Act now: Arun Jaitley needs to use his lucky streak to push through reforms


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

Napoleon Bonaparte once said “I know he’s a good general, but is he lucky?”
Luck is an essential part of politics and lucky governments tend to do better than plain and simple skilful governments. As ex cricketer turned writer Ed Smith writes in
Luck—A Fresh Look At Fortune “Academic research supports the idea that voters often can’t tell the difference between lucky governments and skilful ones.” In fact, research carried out by Australian economist Andrew Leigh suggests that “it is more important to be a lucky government than an effective government”. Leigh studied nearly 268 elections between 1978 and 1999.
As Smith writes regarding this study “A government’s average rate of re-election is 57 per cent…Even superb economic management, outpacing world growth by 1 percentage point, only raises the Prime Minister or President’s likelihood of re-election from 57 per cent to 60 per cent. An economically competent government gets an electoral boost of 3 per cent; a lucky one gets a leg up of 7 per cent [i.e.]… the government’s re-election rate jumps to a 64 per cent likelihood.”
Hence, if a government has “luck” going for it, it is important that it does not throw it away and takes some decisions that help it over the long term.
Narendra Modi took over as the Prime Minister of India on May 26, 2014. Things were looking difficult on the economic front and a poor monsoon was being predicted.
The fiscal deficit of the Indian government as on May 31, 2014, stood at Rs 2,40,837 crore. This meant that during the first two months of the financial year (April 2014 to March 2015), the fiscal deficit had already reached 45.6% of the annual target. By June 30, 2014, the fiscal deficit for the first three months of the financial year had reached 56.1% of the annual target. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends.
Typically the income of the government is back loaded, given that its earnings are the highest during the last three months of the financial year. But a large part of the expenditure of the government is more or less spread out through the financial year. Given this, the fiscal deficit typically tends to be high during the first few months of the year.
Nevertheless, even after taking this factor into account, a fiscal deficit of 56.1% of the annual target during the first three months of the year was a very high number. During the last financial year the number had stood at 48.4%. This was largely a reflection of the fiscal mess that the Congress led UPA government had left the country in.
Over and above this, the initial monsoon numbers were not very encouraging. The India Meteorological Department(IMD) in a press release dated July 11, 2014, pointed out that the“rainfall activity was deficient/scanty over the country as a whole” for the period between July 3 and July 9, 2014. This deficiency of rainfall was at 41% of the long period average.” This delay in rainfall had led to a 51% annual decline in the sowing of kharif crops.
These two factors which could have undermined the performance of the new Modi government greatly, have changed for the good in the recent past.
One of the major reasons for a high fiscal deficit has been the fact that oil marketing companies have been incurring huge “under-recoveries” on the sale of diesel, cooking gas and kerosene. The government in turn has had to compensate the OMCs for these “under-recoveries”. This pushed up the government expenditure and hence, the fiscal deficit.
The good news is that oil prices have been falling.
The international crude oil price of Indian Basket of oil as computed by Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell (PPAC) fell to US$ 99.94 per barrel on 19.08.2014. Two months earlier on June 19, the price of the Indian basket of oil had touched $111.94 per barrel.
This fall in oil prices has ensured that
the under-recoveries of the OMCs for the financial year 2014-15 are projected to be Rs 91,665 crore while the figure was Rs 1,39,869 crore in the 2013-14. If this trend continues the government is likely to incur a lower expenditure for compensating the OMCs for their under-recoveries. And this will also have an impact on the fiscal deficit.
The government has also been lucky on the monsoon front. As the IMD said in a release dated August 15, 2014, “For the country as a whole, cumulative rainfall during this year’s monsoon has so far upto 13 August been 18% below the Long Period Average (LPA).” This is way lower than the deficiency in early July. A bad monsoon could have created several economic challenges for the government. Thankfully, the scenario did not turn out to be as bad it was initially expected to be. Hence, it is safe to conclude that the Modi government has indeed been very lucky on the economic front during its first 90 days.
Given this, the government should use this lucky streak to push in some reform on the pricing of petroleum products. With oil prices falling, this would be a good time to decontrol diesel prices. Over and above this , this would be a good time to limit subsidies on kerosene and cooking gas as well.
As has been suggested here earlier, this might be a good time to start raising cooking gas prices by Rs 10 per cylinder every month, in order to eliminate the subsidy on it, over a period of time.
What might further work for the Modi government is the fact that oil prices might continue to fall in the years to come. As Crisil Research points out in a report titled
Falling crude, LNG, coal prices huge positive for India dated August 2014 “Over the next five years, we expect global oil demand to increase by 4-4.5 m
illion barrels per day (mbpd).
However, crude oil supply is expected to increase by 8-10 mbpd. This, we believe, will bring down prices from current levels.”
This should help the government control its fiscal deficit. If the government is able to lower its fiscal deficit, it will have to borrow less and that will eventually lead to lower interest rates. If the government borrows less, there will be more money to lend to others. At lower interest rates consumers are more likely to borrow and spend. This will have a positive impact on economic growth.
The Modi government has luck going for it right now, but this may or may not last. Hence, it is important that it makes the best of it, and pushes in some decisions which will work well for the economy in the long run.

The article originally appeared on on August 22, 2014 
(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

Rail hike: India needs a bitter pill and Modi must not fall prey to ‘rollback’ culture


narendra_modiThe Narendra Modi government has come in for a lot of criticism for raising the railway fares. The criticism has been particularly acute in Mumbai, where the prices of suburban railway season tickets have doubled and in some cases even trebled. And this surely can’t mean acche din for the average Mumbaikar who travels by local trains daily and had voted overwhelmingly in the Lok Sabha elections for the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance.
Now there is talk about the government reconsidering the decision to increase railway season ticket prices. “The Railway Minister has assured us that the monthly season ticket decision will be reconsidered and a decision taken within 2-3 days,”
said BJP MP Kirit Somaya after meeting the railway minister Sadanand Gowda today (i.e. June 24, 2014). This might very well turn out to be the case given that assembly elections are scheduled in Maharashtra later this year.
The Modi government will have to take a spate of unpopular decisions over the next few months, if it hopes to do something about the stagnating economic environment. These decisions might include passing on the increase in the price of oil to the end consumers. T
he price of the Indian basket of crude oil stood at $111.86 per barrel on June 20, 2014. It had averaged at $106.72 per barrel between May 29 and June 11, 2014.
The price of oil has gone up rapidly in June 2014 because of a threat of a war in Iraq. India imports nearly four fifth of the oil it consumes. The government will have to allow the oil marketing companies to pass on this increase in price to the end consumers. If it does not do that then it will have to compensate the oil marketing companies for the “extra” under-recoveries they face on the sale of diesel, cooking gas and kerosene. This would lead to an increase in government expenditure and hence, the fiscal deficit. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends. The government is already precariously placed on the fiscal deficit front. The move to allow the oil marketing companies to increase prices is unlikely to go down well with the middle class.
The government will also have to make sure that it does not increase the minimum support price of rice and wheat at the same rate as the Congress led UPA government had done in the past. This had been a major reason in fuelling food inflation. So, if the government is serious about controlling food inflation this is a step that it will have to take. This move is unlikely to go down well with farmers.
Over and above this, the government will have to go aggressive on selling stakes it holds in public sector companies. This will help the government in controlling the fiscal deficit. Any attempts to sell stakes in the companies it owns is unlikely to go down well with the trade unions and given that they are likely to protest.
The broader point is that various steps that the government is likely to take over the next few months, will be fairly unpopular in nature. And given this there will be pressure on it to “rollback” these moves. In fact, as has been in the case of the railway fare hike, the pressure to “rollback” will come not only from the opposition parties, but also from within the BJP. Nevertheless, these steps are required if the economic environment is to brought back into some shape.
Given this, the government can take some inspiration from Paul Volcker. Volcker was the Chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States, the American central bank, between 1979 and 1987. When Volcker assumed office in August 1979, things were looking bad for the United States on the inflation front. The rate of inflation was at 12 percent.In fact, inflation had steadily been going up over the years. Between 1964 and 1968, inflation had averaged 2.6 percent per year. This had almost doubled to five percent over the next four years, that is, 1969 to 1973. And it had increased to eight percent, between 1973 and 1978. In the first nine months of 1979, it had averaged at 10.75 percent. Such high inflation during a period of peace had not been experienced before. Volcker was not going to sit around doing nothing and came out all guns blazing to kill inflation, which by March 1980 had touched a high of 15 percent. He kept increasing the interest rate till it had touched 20 percent by January 1981. This had an impact on the inflation, and it fell to below 10 percent in May and June 1981.
The prime lending rate or the rate at which banks lend to their best customers, had been greater than 20 percent for most of 1981Increasing interest rates did have a negative impact on economic growth and led to a recession. In 1982, the unemployment rate crossed 10 percent, the highest it had been since 1940 and nearly 12 million Americans lost their jobs. During the course of the same year, nearly 66,000 companies filed for bankruptcy, the highest since the Great Depression. And between 1981 and 1983 the economy lost $570 billion of output.
Of course, all this made Volcker a very unpopular man. As Neil Irwin writes in
The Alchemist—Inside the Secret World of Central Bankers “Automakers were…livid: High interest rates meant that consumers couldn’t afford to buy cars…They [i.e. the automakers] mailed Volcker keys to unsold vehicles. But farmers may have had it worst of all. During the late 1970s, many had taken out loans to buy more land on the assumption that crop prices would keep rising at an extraordinary clip. When food prices fell and interest rates rose, people across Middle America lost their farms. They protested by driving their tractors to Washington and circling the Federal Reserve’s grand marble headquarters.”
The politicians also protested. As Irwin writes ““We’re destroying the American Dream,” said Republican representative George Hansen of Idaho. A building-trades magazine accused Volcker of “premeditated and cold-blooded murder of millions of small businesses.””
But Volcker stayed put and finally managed to bring the inflation monster under control with the bitter pill that he administered. By July 1982, inflation had more than halved from its high of 15 percent in March 1980.The steps taken by Volcker ensured that the inflation fell to 3.2 percent by 1983. After this, the United States saw solid and almost non-stop economic growth till 2000, when the dotcom bubble burst.
Interestingly, Volcker may not have been very popular in the first few years of his tenure, but now he is among the few men in finance who continues to be well respected.
At certain points of time economies need to be administered the bitter pill if they are to be healed back to health again. India is in a similar position currently. Tough economic decisions will have to be made and these decisions will be unpopular. And given that there will be protests. When there are protests the easy way is to “rollback” whatever is being protested against. But that will only postpone the problem.
The Narendra Modi government of course cannot operate totally like Volcker. Volcker was not elected by the people and he did not have to explain what he did directly to the American citizens. He did have a lot of explaining to do to the American Congress though.
But what the Modi government can learn from Volcker is that at times it is important to administer the bitter pill to the economy and not get bogged down by the protests. The important point here is that the Modi government needs to communicate more and more in order to explain its decisions to the people. This can be done through the social media, ministers talking to the media and even putting out detailed press releases. Also, it should not fall prey to the “rollback” culture made so popular by the Congress.
The article originally appeared on on June 25, 2014
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at
[email protected])


The secret is out: The end consumer does not get any oil subsidy

light-diesel-oil-250x250Vivek Kaul
Over the last few days, there has been a lot of talk in the media about the government considering petroleum subsidy reforms (You can read about it
 here and here). One of the most well kept secrets in India has been the fact that the end consumer does not get any subsidy on petroleum products. But what we have been told is exactly the opposite.
What we have been told over the years is that the oil marketing companies have been selling products like petrol, diesel, cooking gas and kerosene, at a loss (The price of petrol was deregulated on June 26, 2010, so that is no longer the case). To a large extent, the government compensates the oil marketing companies for this loss. Hence, these products are subsidised. Subsidies are bad and they need to be done away with. 

The truth is however a little more nuanced than that. Let’s take a look at the following table.


In 2012-2013, the under-recovery of the oil marketing companies on selling oil products had stood at Rs 1,61,029 crore. Of this the government provided a cash assistance of Rs 1,00,000 crore. Rs 60,000 crore came in from upstream oil companies like ONGC and Oil India Ltd.
So far so good. But does this amount to a subsidy to the end consumer? As Surya P Sethi writes in an article titled
 “Analysing the Parikh Committee Report on Pricing of Petroleum Products“It is clear that Indian consumers are paying the highest price for lower quality petrol and more for lower quality diesel when compared to the US and Japan – the two most vociferous proponents of removing fuel subsidies. Also, Japan and the UK and, indeed, several other countries tax diesel at a lower rate.”
A major portion of the price that we pay on buying petrol and diesel essentially consists of taxes collected by both the central and the state governments. At the central government level a huge amount of tax on oil products is collected through excise duties. At the state level, the value added tax on petroleum products is the major contributor.
For the calculations here, we will ignore the various taxes collected by the state government on petroleum products. We will consider only taxes earned by the central government. This includes excise duty, customs duty, cess on crude oil, income tax, dividend and dividend distribution tax paid by oil companies, as well as profit from exploration, among other things.
If all this is taken into account for the year 2012-2013 the central government earned Rs 1,17,422 crore. In comparison it paid out Rs 1,00,000 crore in the form of cash assistance to oil marketing companies. That still meant a surplus of Rs 17,422 crore.In 2011-2012, it earned Rs 1,19,850 crore from petroleum products and companies. The cash assistance to oil marketing companies during that year stood at Rs 83,500 crore. That meant a surplus of Rs 36,350 crore.
The scenario looks similar during the first nine months of 2013-2014 as well. The cash assistance to oil marketing companies stood at Rs 35,772 crore. In comparison, the central government had earned Rs 83,619 crore, leading to a surplus of Rs 47,847 crore.
Hence, the end consumer does not get any subsidy on petroleum products as a whole, even though the oil marketing companies suffer huge under-recoveries in the sale of diesel, cooking gas and kerosene.
A criterion that the International Energy Agency uses for defining something as a subsidy is whether it “lowers the price paid by energy consumers.” As A Citizens’ Guide to Energy Security in India points out “consumer subsidies, as the name implies, support the consumption of energy, by lowering prices at which energy products are sold.” That is clearly not the case in India.
Given this, the government and the media should stop using the word subsidy when it comes to talking about petroleum products as a whole. Second, the surplus that the government generates through taxing petroleum products and companies, should actually be paid out as cash assistance to the oil marketing companies. Once, that is done the burden on the upstream oil companies like ONGC and Oil India Ltd, which finance a part of the under-recoveries, will come down.
This is very important given that India imports more than 80% of the oil that it consumes. With the pressure on ONGC to finance the under-recoveries coming down, it can spend more money on exploring for oil. This will go long way towards beefing up the energy security of India.
The trouble is that the surplus that the government makes by taxing petroleum companies and petroleum products goes towards bringing down the fiscal deficit. The fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends.
In fact, once we consider the total amount of taxes earned by the state government the real situation comes to the fore. During the first nine months of 2013-2014, state governments earned Rs 1,01,493 crore from taxing petroleum products. The state governments are highly dependent on these taxes to finance their expenditure. If the price of petroleum products needs to be controlled, it is this dependence that needs to come down. And that is easier said than done.

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

The article originally appeared on on June 15, 2014

Under-recoveries on diesel at record Rs 14.50 a litre, price hike inevitable now

light-diesel-oil-250x250Vivek Kaul 
The under-recovery on diesel being sold by oil marketing companies(OMCs) for the fortnight starting September 16, 2013, has shot up to Rs 14.50 per litre. It has gone up by 42% in a period of one month. For the fortnight starting August 16, 2013, the under-recovery had stood at Rs 10.22 per litre.
So what are under-recoveries? The Rangarajan Committee report of 2006 stated that the OMCs are “are currently sourcing their products from the refineries on import parity basis which then becomes their cost price. The difference between the cost price and the realised price represents the under-recoveries of the OMCs.”
The price that OMCs charge dealers who sell diesel is referred to as the realised price or the depot price. If this realised price that is fixed by the government is lower than the import price, then there is an under-recovery. Having said that under-recoveries are different from losses and at best can be defined as notional losses. (For those interested in a detailed treatment of this point,
 can click here).
The OMCs need to be compensated for the under-recoveries. One part of the compensation comes in directly in the form of additional cash assistance from the government. Another part comes by the way of financial assistance from upstream national oil companies. Hence, companies like ONGC and Oil India Ltd, which produce oil, need to compensate the OMCs i.e.
 Indian Oil, Bharat Petroleum and Hindustan Petroleum, for a part of their under-recoveries.
The government has budgeted 
Rs 65,000 crore this financial year for petroleum subsidies. This is for the payment that it makes to the OMCs, for the under-recoveries they incur on the sale of diesel, cooking gas and kerosene. As per the data released by the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas yesterday, the under-recoveries currently stand at Rs 486 crore per day.
The trouble is that a part of the budgeted subsidies have already been utilised for payment of under-recoveries for the last financial year. Also, most finance ministers over the years have under-budgeted for these payments.
Like in the financial year 2012-2013, the petroleum subsidies had been budgeted to be at Rs 43,580 crore. The actual subsidy bill finally came in at Rs 96879.87 crore. A similar trend was observed in the financial year 2011-2012 as well. The government had budgeted Rs 23,640 crore for petroleum subsidies. The final bill came to Rs 68,481 crore.
The Financial Express reports that “At current rate, the three oil PSUs are projected to lose Rs 156,000 crore in revenues in the financial year ending March 31, according to Indian Oil Corp (IOC), the nation’s largest oil firm.”
This number is similar to the total under-recoveries of Rs 
1,61,029 crore last year. Of this the government had paid around Rs 1,00,000 crore to OMCs, the remaining cost was borne by the upstream national oil companies.
So what this means is that the government will have to incur a higher expenditure to compensate the OMCs for the under-recovery than the Rs 65,000 crore it has budgeted for. This would mean a higher fiscal deficit. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what is spends.
Data put out by the Controller General of Accounts shows that as on July 31, 2013, the fiscal deficit for the first four months of the financial year 2013-2014 was at Rs 3,40,609 crore. The fiscal deficit targeted for the financial year is Rs 5,42, 499 crore.
Hence, 62.8% of the targeted fiscal deficit has already been exhausted in the first four months of the year. If the government continues at this rate, by the end of the financial year it will overshoot its fiscal deficit target by a huge mark.
The finance minister P Chidambaram has said over and over again that the government will stick to the fiscal deficit target come what may. The numbers as of now tell a completely different story.
In the last financial year 2011-2012, the government had exhausted 51.5% of the targeted fiscal deficit during the first four months. To meet the fiscal deficit target, the expenditure was slashed majorly in the last few months of the year.
Given this, if the government has to meet its fiscal deficit target, the first thing that it should be doing is to raise diesel prices. Of course, it cannot raise the price of diesel by Rs 14.50 per litre at a single go. But a significant increase of at least Rs 5 per litre is due.
If it is not carried out, the chances of a sovereign downgrade of India by the rating agencies will become extremely high in the months to come. This is because the fiscal deficit of the government will bloat up. A sovereign downgrade will see India’s rating being reduced to ‘junk’ status. This would lead to many foreign investors like pension funds having to sell out of the Indian stock market as well as the bond market, given that they are not allowed to invest in countries which have a “junk” status and that will put further pressure on the rupee, which has recovered nicely over the last few days.
At the same time any increase in the price of diesel pushes up freight and transport costs. This will lead to a higher inflation, especially food inflation. Data released yesterday shows that food inflation currently stands at 18.8%. As Sonal Varma of Nomura pointed out in a note yesterday “
The jump was mainly due to a steep rise in primary food price inflation, which rose to 18.2% year-on-year in August from 11.9% in July from higher inflation of vegetables, fruits and protein-rich food. Vegetable price inflation jumped 78% year-on-year in August from 47% in July, led by a steep increase in the prices of onions (245%).”
 state elections are due over the next few months and any further rise in food prices is going to cost the Congress led UPA government dearly. Many an election in India has been lost on spiralling onion prices.
But if the government doesn’t increase diesel prices then there is a considerable threat of being downgraded by the rating agencies to junk status and that will put further pressure on the rupee. So that’s the catch 22 that the government finds itself in. Having said that, its a problem created by the Congress led UPA government by refusing to de-control the prices of oil products. Also, a higher inflation number will make it difficult for Raghuram Rajan, the new RBI governor, to announce any interest rate cuts in the months to come, as the government wants him to.
So what will the government bite the bullet on hiking diesel prices? Oil Secretary Vivek Rane had an answer for this. As he said yesterday”Some burden has to be borne by consuming population. That is the challenge government faces. It is a political challenge, it is an economic challenge. It is a challenge we cannot run away from.”
The article originally appeared on on September 17,2013

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

Why FM is tickling the markets: it’s his only chance

Vivek Kaul
So P Chidambaram’s at it again, trying to bully the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) to cut interest rates. “In our view, the government and monetary authority must point in the same direction and walk in the same direction. As we take steps on the fiscal side, RBI  should take steps on the monetary side,” the Union Finance Minister told the Economic Times.
Economic theory suggests that when interest rates are low, consumers and businesses tend to borrow more. When consumers borrow and spend money businesses benefit. When businesses benefit they tend to expand their operations by borrowing money. And this benefits the entire economy and it grows at a much faster rate.
But then economics is no science and so theory and practice do not always go together. If they did the world we live would be a much better place. As John Kenneth Galbraith points out in The Economics of Innocent Fraud: “If in recession the interest rate is lowered by the central bank, the member banks are counted on to pass the lower rate along to their customers, thus encouraging them to borrow. Producers will thus produce goods and services, buy the plant and machinery they can afford now and from which they can make money, and consumption paid for by cheaper loans will expand..The difficulty is that this highly plausible, wholly agreeable process exists only in well-established economic belief and not in real life… Business firms borrow when they can make money and not because interest rates are low.
While India is not in a recession exactly, economic growth has slowed down considerably this year. And this has led to businesses not borrowing. As a story in theBusiness Standard points outAt a recent meeting with the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), 10 of the country’s top bankers said companies were still keeping expansion plans on hold, as business growth continued to be slow in an uncertain economic environment. Nine of 10 bankers who attended the meeting admitted their sanctioned loan pipeline was shrinking fast due to tepid demand.”
This is borne out even by RBI data. The incremental credit deposit ratio for scheduled commercial banks between March 30, 2012 and September7, 2012, stood at 14.4%. This meant that for every Rs 100 that bank raised as deposits during this period they only lent out Rs 14.4 as loans. Hence, businesses are not borrowing to expand neither are consumers borrowing to buy flats, cars, motorcycles and consumer durables.
One reason for this lack of borrowing is high interest rates. But just cutting interest rates won’t ensure that the borrowing will pick up. As Galbraith aptly puts it business firms borrow when they can make money. But that doesn’t seem to be the case right now. Take the case of the infrastructure sector which was one of the most hyped sectors in 2007. As Swaminathan Aiyar points out in the Times of India “The government claims India is a global leader in public-private partnerships in infrastructure. The private sector financed 36% of infrastructure in the 11th Plan (2007-12 ),and is expected to finance fully 50% in the 12th Plan. This is now a pie in the sky. Corporations that charged into this sector have suffered heavy losses. They expected a gold mine, but found only quicksand. They have been hit by financially disastrous time and cost overruns.”
Clearly these firms are not in a state to borrow. Several other business sectors are in a mess. Airlines are not going anywhere. The big Indian companies that got into organised retail have lost a lot of money. The telecom sector is bleeding. So just because interest rates are low it doesn’t automatically follow that businesses will borrow money.
“If you take a poll of the top 100 companies in the country, you will find them saying nothing has changed despite the reforms. Confidence will return only if things start happening on the ground,” a Chief Executive of a leading foreign bank in India was quoted as saying in the Business Standard.
Confidence on the ground can only come back once businesses start feeling that this business is committed to genuine economic reform, there is lesser corruption, more transparency, so and so forth. These things cannot happen overnight.
Consumers are also feeling the heat with salary increments having been low this year and the consumer price inflation remaining higher than 10%. Borrowing doesn’t exactly make sense in an environment like this, when just trying to make ends meet has become more and more difficult.
Given these reasons why has Chidambaram been after the RBI to try and get it to cut interest rates? The thing is that the finance minister is not so concerned about consumers and businesses, but what he is concerned about is the stock market.
With interest rates on fixed income investments like bank fixed deposits, corporate fixed deposits, debentures, etc, being close to 10%, there is very little incentive for the Indian investor to channelise his money into the stock market.
Since the beginning of the year the domestic institutional investors have taken out Rs 38,000.5 crore from the stock market. If the RBI does cut interest rates as Chidambaram wants it to, then investing in fixed income investments will become less lucrative and this might just get Indian investors interested in the stock market.
The lucky thing is that even though Indian investors have been selling out of the stock market, the foreign investors have been buying. Since the beginning of the year the foreign institutional investors have bought stocks worth Rs 72,065.2 crore. This has ensured that stock market has not fallen despite the Indian investors selling out.
If the RBI does cut interest rates and that leads Indian investors getting back into the stock market there might be several other positive things that can happen. If Indian investors turn net buyers and the stock market goes up, more foreign money will come in. This will push up the stock market even further up.
The other thing that will happen with the foreign money coming in is that the rupee will appreciate against the dollar. When foreigners bring dollars into India they have to sell those dollars and buy rupees. This increases the demand for the rupee and it gains value against the dollar.
An appreciating rupee will also spruce up returns for foreign investors. Let us say a foreign investor gets $1million to invest in Indian stocks when one dollar is worth Rs 55. He converts the dollars into rupees and invests Rs 5.5 crore ($1million x Rs 55) into the Indian market. He invests for a period of one year and makes a return of 10%. His investment is now worth Rs 6.05 crore. One dollar is now worth Rs 50. When he converts the investors ends up with $1.21million or a return of 21% in dollar terms. An appreciating rupee thus spruces up his returns. This prospect of making more money in dollar terms is likely to get more and more foreign investors into India, which will lead to the rupee appreciating further. So the cycle will feeds on itself.
In the month of September 2012, foreign investors have bought stocks worth Rs 20,807.8 crore. Correspondingly, the rupee has gained in value against the dollar. On September 1, 2012, one dollar was worth Rs 55.42. Currently it quotes at around Rs 52.8. This means that the rupee has appreciated against the dollar by 4.72%.
An immediate impact of the appreciating rupee is that it brings down the oil bill. Oil is sold internationally in dollars. Let us say the Indian basket of crude oil is selling at $108 per barrel (one barrel equals 159 litres). If one dollar is worth Rs 55.4 then India has to pay Rs 5983.2 for a barrel of oil. If one dollar is worth Rs 52.8, then India has to pay Rs 5702.4 per barrel. So as the rupee appreciates the oil bill comes down.
The oil marketing companies (OMCs) sell diesel, kerosene and cooking gas at a price which is lower than the cost price and thus incur huge losses. The government compensates the OMCs for these losses to prevent them from going bankrupt. This money is provided out of the annual budget of the government under the oil subsidy account. But as the rupee appreciates and the losses come down, the oil subsidy also comes down. This means that the expenditure of the government comes down as well, thus lowering the fiscal deficit. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what the government earns and what it spends.
This is how a rising stock market may lead to a lower fiscal deficit. But that’s just one part of the argument. A rising stock market will also allow the government to sell some of the shares that it owns in public sector enterprises to the general public.  The targeted disinvestment for the year is Rs 30,000 crore. While that can be easily met the government has to exceed this target given that the government is unlikely to meet the fiscal deficit target of 5.1% of GDP as its subsidy bill keeps going up. The Kelkar Committee recently estimated that the fiscal deficit level can even reach 6.1% of the GDP.
For the government to exceed this target the stock markets need to continue to do well. It is a well known fact people buy stocks only when the stock markets have rallied for a while. As Akash Prakash writes in the Business Standard “The finance minister will have to do a lot more than raise Rs 40,000 crore from spectrum and Rs 30,000 crore from divestment. We will need to see movement on selling the SUUTI (Specified Undertaking of UTI) stakes, strategic assets like Hindustan Zinc, land with companies like VSNL, coal block auctions, etc. To enable the government to raise resources of the required magnitude, the capital markets have to remain healthy, both to absorb equity issuance and to enable companies to raise enough debt resources to participate in these asset auctions.”
Given this the stock market has a very important role to play in the scheme of things. Controlling the burgeoning fiscal deficit remains the top priority for the government. But it is easier said than done. “Given the difficulty in getting the coalition to accept the diesel hike and LPG-targeting measures, there are limitations as to how much the current subsidies and revenue expenditure can be compressed. We can see some further measures on fuel price hikes and maybe some movement on a nutrient-based subsidy on urea; but with elections only 15-18 months away, there are serious political costs to any subsidy cuts,” points out Prakash.
Over and above this with elections around the corner the government is also likely to announce more freebies. Money to finance this also needs to come from somewhere. As Prakash writes “There is also intense pressure on the government to roll out more freebies through the right to food, free medicines and so on. If expenditure compression is intensely difficult in the run-up to an election cycle, higher revenue is the only way to control the fiscal deficit.”
For the government to raise a higher revenue it is very important that more and more money keeps coming into the stock market.  For this to happen interest rates need to fall. And that is something that D Subbarao the governor of RBI controls and not Chidambaram.
The article originally appeared on on October 1, 2012.
Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected]