As tax collections slow down, govt fiscal deficit shoots to its highest level in 16 years

Fostering Public Leadership - World Economic Forum - India Economic Summit 2010Vivek Kaul

The Controller General of Accounts declares the fiscal deficit number at the end of every month. The cycle works with a delay of month. So, at the end of November 2014, the fiscal deficit for the first seven months of the financial year (April to October 2014) was declared.
The fiscal deficit for this period stood at a rather worrying 89.6% of the annual target of Rs
5,31,177 crore. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends.
One reason the fiscal deficit is number is so high is because the government’s expenditure is spread all through the year, whereas it earns a substantial part of its income only towards the end of the year. But even keeping that point in mind, the fiscal deficit for the first seven months of this financial year is substantially high than it usually has been in the years gone by.
For the period April to October 2013, the fiscal deficit had stood at 84.4% of the annual target for that year. In fact, the accompanying table shows us that the fiscal deficit for the first seven months of this financial year has been the highest over the last sixteen years. 

PeriodFiscal deficit as a proportion of the annual target
April to Oct 201489.60%
April to Oct 201384.40%
April to Oct 201271.60%
April to Oct 201174.40%
April to Oct 201042.60%
April to Oct 200961.10%
April to Oct 200887.80%
April to Oct 200754.50%
April to Oct 200658.60%
April to Oct 200560.90%
April to Oct 200445.20%
April to Oct 200356.00%
April to Oct 200251.50%
April to Oct 200154.50%
April to Oct 200045.70%
April to Oct 199972.20%
April to Oct 199867.00%


Also, I couldn’t look for data beyond 1998, given that it wasn’t available online. The table makes for a very interesting reading. The fiscal deficit level up to October 2007 was under control. It took off once the government decided to crank up expenditure to meet its social obligations.
Further, the average fiscal deficit for the first seven months of the year between 1998 and 2013 stood at 61.75% of the annual target. Hence, the number for this year at 89.6% of the annual target, is very high indeed.
Why has this happened? The income of the government during the period has gone up by only 5.3%. The budget presented in July earlier this year assumed that the income would grow by 15.6% in comparison to the last financial year.
The collection of direct as well as indirect taxes has been significantly slower than what was assumed. The direct taxes (corporation and income tax primarily) were assumed to grow at 15.7% in comparison to the last financial year. They have grown at only 5.5%.
The indirect taxes (customs duty, excise duty and service tax) were supposed to grow at 20.3%. They have grown by only 5.9%. In fact, within indirect taxes, the collection of customs duty has fallen by 1.7%.
What this clearly tells us is that the finance minister Arun Jaitley made very aggressive assumptions when it came to growth in tax collection and will now have a tough time meeting the numbers.
What makes the situation worse is the fact that Jaitley’s predecessor, P Chidambaram, had made the same mistake. In fact, in 2013-2014,
Chidambaram had projected a total gross tax collection of Rs 12,35,870 crore. The final collection stood around 6.2% lower at Rs 11,58,906 crore. Given this, Jaitley could have avoided falling into the same trap and worked with a more realistic set of numbers. But then those projections wouldn’t have projected “acche din”, the plank on which the Bhartiya Janata Party had fought the Lok Sabha elections.
Even with such a huge fall in tax collections, Chidambaram managed to beat the fiscal deficit target that he had set by essentially pushing expenditure of more than Rs 1,00,000 crore into the next financial year (i.e. the current financial year 2014-2015).
Chidambaram essentially ended up passing on what was his problem to Jaitley. Jaitley cannot do that because he will continue to be the finance minister (or someone else from the BJP government will).
So what can Jaitley do if he needs to meet the fiscal deficit target of Rs 5,31,177 crore or 4.1% of GDP that he has set? The first thing that will happen and is already happening is that the plan expenditure will be slashed. The plan expenditure for the first seven months of the year fell by 0.4% to Rs
2,66,991 crore.
This was the strategy followed by Chidambaram as well in 2013-2014. The plan expenditure target at the time of the presentation of the budget was at Rs 5,55,322 crore. The actual number came in 14.4% lower at Rs 4,75,532 crore. This is how a major part of government expenditure was controlled.
The government expenditure is categorised into two kinds—planned and non planned. Planned expenditure is essentially money that goes towards creation of productive assets through schemes and programmes sponsored by the central government.
Non-plan expenditure is an outcome of planned expenditure. For example, the government constructs a highway using money categorised as a planned expenditure. But the money that goes towards the maintenance of that highway is non-planned expenditure. Interest payments on debt, pensions, salaries, subsidies and maintenance expenditure are all non-plan expenditure.

As is obvious a lot of non-plan expenditure is largely regular expenditure that cannot be done away with. The government needs to keep paying salaries, pensions and interest on debt, on time. These expenses cannot be postponed. Hence, the asset creating plan expenditure gets slashed.
The second thing that the government is doing is not passing on the benefit of falling oil prices to the consumers. It has increased the excise duty on petrol and diesel twice, since deregulating diesel prices in October.
The third thing the government will have to do is to get aggressive on the disinvestment front in the period up to March 2015. The disinvestment target for the year is Rs 58,425 crore. But until now the government has gone slow on selling shares that it owns both in government and non-government companies because of reasons only it can best explain.
The recent sale of shares in the Steel Authority of India Ltd(SAIL) was pushed through with more than a little help from the Life Insurance Corporation of India and other government owned financial firms. This is nothing but moving money from one arm of the government to another arm. It cannot be categorised as genuine disinvestment.
This is something that Chidambaram and the UPA government regularly did in order to meet the disinvestment target. Despite this they couldn’t meet the disinvestment target in 2013-2014. The government had hoped to earn
Rs 54,000 crore but earned only Rs 19,027 crore.
Also, selling assets to fund regular yearly expenditure is not a healthy practice. If at all the government wants to sell its stake in companies, it should be directing that money towards a special fund which could be used to improve the poor physical infrastructure throughout the country. Right now, the money collected through this route goes into the Consolidated Funds of India.
In the months to come we could also see the government forcing cash rich companies like Coal India (which has more than Rs 50,000 crore of cash on its books) to pay a special interim dividend to the government, as was the case last year.
This is the way I see things panning out over the next few months. Nevertheless, the proper thing to do would be to put out the right fiscal deficit number, instead of trying to use accounting and other tricks to hide it.
The first step towards solving a problem is to acknowledge that it exists.

The article originally appeared on as a part of The Daily Reckoning, on Dec 11, 2014