A Contrarian Monetary Policy

Indian industry has been sluggish for a fairly long time, and all our orthodox monetary policies have not been able to make it come alive, grow and deliver employment of any great proportion. Democracy does not seem to be the villain, as much as unimaginative policies. Opportunity costs for experimenting with an alternative policy are very low now, as never before.
The key cornerstones of such a policy would be as follows:

  •  No FDI/FPI or FII targets: Just maintain the rupee within -4%/+1% of REER values. This will be pre-fixed with a one-time readjustment to correct the current overvaluation.
  • No inflation targeting: Target industry/economic activity-specific interest rates based on supply gaps or potential. Debunk general purpose credit measures.
  • Switch from price-based (repo and bank rate) money volumes to volumes-based price (interest rate) discovery.
  • These monetary measures have to be garnished with two fiscal actions—bringing petroleum under the ambit of GST (28%), and aligning all export incentives with the ‘best of ASEAN’ incentive package.

Let’s see how these contrarian measures are better suited to kick-start industrial revival and help in the creation of employment. First, a recapture of changes in business behaviour especially with respect to the main policy tool, i.e. interest rates.

Interest on working capital should count as variable cash costs (marginal cost to economists). An increase across the board for all players would only push up the supply curve and result in inflated prices—quite contrary to the effect desired. In any case, due to advances in communication, payment systems, ‘as and when needed door delivered’ systems, optimisation algorithms in stock keeping, etc, businesses are working with a lot less working capital and some enterprises even on negative working capital.

The ability of long-term interest rates to influence investment decisions is fast dwindling over time. Most of the new economy is funded by equity capital and sweat equity. In conventional manufacturing, gone are the days of 4 or 3:1 debt equity structures. Credit rating agencies frown at 1.5X debt levels now. Investments in new economy areas like Google, Ola, Paytm, IPL, casinos, Reliance Jio and space travel are more an outcome of guts and vision, rather than RoI and IRR-based like automotive sector, consumer products and street corner restaurants. And the new economy’s share in investments is overshadowing that of the traditional economy’s. These have reduced the potency of some of the monetary tools. More savings are also finding their bypass route to investments than through conventional banks and financial institutions, i.e. through private equity, VC, HNI, PMS systems, etc. Interest can affect consumer demand and have some effect on savers conduct, and this could be used for maximum impact.

The Indian context
The general capacity utilisation in industries is stuck at less than 75%—a level that will hardly inspire any investments. A great proportion of consumption growth has been met through imports from more cost-competitive nations. A few relatively better cost-competitive players have seen their capacity utilisation grow to fuller levels.

There are some industries (such as telecom) that have seen investment, but these are largely in the nature of ‘overtaking’ investments, i.e. fresh investments with superior offerings, driving customers away from existing players, thus rendering already standing investments to lower capacity utilisation levels. Some such industries (such as modern retail and banking) have also destroyed jobs through the use of technology.

A contrarian approach
Working capital interest rates for manufacturers with fuller utilisation should discourage stocking. Credit flow for downstream distribution and trade for such industries may be either curtailed using physical norms or prohibitive interest rates. But long-term interest rates should be kept lower to encourage quick capacity additions. Industries which see low capacity utilisation need lower working capital and export-facilitating interest rates, but long-term loan rates should ideally dissuade fresh capacity additions.

Overtaking investments should be mandated to raise a greater proportion of funds through own or equity funds. Besides being risky themselves, they also create systemic risks for all the existing players and their financing banks, and hence the whole industry should be charged risk premiums and far tighter debt/equity targets (<0.5 maybe), which would slow down such investments.

The above clearly indicates a need to junk the current general purpose credit policies and adoption of a sector-specific approach, with working capital and capacity addition loans being priced differently—risk premiums on one end and incentives on the other.

The 2008 meltdown could, in large measure, have been avoided by controlling just one industry—construction and mortgage-backed securitisation. Industry-focused approach produces results faster, is focused on the causes, and avoids unnecessary spillages and unintended harmful side-effects on other industries.

Sticking to the REER corridor of -4%/+1% on a yearly basis will help in competitive (to the rest of the world) inflation anchoring (of traded/tradable goods and services and thus overall), unless, of course, we import a large portion from the Venezuelas of the world. A 4% undervaluation will somewhat neutralise the loss/lack of competitiveness due to our infrastructural bottlenecks, substandard scales and bureaucratic bottlenecks. Such REER targeting will also determine levels of FPI/FII targets and portfolio investments.

Even if we want to anchor inflation, 6% makes sense, but giving the same width on the underside at 2% does not make sense. Any growing economy needs higher inflation and the corridor for an anchor of 4% may even be 4-6%, instead of 2-6%. Or even just 6% maximum, like highway speed limits.

Inflation, interest rates and volume of credit all have their influence on economic activity with varying degrees, with inflation being the least direct and perhaps most loose, and the volume of credit most direct and perhaps more immediate. Moderating through a more direct tool can be more effective. Interest rates can be the resultant, than being a determinant.
Fuel oil has the largest influence for a single item and should perhaps be under the central control of the GST Council, rather than be a matter of political Centre-state slugfest. Proper control of a few such items could moderate inflation to the desired levels. Indian incentives as well infrastructure are way too uncompetitive, and even as physical infrastructure takes time, one can work with export incentives.

Monetary policies increasingly look like wet blankets to suppress high fever. Without redressing the causes, we will only reap the harmful side-effects. Monetary policies do not seem to have rediscovered themselves in the last several decades with advances in behavioural economics, not even business behaviour.

GST surpluses should be used more purposefully

https://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/gst-put-surplus-to-more-purposeful-use/1248647/

GST collections have been buoyant. The implementation seems to have gone off smoothly after initial fears, making one international indirect tax practitioner to grant that India’s experiment has been a source of positive learning for the rest and ‘no other country has implemented tax changes as fast as India’. As per reports, collections have been gathering pace and June 2019 collections are Rs 6,000 crore more than the average of last year. The GST Council has reduced the rates for 178 items from 28% to 18% in most cases and, in some cases, to 12%.

While the items seem carefully chosen, one does not know what are the alternatives the government considered before coming to the conclusion that such a step would benefit the country most optimally. The unexpected buoyancy should have been used in the best possible way to serve the greatest common good. Instead, the government and/or the GST Council seem to have settled for what looks fashionable. The government/GST Council seem to have erred for the following reasons.
First, almost all tax rates on products and services have come down under GST compared to the earlier regime of excise + CST + VAT and several other local levies cumulated. Yet, the tax collections have gone up. It is only reasonable to conclude that the enhanced tax collections have come from reduced levels of tax evasion, reduced cash transaction levels and more informal sector units getting formalised and thus getting into the tax net, besides some uptick in economic activity. The neo-converts to the formal sector are mostly small and medium enterprises and rural and semi-urban entities.

The government should have kept in mind the sources of ‘excess’ collections and its employment-generating and other distributional effects while deciding how and whom to ‘refund’ it to. There is no need to reward erstwhile tax evaders in the formal sector who have become compliant now. Since a substantial additional GST collections have come from the rural and informal sector, it would have had an impact on the employment levels there or at least reduced their net disposable income. It would be a mistake, if not sheer travesty, to sponge resources from this poorer section and pass it on to items mainly consumed by richer segments.

Second, the lost opportunity to create much-needed employment. Let us assume the government wanted to use the entire excess and it deployed this in employment-intensive and wage-intensive sectors. Let us say wages would account for half, and the other half would be used for non-wage overheads. It would leave Rs 3,000 crore in wages per month. At Rs 5,000 per month per worker, this works out to 60 lakh jobs.

Here are some areas which could have absorbed such a vast army of people. Traffic regulation to bring back discipline on our roads. Against just the belief that CCTVs and cameras would bring about discipline and maintain order on our roads, the presence of uniformed staff at every street corner would have had a far more pronounced impact.

We could have created a plastic/pollution police or litter collectors. The police force alone is short of 5 lakh personnel, compared even with a standard fixed years ago.

Third, it is not that India is a highly taxed country. Its tax-GDP ratio is one of the lowest, considering the number of things it supplies free of cost or at subsidised rates. Most of the government services are in an awful state in terms of delivery delays, due to lack of staff or ill-trained staff. Ensuring safety and security, fast and timely justice, adequate education should all be considered fundamental rights, much more so than six-lane highways and high-speed lanes. For achieving basic standards on these, it is necessary to garner greater resources. It is ironic that we have shrank from collecting resources to ensure basic minimum services.

Distributional efforts may not have the same effect on Keynesian income multipliers as fresh ‘autonomous’ investments and hence indirect job creation may not be much. But, it is likely to be far more advantageous than mere tax-cuts that are being planned now, tax cuts for people with higher than average propensity to save might even shrink employment.

Even from a political angle, it makes more sense to use it for funding low-wage employment. An increase of low-wage employment is more certain to translate into positive votes. One is not sure if the tax reduction—largely in the consumption basket of upper- and middle-class— would induce the beneficiaries to vote positively. This educated class would decide on voting preferences based on a more informed and educated choice than just tax reduction. Several such beneficiaries may not even take the trouble of voting.

Employment generation of the scale talked about here could have alleviated urban poverty in most of our major cities quite fast. Or, if the employment was focussed in rural villages, it would have meant 10 jobs in each of our 6 lakh villages, each with 200-300 households—small yet significant. That would have been the most impactful advertisement for our employment-starved reforms agenda.

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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shape of Economy – Interview with CFO Magazine

 

V Kumaraswamy, CFO, JK Paper Ltd says the new indirect tax law will bring rural economy into the formal fold and, thus, help create an inclusive economy

GST : deceptively uncomplicated everywhere it looks like.

Last Night I had a dinner with a Dutch Govt agency person in Indian Accent, supposedly Top ranked amongst Delhi’s fine dining restaurants – an endless procession of snacks and starters. Great taste but beyond sometime gets more on your nerves than stomach. I ordered the set menu to avoid spending time on choice and then they kill you with choices at each stage.
In between he started discussing Modi and it veered off to GST and I said that he is taking a big gamble in implementing this huge tax exercise.
Me: Where you there when Netherlands implemented GST; when did your country implement GST?
Him: Hm.. don’t know it has been there as long as I remember.
What’s the GST rate?, I ask.
Him: 6% for most food items, then there is 19% for some luxury goods and 21% for some more items.
Me: How many such rates? You mean there is no one rate.
Him: There are three. And then they vary it in certain years to 18.5 or19.5 depending on the budget situation to mop up more or less money. Or say 21.5%.
Me: You guys move around freely between various countries inside the European Union. Do you pay GST when you arrive back in Netherlands everytime. Are the rates same in all these neighbours.
Him: Dont know… cant recollect.
Him: But I know that it is cheaper to buy Cars in Germany.
Me: No taxes?
Him: No, we pay taxes on them But it depends whether it is a 2nd hand car or 1st Hand. They collect it when you go for the number plate. Then there is an Import duty which is non vattable … meaning you get no credit or offset.
My breadth was beginning to sigh and hopes sag. I did not ask him about alcohol, petrol, services …
…the conversation went off somewhere.
Looks like GST is a deceptively uncomplicated soul everywhere.