Why RBI is Doing Dhishum Dhishum With Bond Market

I used to think if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the President or the Pope or a .400 baseball hitter. But now I want to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody. – James Carville.

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) is unhappy with the bond market these days. Well, it hasn’t said so directly. A central bank rarely does. But a series of newsreports across the business media suggests so. (Oh yes, the RBI also leaks when it wants to).

The bond market wants the RBI to pay a higher yield on the government of India bonds it is currently issuing. The cost of the higher yield will have to be borne by the government of India, something that the RBI doesn’t want.

And this is where we have a problem (don’t worry I will explain this in simple English and not write like bond market reporters or experts tend to, for other bond market reporters and other bond market experts). Government bonds are financial securities which pay an interest and are issued by the government in order to borrow money.

Let’s try and understand this issue pointwise.

1) The government’s gross borrowings for 2020-21, the current financial year, had been budgeted at Rs 7.8 lakh crore. In May 2020, after the covid pandemic broke out and the tax collections crashed, the number was increased to Rs 12 lakh crore. The final borrowings are expected to be at Rs 12.8 lakh crore. In 2021-22, the gross borrowings of the government are expected to be at Rs 12.06 lakh crore.

Hence, over a period of two years, the government will end up borrowing close to Rs 25 lakh crore. It isn’t surprising that the bond market wants a higher rate of return or yield as it likes to call it, from government bonds, given that the financial savings in the country will not expand at the same rate as government borrowing is expected to. Also, there is no guarantee that the government will stick to borrowing what it is saying it will borrow. That’s a possibility the market is also discounting for.

2) Take a look at the following chart which plots the 10-year bond yield of the government of India. A 10-year bond is a bond which matures in ten years and the return on it on any given day is the per year return an investor will earn if he buys that bond on that day and holds on to it until maturity.

Source: www.investing.com

As can be seen from the above chart, the 10-year bond yield has largely seen a downward trend since January 2020, though since January 2021 it has gradually been rising. As of the time of writing this, it stood at 6.14%, having crossed 6.2% on February 22.

Media reports suggests that the RBI wants the yield to settle around 6%. The bond market clearly wants more. This explains why in the recent past bond auctions have failed with the bond market not buying bonds or the RBI refusing to sell them at yields the bond market wanted.

3) The question is why does the bond market now want a higher rate of return on bonds than it did in 2020. There are multiple reasons for it. Bank lending has largely collapsed during this financial year and has only improved since October. Between March 27, 2020 and January 29, 2021, the overall bank lending has grown by just Rs 3.34 lakh crore, with almost all of this lending carried out during the second half of the financial year.

This forms around 27% of the deposits of Rs 12.3 lakh crore that banks have managed to raise during the period. Clearly, the banks haven’t been able to lend out a large part of their fresh deposits.

Hence, it has hardly been surprising that a bulk of the bank deposits have been invested in government bonds. During the period Rs 6.94 lakh crore or 56% of the deposits have been invested in government bonds. Along with banks, other financial institutions have had few lending/investment opportunities, leading to a lot of money chasing government bonds, which has led to lower returns on them.

Over and above this, the RBI has flooded the financial system with money by cutting the cash reserve ratio (CRR) and by also printing money and buying bonds (something it refers to as open market operations), thereby driving down returns further.

4) What has changed now? The budget expects India to grow by 14.4% in nominal terms (not adjusted for inflation) in 2021-22. Even in real terms (adjusted for inflation), India is expected to grow by at least 10%. This basically means that bank and other lending will pick up. At the same time, the government borrowing will continue to remain high at Rs 12.06 lakh crore. Hence, there will be more competition for savings in 2021-22 than has been the case during this financial year, given that savings are not going to rise suddenly. Hence, yields or returns on government bonds need to go up accordingly. QED.

5) There is another point that needs to be made here. Thanks to the RBI wanting to drive bond yields and interest rates down, there is excess liquidity in the financial system right now. Lending to the government is deemed to be the safest form of lending. If lending to the government becomes cheaper, interest rates on everything else also tends to go down.

As of February 23, the excess liquidity in the financial system stood at Rs 5.7 lakh crore. This is money which banks have parked with the RBI.

On February 5, the RBI governor, Shaktikanta Das, had said: “A two phase normalisation of the cash reserve ratio (CRR) – which I am going to announce – needs to be seen in this context.”

The banks need to maintain a certain proportion of their deposits with the RBI. It currently stands at 3%. In April 2020, the RBI had cut the CRR by 100 basis points to 3%. One basis point is one hundredth of a percentage. With the banks having to maintain a lower proportion of their deposits with the RBI there was more liquidity in the financial system, which helped drive down yields and interest rates.

Now the RBI wants to increase the CRR in two phases. Assuming it wants to increase the CRR to 4%, this means that more than Rs 1.56 lakh crore (using data as of February 23) will be pulled out of the financial system by banks and be deposited with the RBI, in the months to come.

The bond market is discounting for this possibility as well, even with Das saying: “systemic liquidity would, however, continue to remain comfortable over the ensuing year.” What this basically means is that the RBI will continue to carry out open market operations by buying bonds and pumping money into the financial system as and when it deems fit.

Having said that, the overall liquidity in the financial system will go down, simply because once the RBI withdraws more than Rs 1.56 lakh crore through raising the CRR, it isn’t going to pump in the same amount of money back into the system, through open market operations, simply because then there would have been no point in increasing the CRR.

6) If your head is not spinning by now, dear reader, then you are clearly a bond market veteran. (Now isn’t the stock market so much simpler). Basically, the RBI is trying to play two roles here. It is the government’s debt manager and banker. At the same time, it also has the mandate of maintaining the rate of consumer price inflation between 2-6%. And at some level these objectives go against each other.

As the government’s debt manager, the RBI needs to ensure that the government is able to borrow at lower rates. In order to do that the RBI now and then floods the system with more money and drives down rates.

The trouble with flooding the system with more money in an economy which is recovering from a huge economic shock, is higher inflation as there is the risk of more money chasing the same amount of goods and services. Of course, with the manufacturing sector having a low capacity utilisation, they can always start more machines and pump up more goods, and ensure that inflation doesn’t shoot up. But the risk of inflation is there, given that money supply (M3) as of January 29, had gone up by 12.1%, year on year.

Over the years, there has been a lot of debate around whether the RBI should continue being the debt manager to the government or should that function be split up from the central bank and another institution should be created specifically for it, with the RBI just concentrating on managing inflation. I guess, in times like the current one, this suddenly starts to make sense.

7) Okay, there is more. The yield on the 10-year US treasury bond has been rising and as I write it has touched 1.33% from around 0.92% at the end of 2020. A major reason for this lies in the fact that the bond market is already factoring in the plan of the newly elected American president Joe Biden to spend more money in order to drive up economic growth.

Of course, with bond yields rising in the US, there is bound to be an impact everywhere else, given that the American government bond is deemed to be the safest financial security in the world. This has added to further pressure on the yields on the Indian government bonds.

8) After the finance minister presented the budget, the bond market realised that the government has huge borrowing plans even in 2021-22 and that even this financial year it would borrow Rs 80,000 crore more than the Rs 12 lakh crore it had said it would.

Accordingly, the 10-year bond yield moved up from 5.95% on January 29 to 6.13% on February 2, a day after the budget was presented. The RBI carried out open market operations worth Rs 50,169 crore between February 8 and February 12, on each of the days, to increase the liquidity in the financial system and push the yield below 6% to 5.99% on February 12.

But the yields have gone back up again and stand at 6.14% at the point of writing this. Interestingly, the yields on state government bonds have almost touched 7.2%.

Clearly, the bond market has made up its mind as far as yields are concerned. The way out of this for RBI is to print more money and buy more government bonds and drive down yields. Of course, this needs to be done regularly and by following a certain routine.

That’s the trouble with printing money. A major lesson in economics since 2008 has been that printing money by central banks leads to printing of more money in the time to come, given that the market gets addicted to the easy money.

Let’s see how the RBI comes out of this predicament, given that it has promised an “accommodative stance of monetary policy as long as necessary – at least through the current financial year and into the next year”.

9) We aren’t done yet. Other than being the debt manager to the government and having to manage the consumer price inflation between 2-6%, the RBI also needs to keep a look out for the dollar rupee exchange rate.

During the course of this financial year, the foreign institutional investors have brought in $35.4 billion to invest in the stock market. When they bring money into India they need to sell their dollars and buy rupees. This increases the demand for the rupee and leads to the rupee appreciating against the dollar.

When the rupee is appreciating against the dollar, the RBI typically sells rupees and buys dollars, in order to ensure that there is enough supply of rupees going around. In the process, the RBI ends up building foreign exchange reserves and it also ends up pumping more rupees into the financial system, thereby increasing the money supply, and pushing up the risk of a higher inflation.

Over and above this, the open market operations of buying bonds and cutting the CRR, this is another way the RBI ends up pumping money into the financial system. All this goes against its other objective of maintaining inflation.

One dollar was worth Rs 74.9 sometime in mid-November 2020. It has been falling since then and as I write this, it stands at Rs 72.4. What this means is that in the last few months, the RBI has barely been intervening in the foreign exchange market.

This brings us back to the concept of trilemma in economics, which the RBI seems to have hit. Trilemma is a concept which was originally expounded by the Canadian economist Robert Mundell. Basically, a central bank cannot have free international movement of capital, a fixed exchange rate and an independent monetary policy, all at the same time. It can only choose two out of these three objectives. Monetary policy refers to the process of setting of interest rates in an economy, carried out by the central bank of the country.

This explains why the RBI is letting the rupee appreciate, in order to ensure free movement of capital (at least for foreign investors) and an independent monetary policy. Let’s say the RBI kept intervening in the foreign exchange market in order to ensure that the rupee doesn’t appreciate against the dollar. In this situation, it would have ended up pumping more rupees into the financial system and thereby risking higher inflation in the process.

A higher inflation would have forced the RBI to start raising interest rates in an environment where the economy is recovering from a huge shock and the government is looking to borrow a lot of money. This would have led to the RBI losing control over its monetary policy. Clearly, it didn’t want that. (For everyone wanting to know about the trilemma in detail, you can read this piece, I wrote in September last year).

10) Finally, an appreciating rupee has multiple repercussions. People like me who make some amount of money in dollars, get hit in the process. (I would request my foreign supporters to keep this in mind while supporting me. Okay, that was a joke!)

Further, it makes imports cheaper, going against the entire narrative of atmabnirbharta being promoted right now. If imports become cheaper, the local products will find it even more difficult to compete. Of course, cheaper imports is good news for the consumers, given that the main aim of all economics is consumption at the end of the day.

An appreciating rupee also hurts the exporters as they earn a lower amount in rupee terms, making it more difficult for them to compete globally. And all this goes against the idea of promoting Indian exports and exporters to become a valuable part of global value chains and boosting Indian exports.

To conclude, and I know I sound like a broken record (millennials and gen Xers please Google the term) here, there is no free lunch in economics. That’s the long and short of it. All the liquidity created in the financial system to drive down yields on government bonds to help the government borrow at lower rates, is having other repercussions now. And there isn’t much the RBI can do about it.

Of course, if the bond market keeps demanding higher yields, the RBI’s dhishum dhishum with it will get even more intense in the days to come . If you are the kind who gets a high out of these things, well, continue watching this space then!

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.

“We have spent, we have spent and we have spent” – But Where Madam FM?

Those of you who read me regularly would know that I look at the government budget more as a statement of financial accounts and not much as an actual policy document, as many people do.

The reason is simple. The government has an opportunity to do right policy 365 days a year. But the annual budget numbers are released only once a year.

Keeping this in mind, in this piece I will look at the massive fiscal deficit that the union government will run this year and try to  analyse it in different ways and try connecting it to what it means for the economy as a whole and the ability of the government to spend money.

We will also look at whether the government is spending more money in order to get the economy going, as it has claimed to.
Let’s take a look at this pointwise.

1) The fiscal deficit for 2020-21 is projected to be at 9.5% of the gross domestic product (GDP). This is the highest fiscal deficit figure between 1970-71 and now (The fiscal deficit data is available in the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy database from 1970-71 onwards). While this shouldn’t be surprising, the spread of the covid pandemic is not the only reason for it.

Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends and it is expressed as a percentage of GDP. Somehow, once expressed as a percentage of GDP, the fiscal deficit never sounds big enough.

In absolute terms, the fiscal deficit for this year is expected to be at Rs 18.49 lakh crore. Now that is one big number. Especially if you compare it to the fact that the fiscal deficit expected when the budget for this year was presented in February 2020, was Rs 7.96 lakh crore. The deficit turned out 132% more than what was forecast before the year began.

2) There is another interesting way to look at fiscal deficit. You might think that I am torturing numbers here and you are right to some extent, but I am only trying to show how big this fiscal deficit actually is.

Take a look at the following chart. It plots the fiscal deficit as a percentage of total government expenditure, over the years.

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

What does this chart tell us? It tells us that in 2020-21, the fiscal deficit as a percentage of government expenditure will be at 53.6%. This is the highest ever level. Hence, a bulk of the government expenditure during 2020-21 will not be financed by its earnings. This tells us how high the fiscal deficit really is.

3) The question is why has the fiscal deficit jumped to such a high level? The simple answer is that the government hasn’t earned the total amount of tax it had projected, thanks to the spread of the covid pandemic. Let’s start with the net tax revenue or what is left after the government has shared the tax collected with the state governments.

The government expected to earn a net tax revenue of Rs 16.36 lakh crore this year, when the budget for this year was presented in February 2020.  It now hopes to earn Rs 13.45 lakh crore. This is Rs 2.89 lakh crore or 17.8% lower. This explains a part of the jump in the fiscal deficit from an expected level of Rs 7.96 lakh crore to Rs 18.49 lakh crore. But it still doesn’t give us the complete story.

4) In 2020-21, the government expected to earn a significant amount of money by selling or disinvesting its stakes in public sector enterprises. The amount it expected to earn through disinvestment was Rs 2.1 lakh crore. It has now been revised to just Rs 32,000 crore or 15.2% of the expected amount. There is gap of Rs 1.78 lakh crore here and this has also majorly pushed up the fiscal deficit.

The government’s excuse for this is covid. While, that might have been true for the first half of the year, it just doesn’t work for the second half of the year, when the stock market has gone from strength to strength and the government could easily have divested its stakes in public sector enterprises.

The only possible explanation here is that the government, as usual, has moved very very slowly on the procedural formalities required to disinvest its stakes in public sector firms.

5) A lower tax collection of Rs 2.89 lakh crore and lower disinvestment receipts of Rs 1.78 lakh crore, still only add up to around Rs 4.67 lakh crore and doesn’t totally explain the huge jump in the fiscal deficit.

There is a third major reason. I write about it in detail here. And I urge you click on this link and read it. I will offer a short summary here. The Food Corporation of India (FCI) buys rice and wheat directly from farmers at a minimum support price announced by the government. It then sells this rice and wheat through the public distribution system at a much lower price, in order to meet the needs of food security.

The government has to compensate the FCI for this difference. It does that by allocating money towards food subsidy in the budget. Over the years, the money allocated towards food subsidy has never been enough. In 2019-20, the FCI ‘s food subsidy bill was close to Rs 3.18 lakh crore. The government gave it Rs 75,000 crore.

Much of this gap was filled by FCI taking on loans from the National Small Savings Fund, where all the money collected under the various small savings schemes, ends up. As of March 2020, the FCI owed NSSF Rs 2.55 lakh crore.

The accounting jugglery over the years, essentially helped the government to declare a lower expenditure and hence, a lower fiscal deficit.

The government has now decided to end this and take on the total food subsidy offered by FCI as an expenditure. Hence, in February 2020, when the budget for this year was presented the allocation of food subsidy to FCI had stood at Rs 77,983 crore. It has now been revised to Rs 3.44 lakh crore. In fact, the overall food subsidy has been increased from Rs 1.16 lakh crore to Rs 4.23 lakh crore. This is a good thing that has happened because ultimately the main aim of the government budget is to present financial accounts as correctly as possible.

This has added Rs 3.07 lakh crore  (Rs 4.23 lakh crore minus Rs 1.16 lakh crore) more to the government expenditure and hence, to the fiscal deficit as well. Hence, the three reasons discussed up until now increased the fiscal deficit by Rs 7.74 lakh crore (Rs 2.89 lakh crore + Rs 1.78 lakh crore + Rs 3.07 lakh crore). This still doesn’t explain the total difference.

6) Other than taxes and disinvestment, the government also earns money under the heading non tax revenue. This includes dividends that the government earns from public sector enterprises, public sector banks, financial institutions like the Life Insurance Corporation of India and the dividend from the Reserve Bank of India. It also includes many other ways of making money.

The non tax revenue that the government had hoped to earn this year was Rs 3.85 lakh crore and it ended up earning Rs 2.11 lakh crore, which was Rs 1.74 lakh crore lower. This was primarily on account a massive fall in dividends earned.

If we add this to the earlier Rs 7.74 lakh crore, we get Rs 9.48 lakh crore. The fiscal deficit went up from a projected Rs 7.96 lakh crore to Rs 18.49 lakh crore primarily because of these four reasons.

Three of these reasons, lower tax collections, lower disinvestment receipts and lower non tax revenue, are on the earnings side. And one reason, higher food subsidy is on the expenditure side.

7) The finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman in her post budget interaction with the media said the government has spent a lot of money in order to get the economy going. The Business Standard reports her as saying, we have spent, we have spent and we have spent. The logic here is that in an environment where personal consumption has slowed down and industrial expansion is not happening, the government has to become the spender of the last resort, in order to get the economy going again.

The business media today is full of headlines around the government spending its way out of trouble. But do the budget numbers really reflect that?

Let’s try and see what the numbers tell us. The total government expenditure budgeted for 2021-22 is Rs 34.83 lakh crore. This is just a little more than the Rs 34.5 lakh crore the government expects to spend this year.

Here’s the interesting thing. In 2021-22, the government expects to spend Rs 8.1 lakh crore on paying interest on its outstanding debt. Once we adjust for this, the total government expenditure in 2021-22 stands at Rs 26.73 lakh crore (Rs 34.83 lakh crore minus Rs 8.1 lakh crore).

In 2020-21, the government expects to spend Rs 6.93 lakh crore on paying interest on its debt. Once we adjust for this, the total government expenditure in 2020-21 stands at Rs 27.57 lakh crore (Rs 34.5 lakh crore minus Rs 6.93 lakh crore).

Hence, the year on year, overall government spending next year will actually come down and not go up. Having said that, the capital expenditure in 2021-22 is budgeted to be at Rs 5.54 lakh crore, which is 26.2% more than the Rs 4.39 lakh crore, the government expects to spend in 2020-21. This is some good news, but doesn’t deserve the emphatic spend, spend, spend, statement.

The extra Rs 1.15 lakh crore (Rs 5.54 lakh crore minus Rs 4.39 lakh crore) works out to 0.5% of the GDP projected for 2021-22. While something is better than nothing, it clearly isn’t much.

8) What about the current financial year? The government plans to spend a total of Rs 34.5 lakh crore. This is 13.4% more than the Rs 30.42 lakh crore it had planned to spend when it presented the budget. Once we adjust for the fact the food subsidies have been properly accounted for and that has added Rs 3.07 lakh crore to the government expenditure, the actual expenditure goes down to Rs 31.43 lakh crore (Rs 34.5 lakh crore minus Rs 3.07 lakh crore). This is around 3.3% more than the amount budgeted of Rs 30.42 lakh crore, at the time of the presentation of the budget.

In fact, if we look at the food subsidy paid during April to December 2020, it amounts to Rs 1.25 lakh crore. With the budgeted amount being at Rs 4.23 lakh crore, close to Rs 3 lakh crore of food subsidy still remains unpaid. This will be paid during the last three months of 2020-21.

This money has already been spent by FCI and other agencies during this year and years gone by. Once FCI receives this money, it will pay off the money it owes to NSSF. Hence, there is really no extra spending happening here.

9) Now let’s compare, the spending in 2020-21 with that in 2019-20. The total expenditure in 2019-20 had stood at Rs 26.86 lakh crore. Once we take the increase in food subsidies out, the total expenditure in 2020-21 stands at Rs 31.43 lakh crore (Rs 34.5 lakh crore minus Rs 3.07 lakh crore). The spending in 2020-21 is thus around 17% more than the last financial year. But much of it was budgeted for in February 2020, when the budget for this year was first presented.

Hence, the increase in spending in 2020-21, or the fiscal stimulus as economists like to call it, hasn’t been because of the covid pandemic, it was happening anyway.

To conclude, it is clear that the government is not spending more in 2021-22 on the whole, though there is some increase in capital expenditure and that’s good. In 2020-21, the government has actually spent more, but then much of it was planned before covid and not after it.

It also tells us that once we take the real fiscal deficit into account, there isn’t much that the government can do to spend its way out of trouble. The good thing is that the government has decided to clean up its books. And that will have repercussions on the total amount of money it is able to spend during the course of this year and the next. The mistakes that we make in our past always come back to haunt us.

Dear Reader, clearly this piece should tell you how nuanced numbers can get, if one decides to dig a little deeper. Of course, you won’t get such a nuanced reading of the budget numbers anywhere in the mainstream media.

Hence, it is important that you continue supporting my work.

Mr Chief Economic Advisor, Printing Money is Always a Bad Idea.

The Economic Survey for 2020-21 was published yesterday. I wrote a summary of the survey titled 10 major points made by the Economic Survey.

It wasn’t possible to even speed-read the whole Survey quickly, hence, I missed out on a few points, and am writing about them here. This piece is a follow up and I strongly recommend that you read the first piece before reading this one.

Let’s look at some important points made in the Survey.

1) The spread of corona has led to a massive economic contraction this year. While the growth is expected to bounce back over the next few years, the impact of this year’s contraction isn’t going to go away in a hurry.

As per the Survey, if India grows by 12% in 2021-22 and 6.5% and 7%, in 2022-23 and 2023-24, respectively, the Indian economy will be at around 91.5% of where it would have possibly been if there would have been no covid and no economic contraction, and India would have continued to grow at 6.7% per year on an average, as it has in the five years before 2020-21.

At 10% growth in 2021-22, and 6.5% and 7% growth in 2022-23 and 2023-24, respectively, the Indian economy will be at around 90% of where it could have possibly been, the Survey points out.

This is an important point that we need to understand. While, 2021-22 might see a double digit growth, covid has put us back by more than half a decade, if we look at trend growth.

2) The Economic Survey recommends money printing to finance higher government expenditure. Call me old school, but I always feel uncomfortable when economists recommend outright money printing to fund government expenditure. Of course, there is always a theoretical argument on offer.

The Survey refers to a speech made by Patrick Bolton, a professor of business at Columbia University in New York, to make the money printing argument and why money printing, where an excess amount of money chases a similar amount of goods and services, doesn’t always lead to inflation.

As the Survey points out:

“Printing more money can result in inflation and loss of purchasing power for domestic residents if the increase in money supply is larger than the increase in output….Printing more money does not necessarily lead to inflation and a debasement of the currency. In fact, if the increased money supply creates a disproportionate increase in output because the money is invested to finance investment projects with positive net present value.”

What does this mean in simple English? The Survey is essentially saying that if the printed money is well utilised and put into projects which are beneficial for the society, it benefits everyone, and doesn’t lead to inflation.

The trouble is a lot of things sound good in theory. One of the major things that the bad loans crisis of Indian banks teaches us is that the Indian system cannot take a sudden increase in investments. There is only so much that it can handle and that’s primarily because there is too much red tapism and bureaucracy involved in getting any investment project going. We are still dealing with the fallout of this a decade later.

Also, how do the government and bureaucrats ensure that the amount of money being printed is just enough and will not lead to inflation. (Central planning keeps coming back in different forms).

The government can print money and spend it. This can ensure one round of spending and the money will land up in the hands of people. Also, as men spend money, this money will land up with shopkeepers and businesses all over the country. The shopkeepers may hold back some of the cash that they earn depending on their needs.

The chances are that most of this money will be deposited back into bank accounts. In the normal scheme of things, the banks would lend this money out. In difficult times, banks are reluctant to lend. Hence, they end up depositing this money with the RBI. The RBI pays interest on this money. As of yesterday, banks had deposited Rs 5.6 lakh crore with the RBI. This is money they have no use for, or to put it in technical terms, this is the excess liquidity in the system.

Money printing will only add to this excess liquidity. Ultimately, for the economy to do well, people and corporates need to be in a state of mind to borrow and banks in the mood to lend. Printing money cannot ensure that.

Over and above this, money printing can and has led to massive financial and real estate bubbles, in the past few decades. This is asset price inflation. While this inflation doesn’t reflect in the normal everyday consumer price inflation, it is a form of inflation at the end of the day. And whenever such bubbles burst, which they eventually do, it creates its own set of problems.

Given these reasons, the chief economic advisor Krishnamurthy Subramanian’s recommendation of money printing by the government is a lazy idea which hasn’t been thought through. (For a detailed argument against money printing, please read this).

 

3) During the course of this financial year, banks have gone easy on borrowers who haven’t been in a position to repay.

Technically, this is referred to as regulatory forbearance. In this case, the central bank, comes up with rules and regulations which basically allows banks to treat borrowers in trouble with kids gloves. One of the learnings from the bad loans crisis of banks has been that regulatory forbearance of the Reserve Bank of India, India’s central bank, went on for too long.

The banks are yet to face the negative impact of the covid led contraction primarily because of regulatory forbearance. The banking system should be facing the first blows of the economic contraction. But that hasn’t happened, thanks to the Supreme Court and regulatory forbearance. 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. Hence, the balance sheets of banks as revealed by their latest quarterly results, seem to be too good to be true.

The Survey suggests that an asset quality review of the balance sheets of banks may be in order. As it points out: “A clean-up of bank balance sheets is necessary when the forbearance is discontinued… An asset quality review exercise must be conducted immediately after the forbearance is withdrawn.”

This is one of the few good suggestions in the Survey this year and needs to be acted on quickly, so as to reveal the correct state of balance sheets of banks. The Survey further points out: “The asset quality review must account for all the creative ways in which banks can evergreen their loans.” Evergreening involves giving a new loan to the borrower so that he can pay the interest on the original loan or even repay it. And then everyone can just pretend that all is well.

In fact, even while making a suggestion for an asset quality review, the Survey takes potshots at Raghuram Rajan and the asset quality review he had initiated as the RBI governor in mid 2015.

4) Another point made in the Survey is to ignore the credit ratings agencies and their Indian ratings. As the Survey points out: “The Survey questioned whether India’s sovereign credit ratings reflect its fundamentals, and found evidence of a systemic under-assessment of India’s fundamentals as reflected in its low ratings over a period of at least two decades.”

This leads the Survey to conclude: “India’s fiscal policy must, therefore, not remain beholden to such a noisy/biased measure of India’s fundamentals and should instead reflect Gurudev Rabindranath Thakur’s sentiment of a mind without fear.”

While invoking Tagore, the Survey basically recommends that India’s government borrows more money to spend, taking into account “considerations of growth and development rather than be restrained by biased and subjective sovereign credit ratings”. (On a slightly different note, who would have thought that one day an economist would invoke Rabindranath Thakur’s name to market higher government borrowing).

Whether, the ratings agencies correctly rate India based on its fundamentals is one issue, whereas, whether it makes sense for India to ignore these ratings and borrow more, is another.

As the Survey points out: “While sovereign credit ratings do not reflect the Indian economy’s fundamentals, noisy, opaque and biased credit ratings damage FPI flows.” (FPI = foreign portfolio inflows).

What this means is that any further cut in credit rating can impact the amount of money being brought in by the foreign investors into India’s stock and bond market. In particular, it can impact the long-term money being brought in by pension funds.

While, the Survey doesn’t say so, it can possibly impact even foreign direct investment.

So, the point is, why take unnecessary panga, for the lack of a better word, with the rating agencies, at a point where the economy is anyway going through a tough time.

In another part, the Survey points out: “Debt levels have reached historic highs, making the global economy particularly vulnerable to financial market stress.”

5) Given that, tax revenues have collapsed, government borrowing money to finance expenditure has gone up dramatically during the course of this year. As the Survey points out:

“As on January 8, 2021, the central government gross market borrowing for FY2020-21 reached Rs 10.72 lakh crore, while State Governments have raised Rs 5.71 lakh crore. While Centre’s borrowings are 65 per cent higher than the amount raised in the corresponding period of the previous year, state governments have seen a step up of 41 per cent. Since the COVID-19 outbreak depressed growth and revenues, a significant scale up of borrowings amply demonstrates the government’s commitment to provide sustained fiscal stimulus [emphasis added] by maintaining high public expenditure levels in the economy.”

Fiscal stimulus is when the government spends more money in order to pump up the economy in a scenario where individuals and corporates are going slow on spending. The total government spending during April to November 2020 stood at Rs 19.1 lakh crore. It has risen by just 4.9% in comparison to April to November 2019. Given that inflation has stood at more than 6% this year, this can hardly be called a fiscal stimulus.

To conclude, economic surveys in the past, other than offering a detailed assessment on the current state of the Indian economy, also used to do some solid thinking about the future or stuff that needs to be done on the economic front.

Over the past few years, a detailed reading of these Surveys suggests that they have become yet another policy document which feeds into government’s massive propaganda machinery, albeit in a slightly sophisticated way.