Everybody Loves a Good Interest Rate Cut…Except the Savers

My main life lesson from investing: self-interest is the most powerful force on earth, and can get people to embrace and defend almost anything – Jesse Livermore.

Late in the evening of March 31, the department of economic affairs, ministry of finance, put out a press release saying that the interest rates on small savings schemes for the period April to June 2021, have been cut.

The social media got buzzing immediately. And almost everyone from journalists to economists to analysts praised the decision. It was seen as yet another effort by the government to push down interest rates further.

With the state of the economy being where it is, lower interest rates are expected to perk up economic growth. People are expected to borrow and spend more. Corporates are expected to borrow and expand. At lower interest rates individuals who have already taken on loans will see their EMIs go down, leaving more cash in hand, and they are likely to spend that money, helping the economy grow.

That’s how it is expected to work, at least in theory. Hence, everybody loves a good interest rate cut… except the savers.

On April 1, the social media woke up to the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s tweet announcing that “interest rates of small savings schemes… shall continue to be at the rates which existed in the last quarter of 2020-2021.” She further said that the order had been issued by oversight and would be withdrawn.

Later in the day, the department of economic affairs put out a press release to that effect.

The fact that lower interest rates are good for the economy is only one side of the story. They also hurt the economy in different ways. People who are dependent on interest income for their expenditure (like the retired senior citizens) see their incomes fall and have to cut down on their expenditure. This impacts private consumption negatively. 

While this cannot be measured exactly, it does happen. Also, a bulk of India’s household savings (close to 84% in 2019-20) are made in fixed deposits, provident and pension funds, life insurance policies and small savings schemes. Lower interest rates bring down the returns of all these products and this negatively impacts many savers.

As the economist Michael Pettis writes about the relationship between interest rate and consumption in case of China, in The Great Rebalancing:

“Most Chinese savings, at least until recently, have been in the form of bank deposits…Chinese households, in other words, should feel richer when the deposit rate rises and poorer when it declines, in which case rising rates should be associated with rising, not declining, consumption.”

The same logic applies to India as well, with lower interest rates being associated with declining consumption, at least for a section of the population.

This is not to say that interest rates should be higher than they currently are (that is a topic for another day), nonetheless the fact that lower interest rates impact savers and consumption negatively is a point that needs to be made and it rarely gets made. I made this point in a piece I wrote for livemint.com, yesterday. 

Also, borrowing is not just about lower interest rates. It is more about the confidence that the borrower has in his economic future and the ability to keep paying the EMI over the years. I wrote about this in the context of home loans, a few days back.

This leaves us with the question that why doesn’t anyone talk about the negative side of low interest rates. The answer lies in the fact that they don’t have an incentive to do so. Let’s try and look at this in some detail.

1) Fund managers: Fund managers love lower interest rates because it leads a section of the savers, in the hope of earning a higher return, to move their savings from bank fixed deposits to mutual funds and portfolio management services which invest in stocks. In the process, their assets under management go up. More money coming into the stock market also tends to push up stock prices.

All in all, this ensures that fund managers increase their chances of making more money and hence, they love lower interest rates because their acche din continue.

2) Analysts: Analysts love lower interest rates because it leads a section of the savers, in the hope of earning a higher return, to move their savings from bank fixed deposits to stocks. In order to buy stocks, they need to open a demat account with a brokerage. When the new investors buy stocks, the brokerage earns commissions.

Further, it also means that the interest cost borne by corporates on their debt goes down, leading to higher profits. The stock market factors this in and stock prices go up. Given this, analysts have an incentive to love interest rate cuts.

3) Corporates: Do I need to explain this? Lower interest rates lead to a lower interest outflow on debt that a corporate has taken on and hence, higher profits or lower losses for that matter. This explains why corporate honchos are perpetually asking the Reserve Bank of India to cut the repo rate or the interest rate at which it lends to banks.

4) Banks: Banks love lower interest rates simply because at lower interest rates the value of the government bonds they hold goes up. Interest rates and bond prices are inversely related. Higher bond prices mean higher profits for banks or lower losses in case of a few public sector banks. This is why bankers almost always come out in support of interest rate cuts.

This also explains why the bankers hate the idea of small savings schemes offering higher returns than fixed deposits. Lower interest rates on small savings schemes pushes the overall interest rates in the financial system downwards. 

5) Economists: Most economists are employed by stock brokerages, mutual funds, banks, corporates or think tanks. As explained above, stock brokerages, mutual funds, banks and corporates, all benefit from lower interest rates. If your employer benefits from something, you also benefit in the process. Hence, your views are in line with that.

When it comes to think tanks, many are in the business of manufacturing consent for corporates. Their economists act accordingly. 

6) Journalists: With the media being dependent on corporate advertising as it is, it is hardly surprising that most journalists love interest rate cuts. Further, the main job of anchors on business news channels is to keep people interested in the stock market because that is what brings in advertising. And this can only happen, if stock prices keep going up. In this environment, anything, like interest rate cuts, that drives up stock prices, is welcomed.

Of course, some mainstream TV news channels also run propaganda for the government. So, in their case every government decision needs to be justified. That is their incentive to remain in the good books of the government.

7) Government: The central government will end up borrowing close to Rs 25 lakh crore during 2020-21 and 2021-22. Hence, even a 1% fall in the interest rate at which it borrows, will help it save Rs 25,000 crore. It clearly has an incentive in loving low interest rates. 

The point is everyone mentioned above tends to benefit if interest rates keep going down or continue to remain low. Further, they are organised special interests with direct access to the mainstream media. The savers though many more in number aren’t organised to put forward their point of view.

Also, it is easier to do the math around the benefits of interest rate cuts and low interest rates than its flip side. As economist Friedrich Hayek said in his Nobel Prize winning lecture, there is a tendency to simply disregard those factors which “cannot be confirmed by quantitative evidence” and after having done that to “thereupon happily proceed on the fiction that the factors which they can measure are the only ones that are relevant.”

That’s the long and the short of it. 

Bitcoin Without Monetary Ambition is Just Another Ponzi Scheme

There has been a lot of talk around the government banning bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

In fact, as the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman recently told the Rajya Sabha: “”A high-level Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC) constituted under the Chairmanship of Secretary (Economic Affairs) to study the issues related to virtual currencies and propose specific actions to be taken in the matter recommended in its report that all private cryptocurrencies, except any virtual currencies issued by state, will be prohibited in India.”

There is no scope for confusion in this statement. It’s saying that the government is gearing up to ban all cryptocurrencies including bitcoin. The only cryptocurrencies it will allow are those issued by it. (A government issuing a cryptocurrency is a joke, but then let me not go there for the time being. We will tackle it as and when it happens).

If bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are banned by the government then all the bitcoin brokers through which investors trade, will need to shut down. Hopefully, the government will allow investors some sort of an exit option.

Of course, if you are trading bitcoin through a broker then you are speculating and do not really believe in the philosophy with which bitcoin was designed and launched (even if you think you do).

Satoshi Nakamoto, the creator (or creators for that matter, given that we don’t know), didn’t like the ability of the government and the central banks to create paper money out of thin air by printing it (or creating it digitally for that matter).

As he wrote on a message board in February 2009: “The central bank must be trusted not to debase the currency, but the history of fiat currencies is full of breaches of that trust. Banks must be trusted to hold our money and transfer it electronically, but they lend it out in waves of credit bubbles with barely a fraction in reserve.”

This happened in the aftermath of the financial crisis that broke out in September 2008, after which the Western central banks started printing massive amounts of money to drive down interest rates, in the hope of people and businesses, borrowing and spending money, in order to revive their respective economies.

Nakamoto looked at a central bank’s ability to debase paper money (by creating it out of thin air), as an abuse of the trust people had in it. And Bitcoin was supposed to be a solution for this breach of trust; a cryptocurrency which did not use banks or any third party as a medium and the code for which has been written in such a way that only 21 million units can be created.

The moment you are using a broker to buy bitcoin, you become a part of the conventional financial system and you really don’t remain anonymous anymore as was the idea originally.

A few bitcoin believers who have interacted (a fairly euphemistic word) with me on the social media have told me that there are ways of continuing to buy and sell bitcoin, even if the government bans them. So, they are really not perturbed by the idea of the government banning bitcoin.

The trouble with this argument is that if you continue to trade bitcoin after the ban, you are breaking the law. You might feel that the law isn’t fair, but a law is a law. One way of continuing to trade bitcoin is to legally move money abroad (up to a limit of $2,50,000) and use that money to trade bitcoin.

While this is possible, at some point of time the need to bring money back to India might arise, so, under what head of income will one declare it? If the gains are substantial, won’t the taxman come calling in these days of big data? (Or even if you regularly keep moving a good amount abroad every year).

Believers might still figure out ways to get around the system, but for most normal souls this is not worth the trouble. This is something that the bitcoin believers haven’t gotten their heads around to (yes, yes, yes, have fun stay poor).  Like one individual told me that he can simply bribe the taxman (I mean, yes, you can also do hawala and get your money in cash).

Another factor that needs to be kept in mind here is that the government in the next few years is going to be desperate for tax revenues. I guess I will leave this point here.

The bitcoin brokers in India are desperately trying to spin the usefulness of bitcoin in many interviews in the mainstream media. In fact, in one interview, Sumit Gupta, CEO & Co-Founder of CoinDCX, pointed out that there are 75 lakh bitcoin investors in India. A report in The Times of India puts the number at 1 crore. No source has been provided for these numbers.

The interesting thing is that Gupta feels that “there is a lot of confusion in calling bitcoin as cryptocurrency and not calling it an asset.” He wants bitcoin in India to be considered as an asset and be regulated. He doesn’t want it to be considered as money.

If something like this where to happen, it changes quite a few things.

When an investor buys a company’s stock, he is buying a share in the future earnings of the company. When he buys mutual funds, he is indirectly buying stocks or other financial securities issued by companies or even something like gold. When he buys gold, he buys gold.

When he buys derivatives, he is either hedging against price fluctuation or speculating on the price of a certain commodity. When he buys real estate he buys a home to live in or as a physical asset to profit from in the years to come. I mean one can go on and on here.

(Charles Ponzi on whom the Ponzi scheme is named). 

What does one buy, when one buys bitcoin as an investment asset? Nothing. It would be fair to say that if you take out bitcoin’s or for that matter any other cryptocurrency’s ambition to emerge as a parallel form of money out of the equation, it simply becomes a Ponzi scheme. (Don’t think Gupta realised this while making the point that he did). (You can read why I think bitcoin will never be money, here and here).

A Ponzi scheme is a financial scheme, where a fraudulent promoter promises very high return in a very short period of time to investors. He has no business model to earn this money in order to deliver returns.

The money being brought in by the second set of investors is used to pay off the first set. Or they are encouraged to roll over. As the news of high return spreads, more and more investors get sucked into the scheme, with the greed of earning potentially very high returns driving their investment.

This continues until the money being brought in by the new set of investors is less than the money being redeemed to the older set. Then the scheme collapses. Of course, most promoters disappear with the money before reaching such a stage.

Bitcoin without monetary ambitions is exactly like that. Money being brought in by newer investors pushes the price up, given the limited supply and prices go up very quickly, allowing existing investors to benefit.

As long as money being brought in by fresh investors is higher than money being taken out by existing ones, bitcoin keeps going up. When the equation changes, just like in a Ponzi scheme, bitcoin price crashes.

It’s basically the Ponzi scheme structure of bitcoin which explains its huge volatility on the price front. On February 21, the price of bitcoin was $57,434. Six days later on February 27, it was down by nearly a fifth to $46,345. Or take the period of six days between February 15 and February 21, when the price of bitcoin rose by a fifth (or 20%) to $57,434.

Of course, unlike normal Ponzi schemes, there is technology and thinking behind bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. But that doesn’t make them any less a Ponzi scheme.

Given this, it’s time that the government steps into ban bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. India has enough Ponzi schemes to deal with already. There is no point in adding more to the list.

Modi’s Rs 2.5 lakh cr Asset Sale Plan Needs a Transparent Approach

The Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set a target of monetising 100 government-owned assets across sectors. As he said: “We have a target of 100 assets from oil, gas, airport, power, which we plan to monetise. This has the potential for investment opportunities of Rs 2.5 lakh crore.”

This is in continuation of the idea that the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman had presented in her budget speech on February 1, 2021. As she had said:

“Idle assets will not contribute to Atmanirbhar Bharat. The non-core assets largely consist of surplus land with government Ministries/Departments and Public Sector Enterprises. Monetising of land can either be by way of direct sale or concession or by similar means.”

Hence, a lot of this idle assets are government owned land or will involve land in some form or other. This is a good and an innovative idea which some of the previous budgets lacked.

Many large Indian cities have a lot of government land lying idle while the cities on the whole are stretched for land. Hence, freeing up some of this land and earning some money in the process is a good idea.

Let’s look at this greater detail pointwise.

1) If you are the kind who likes walking around India’s big cities, you would definitely see a lot of government land lying unused bang in the middle of cities. Close to where I live in central Mumbai is the Bicycle Corporation of India, in one of the by lanes of Worli. In the one and half decades I have walked past the company, I haven’t seen any economic activity happening. Peepul trees now grow from the walls.

This is land bang in the middle of Mumbai, some of the most expensive real estate in the world, lying unused. This is criminal to say the least. Another great example of unused real estate are all the MTNL offices, all across Mumbai and Delhi.

The Heavy Engineering Corporation (HEC) in the city of Ranchi where I was born and raised, has acres and acres of land lying unused, while the city itself hardly has any land going around. This is land that has been lying unused for decades and needs to be put to some use.

2) It’s not just the big cities that have all this excess land lying unused. Even a place like Ooty, has acres and acres of land lying unused thanks to the Hindustan Photo Films Manufacturing Company Ltd., which is largely not functional. There are quite a few such public sector enterprises which are no longer relevant, all across the country.

Given this, one of the first things that the government needs to do is to make an inventory of all this land and put it up in the public domain on a website. It needs to do so with all the other assets that it plans to monetise as well.

Of course, this inventory is not going to be made overnight and will take time. But it is important that this is done in the most transparent way, given that corruption/crony capitalism and land/asset sales, almost go hand in hand.

This is even more important because the government considers this route as an important source of revenue in the years to come. As the finance minister said in the budget that over the years the government hopes to earn more money “by increased receipts from monetisation of assets, including Public Sector Enterprises and land”. Hence, getting the process right is very important.

This becomes even more important given that there will be great opposition to the process from those who benefit from the status quo and even otherwise. The government selling its assets to raise money to do other things is not seen as a good thing. Hence, even a hint of corruption or any other controversy can threaten to derail the entire process, something the government cannot afford at this point of time.

3) In cases where the land was taken from state governments to start a public sector enterprise, it is important that the land be returned to the state government and let the state government decide what it wants to do with it. In the years to come, state governments will also be running short of money to meet their expenditure.

Also, this is the right thing to do. The state government can also use the land to attract more investment into their state. In some cities where there aren’t enough public parks, some land can even go to develop such infrastructure. The aim shouldn’t be to maximise the money earned all the time, but maximise the general well-being.

Again, this is something that will need some amount of thinking and the government’s thinking on this should be clear and out in the public domain.

4) There is another factor that needs to be kept in mind here. Real estate prices in most big Indian cities have remained and continue to remain high. One of the major reasons for this lies in the fact that the land prices remain expensive across Indian cities. Hence, it is important that some of this land be sold to build affordable housing. Only if land prices come down, will home prices come down.

And by affordable housing I mean homes which can be sold profitably in the range of Rs 10-20 lakh per unit and not affordable housing as the way the RBI defines it, which isn’t really affordable housing at all, but just a fancy moniker to help banks meet their priority lending targets.

Other than helping people buy affordable homes to live in, the real estate sector has the ability to create a large number of jobs very quickly. It also has the capability to have a multiplier effect across many other sectors. Building real estate requires cement, sand, steel, bricks, pipes, etc., and so on. Once real estate has been built in, moving into a home requires its own set of purchases. Buying homes also gives a fillip to the home loan business. And of course, people living in homes they own, enhances general well-being.

5) Finally, it is important that the money earned through this route be used for a specific purpose and not just for bringing down the fiscal deficit, which has ballooned to Rs 18.49 lakh crore or 9.5% of the gross domestic product (GDP) this year. Even in 2021-22, the fiscal deficit target has been set at a high Rs 15.07 lakh crore or 6.8% of the GDP. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends and is expressed as a percentage of the GDP.

It is important that money coming from land sales be allocated towards specific infrastructure projects, preferably in the very state where land is being sold. This will make it easier to sell this idea to the state governments, whose cooperation is very necessary to make this idea a reality.

To conclude, the monetisation of excess government land in particular and other assets in general, is a good idea. Having said that, it needs to be executed in a proper process driven and transparent way.

This is an updated version of an article that first appeared on Firstpost on February 2, 2021.

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.