. It will also not curb investment urges if what investors have to pay out is in line what they recover from the market through inflation in prices. This is a sort of inflation proofing both savers and investors.

Such a floating nominal interest (but largely fixed real interest rates) regime will largely ensure that fresh investments and savings do not grind to a halt.

But the existing outstanding stock of savings are in fixed nominal interest regime, which poses problems. It is therefore necessary to move to a floating nominal rate regime and increase its proportion. In the last few years, Bank loans have largely become floating rate with optional repayment and a significant progress has been achieved. It is necessary to increase the proportion of floating rate bank deposits from the savers side as well.

The second thing that is capable of derailing growth and employment in an open economy is the forex rates. An overvalued currency makes imports cheaper, exports far less remunerative which affects domestic employment and growth. A 20-22% overvalued currency as on date is a killer. Government should mandate RBI to walk it along in an orderly manner along the real values. RBI and Government should agree to maintain exchange rates within a band of 97 -103 REER. This REER should be calculated on a base year that is sound when most economic parameters (CAD, fiscal deficit, inflation, growth, etc.) are as close to our desired objective. As it stands now, 2004-05 is one such year. The government should also tailor its inward investment policies accordingly and the degree of capital account convertibility tuned appropriately.

Currently policy rates it appears are decided mostly or solely on inflationary expectations. This can result in fear mongering. In deciding the policy rates, perhaps the actual for the past 2 quarters should be given equal weightage.

By moving to the real from the nominal on both interest and forex accounts, we may have learnt the right lessons from Keynes. Excessive reliance on the nominal on both accounts have made India underperform its potential in the last 4-5 years.