Budget 2016: Mr Jaitley, pro-rural steps are all fine but when will we tax rich farmers?

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

In his budget speech, the finance minister Arun Jaitley came up with a slew of announcements for the farmers of this country. This wasn’t surprising given the fact that the country has seen two bad monsoons, leading to the agricultural growth collapsing to 0.5% over the last two years.

In 2015-2016, agriculture is expected to grow by 1.1%. This is an improvement over 2014-2015, when agriculture contracted by 0.2%. Nevertheless, it is much slower than the overall growth of 7.6% expected in 2015-2016.

As Jaitley said during the course of this speech: “We have a desire to provide socio-economic security to every Indian, especially the farmers, the poor and the vulnerable; we have a dream to see a more prosperous India; and a vision to ‘Transform India’.”

Nevertheless, Jaitley, like finance ministers and governments of the past, continues to molly coddle, the rich farmers. Agricultural income in India continues to be untaxed.

One of the core points of the Survey is about not enough Indians paying income tax.

As the Economic Survey released on February 26, points out: “In India today, roughly 5.5 percent of earning individuals are in the tax net. This statistic gives an idea of the gap that India needs to cover to become a full tax-paying democracy. Based on recent tax data…we estimate that about 15.5 percent of net national income excluding taxes (which is the national income accounts counterpart of the personal income accruing to households) was reported to the tax authorities as gross taxable income.”

This means that nearly 85% of the country is outside the tax net. One clear impact of this is that the government is not able to raise enough taxes as it could. “To give a sense of the magnitudes, controlling for both the level of economic development and democracy, India’s overall tax to GDP is about 5.4 percentage points less than that of comparable countries,” the Survey points out.

While, the government doesn’t collect enough taxes, the rich farmer has the best of all the worlds. He has access to free/subsidised water and electricity. He has access to free fertilizer and benefits the most from minimum support price that the government offers on the purchase of rice and wheat. In fact, the Economic Survey points out that the implicit subsidy on electricity is Rs 37,170 crore.

The rich farmers benefit the most from cheap or free electricity. As Swaminathan Aiyar wrote in a recent column in The Times of India: “During a Punjab visit, I was told of one Jat farmer with 150 tubewells, paying zero electricity charges.”

In fact, as the Economic Survey points out: “India uses 2 to 4 times more water to produce a unit of major food crop than does China and Brazil.” This is primarily because of free or cheap electricity leading to over-pumping of water.

As the Economic Survey points out: “It has long been recognized that a key factor undermining the efficient use of water is subsidies on power for agriculture that, apart from its benefits towards farmers, incentivises wasteful use of water and hasten the decline of water tables. According to an analysis by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)5 , India’s water tables are declining at a rate of 0.3 meters per year. Between 2002 and 2008, the country consumed more than 109 cubic kilometers of groundwater, double the capacity of India’s largest surface water reservoir, the Upper Wainganga.”

This is clearly not a good thing.

And on top of this rich farmers do not pay any income tax. A lot of this money makes it into real estate, especially on the edges of cities and towns, making it unaffordable for others.

Further, if the government hopes to up its tax collections significantly in the years to come, the rich farmer needs to be brought under the tax net. As the Economic Survey pointed out: “The tax exemptions which often amount to redistribution towards the richer private sector will also need to be reviewed and phased out. And, reasonable taxation of the better-off, regardless of where they get their income from—industry, services, real estate, or agriculture–will also help build legitimacy of India.”

Jaitley like his predecessors chose to do nothing about this. This is not surprising given that taxing the rich farmer remains a political hot-potato. The governments over the last 25 years could not have done it, given that they lacked the majority to do so.

The Modi government has the majority in the Lok Sabha, but given the fractious relationship it shares with the opposition, any significant decision is likely to attract a lot of protest. Plus there are elections in Punjab coming up, where Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) is in alliance with the Akali Dal, which is essentially a party supported by rich farmers.

Finance ministers are not known to listen to the advice provided in the Economic Survey. Nevertheless, if Jaitley had taken on this advice, the whole country would have been better-off in the process.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

The column originally appeared on Firstpost on February 29, 2016

Why Does Economic Survey Not Talk About Subsidy on Stocks?


I know this piece is not going to go down well with a section of readers. Nevertheless, I think this is an important point and needs to be made.

In January 2016, the prime minister Narendra Modi during the course of a speech had said: “Why is it that subsidies going to the well-off are portrayed in a positive manner? Let me give you an example. The total revenue loss from incentives to corporate tax payers was over Rs 62,000 crore… Dividends and long-term capital gains on shares traded in stock exchanges are totally exempt from income tax even though it is not the poor who earn them.”

Not surprisingly, the Economic Survey released on February 26, 2016, under the leadership of Arvind Subramanian, the chief economic adviser, has a chapter titled Bounties for the Well-Off, dedicated to the implicit subsidies on offer to the rich.

The Economic Survey focuses on “seven areas: small savings schemes, kerosene, railways, electricity, LPG, gold, and aviation turbine fuel (ATF),” and calculates the implicit subsidies available to the rich. The total cost of the implicit subsidies works out to Rs 1.03 lakh crore, as per the survey. Now that’s a huge number.

One of the investment avenues that the Economic Survey calculates an implicit subsidy on is the public provident fund(PPF) scheme in which an individual can invest up to Rs 1.5 lakh every year.  While calculating the taxable income, the amount invested in the PPF scheme can be claimed as a deduction. Further, the amount that the investor gets on maturity is also tax-free. This pushes up the effective returns on PPF.

As the Economic Survey points out: “The effective returns to PPF deposits are very high, creating a large implicit subsidy which accrues mostly to taxpayers in the top income brackets. The magnitude of this implicit subsidy is about 6 percentage points – approximately Rs 12,000 crore in fiscal cost terms.

Along similar lines, the subsidy on the cooking gas cylinder is also captured by the rich. As the Survey points out: “LPG consumers receive a subsidy of Rs 238.51 per 14.2 kg cylinder7 (as in January 2016), which amounts to a subsidy rate of 36 per cent (ratio of subsidy amount to the market price). It turns out that 91 per cent of these subsidies are accounted for by the better-off as their share of consumption of LPG in the total consumption is about 91 per cent; while the poor account for only 9 per cent of LPG consumption and hence only 9 per cent of subsidies go to them.”

What Subramanian doesn’t talk about in the Economic Survey, are the issues on which Modi talked about in January i.e. the implicit subsidy on there being no tax on dividends earned through shares as well as no long-term capital gains tax on selling shares. The reason for that is obvious. It was said that prime-minister Modi was wrongly briefed on the issue at that point of time. And that is largely correct.

Companies distributing dividends, do pay a dividend distribution tax(DDT) to the government. Hence, to that extent the dividend is not tax free in the hands of the investor. If there was no DDT, the shareholders would have received a higher dividend. Nevertheless, the tax is just a better way for the government to collect tax, than collecting it from the investors who earn dividends and then hoping that they declare the divided while filing their tax returns and pay a tax on it.

As far as long term capital gains on shares are concerned, currently there are no taxes to be paid, if the investor sells shares, after holding them for a period of one year or more. The government collects a securities transaction tax (STT) every time an investor buys or sells shares, through a stock exchange.

The STT is collected in lieu of there being no long-term capital gains on selling of shares. In 2014-2015, the government collected close to Rs 6,000 crore through the STT. Also, like DDT, STT is just an easier way of collecting tax, in comparison to the long-term capital gains tax.

Nevertheless, it still does not explain why Subramanian did not calculate the implicit subsidy on there being no long-term capital gains tax on selling shares. A calculation would have told us whether the long-term capital gains tax that could have possibly been collected is more than the amount that the government is collecting through STT.

If the difference is substantial, then the government needs to look at taxing long-term capital gains as well, in the years to come. Obviously, this move will not go down well with the rich who benefit from this implicit subsidy. As David Foster Wallace writes inThe Pale King: “We’ve changed the way we think of ourselves as citizens. … We think of ourselves now as eaters of the pie instead of as makers of the pie.”

Also, it needs to be pointed out that many stock market investors do not like the idea of a long-term capital gains tax on stocks. They also justify the short term capital gains tax at 15%. This rate is much lower than the highest rate of 30% that needs to be paid on all other kinds of income.

The logic is as follows. Stock market investment is risky in comparison to other forms of investing where the amount of money invested is more or less guaranteed. Also, through the stock market entrepreneurs raise capital and investors need to be encouraged to invest in new businesses, and hence, there is no long-term capital gains tax on stocks.

While this may have been valid in the twentieth century, it is worth asking whether this continues to make sense. As the celebrated British economist John Kay writes in Other People’s Money—Masters of the Universe or Servants of the People? : “The first companies to obtain listings on modern markets were companies like railways and breweries, with large requirements for capital for very specific purposes. Building a railway is expensive, and once you have built it the only thing you can do with it is run trains. You cannot use a brewery except to brew beer. Early utilities and manufacturing corporations raised large amounts of money in small packets from private individuals.”

But does that continue to hold good? Do entrepreneurs continue to use the stock market to raise capital for new ventures? As Satyajit Das writes in The Age of Stagnation: “The nature of stock markets has been changed by alternative source of risk capital: the high cost of a stock market listing, particularly increasing compliance costs; increased public disclosure and scrutiny of activities, including management remuneration; and a shift to different forms of business ownership, such as private equity.”

What this means is that more and more entrepreneurs are now raising money through other routes, in the initial stages of their business. This becomes clear in the Indian context from the fact that the number of initial public offerings have come down over the years. But entrepreneurs continue to raise through other routes like private equity, venture capitalists, debentures etc.

The stock market only comes into the picture when these initial investors want to offload their stocks in the firm. As Kay puts it: “Stock market is not a way of putting money into companies, but a means of taking it out.

Hence, all the logic about investors needing to be encouraged to invest in new businesses doesn’t really hold anymore because most of the time, companies now come to the stock market only when they are looking for an exit option for their big initial investors.

In fact, Subramanian and his team could have done some analysis around this issue and told us what portion of the initial public offerings over the last few years raised fresh capital and what portion was investors trying to exit. This is something that the chief economic adviser clearly needs to look at in the next Survey.

And as far as risk of investing in the stock market is concerned. That still remains. But that is the choice that the investor investing in the stock market is making. Why should the government compensate him for it? Beats me.

The column originally appeared in the Vivek Kaul  Diary on February 29, 2016

Dear PM Modi, ache din won’t come just by meeting corporates

As I write this on the morning of September 8, 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his team are meeting the top businessmen of this country along with the governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), Raghuram Rajan.

The press release put out by the Prime Minister’s office pointed out that “a wide-ranging discussion is expected on the impact of recent economic events, and how best India can take advantage of them.” For a meeting which is expected to last over two hours, this is as general an agenda as it can get. Since it chooses to address everything, it will end up addressing nothing.

As far as representatives of Indian business are concerned they have constantly blamed high interest rates for investment as well as economic growth not picking up. But the point is who is responsible for high interest rates? The conventional wisdom on this matter is that the Reserve Bank of India has not been reducing the repo rate, or the rate at which it lends to banks.

Only if it was as simple as that. The repo rate is at best an indicator of which way the interest rates are headed. At the end of the day banks need to decide the interest rates they charge on their loans. A major reason that has been stopping them from lowering interest rates is the massive amount of bad loans that have been accumulated over the years.

Take the case of the State Bank of India, it has a bad loan ratio of greater than 10%, when lending to corporates. This means for every Rs 100 that the bank lends to corporates, more than Rs 10 has turned into a bad loan.

A standard explanation for these defaults is that businesses have got hit during what are bad economic times and hence, are unable to repay the loans they had taken on. While that may be true in a large number of cases, it is not totally true.

As a recent report brought out by Ernst and Young and titled Unmasking India’s NPA issues – can the banking sector overcome this phase? points out: “While corporate borrower have repeatedly blamed the economic slowdown as the primary factor behind it[i.e. defaulting on bank loans], periodic independent audits on borrowers have revealed diversion of funds or wilful default leading to stress situations.”

The question is will Modi and his team crack the whip on these defaulters and ask them to pay up? From past evidence the answer is no. If they had to, they would have already done so by now. Hence, calling the corporates for a meeting and listening to the same old things all over again, is basically a sheer of waste of time.

Further, as far Modi is concerned he has a lot of explaining to do on the economic reform front, something he had promised during the course of the election campaign last year. During the course of the last year he has come up with slogans like Make in India, Digital India etc., with very little changing on the ground.

For businesses to make in India, different things like the ease of land acquisition and electric supply, need to improve. Many state electricity boards all over the country, continue to remain in a mess.  Further, the inspector raj that small businesses face, needs to be unshackled. Labour laws which stop favouring the incumbents (i.e. the labour in the  organised sector) need to be brought in. Very little seems to have happened on this front.

Further, the government hasn’t been able to push through a goods and services tax either, despite making a lot of noise on that front.

The basic point is that what was Modi’s strength has now become his weakness. During the course of the election campaign last year, Modi came across as a man of action—a man who got things done. The bar was set very high with slogans like “acche din aane waale hain”.

For acche din to come Modi needs to create jobs for the 13 million Indians who are entering the workforce every year. And for that to happen he needs to unshackle many things that are holding back the economy.

The ease of doing business has to improve, if India wants to take advantage of the current economic scenario where the Chinese economy is in doldrums. Just coming up with new slogans and meeting corporates regularly won’t help on that front.

The column appeared on Firstpost on Sep 8, 2015

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

10 cr ‘new’ jobs: This number in Cong manifesto shows what’s wrong with India


Vivek Kaul

A lot has been written panning the manifesto of the Congress party for the Lok Sabha elections scheduled over the next two months. Given this, I will just concentrate on one point that the party promises in the manifesto.
The grand old party of India has promised to create
10 crore jobs for the youth, if it forms the next government. A very noble idea indeed, at least on paper. Let’s go into this in a little detail.
In order to create 10 crore jobs (or a large number of jobs irrespective of a specific number) primarily four things are required—land, labour, money and electricity.
Let’s look at these factors one by one. If a large number of jobs are to be created, India needs labour intensive manufacturing to progress. But labour-intensive manufacturing in India has slowed down over the years. As Crisil analysts point out in a recent report titled
Hire and Lower: Slowdown compounds India’s job-creation challenge “The decline in employment creation has been compounded by falling labour intensity in the economy…The capacity of labour intensive sectors such as manufacturing to absorb labour has diminished considerably in face of rising automation and complicated labour laws.”
Take the case of the apparel sector. A country like Bangladesh does better at it than us.
Economist Arvind Panagariya in an open letter to Rahul Gandhi in November 2013 wrote that “India exported less apparel than much smaller Bangaldesh and less than one-tenth that by China.” Most Indian apparel firms start small and continue to remain small.
This leads to a situation where they cannot benefit from the economies of scale and hence, cannot compete in the export market. In their book
India’s Tryst with Destiny, Jagdish Bhagwati and Panagariya point out that 92.4% of the workers in this sector work with small firms which have forty-nine or less workers. Now compare this to China where large and medium firms make up around 87.7% of the employment in the apparel sector.
Why is that the case? A surfeit of labour laws are a major reason why Indian apparel firms choose to remain small . Labour comes under the Concurrent list of the Indian constitution, meaning both the state government as well as the central government can formulate laws in this area. “The ministry of labour lists as many as fifty-two independent Central government Acts in the area of labour. According to Amit Mitra (the finance minister of West Bengal and a former business lobbyist), there exist another 150 state-level laws in India. This count places the total number of labour laws in India at approximately 200. Compounding the confusion created by this multitude of laws is the fact that they are not entirely consistent with one another, leading a wit to remark that you cannot implement Indian labour laws 100 per cent without violating 20 per cent of them,” write Bhagwati and Panagariya.
This leads to a situation where the cost of following these laws is very high. Labour costs account for close to 80 per cent of the total costs in the apparel sector. As Bhagwati and Panagariya write “As the firm size rises from six regular workers towards 100, at no point between these two thresholds is the saving in manufacturing costs sufficiently large to pay for the extra cost of satisfying the laws”.
The authors recount an interesting story told to them by economist Ajay Shah. Shah, asked a leading Indian industrialist about why he did not enter the apparel sector, given that he was already backward integrated and made yarn and cloth. “The industrialist replied that with the low profit margins in apparel, this would be worth while only if he operated on the scale of 100,000 workers. But this would not be practical in view of India’s restrictive labour laws.”
Given this, it is not surprising that the Crisil analysts expect the number of fresh jobs being created to fall over the next few years. As they write “Employment generation in the non-agriculture sector will slow down sharply in the coming years as the economy treads a lower-growth path. CRISIL estimates that employment outside agriculture will increase by only 38 million between 2011-12 and 2018-19 compared with 52 million between 2004-05 and 2011-12.”
The Congress party hopes to create 10 crore or 100 million jobs in a considerably lesser period of time. In fact, the Crisil estimate suggests that more people will join the agriculture workforce over the next few years. “Due to insufficient employment creation in industry and services sectors, more workers will become locked in the least productive and low-wage agricultural sector. We estimate that 12 million people will join the agriculture workforce by 2018-19, compared with a decline of 37 million in agriculture employment between 2004-05 and 2011-12,” the Crisil analysts write.
Now let’s take the case of electricity. Every new manufacturing set up requires electricity. India currently has the power plants but it does not have the coal required to feed into those power plants to produce electricity. As Neelkanth Mishra and Ravi Shankar of Credit Suisse write in a report titled
Elections: Much Ado about Nothing dated March 19, 2014 “True utilisation in thermal power generation is below 60%, near 20-year lows (reported plant load factor is 65%).”
India does not produce enough coal to feed its power plants despite having the third largest coal reserves in the world. A major reason for the same is that it takes more than 10 years and many permissions to get a coal mine going. In fact, even if coal mines are auctioned to private sector it will take a while to get these mines going. “From the time the blocks are auctioned to the time coal can start to get mined could be another 3-5 years at least,” write Mishra and Shankar. Hence, by the time, the term of the next Lok Sabha will be more or less over.
Now let’s consider the land factor. Over the years, land has been taken over from farmers by the government at rock bottom rates and been handed over to industrialists and real estate builders, who have profited majorly from this. The Congress led UPA government (along with most of the opposition parties) passed the Land Acquisition Act in 2013. This Act goes to the other extreme in comparison to what was happening till this point of time.
As TN Ninan wrote in a recent column in the Business Standard “The land law stipulates that forcibly acquired land must be paid for at two to four times…market prices, in addition to other relief and rehabilitation costs. So the new law will make land acquisition next to impossible, or unaffordably expensive (which becomes the same thing) in most states.”
Ninan also points out that “land prices “ in significant parts of rural India “are higher than those in any rural area of the United States, and in almost all of Europe barring countries like Holland.”
So, for anyone looking to set up a new business enterprise, land will be a huge cost. And this may make the entire idea of setting up a new enterprise unviable.
Finally, let’s consider the money factor. The interest rates charged by banks on loans have been at high levels over the last few years. This is because the fiscal deficit of the government (or the difference between what it earns and what it spends) has exploded. To finance the deficit the government has had to borrow more and hence, crowding out other borrowers. This has led to high interest rates. If interest rates are to come down, the fiscal deficit of the government needs to come down dramatically.
One final factor that needs to be considered here is the ease with which a new business can be started in India.
In a ranking of 189 countries carried out by the World Bank, when it comes to the ease with which a new business can be set up, India stands 179th. Hence, anyone looking to start a new business enterprise in this country, needs to be slightly wrong in the head. And it is ultimately, new enterprises that create many jobs.
If all these factors are taken into account, the promise by the Congress party to create 10 crore jobs, is a big joke played on the people of this country.
The article originally appeared on www.FirstBiz.com on March 27, 2014

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)