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

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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is it Time to rework our Monetary Policy Framework?

http://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/what-should-rbi-give-weightage-to-decide-policy-rates-all-you-want-to-know/941225/

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.