How Manmohan’s omelette came out as scrambled egg

Vivek Kaul
Around half way through Manu Joseph’s new book The Illicit Happiness of Other People, Ousep Chacko, one of the main characters in the book, says “Don’t hate me, son. There are people in this world who set out to make an omelette but end up with scrambled eggs. I am one of them.”
I just couldn’t help comparing this statement to Manmohan Singh, the current Prime Minister of the country. When he started out in 2004 he had all the economic ingredients that could be used to make a good omelette but what he has given us instead is burnt bhurji (the closest Indian representation of scrambled eggs and with due apologies to all the vegetarians out there).
When Manmohan Singh took over as the Prime Minister on May 22, 2004, things were looking good on the economic front. Consumer price index (CPI) inflation was at a rather benign 2.83%(Source: in May 2004. Interest rates were low.
The fiscal deficit projected by the government for 2004-2005(or the period between April 1, 2004 and March 31, 2005) was at 4.4% of the gross domestic product (GDP). Fiscal deficit is the difference between what the government earns and what it spends.
The interest payments that the government had to make on previous debt formed around 94% of the fiscal deficit. Interest payments stood at Rs 1,29,500 crore whereas the fiscal deficit was at Rs 1,37,407 crore.  Thus the primary deficit or the difference between expenditure and income, after leaving out the interest payments, came to just 0.3% of the GDP.
What this meant was that the government was more or less meeting its expenditure from the income that it was earning during the course of the year. Thus the deficit was on account of the past debt. It also meant that the government did not have to borrow much, which in turn kept the interest rates low, encouraging both businesses and consumers to borrow and spend, and thus helping the Indian economy grow at a fast rate.
The subsidy bill for the year stood at Rs 43,516 crore or a little over 9% of the total government expenditure.
Cut to now. The CPI inflation for July 2012 was at 9.86%. The interest rate on most retail loans is greater than 10%. And the fiscal deficit has gone through the roof. The projected fiscal deficit for the year is Rs 5,13,590 crore or around 5.1% of the GDP. The primary deficit is at 1.9% of the GDP.
Even these numbers, as I showed in a recent piece will turn out to be way off the mark. (You can read the piece here). As economist Shankar Acharya wrote in the Business Standard “A few days back the Controller General of Accounts (CGA, not CAG!) informed us that the central government’s fiscal deficit for the first four months of 2012-13 had already exceeded half of the Budget’s target for the full year.”
The way things are going currently, the fiscal deficit might touch 7% of the GDP or its roundabout by the end of this year. This is a situation which hasn’t been experienced since 1990-91, just before India liberalised and opened up the economy.
In his speech as the Finance Minister of India in July 1991 Manmohan Singh had said “The crisis of the fiscal system is a cause for serious concern. The fiscal deficit of the Central Government…is estimated at more than 8 per cent of GDP in 1990-91, as compared with 6 per cent at the beginning of the 1980s and 4 per cent in the mid-1970s.”
So the question that arises is what went wrong between 2004 and 2012? The answer is that the subsidy budget of the government went through the roof. Things started changing in 2007-2008. The projected subsidy bill for the year was Rs 54,330 crore. By the end of the year the government had spent Rs 69,742 crore or 28% more. This was in preparation for the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.
The same thing happened the next year i.e. 2008-2009. The government budgeted Rs 71,431 crore as subsidies and ended up spending Rs 1,29,243 crore, a whopping 81% more. The subsidies were primarily on account of fertiliser, oil and food.
The budgeted subsidies for the current financial year (i.e. the period between April 1, 2012 and March 31, 2013) are at Rs 1,90,015 crore or around 12.7% of the total government expenditure. But as has been the case earlier the government will end up spending much more than this. Even after the Rs 5 increase in diesel price, the oil marketing companies (OMCs) will lose more than Rs 1 lakh crore on selling diesel this year. The total loss on account of selling diesel, kerosene and cooking gas at a loss is estimated to come to Rs 1,67,000 crore.
Just this will push up the subsidy bill close to Rs 3,00,000 crore.  The government is expected to cross the budgeted amount for food and fertiliser subsidy as well. All in all it’s safe to say that subsidies will account for more than 20% of the government expenditure during the course of the year, leading to greater borrowing by the government and thus higher interest rates for everybody else.
The idea behind the subsidies (or inclusive growth as the government likes to call it) is to help the poor and ensure that they are not left out of the growth process. The question is where is the money to fund these subsidies going to come from? As Ila Patnaik writes in The Indian Express “Anyone looking at the rising subsidy bill, at the size of the welfare programmes, and contrasting it with the limited tax base, can only wonder why India will not have a fiscal crisis. A continuation of the present policies cannot but land the country into a huge problem. Either before a crisis or after it, there is little doubt that the current expenditure path has to change.”
The programme at the heart of the so called inclusive growth is the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), under which there is a legal guarantee of 100 days of employment during the course of the financial year to adults of any rural household. The daily wage is set at Rs 120 in 2009 prices, which means it is indexed for inflation. Now only if economic and social development was as easy as getting people to dig holes and fill them up.
Also as is usual with most such schemes in India there are huge leakages in this scheme as well. Estimates suggest that leakages are as high as 70%, which means only around Rs 30 of the Rs 100, reaches those it should, while the rest is being siphoned off. This is done by fudging muster rolls, which are essentially supposed to contain the number of days a labourer has worked and the wages he or she has been paid for it.
Also these subsidy and welfare programmes were initiated when the Indian economy was growing faster than 9%. Now the economic growth has slowed down to 5% levels. As Patnaik puts it “Implicit was also the argument that NREGA will be paid for by the high tax collection that the fast growing sectors of the economy would yield. Growth was to be made inclusive through a redistribution of incomes. This was the scenario when India was growing at 10 per cent and leaving some people behind. It was a scenario that might stand the test of time if India continued to grow at a long-run steady state of 10 per cent growth. This plan did not appear to evaluate the fiscal path of such a programme when growth halved.”
Slow growth also implies a slowdown in tax collections for the government, which might lead to the government needing to borrow more to finance the subsidies and welfare programmes.
A lot of the expenditure on account of subsidies could have been met if the government had been less corrupt and not sold off the assets of the nation at rock bottom prices. The loss on account of the telecom scandal was estimated to be at Rs 1.76 lakh crore. The loss on account of the coal blocks scandal was estimated to be at Rs 1.86lakh crore.
While these scams were happening all around him, Manmohan Singh chose to look the other way. As TN Ninan wrote in the Business Standard “Corruption silenced telecom, it froze orders for defence equipment, it flared up over gas, and now it might black out the mining and power sectors. Manmohan Singh’s fatal flaw — his willingness to tolerate corruption all around him while keeping his own hands clean — has led us into a cul de sac , with the country able to neither tolerate rampant corruption nor root it out.”
Singh has tried to re-establish his reformist credentials recently by announcing a spate of economic reforms over Friday and Saturday. But none of these reforms look to control the expenditure of the government and thus bring down the fiscal deficit. If the government continues down this path the future is doomed. As Ruchir Sharma writes in Breakout Nations “If the government continues down this path, India might meet the same path as Brazil in the late 1970s, when excessive government spending set off hyperinflation, ending the country’s economic boom.”
Higher expenditure also means inflation will continue to remain high. “NREGA pushed rural wage inflation up to 15% in 2011,” writes Sharma. The fear of high inflation continues, despite the reforms announced by the government. “The government undertook long anticipated measures towards fiscal consolidation by reducing fuel subsidies and selling stakes in public enterprises. Further, steps taken to increase foreign direct investment (FDI) should contribute to both greater capital inflows and, over the long run, higher productivity, particularly in the food supply chain. Importantly, however, for the moment, inflationary pressures, both at wholesale and retail levels, are still strong,” the Reserve Bank of India said in a statement today, keeping the repo rate (or the rate at which it lends to banks) constant at 8%. This despite the fact that there was great pressure on the central bank to cut the repo rate. It is unfair to expect the RBI to make up for the mistakes of the government.
The bottomline is that if the government has to get its act right it needs to reign in its expenditure. I started this piece with eggs let me end it with chickens. As economist Bibek Debroy wrote in the Economic Times “Since 2009, UPA-II has behaved like a headless chicken. It is still headless, but the chicken at least wants to cross the road. We still don’t know whether it will be run over or cross the road and lay an egg.”
And even if eggs are laid, we might still not end up with burnt bhurji rather than omelettes.
(The article originally appeared on

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at 
[email protected])

Why you should be nice to your mom – and buy some gold


Vivek Kaul
So let me start this piece by admitting Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve of United States (the American central bank) has proven me wrong.
I was wrong when I recently said that the Federal Reserve would not initiate a third round of quantitative easing (QE), before the November 6 presidential elections in the United States. (you can read about it here).
Bernanke announced late last night that the Federal Reserve would buy mortgage backed securities worth $40billion every month. This will continue till the job scenario in the United States improves substantially. The Federal Reserve will print money to buy the mortgage back securities.
I concluded that the Federal Reserve wouldn’t announce any QE till November 6, primarily on account of the fact that Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for the Presidential elections, has been against any sort of QE to revive the economy.
“I don’t think QE-II was terribly effective. I think a QE-III and other Fed stimulus is not going to help this economy…I think that is the wrong way to go. I think it also seeds the kind of potential for inflation down the road that would be harmful to the value of the dollar and harmful to the stability of our nation’s needs,” Romney told Fox News on 23 August. This had held back the Federal Reserve from initiating QE III.
But from the looks of it Bernanke doesn’t feel that Romney has a chance at winning and that he is more likely than not going to continue working with Barack Obama, the current American President.
This round of quantitative easing is going to help Obama and hurt Romney. Let me explain. The theory behind quantitative easing is that when the Federal Reserve buys mortgage backed securities (in this case) by printing dollars, it pumps in more money into the economy. With more money in the economy, banks and financial institutions it is felt will lend that money and businesses and consumers will borrow. This will mean that spending by both businesses and consumers will start to up. Once that happens the economic scenario will start improving, which will lead to more jobs being created.
But as I said this is the theoretical part. And theory and practice do not always go together. Both American businesses and consumers have been shying away from borrowing. Hence, all this money floating around has found its way into stock and commodity markets around the world.
As more money enters the stock market, stock prices go up and this creates the “wealth effect”. People who invest money in the market feel richer and then they tend to spend part of the accumulated wealth. This, in turn, helps economic growth.
As Gary Dorsch, an investment newsletter writer, said in a recent column, “Historical observation reveals that the direction of the stock market has a notable influence over consumer confidence and spending levels. In particular, the top 20% of wealthiest Americans account for 40% of the spending in the US economy, so the Fed hopes that by inflating the value of the stock market, wealthier Americans would decide to spend more. It’s the Fed’s version of “trickle down” economics, otherwise known as the “wealth effect.””
When this happens, the economy is likely to grow faster and hence, people are more likely to vote for the incumbent President. As Dorsch explains “Incumbent presidents are always hard to beat. The powers of the presidency go a long way…In the 1972 election year, when Nixon pressured Arthur Burns, then the Fed chairman, to expand the money supply with the aim of reducing unemployment, and boosting the economy in order to insure Nixon’s re-election.”
Bernanke is looking to do the same, even though he has denied it completely. “We have tried very, very hard, and I think we’ve been successful, at the Federal Reserve to be non-partisan and apolitical…We make our decisions based entirely on the state of the economy,” the Financial Times quoted Bernanke as saying. Given this, Romney has been a vocal critic of quantitative easing knowing that another round of money printing will clearly benefit Obama.
Other than Obama and the stock markets, the other big beneficiary of QE III will be gold. The yellow metal has gone up by around 2.2% to $1768 per ounce, since the announcement for QE III was made. In fact the expectation of QE III has been on since the beginning of September after Ben Bernanke dropped hints in a speech. Gold has risen by 7.3% since the beginning of this month.
This is primarily because any round of quantitative easing ensures that there are more dollars in the financial system than before. The threat is that the greater number of dollars will chase the same number of goods and services. This will lead to an increase in their prices. But this hasn’t happened till now. Nevertheless that hasn’t stopped investors from buying gold to protect themselves from this debasement of money. Gold cannot be debased. Unlike paper money it cannot be created out of thin air.
During earlier days, paper money was backed by gold or silver. When governments printed more paper money than the precious metals backing it, people simply turned up with their paper at the central bank and government mints, and demanded that paper money be converted into gold or silver. Now, whenever people see more and more of paper money being printed, the smarter ones simply go out and buy that gold. Hence, bad money (that is, paper money) is driving out good money (that is, gold) away from the market.
But that’s just one part of the story. The governments and central banks around the world, led by the Federal Reserve of United States and the European Central Bank, are likely to continue printing more money, in the hope that people spend this money and this revives economic growth. This in turn increases the threat of inflation which would mean that the price of gold is likely to keep going up. “Gold tends to benefit from easy-money policies as investors utilize the precious metal as a hedge against potential inflation that could ultimately result from the Fed’s policies,” Steven Russolillo, wrote on WSJ Blogs.
Market watchers have also started to believe that the Federal Reserve is now only bothered about economic growth and has abandoned the goal of keeping inflation under control. Growth and inflation control are typically the twin goals of any central bank.
“They are emphasizing the growth mandate, and that means they don’t care about inflation other than giving lip service to it,” Axel Merk, chief investment officer at Merk Funds, told Reuters. “The price of gold will do very well in the years to come,”he added.
Something that Jeffrey Sherman, commodities portfolio manager of DoubleLine Capital, agrees with. “The Fed’s inflationary behavior should be bearish for the dollar in the long run and drive investors to seek protection via the gold market,” he told Reuters.
Also unlike previous two rounds of money printing there are no upper limits on this QE, although at $40billion a month it’s much smaller in size. QE II, the second round of money printing, was $600billion in size.
Something that can bring down the returns on gold in rupee terms is the appreciation of the rupee against the dollar. Yesterday the rupee appreciated against the dollar by nearly 2%. This is happening primarily because the UPA government has suddenly turned reformist.  (To understand the complete relationship between rupee, dollar and gold, read this).
In the end let me quote William Bonner & Addison Wiggin, the authors of Empire of Debt — The Rise of an Epic Financial Crisis. As they say “There is never a good time to die. Nor is there a good time for a crash or a slump. Still, death happens. Be prepared. Say something nice to your mother. Offer a bum a drink. And buy gold.”
So be nice to your mother and buy gold.
Disclosure: This writer has investments in gold through the mutual fund route.
(The article originally appeared on on September 15,2012.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected])

Dear Beni Prasad, it’s govt, not farmer, who benefits from inflation

Vivek Kaul

“Beni Prasad Verma is not a particularly bright fellow,” said Mohan Guruswamy, Chairman of Centre for Policy Alternatives, a New Delhi based think tank, on Times Now late last night.
The remark was in reference to Beni Prasad Verma’s comment that “dal (pulses), aatta (flour), rice and vegetables have become expensive. The more the prices, the better it is for farmers. I am happy with this inflation…Media says the cost of food has increased, but it is benefiting farmers… and the government is in favour of farmers’ profit.” Verma is the union minister of steel.
There are several logical inconsistencies in what Verma said during the course of the day yesterday. An increase in price and the farmer benefitting from it are two very different things. As we know the farmer does not sell his produce directly to the consumers. His produce goes through a series of middlemen. That being the case it’s the middlemen who buy agriculture produce from the farmers, who might be gaining the most from a rise in price. And not the farmer. This has been the case in the past whenever India has seen a shortage of onions.
But what if the farmer is benefitting from the rise in price? This means that the farmer is actually able to sell his produce at a higher price. Even then Verma’s statement does not make sense.
It does not take into account the fact that a normal farmer does not produce all the goods he consumes. So a rice farmer may not be farming vegetables. And a vegetable farmer may not be producing dal and so on. Hence, a rice farmer might gain when the government announces a higher minimum support price for rice, but he loses out because he also needs to buy dal, vegetables, sugar and so on. And the prices of these food products have also been going up.
The latest inflation number based on the consumer price index was released today. The inflation for the month of July 2012 came in at 9.86%. This means that prices on the whole were up by 9.86% in the month of July 2012 in comparison to July 2011.
The inflation for July 2012 was marginally down from the inflation of 9.93% experienced in the month of June, 2012. Within this the food price inflation stood at 11.53%. The number was at 10.71% in June, 2012.
The point I am trying to make is that farmers other than growing what others eat, also eat what other farmers grow. This is a basic fact that Beni Prasad Verma did not realize while making the statement that he did. And if food prices on a whole went up by 11.53% in July 2012, it surely does not benefit farmers because other than being producers of food products, they are its consumers as well.
Now that’s one part of the argument.
A high inflation also hurts consumers at all levels, which includes farmers. They cut down on their planned spending as prices rise and this in turns hurts businesses and the overall economy. Businesses do not like to spend money on newer projects as consumers cut down on consumption.
So the question is who benefits in an environment when the inflation is high? “The most obvious beneficiary of higher inflation, at least in the short term, is the government. Since…the government will always be able to pay its debt, at least domestically since higher inflation effectively reduces the long-term cost of borrowing money,” writes Kyle Bumpus in an article titled Who Benefits From Inflation? (you can read the whole article here)
Let’s take a look at this statement in the context of India. The return on a ten year government bond as I write this is around 8.22%. The government essentially issues bonds to finance its fiscal deficit or the difference between what it earns and what it spends.
The consumer price inflation for the month of July 2012 has come in at 9.86%. What does this mean? This means that the government can effectively raise money from the market at the rate of 8.22% when inflation is at 9.86%. This effectively means that the real rate of interest is negative (the nominal rate of interest i.e. 8.22% minus the inflation i.e. 9.86%).
Hence the interest that the government offers on its bonds is even lower than the rate of inflation. So technically investors who are buying government bonds are effectively losing money, given that the interest they get paid is lower than the rate of inflation.
The question is why are investors then ready to buy government bonds which pay an interest lower than the prevailing rate of inflation? “So negative real rates may simply indicate that savers are incredibly cautious, and that businesses are reluctant to invest in new projects,” wrote The Economist in a recent edition. “When an economy is growing rapidly, there should be an abundance of profitable investment opportunities. Businesses are happy to borrow at high real rates, confident that they can still earn an even higher return,” it added.
But given the state of the economy right now the businesses and savers would rather buy government bonds and lose a little money on it, rather than invest it anywhere else. This demand for government bonds, allows the government to pay a rate of interest which is lower than the prevailing rate of inflation. In the strictest sense of the term the government gets paid to borrow. Hence, it benefits from inflation.
And not the farmer. This is something that Beni Prasad Verma either does not understand or is simply catering to vote bank politics with the assumption that higher food prices benefit farmers. Its time he heard the only Hindi film song written on inflation from the movie Roti, Kapda Aur Makan, written by Verma Malik, “Baakee Kuch Bacha Toh Mehangayi Maar Gayi”.
The article originally appeared on on August 21,2012.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])

Of 9% economic growth and Manmohan’s pipedreams

Vivek Kaul

Shashi Tharoor before he decided to become a politician was an excellent writer of fiction. It is rather sad that he hasn’t written any fiction since he became a politician. A few lines that he wrote in his book Riot: A Love Story I particularly like. “There is not a thing as the wrong place, or the wrong time. We are where we are at the only time we have. Perhaps it’s where we’re meant to be,” wrote Tharoor.
India’s slowing economic growth is a good case in point of Tharoor’s logic. It is where it is, despite what the politicians who run this country have to say, because that’s where it is meant to be.
The Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his independence-day speech laid the blame for the slowing economic growth in India on account of problems with the global economy as well as bad monsoons within the country. As he said “You are aware that these days the global economy is passing through a difficult phase. The pace of economic growth has come down in all countries of the world. Our country has also been affected by these adverse external conditions. Also, there have been domestic developments which are hindering our economic growth. Last year our GDP grew by 6.5 percent. This year we hope to do a little better…While doing this, we must also control inflation. This would pose some difficulty because of a bad monsoon this year.
So basically what Manmohan Singh was saying that I know the economic growth is slowing down, but don’t blame me or my government for it. Singh like most politicians when trying to explain their bad performance has resorted to what psychologists calls the fundamental attribution bias.
As Vivek Dehejia an economics professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, told me in a recent interview I did for the Daily News and Analysis (DNA) Fundamentally attribution bias says that we are more likely to attribute to the other person a subjective basis for their behaviour and tend to neglect the situational factors. Looking at our own actions we look more at the situational factors and less at the idiosyncratic individual subjective factors.”
In simple English what this means is that when we are analyzing the performance of others we tend to look at the mistakes that they made rather than the situational factors. On the flip side when we are trying to explain our bad performance we tend to blame the situational factors more than the mistakes that we might have made.
So in Singh’s case he has blamed the global economy and the deficient monsoon for the slowing economic growth. He also blamed his coalition partners. “As far as creating an environment within the country for rapid economic growth is concerned, I believe that we are not being able to achieve this because of a lack of political consensus on many issues,” Singh said.
Each of these reasons highlighted by Singh is a genuine reason but these are not the only reasons because of which economic growth of India is slowing down. A major reason for the slowing down of economic growth is the high interest rates and high inflation that prevails. With interest rates being high it doesn’t make sense for businesses to borrow and expand. It also doesn’t make sense for you and me to take loans and buy homes, cars, motorcycles and other consumer durables.
The question that arises here is that why are banks charging high interest rates on their loans? The primary reason is that they are paying high interest rate on their deposits.
And why are they paying a high interest rate on their deposits? The answer lies in the fact that banks have been giving out more loans than raising deposits. Between December 30, 2011 and July 27, 2012, a period of nearly seven months, banks have given loans worth Rs 4,16,050 crore. During the same period the banks were able to raise deposits worth Rs 3,24,080 crore. This means an incremental credit deposit ratio of a whopping 128.4% i.e. for every Rs 100 raised as deposits, the banks have given out loans of Rs 128.4.
Thus banks have not been able to raise as much deposits as they are giving out loans. The loans are thus being financed out of deposits raised in the past. What this also means is that there is a scarcity of money that can be raised as deposits and hence banks have had to offer higher interest rates than normal to raise this money.
So the question that crops up next is that why there is a scarcity of money that can be raised as deposits? This as I have said more than few times in the past is because the expenditure of the government is much more than its earnings.
The fiscal deficit of the government or the difference between what it earns and what it spends has been going up, over the last few years. For the financial year 2007-2008 the fiscal deficit stood at Rs 1,26,912 crore. It went up to Rs 5,21,980 crore for financial year 2011-2012. In a time frame of five years the fiscal deficit has shot up by nearly 312%. During the same period the income earned by the government has gone up by only 36% to Rs 7,96,740 crore.
This difference is made up for by borrowing. When the borrowing needs of the government go through the roof it obviously leaves very little on the table for the banks and other private institutions to borrow, which in turn means that they have to offer higher interest rates to raise deposits. Once they offer higher interest rates on deposits, they have to charge higher interest rate on loans.
A higher interest rate scenario slows down economic growth as companies borrow less to expand their businesses and individuals also cut down on their loan financed purchases. This impacts businesses and thus slows down economic growth.
The huge increase in fiscal deficit has primarily happened because of the subsidy on food, fertilizer and petroleum. One of the programmes that benefits from the government subsidy is Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). The scheme guarantees 100 days of work to adults in any rural household. While this is a great short term fix it really is not a long term solution. If creating economic growth was as simple as giving away money to people and asking them to dig holes, every country in the world would have practiced it by now.
As Raghuram Rajan, who is taking over as the next Chief Economic Advisor of the government of India, told me in an interview I did for DNA a couple of years back “The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS, another name for MGNREGA), if appropriately done it is a short term insurance fix and reduces some of the pressure on the system, which is not a bad thing. But if it comes in the way of the creation of long term capabilities, and if we think NREGS is the answer to the problem of rural stagnation, we have a problem. It’s a short term necessity in some areas. But the longer term fix has to be to open up the rural areas, connect them, education, capacity building, that is the key.
But the Manmohan Singh led United Progressive Alliance seems to be looking at the employment guarantee scheme as a long term solution rather than a short term fix. This has led to burgeoning wage inflation over the last few years in rural areas.
As Ruchir Sharma writes in Breakout Nations – In Pursuit of the Next Economic MiraclesThe wages guaranteed by MGNREGA pushed rural wage inflation up to 15 percent in 2011”.
Also as more money in the hands of rural India chases the same number of goods it has led to increased price inflation as well. Consumer price inflation currently remains over 10%. The most recent wholesale price index inflation number fell to 6.87% for the month of July 2012, from 7.25% in June. But this experts believe is a short term phenomenon and inflation is expected to go up again in the months to come.
As Ruchir Sharma wrote in a column that appeared yesterday in The Times of IndiaFor decades India’s place in the rankings of nations by inflation rates also held steady, somewhere between 78 and 98 out of 180. But over the past couple of years India’s inflation rate is so out of whack that its ranking has fallen to 151. No nation has ever managed to sustain rapid growth for several decades in the face of high inflation. It is no coincidence that India is increasingly an outlier on the fiscal front as well with the combined central and state government deficits now running four times higher than the emerging market average of 2%.” (You can read the complete column here).
So to get economic growth back on track India has to control inflation. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has been trying to control inflation by keeping the repo rate, or the rate at which it lends to banks, at a high level. One school of thought is that once the RBI starts cutting the repo rate, interest rates will fall and economic growth will bounce back.
That is specious argument at best. Interest rates are not high because RBI has been keeping the repo rate high. The repo rate at best acts as an indicator. Even if the RBI were to cut the repo rate the question is will it translate into interest rate on loans being cut by banks? I don’t see that happening unless the government clamps down on its borrowing. And that will only happen if it’s able to control the subsidies.
The fiscal deficit for the current financial year 2012-2013 has been estimated at Rs Rs Rs 5,13,590 crore. I wouldn’t be surprised if the number even touches Rs 600,000 crore. The oil subsidy for the year was set at Rs 43,580 crore. This has already been exhausted. Oil prices are on their way up and brent crude as I write this is around $115 per barrel. The government continues to force the oil marketing companies to sell diesel, LPG and kerosene at a loss. The diesel subsidy is likely to continue given that with the bad monsoon farmers are now likely to use diesel generators to pump water to irrigate their fields. With food inflation remaining high the food subsidy is also likely to go up.
The heart of India’s problem is the huge fiscal deficit of the government and its inability to control it. As Sharma points out in Breakout NationsIt was easy enough for India to increase spending in the midst of a global boom, but the spending has continued to rise in the post-crisis period…If the government continues down this path India, may meet the same fate as Brazil in the late 1970s, when excessive government spending set off hyperinflation and crowded out private investment, ending the country’s economic boom.”
These details Manmohan Singh couldn’t have mentioned in his speech. But he tried to project a positive picture by talking about the planning commission laying down measures to ensure a 9% rate of growth. The one measure that the government needs to start with is to cut down the fiscal deficit. And the probability of that happening is as much as my writing having more readers than that of Chetan Bhagat. Hence India’s economic growth is at a level where it is meant to be irrespective for all the explanations that Manmohan Singh gave us and the hope he tried to project in his independence-day speech.
But then you can’t stop people from dreaming in broad daylight. Even Manmohan Singh! As the great Mirza Ghalib who had a couplet for almost every situation in life once said “hui muddat ke ghalib mar gaya par yaad aata hai wo har ek baat par kehna ke yun hota to kya hota?
(The article originally appeared on on August 16,2012.
Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected]

A policy rate Catch 22

Vivek Kaul

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” says Yossarian, the lead character in Joseph Heller’s all time classic Catch 22. Duvvuri Subbarao, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) is facing a Catch 22 situation currently and some catch it is.
He needs to decide whether to encourage economic growth or to control inflation. Theoretically Subbarao can encourage economic growth by cutting the interest rates. But that is likely to fuel inflation as people and companies will borrow and spend more, leading to a rise in prices.
He can control inflation by keeping the interest rates high. But that kills economic growth as businesses don’t borrow money to expand and people go slow on taking loans for purchasing cars, motorcycles, homes and consumer durables. This hurts businesses and slows down economic growth.
The RBI seems to be trying to control inflation by keeping the interest rates high rather than try and encourage economic growth by cutting the interest rate. In the first quarter review of monetary policy 2012-2013 which was released on July 31, 2012, the RBI decided to keep the repo rate at 8%. Repo rate is the interest rate at which the RBI lends to banks.
By keeping the repo rate high the RBI hopes to control inflation. “The primary focus of monetary policy remains inflation control,” the RBI said in a statement. But economic theory and practice don’t always go together.
The inflation in India is primarily on account of rising oil prices and food prices. Oil is a commodity that is bought and sold internationally and the RBI cannot control its price. The price of oil has been falling since the beginning of this year but it has started to inch its way back up and as I write this, brent crude oil is quoting at $105per barrel. While the government has shielded the people from a rise in oil price by not raising the price of diesel, LPG and kerosene, petrol prices have been raised.
As far as food is concerned there seems to be a structural shift happening. “The stickiness in inflation…was largely on account of high primary food inflation…due to an unusual spike in vegetable prices and sustained high inflation in protein items,” the RBI said.
Protein items primarily include various kinds of pulses, milk and other dairy items. The various social schemes being run by the current United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government have put more money into the hands of rural India. One thing that seems to have happened because of this is that people are eating better than before.
Economic theory suggests that once income levels rise above $1000 per annum, a major portion of the increased income is spent on more food and better quality food. Also people shift from cereal based diets to protein based diets. In large parts of the world this means an increase in the consumption of meat. But in India it means more consumption of milk and pulses. Again this is something that the RBI has no control over. As long as the UPA keeps running its social schemes this phenomenon of increased food prices is likely to continue.
What does not help in the near term is a deficient monsoon. Rainfall upto July 25,2012 has been 22% below its long period average. This means food prices will continue to rise.
What this clearly tells us is that RBI is not in a position to control inflation as it stands today. So should it be cutting the repo rate and in the process encouraging economic growth?
When RBI cuts the repo rate it is essentially giving a signal to banks that it expects the interest rates to go down in the days to come. But it is upto the banks to decide whether they take that signal seriously. When the RBI cut the repo rate by 50 basis points (one basis point is one hundredth of a percentage point) in April, the banks cut their interest rates by only 25 basis points on an average.
The reason was the increased borrowing by the government to finance its growing fiscal deficit. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what the government earns and what it spends. Between 2007 and 2012 the fiscal deficit of the government has gone up by more than 300%. During the same period its income has increased by just 36%.
The fiscal deficit has been growing on account of various subsidies like oil, food and fertizlier being offered by the government. “During April-May 2012, while food subsidies were lower, fertiliser subsidies were more than twice the previous year’s level,” the RBI statement pointed out. What also does not help is the fact that the Rs 43,580 crore oil subsidy budgeted for this year has already run out. The government compensates the oil marketing companies (OMCs) for selling kerosene, diesel and LPG at below cost. With oil prices over $100 again, the oil subsidies are likely to increase in the days to come.
This means increased borrowing by the government to compensate the OMCs for their losses. Increased borrowing by the government will mean that banks will have a lower pool of money to borrow from and hence they will have to continue to offer high interest rates on their deposits and charge high interest rates on their loans.
So what is the way out? “Clearly, if the target of restricting the expenditure on subsidies to under 2 per cent of GDP in 2012-13, as set out in the Union Budget, is to be achieved, immediate action on fuel and fertiliser subsidies will be required,” the RBI said.
But raising prices is easier said than done. Another theory being bandied around is that Duvvuri Subbarao is Chiddu’s baby (P Chidambaram, the Home Minister) and he will start cutting the repo rate as soon as Chidambaram is back at the Finance Ministry.
(The article originally appeared in the Asian Age/Deccan Chronicle on August 1,2012.
The article was written before P Chidambaram was appointed as the Finance Minister
(Vivek Kaul is a Mumbai based writer and can be reached at [email protected])