How Trustworthy are the Bad Loans Numbers of Banks?

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in the Financial Stability Report (FSR) released in January had said that by September, the bad loans of banks, under a baseline scenario, could shoot up to 13.5% of their total loans. In September 2020, the bad loans rate of banks had stood at 7.5%. Bad loans are largely loans, which haven’t been repaid for a period of 90 days or more.

If the economic scenario were to worsen into a severe stress scenario, the bad loans could shoot up to 14.8% of the loans. For public sector banks, the rate could go up to 16.2% under a baseline scenario and 17.8% in a severe stress one.

What this meant was that the RBI expected the overall bad loans of banks to shoot up massively in the post-covid world, even more or less doubling from 7.5% to 14.8%, under a severe stress scenario.

A past reading of the RBI forecasts suggests that in an environment where bad loans are going up, they typically end up at levels which are higher than the severe stress level predicted by the RBI.

Given all this, there should be enough reason for worry on the banking front. But as things are turning out the dire predictions of the RBI are still not visible in the numbers. The quarterly results of a bunch of banks for the period October to December 2020 have been declared and it must be said that the banks look to be doing decently well.

In a research note, CARE Ratings points out that the bad loans rate of 30 banks which form the bulk of the Indian banking system (including the 12 public sector banks, IDBI Bank and the big private banks), stood at 7.01% as of December 2020. The rate had stood at 8.72% as of December 2019 and 7.72% as of September 2020.

In fact, when it comes to public sector banks, the bad loans rate has improved from 11.22% as of December 2019 to 9.01% as of December 2020 (This calculation includes IDBI Bank as well, which is now majorly owned by the Life Insurance Corporation of India and not the union government, and hence is categorised as a private bank).

When it comes to private banks ( a sample of 17 banks), the bad loans rate has improved from 4.87% as of December 2019 to 3.49% as of December 2020.

On the whole, these thirty banks had bad loans amounting to Rs 7.38 lakh crore on loans of Rs 105.37 lakh crore, leading to a bad loans rate of a little over 7%. Do remember, the RBI’s baseline forecast for September 2021 is 13.5%. Hence, things should have been getting worse on this front, but they seem to be getting better.

What’s happening here? The Supreme Court in an interim order dated September 3, 2020, had directed the banks that loan accounts which hadn’t been declared as a bad loan as of August 31, shall not be declared as one, until further orders.

This has essentially led to banks not declaring bad loans as bad loans. Nevertheless, the banks are declaring what they are calling proforma slippages or loans which would have been declared as bad loans but for the Supreme Court’s interim order.

A look at the results of banks tells us that even these slippages aren’t big. The proforma slippages of the State Bank of India between April and December 2020, stood at Rs 16,461 crore, which is small change, given that the bank’s total advances stand at Rs 24.6 lakh crore. When it comes to the Punjab National Bank, the total proforma slippages were at Rs 12,919 crore between April to December 2020.

Similarly, when we look at other banks, the proforma slippages are present but they are not a big number. An estimate made by the Mint newspaper suggests that India’s ten biggest private banks have proforma slippages amounting to around Rs 42,000 crore.

The 30 banks in the CARE Ratings note had total bad loans of Rs 7.38 lakh crore or a rate of 7.01 %. If this has to reach anywhere near, 13.5-14.8% as forecast by the RBI, the overall bad loans need to nearly double or touch around Rs 14 lakh crore.

The initial data doesn’t bear this out. As the RBI said in the FSR, “[With] the standstill on asset classification… the data on fresh loan impairments reported by banks may not be reflective of the true underlying state of banks’ portfolios.”

Hence, the situation will only get clearer once the Supreme Court decision comes in and the banks need to mark bad loans as bad loans. While banks are declaring proforma slippages, it could very well be that the Supreme Court interim order along with restructuring schemes announced by the RBI and the fact the Insolvency and the Bankruptcy Code remains suspended, have led to a situation where they are under-declaring these numbers.

This is not the first time something like this will happen. Around a decade back in 2011, Indian banks had started accumulating bad loans on the lending binge carried out by them between 2004 and 2010, but they didn’t declare these bad loans as bad loans immediately.

Only after a RBI crackdown and an asset quality review in mid 2015, did the banks start declaring bad loans as bad loans. There is no reason to suggest that banks are behaving differently this time around.

It is important that the same mistake isn’t made all over again. Hence, the RBI should carry out an asset quality review of banks(and non-banking finance companies) and force them to come clean on their bad loans.

A problem can only be solved once it has been identified as one.

The article originally appeared in the Deccan Herald on February 14, 2021.

In a Country of 10 crore Urban Households, Builders Sold 2.62 Lakh Homes Last Year  

I recently wrote a column in the Mint newspaper titled India and China: A tale of ghost towns in two gigantic countries. This piece is an extension of a small part in that column. Ideally, you should read the column before reading this piece, nevertheless, this piece stands on its own as well.

The real estate rating and research firm Liases Foras recently put out some interesting data in a report titled, Residential Real Estate Market Report. Let’s look at this pointwise.

1) The home sales in the top 60 cities in India in 2020 stood at 2.62 lakh units. This was down 31% from 2019, when it had stood at 3.77 lakh units.

2) The sales in tier I cities (Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Mumbai Metropolitan Area, National Capital Region, Pune) stood at 1.85 lakh units in 2020, down 32% from sales in 2019 when 2.75 lakh units had been sold.

3) The sales in tier II cities in 2020 stood at 76,603 units down 25% from 2019 when 1.03 lakh units had been sold.

4) The overall unsold housing inventory was down 6% to 12.52 lakh units in 2020, against 13.32 lakh units in 2019. The value of homes sold in 2020 stood at Rs 1.73 lakh crore, whereas the value of the inventory outstanding is at around Rs 8.65 lakh crore. At this rate, it will take five years to sell the current inventory (Rs 8.65 lakh crore divided by Rs 1.73 lakh crore).

Of course, this does assume that no new construction will happen over the next five years, which is a wrong assumption to begin with. Hence, the current inventory will take longer than five years to sell, unless sales pick up at a dramatic rate, which as far as I see it is unlikely to happen, given the state of the economy and the general purchasing power of Indians, which the real estate industry never seems to take into account.

Let’s use this data and make some assumptions to explain all over again why the Indian real estate industry is in a mess and what can be possibly done to revive it.

1) In 2020, a total of 2,62,055 homes were sold across the top 60 cities in India with the total value of these sales being Rs 1,72,770 crore. This means that the average price of a home sold stood at Rs 65.92 lakh (Rs 1,72,770 crore of sales divided by 2,62,055 homes sold). In comparison to 2019, the average home price has barely fallen. In 2019, the average home price was Rs 65.96 lakh (Rs 2,48,861 crore of sales divided by 3,77,295 homes sold).

Let me not analyze this number further and make a few adjustments first.

2) Let’s consider the tier I and tier II cities separately. The average home price in tier I cities in 2020 was at Rs 74.37 lakh (Rs 1,37,921 crore of sales divided by 1,85,452 homes sold). The average home price in tier I cities in 2019 was Rs 73.57 lakh (Rs 2,02,089 crore of sales divided by 2,74,680 homes sold).  In tier I cities, despite home sales crashing by 32% in terms of number of units sold, the average home price has gone up marginally. There can be various local reasons for it which the overall average won’t reveal, but on the whole it is safe to say that real estate sales don’t seem to follow the basic law of demand in India. They never have and which is why the sector has been in a mess for more than half a decade now.

3) Within tier I cities, let’s make one more adjustment by first checking what was the average home price in Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), which tends to be higher than other parts of the country, simply because prices in Mumbai city tend to be very high. The average home price in MMR in 2020 was Rs 94.98 lakh (Rs 46,043 crore of sales divided by 48,479 homes sold). The average home price in 2019 had stood at Rs 99.11 lakh (Rs 67,938 crore of sales divided by 68,543 homes sold). Hence, the price in MMR has come down by 4.2% on an average between 2019 and 2020.

4) Now let’s calculate the average price of a home in non MMR tier I cities. The average home price in a non MMR tier I city in 2020 stood at Rs 67.07 lakh (Rs 91,878 crore of sales divided by 1,36,973 homes sold). The average home price in a non MMR tier I city in 2019 had stood at Rs 65.08 lakh (Rs 1,34,151 crore of sales divided by 2,06,137 homes sold). Hence, the average home price in non MMR tier I city in 2020 has gone up by a little over 3%.

5) Now finally let’s look at the average home price in a tier II city. The average home price in a tier II city in 2020 stood at Rs 45.49 lakh (Rs 34,849 crore of sales divided by 76,603 homes sold). The average price in 2019 had stood at Rs 45.58 lakh (Rs 46,772 crore of sales divided by 1,02,615 homes sold). Given this, the average home price in tier II cities has barely moved between 2019 and 2020.

What does all this data tell us?

1) At the risk of sounding as cliched as I can sound and have been sounding for years, the price of real estate in India is too high. Of course, we are looking at average prices here, but do take into account the fact that even in tier II cities the average home price is close to Rs 50 lakh.

In a tier I city without Mumbai, the average home price is close to Rs 67 lakh. Of course, there are tier I cities, like Pune and Ahmedabad, where the average price is closer to Rs 50 lakh. But even that is very high when one takes into account the fact that the per capita gross national disposable income in 2020-21 is expected to be around Rs 1.46 lakh.

Thus, the per capita household disposable income amounts to Rs 7.3 lakh (given that there are five people in an average Indian household). What needs to be kept in mind here is that this is the mean income of a household or the average income of an Indian household and not the median income or the income of an average Indian household. Hence, the income of the an average Indian household must be much lower than Rs 7.3 lakh per year.

2) Clearly, the real estate builders are building homes only for a certain section of the population, the very rich. And that has limited their market. In 2001, the number of urban households had stood at 5.58 crore. In 2011, this had jumped by 41.3% to 7.89 crore. Looking at this data, it is safe to say that by 2021, the number of urban households would have crossed 10 crore. Let’s assume it is at 10 crore households, which I think is a reasonable assumption to make, given that the number of actual households should be much greater looking at the past trend and increasing urbanisation.

3) A bulk of these 10 crore households would be living in the top 60 cities of urban India. In these cities, in 2020, a total of 2.62 lakh new homes were sold by builders. In 2019, the number was at 3.77 lakh homes. Let’s further assume that Liases Foras probably does not capture all the new homes being sold by builders across these 60 cities. Even if the homes sold were double of this number, they are barely a very small fraction of less than 1% of the total number of households in urban India. And this is true not just about 2020, it is equally valid for 2019, a non-covid year.

Of course, not all homes sold are new homes. People who have bought homes as an investment in the past and are now selling them, also need to be considered. There is no data available for this, but even if there was, the prices at which these homes were sold couldn’t have been significantly different from the new homes being sold by builders, hence, limiting their affordability.

4) As I had said in my Mint piece earlier this week, India needs real affordable housing, homes which can be built and sold profitably in the range of Rs 5-20 lakh in Indian cities. Of course, these homes will be smaller in size, but they will be definitely much better and more humane than living in slums. And imagine if something like this takes off, what it could do to economic activity in a post covid world. Building of real estate leads to a lot of economic activity. Every apartment requires, cement, bricks, sand, steel, pipes etc. It also requires people to take on home loans.

The real estate sector has forward and backward linkages with 250 ancillary industries. This basically means that when the real estate sector does well, many other sectors, right from steel and cement to furnishings, paints, etc., do well. The multiplier effect is huge.

Also, real estate is one sector which can create a lot of semi-skilled and unskilled jobs, very quickly, thus help people move away from agriculture, which tends to employ more people than is economically feasible.

5) Of course, this is easier said than done. First, it needs the real estate industry to consider the idea of doing business profitably at a much lower price, which it currently doesn’t seem to have got its head around to. Over the past few years, the real estate industry has maintained that it is difficult to cut prices given that input costs have gone up over the years.

It recently blamed the steel and the cement sector for driving up real estate prices. The cement industry has responded by saying: “only Rs 150/sq. ft of built up area constitutes cement costs. The amount being so low … is this not hoodwinking gullible consumers?”

I am no civil engineer and have absolutely no idea about what it costs to build a building, an apartment and so on. But what I do understand is that if real affordable housing has to become the order of the day, home prices need to come down and come down dramatically.

6) One thing holding back affordable housing is the cost of land in and around big cities. At the heart of this is the issue of Change in Land Usage (CLU). Agricultural land beyond a certain size cannot be owned, as per the land ceiling regulations. This limit varies from state to state. What this does is that it limits the amount of land available in cities unless the state government intervenes. And the moment that happens, the cost of the land starts to go up.

7) The central government and the state governments own a massive amount of land in Indian cities, which is lying unused. Over the years, some of it can be made available for real affordable housing. Of course, wherever there is land and there are politicians, there is scope for corruption (I really have no answer for this, honestly).

8) In a recent research report, IIFL securities looked at the cost of redevelopment projects in Mumbai. The figure that caught my eye is that the construction cost is 30.8% of the total cost. So, whatever the real estate industry might say, the construction costs forming less than a third of the overall cost, are really not the problem. I guess in non-redevelopment projects the construction cost as a proportion might be more, but even with that the problem is somewhere else.

It is the remaining charges that need to be brought down. Interestingly, charges related to the government in different ways (everything from floor space index charges to staircase premium to taxes to liaison cost) made up for around 40% of the overall cost. Clearly, the government is the problem here. The dependence on revenue from real estate for state governments needs to come down.

9) I am not an expert on this, but I do feel that this is an idea that needs to be made to work and there are experts out there who can look at it in a more detailed and feasible way.

To conclude, the problems holding back Indian real estate are huge and it will be very tough to sort them out. But as the corporates like to say in adversity there is opportunity. And real affordable housing is a huge opportunity, only if someone can figure out how to run a profitable business at lower costs. As the late Professor CK Prahalad would have said there is a fortune to be made at the bottom of the pyramid.

More Than Half of Govt Taxes Will Go Towards Paying Interest on Past Loans

As I keep saying, the union budget at its heart is the presentation of the financial accounts of the government or to put it simply, on what it plans to spend money on, during the course of a year and how does it plan to earn and arrange for that money.

Given this, a lot of analysis happens on the issue of what the government plans to spend money on, during the course of a particular year. A similar thing has happened this time around as well, with journalists, analysts and economists, digging into the budget in trying to figure out where exactly is the government planning to spend money in 2021-22 and where it has spent its money in 2020-21.

The trouble is that like previous years this year as well most analysis has missed out on the biggest expenditure item in the government budget, which is interest payments. Almost every government spends more than what it earns and the difference is referred to as the fiscal deficit. This deficit is largely financed through the government borrowing by issuing bonds. An interest needs to be paid on these bonds every year.

This interest is the largest expenditure in the government’s budget, even though it rarely gets talked about.

Take a look at the following graph, which plots the interest payments on the outstanding borrowing of the union government.

Source: Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.
2020-21 – Revised estimate.
2021-22 – Budget estimate.

As can be seen from the above chart, the interest payments have been going up over the years and are expected to be at around Rs 8.1 lakh crore in 2021-22 . Now Rs 8.1 lakh crore on its own sounds like a large number, but just looking at the absolute number is not the right way to go about things in this case.

Let’s look at what proportion of overall expenditure of the union government have interest payments formed over the years.

Source: Author calculations on data from Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

As per this graph, interest payments in 2020-21 formed a little over one-fifth of total expenditure and this is an improvement on the situation that prevailed before. But this interpretation is wrong, simply because the overall expenditure of the government also includes money that it does not earn.

Hence, a government can always borrow more and spend more in a particular year leading to a higher expenditure number and thus, the interest payments as a proportion of overall expenditure will come down. But that doesn’t mean things have improved.

Let’s look at another chart. This plots the interest payments as a proportion of net tax revenue earned by the union government. Net tax revenue is what remains with the central government after sharing a certain proportion of the gross tax revenue (or to put it simply overall tax collections) with the state governments.

Source: Author calculations on data from Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

The above chart gives us a clear picture of the prevailing situation. In 2017-18, the interest payments formed 42.6% of the tax revenues earned by the union government. They have been rising since then and in 2020-21 and 2021-22 are expected to touch 51.5% and 52.4%, respectively.

What does this mean? It means that more than half of the government’s taxes are going towards paying interest on its outstanding loans, leaving very little money for anything else, unless the government earns money through other ways or borrows money or uses other ways to finance the fiscal deficit.

One way for the government to earn more money is through the sale of its stakes in public sector enterprises. In 2020-21, the government had hoped to earn Rs 2.1 lakh crore through this route. This turned out to be a very ambitious target and the government is now hoping to earn Rs 32,000 crore through this route during 2020-21.

The disinvestment target for 2021-22 has been set at Rs 1.75 lakh crore. It is very important for the government to earn this money else it will have to borrow more to meet the expenditure. This will mean higher interest payments in the years to come which will either lead to the government having to cut expenditure or having to borrow even more to meet the expenditure. More borrowing will lead to even more interest on the outstanding debt.

This will have to be paid by implementing higher taxes on the taxpayers and many of these taxpayers will be newer ones, just entering the workforce. This is precisely the way the current generation passes on its liabilities to the next one.

Also, as the outstanding debt matures and needs to be repaid, the government will have to borrow more to repay this debt. Hence, a greater proportion of the borrowing will just go towards repaying debt which is maturing. This will become a debt spiral and needs to be best avoided.

There is another thing that is happening and needs to be brought to notice. The government finances a major part of the fiscal deficit through borrowing. So, let’s take the case of 2020-21. The fiscal deficit for the year is expected to be at Rs 18.49 lakh crore.

A bulk of this deficit will be financed by borrowing Rs 12.74 lakh crore from the market. Where does the remaining money to fill the gap come from? A bulk of it comes from the small savings schemes.

The small savings schemes currently in force are: Post Office Savings Account, National Savings Time Deposits ( 1,2,3 & 5 years), National Savings Recurring Deposits, National Savings Monthly Income Scheme Account, Senior Citizens Savings Scheme, National Savings Certificate, Public Provident Fund, KisanVikas Patra and Sukanya Samriddhi Account.

The money coming into these schemes net of disbursements that happen during the course of the year, is used to finance the fiscal deficit of the union government.

This has been rising at an astonishing pace over the years, as can be seen from the following chart.

Source: Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

In 2012-13, the amount had stood at Rs 8,626 crore and it has since risen to more than Rs 4.80 lakh crore. While this amount does not end up as a debt of the government, it is a liability that the government does need to repay over the years.

Also, this is money that is coming from the public savings at the end of the day. In order to ensure that money keeps coming into these schemes, the government will have to continue offering a higher rate of interest on these schemes in comparison to bank fixed deposits.

Hence, the perpetual complaint of the bankers is likely to stay, given that the government needs this money to continue financing its high fiscal deficit. The other option is to borrow directly from the market and increase its outstanding debt figure, which the government wants to avoid beyond a point.

What this tells us is that all hasn’t been well on the government finances front over the last few years, and covid has only made it worse. One reason for this lies in the constant fall in the taxes collected by the government as a proportion of the gross domestic product (GDP), over the years.

The net tax revenue of the union government stood at 8.97% of the GDP in 2007-08. It has since fallen and was at 6.67% of the GDP in 2019-20. In 2020-21, it is expected to be at 6.90% of the GDP. The figure is higher in 2020-21 simply because of the size of the Indian economy, as represented by the GDP, is expected to contract more than the taxes collected by the government during the year.

This fall in tax collections and the dependence of the government on other ways of financing its fiscal deficit, also leads to the question whether the size of the Indian economy or its GDP, is being properly measured. Over the years, the informal part of the Indian economy has seen huge destruction and the question is, does this destruction reflect properly in the GDP figures being published over the years. This is a question well worth asking given that if the GDP is growing why have tax collections been falling?

To conclude, it does seem the government understands the financial situation it is headed towards. Hence, an ambitious target for disinvestment has been set. Over and above this, it also has plans of monetising physical assets including surplus land. Hopefully, this will take off soon. .

PS: Of course, you will not find this kind of analysis anywhere in the mainstream media or even digital publications which charge a fee. Hence, it is important that you support my work. You can do it here. 

Why Govt Loves Income Tax and Isn’t Going to Scrap It

One suggestion that I see people constantly make on the social media, particularly on Twitter, is that the government should do away with personal/individual income tax. They often say this with a lot of confidence, giving the impression that they have thought through the argument. Over the last one week, since the presentation of the annual budget of the union government, such  suggestions seem to have made a comeback.

But the confidence of the people making these suggestions largely comes comes from two things. One is that they haven’t had a look at the government data on taxes, which leads them to believe that barely anyone pays income tax and hence, it should be scrapped. Two, they have no idea as to how most governments operate.

Let’s take a look at a few charts to understand why this logic is all wrong. The following chart plots the individual income tax collected by the government as a proportion of the Indian gross domestic product (GDP), a measure of the size of the economy.

Source: Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.
Revised estimate for 2020-21.
Budget estimate for 2021-22.

As can be seen from the above chart, income tax as a proportion of GDP has only gone up over the years. In 2019-20, it peaked at 2.68% of the GDP. In 2020-21, thanks to the economic contraction due to the spread of the covid pandemic and falling incomes, the income tax to GDP ratio is expected to be at 2.36% of the GDP. It is expected to rise again to 2.52% of the GDP in 2021-22.

The typical argument suggesting that the government should do away with income tax, goes somewhat like this. Oh, but very few people pay income tax. Now that is true, but that hardly means that the government will stop collecting income tax.

A slightly more sophisticated argument (at least the person making it, feels it is a sophisticated argument) goes somewhat like this. Oh, but income tax collected forms just a couple of percentage points of the GDP. That’s nothing.

Honestly, I find both these arguments hilarious. Guys making these arguments have no idea about how the data looks and as I said, which is where their confidence comes from.

Let’s look at the following chart, which basically plots corporation tax (income tax paid by corporates on their profits) and personal income tax as a proportion of gross tax revenue, over the years. Gross tax revenue is basically the sum of different taxes (corporation tax, income tax, union excise duty, customs duty, central goods and services tax etc.), earned by the union government.

Source: Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

What does the above chart tell us?

1) The corporation tax collected as a proportion of the total taxes collected by the government, has been falling over the years. In 2009-10, corporate taxes formed around two-fifth of the total taxes collected by the government. In 2021-22, the tax is expected to be at around one-fourth of total taxes. There are multiple reasons for this. Corporate revenue growth has slowed down over the years. Along with that corporate tax rates have also come down.

2) The importance of income tax in the overall taxes earned by the government has gone up in the last decade. In 2009-10, they formed around one fifth of total taxes and in 2021-22, they are expected to form around one fourth of the gross tax revenue earned by the union government. In 2019-20, income tax formed around 23.9% of overall taxes.

Hence, all taxes may appear small as a proportion of the GDP, but that does not mean that they are not important for the government. The government isn’t the entire economy as represented by the GDP but only a part of it and the taxes earned are a part of that part.

Now tell me which government in its right mind is going to drop a tax which is likely to bring in one-fourth of the total taxes earned by it. This especially in an environment where corporation tax collections as a proportion of the GDP have been falling over the years.

Another argument that is made is that income taxes should be eliminated and indirect taxes should be raised. So, with no income tax, people will earn more and hence, spend more, and the government will end up collecting more indirect taxes, and these taxes will more than make up for a loss of income tax.

While this sounds good in theory, the trouble is that unlike the physical sciences, in economics you cannot carry out real life experiments. So, no government is going to risk one-fourth of its revenue just because in theory they could do something else. Nah, not going to happen. The whole argument rests on the idea that if income tax is done away with people are likely to spend more. What if they don’t and decide to save more? There is no way of knowing in advance about how people are going to behave.

Actually, a more refined argument can be made here. People who pay a bulk of India’s income taxes already have most things that they need in life. Hence, their marginal propensity to consume will be low. This means that the extra money they earn thanks to lower taxes, they are more likely to save/invest it than spend it.

Hence, the argument that people are likely to spend more because they will earn more thanks to no income tax, doesn’t really hold. One thing that can be said for sure here is that if income tax is done away with, the stock market will go through the roof (not that it isn’t already).

A better way to increase consumption and hence, indirect tax collections is to reduce goods and services tax on mass produced goods. The impact is going to be much greater in this case.

There are other reasons here as well. There is a huge income tax bureaucracy in place. What happens to those people with no income tax? Income tax is also used by politicians in power to harass those in opposition or other people opposing them. Why let go of such an option?

All in all, income taxes are not going anywhere, even though when the BJP was in the opposition, it was pretty vocal on the issue of doing away with them.

But now they need to run the country and the gross tax revenue collected by the government, has come down over the years. The gross tax revenue as a proportion of the GDP peaked at 12.11% in 2007-08. In 2019-20, it was at 10.61%. It is expected to fall to 9.75% of the GDP this year and rise to 9.95% of the GDP next year, still significantly lower than the all-time peak level.

So, next time you want to go shouting on Twitter asking the government to do away with personal income tax, please do remember these points.

Budget 2021: Govt’s Claim of a Sharp Increase in Capital Expenditure Doesn’t Really Hold

Good analysis takes time.

It’s been three days since the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman presented the annual budget of the union government and now my brain has really opened up and can see things that it couldn’t earlier.

On February 2, I wrote a piece which basically looked in detail at the fiscal deficit of 9.5% of the gross domestic product (GDP) and why the government’s claim of spending more this year and the next, to become the spender of the last resort and get the economy going again, didn’t really hold.

This piece is basically an extension of the same idea. Ideally, you should read the February 2 piece before you read this. Nevertheless, this piece is also complete on its own and if you are short on time, then just reading this piece should be enough to understand what I am trying to say.

One of the claims made by the finance minister in her budget speech was that the government was increasing the capital expenditure this year and the next. The mainstream media and the stock market wallahs have also tom tommed this line over the last few days. Nevertheless, as my analysis shows, this claim doesn’t really hold to the extent it is being made out to be.

As the finance minister said in her speech:

“In the BE 2020-21, we had provided Rs 4.12 lakh crores for capital expenditure. It was our effort that in spite of resource crunch we should spend more on capital and we are likely to end the year at around Rs 4.39 lakh crores which I have provided in the RE 2020-21. For 2021-22, I propose a sharp increase [emphasis added] in capital expenditure and thus have provided Rs 5.54 lakh crores which is 34.5% more than the BE of 2020-21.”

Let’s try and understand what the finance minister is saying here pointwise. (BE = budget estimate. RE = revised estimate. When the budget is presented a budget estimate is made. When the next budget is presented a revised estimate is put forward).

1) Capital expenditure is basically money spent on creating assets, in particular physical infrastructure like roads, railway lines, factories, ports, etc. Revenue expenditure is basically money spent in paying salaries and pensions, financing subsidies, etc. Over and above this, interest paid on the outstanding debt or borrowings of the government, is also a part of revenue expenditure. In fact, interest payments on outstanding debt are the biggest expenditure in the union budget. In 2020-21, it forms 20% of the total government expenditure and it jumps to 23.3% in 2021-22.

The usefulness of capital expenditure made by the government can be experienced in the years to come as well and it is believed that it adds to economic activity more than the revenue expenditure. Hence, economists, journalists and policy analysts, while analysing the union budget like to look at the money that has been allocated towards capital expenditure.

2) In 2019-20, the government spent Rs 3.36 lakh crore on capital expenditure. In 2020-21, it is expected to end up spending Rs 4.39 lakh crore, which is 30.7% more. But the thing to understand here is that when the government presented the budget for this financial year in February 2020, it had already budgeted to spend Rs 4.12 lakh crore or around 22.6% more.

It is worth remembering that when the budget for this financial year was presented, the fear of covid and the negative impact it would have on the economy, hadn’t been realised as yet. In the aftermath of covid, the capital expenditure went up from the budgeted Rs 4.12 lakh crore (or the budget estimate) to the revised estimate (RE) of Rs 4.39 lakh crore. Hence, the post covid increase in capital expenditure has been around 6.6%.

Given this, the increase in capital expenditure in 2020-21 had already been budgeted for pre-covid and there was a small increase post-covid. Once we know this, things don’t sound as exciting as the finance minister made it sound in her budget speech.

3) How will things look in 2021-22 when it comes to capital expenditure? The finance minister said that the capital expenditure will grow by 34.5% to Rs 5.54 lakh crore in 2021-22 in comparison to the budgeted expenditure of Rs 4.12 lakh crore in 2020-21.

The question is why would you compare next year’s budget estimate with the current year’s budget estimate when the revised estimate number for the year is already available. You would only do it, if you wanted to show a higher jump. Anyway, the finance minister of a country should be using some better mathematical tricks than such an elementary one.

Also, even when we compare next year’s budgeted capital expenditure with this year’s revised one, the jump is substantial. The capital expenditure will jump from Rs 4.39 lakh crore to Rs 5.54 lakh crore. This is a jump of 26.2%, which looks to be very good.

4) So far so good. The trouble is that the finance minister just spoke about the budgeted capital expenditure of the government in her budget speech and not the total capital expenditure of government. You can click on this and go to page 8 to get the numbers for the total capital expenditure of the government, which are also published in the budget.

The total capital expenditure of the government includes what is in the budget plus internal and extra budgeted resources (IEBR). The IEBR consists of money raised by the public sector enterprises owned by the union government through profits, loans as well as equity, for capital expenditure. It also includes the Indian Railways. This is also a part of government’s overall capital expenditure though it is off-budget and not a part of it.

The total capital expenditure of the government in 2019-20 stood at Rs 9,77,280 crore (It will soon become clear why I am using full numbers and not representing them in lakh crore). The revised estimate for the total capital expenditure in 2020-21 stood at Rs 10,84,651 crore, which is around 11% more. A 11% jump year on year sounds decent.

Nevertheless, one needs to take into account the fact that the budgeted capital expenditure of the union government when the budget for this year was presented in February 2020 had stood at Rs 10,84,748 crore.

As I said earlier, the budget was presented before covid struck. In that sense, the revised capital expenditure of 2020-21 is actually slightly lower than the budgeted one. This again punctures the government’s claim of spending more to get the economy going again post covid. They are spending a tad lower than what they had planned to spend before covid struck.

5) How does 2021-22 look? The government is planning to spend Rs 11,37,067 crore towards capital expenditure. This is 4.8% more than the current financial year. This when the government expects the nominal gross domestic product (GDP), not adjusted for inflation, to jump by 14.4% during 2021-22. The Economic Survey expects the nominal GDP to jump by 15.4%.

Once this is taken into account, it is safe to say that if the government sticks to these numbers, there will be barely any increase in capital expenditure between this year and the next.

Of course, the narrative of the government increasing its capital expenditure has been set. That’s what we have been told over and over again over the last few days. The stock market seems to believe it as well.

This entire exercise also tells you how nuanced numbers can get once you start really digging them up and setting them up in the right context. This is something you won’t see much in the mainstream media. Given this, it is very important that you please continue supporting my writing.

PS: I would like to thank, Sreejith Balasubramanian, Economist – Fund Management, IDFC AMC, whose research note on the budget, helped me think through this issue, in a much better way.