Jaitley’s Fiscal Deficit Numbers Don’t Really Add Up

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

Dear Reader,

By the time you read this piece, you would have been bombarded with a huge amount of analysis on the budget the finance minister Arun Jaitley presented yesterday.

Nevertheless, most such analysis misses out on carefully looking at the fiscal deficit number, which is basically what the budget is all about. Most other things that finance ministers talk about in their budget speeches, they can talk about on any other day of the year as well.

In fact, regular readers would know that I have been sceptical about the ability of the government to meet its fiscal deficit target. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends during the course of any year. The difference is met through borrowing.

While presenting the budget last year, the finance minister Jaitley had said that the government expects to achieve a fiscal deficit target of 3.5% of GDP for 2016-2017 and 3% of GDP for 2017-2018.

In the budget presented yesterday Jaitley said that: “I have weighed the policy options

and decided that prudence lies in adhering to the fiscal targets. Consequently, the fiscal deficit in RE[revised estimate] 2015-16 and BE[budget estimate] 2016-17 have been retained at 3.9% and 3.5% of GDP respectively.”
The question is how realistic is the 3.5% of GDP fiscal deficit target for the next financial year? There are essentially three inputs that go into making the fiscal deficit number. The total receipts of the government, the total expenditure of the government and the nominal GDP number that has been assumed for the next financial year. Nominal GDP is the GDP which hasn’t been adjusted for inflation.

Let’s start with the receipts number. Jaitley has assumed that the government plans to collect Rs 56,500 crore through the disinvestment route. Of this, Rs 36,000 crore will come from the government selling shares in the companies its own and Rs 20,500 crore from the stakes that it has in non-government companies.

The total number assumed to come in through the disinvestment route is more than double of the Rs 25,312 crore that the government collected through the route this financial year. It needs to be pointed out here that a substantial part of this came from the Life Insurance Corporation(LIC) of India picking up stakes in government owned companies. Honestly that can’t be called disinvestment. It is money moving from one arm of the government to another.

Second, last year the government had assumed that Rs 69,500 crore would come in through disinvestment. Ultimately, only Rs 25,312 crore has been collected and that also after LIC had to come to the rescue. One excuse offered for the government going slow on disinvestment was low commodity prices. Commodity prices continue to remain low.

Given this, the Rs 56,500 crore disinvestment number is an overestimate like was the case last year as well.

The government has also assumed that it will earn Rs 98,994.93 crore from the telecom sector. This receipt comes under the entry “other communication services” and is primarily the money the government will earn through telecom spectrum auctions. Again, like is the case with disinvestment receipts, this number is a huge jump from the Rs 57,383.89 crore that the government managed to collect this year.

Given, the past record of the government, these assumptions are clearly looking overoptimistic. Also, they help in under-declaring the fiscal deficit. As per IMF norms, any kind of asset sales by the government needs to be treated as a financing item and not as a receipt as the Indian government does. In the process the government manages to come up with a lower fiscal deficit number.

Now let’s take a look at the expenditure front. There is no clarity on how much allocation the government has made towards implementing the recommendations of the Seventh Pay Commission. As Jaitley said during his speech: “the Seventh Central Pay Commission has submitted its Report. Following the past practice, a Committee has been constituted to examine the Report and give its recommendations. In the meantime, I have made necessary interim provisions in the Budget.”

The finance minister didn’t get into any more details. Nevertheless, one can use the numbers given in the budget and see if the right kind of allocation has been made. During 2015-2016, the government’s salary and pension bill (excluding Railways) is expected to be at Rs 1.85 lakh crore.

In 2016-2017, the government’s salary and pension bill has been budgeted at around Rs 2.25 lakh crore. This is Rs 40,000 crore more than the 2015-2016 number.

The Seventh Pay Commission recommendations come into force from January 1, 2016. The Seventh Finance Commission had said that its recommendations would cost the government Rs 73,650 crore during the first year. To this one would have add the cost of Pay Commission recommendations between January and March 2016, which would be needed to be paid as arrears to the government employees and pensioners.

This works out to Rs 18,412.5 crore (Rs 73,650 crore divided by four). Hence, the total extra allocation towards implementing the recommendations of the Seventh Pay Commission should have been around Rs 92,000 crore (Rs 74,650 crore plus Rs 18,412.5 crore). The actual increase in allocation towards salaries and pensions is only around Rs 40,000 crore.

What does this tell us? The government is probably not in the mood to pass on the entire increase in salaries and pensions during the course of 2016-2017. If it does that, then it will have to pay arrears in the years to come and that will add to the government expenditure and hence, the fiscal deficit. So to that extent the fiscal deficit is being under-declared at this moment.

Also, the implementation of one rank one pension in the defence forces is expected to push the pension bill up, by Rs 10,000 crore. And that will also add to the salary and the pension bill of the government.

Further, as I have pointed out in the past, more than Rs 1,00,000 crore of food and fertilizer subsidy bills remain unpaid.  And that is how it continues to be. The allocation to food and fertilizer subsidy has fallen from Rs 2.12 lakh crore in 2015-2016 to Rs 2.05 lakh crore in 2016-2017.

What does this mean? It means that while the government will pay the Rs 1,00,000 lakh crore of pending food and fertilizer subsidy bills, it will then have to postpone paying a large part of the food and fertilizer subsidy expenditure that is incurred during the next financial year.

The government follows the cash accounting system and only acknowledges expenses once payment has been made. This has led to a situation where subsidy payments to Food Corporation of India(FCI) and fertilizer companies remain unpaid. The money has been spent by FCI and the fertilizer companies towards subsidy, but remains unpaid by the government, and hence is not acknowledged as an expenditure.

The question is where does FCI get this money from? It borrows from the financial market. Why does the market lend money to FCI? It does that because it knows that it is effectively lending money to the Indian government. Hence, this subsidy expenditure has already been incurred by the government but has not been accounted for.

This essentially leads to a lower fiscal deficit number. Further, the absolute fiscal deficit number of Rs 5,33,904 crore looks very unrealistic given that the receipts of the government have been overstated while the expenditure has been understated.

Now let’s talk about the denominator in the fiscal deficit number, the nominal GDP. The nominal GDP for 2016-2017 has been assumed to be at Rs 15,065,010 crore assuming 11% growth over the 2015-2016 number. How realistic is this assumption? In 2015-2016, the nominal GDP is expected to grow at 8.6%. Given this, how realistic is an assumption of 11% nominal GDP growth for 2016-2017?

To conclude, it is safe to say that Jaitley’s fiscal deficit number is not believable. As the American professor Aaron Levenstein once said: “Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.”

What Jaitley has managed to conceal is vital.

The column originally appeared on the Vivek Kaul Diary on March 1, 2016



Arun Jaitley will abandon fiscal consolidation in next year’s budget

Fostering Public Leadership - World Economic Forum - India Economic Summit 2010
It’s too early to be writing about the next year’s budget as it’s more than two months away. But given the way things stand as of now a few things can be safely said.

The finance minister Arun Jaitley during the course of the budget speech in February earlier this year, had said: “I want to underscore that my government still remains firm on achieving the medium term target of 3% of GDP…I will complete the journey to a fiscal deficit of 3% in 3 years, rather than the two years envisaged previously.  Thus, for the next three years, my targets are: 3.9%, for 2015-16; 3.5% for 2016-17; and, 3.0% for 2017-18.” Fiscal deficit is essentially the difference between what a government earns and what it spends.

The way things stand as of now there is no way that the finance minister can work with a fiscal deficit target of 3.5% of the gross domestic product(GDP) for 2016-2017, which is the next financial year.

Why do I say that? The Mid-Year Economic Analysis released by the ministry of finance last week hints towards the same. The nominal GDP growth for the first six months of the year came in only at 8.2%. It had been assumed to grow at 11.5% in the budget. Nominal GDP is essentially GDP which hasn’t been adjusted for inflation.

This lower than expected economic growth has led to the ministry revising the expected nominal growth for 2015-2016 to 8.2%. “Unless oil prices decline further this annual estimate of 8.2 percent would represent two successive years of substantial declines in nominal GDP growth…We estimate that real GDP for the year as a whole will lie in the 7-7.5 per cent range.,” the Mid-Year Economic Review pointed out. The real GDP is essentially GDP which has been adjusted for inflation.

In this scenario of lower than expected economic growth (as measured by the real/nominal GDP growth) “if the government sticks to the path for fiscal consolidation, that would further detract from demand,” the Review points out. Further, “consolidation of the magnitude contemplated by the government… could weaken a softening economy”. Fiscal consolidation is essentially the reduction of fiscal deficit, along the lines Jaitley had talked about in his budget speech.

What the Review is essentially saying here is that if the government continues to cut its fiscal deficit, it will have to cut down on its expenditure. And in an environment where the consumer and industrial demand isn’t really robust this may not be the best way to go about it. With overall demand not in best shape if the government also cuts its expenditure there will be a further fall in demand and in the process economic growth will slow down further.

Hence, enough hints have been dropped in the Mid-Year Economic Review to suggest that the government doesn’t plan to stick to the fiscal deficit target of 3.5% of the GDP in 2016-2017, as it had talked about at the time it presented the budget for 2015-2016.

In fact, even without taking what the Mid-Year Economic Review has to say, the numbers clearly suggest that there is no way the government can work with a fiscal deficit target of 3.5% of the GDP.

The recommendations of the Seventh Pay Commission are expected to add Rs 73,650 crore or 0.65% of the GDP in the first year, to the government’s expenditure. In line with the recommendations of the Commission, the government will pay higher salaries as well as pensions.

Also, the recommendations of the Commission come into effect from January 1, 2016.  They will be implemented from April 1, 2016. Hence, arrears for the three months of January to March 2016 will also have to be paid. This is likely to amount to Rs 18,412.5 crore (Rs 73,650 divided by 4). This pushes up the total extra expenditure due to the recommendations of the Seventh Pay Commission to Rs 92,062.5 crore (Rs 73,650 crore plus Rs 18,412.5 crore).

Over and above this, The Financial Express reports that the Railways has requested the government to fund the extra money it would have to spend in order to meet the recommendations of the Seventh Pay Commission. This is estimated to be Rs 28,450 crore. The Pay Commission in its reports expected the Railways to meet this extra expenditure out of its own revenues. But with the revenues of the Railways not growing as fast as they were expected to, this may not happen now.

Further, arrears of the first three months of 2016 will also have to be paid by the Railways and this will push the total extra expenditure of the Railways to be funded by the government to Rs 35,562.5 crore (Rs 28,450 crore plus Rs28,450 crore divided by 4).

Hence, the total extra expenditure of the government due to the recommendations of the Seventh Pay Commission will come to Rs 1,27,625 crore (Rs 92,062.5 crore plus Rs 35,562.5 crore). Add to this the extra expenditure due to the implementation of one rank one pension which is expected to come to Rs 10,000 crore and we are looking at an extra expenditure of close to Rs 1,40,000 crore.

Also, as I had pointed out in yesterday’s column food and fertilizer subsidies of greater than Rs 1,00,000 crore have not been paid. Once all these factors are taken into account it becomes very clear that there is no way the government can come up with a fiscal deficit number of 3.5% of the GDP.

So, what is the solution for the government, given that this is big money being talked about here? Rest assured some accounting shenanigans will be resorted to with some expenditures (like the payment of subsidies) being postponed. Over and above this, the government needs to shut down loss making public sector enterprises and sell the assets these public sector enterprises have been sitting on for many years now.

The Business Standard reports that the government is planning to raise the rate of service tax from the current 14% to 16%. This is line with the recommendations of the Arvind Subramnian committee which has proposed a standard goods and services tax in the range of 16.9-18.9%. As an editorial in The Financial Express points out: “Based on this year’s budgeted collections for service taxes, a 2-percentage-point hike can yield around R30,000-35,000 crore extra.” And this clearly won’t be enough.

The column was originally published in The Daily Reckoning on December 23, 2015