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.

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  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.

 

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.