India is country that lives on hope, gods and pipedreams. The Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is no different when it comes to this. In a recent interview after taking over as the finance minister of the country he said he was focusing on controlling the fiscal deficit through a series of measures that the officials were working on.
He did not explain what these measures were. But with things as they stand now, it is next to impossible for the government to control the fiscal deficit and the PM can just hope for the best.
Fiscal deficit is the difference between what the government earns and spends. For the financial year 2012-2013 (from April 1, 2012 to March 31, 2013) this number is expected to be at Rs 5,13,590 crore. The government finances the deficit by borrowing money or taking on debt as it is technically referred to as.
There are several reasons why the fiscal deficit is likely to turn out to be higher than the projected number. Let’s start with oil subsidies. Oil subsidies for the year have been budgeted at Rs 43,580crore. The government has more or less run out of this money. It has paid Rs 38,500 crore to oil marketing companies (OMCs) like Indian Oil Corporation, Bharat Petroleum and Hindustan Petroleum for selling diesel, kerosene and LPG, at a loss during the last financial year. This payment was made only in the current financial year and hence has had to be adjusted against the oil subsidies budgeted for the current financial year.
This leaves only around Rs 5080 crore (Rs 43,580 crore – Rs 38,500crore) with the government for compensating the OMCs for the losses for the remaining part of the year.
International oil prices have come down since the beginning of April. Back then the OMCs were losing around Rs 563crore per day. A recent estimate made at the beginning of July by ICICI Securities puts this loss at Rs 355crore a day. Oil prices have fallen further by around 8% since this estimate was made. Adjusting for that the oil companies continue to lose around Rs 325crore per day or around Rs 10,000 crore per month. Hence the Rs 5080 crore that the government has remaining in its oil subsidy account would be over in a period of 15 days, at the current rate of losses.
Oil prices have fallen by 32% to $85 per barrel since the beginning of April. It’s is unlikely that the price will continue to fall given that at some stage the oil cartel, Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), will intervene and start cutting production to push up prices. Also, the threat of confrontation between Iran and the United States has been on for a while. Even a whiff of a crisis can push up oil prices. Iran is the second largest producer of oil in OPEC after Saudi Arabia. It has been trying to sell oil in currencies other than the US dollar for the past few years, much to the annoyance of the US.
So if the OMCs continue to lose money at the current rate, the projected losses for the year will be over Rs 120,000 crore. In 2011-2012 the government compensated around 60% of the losses. It got oil producing companies like ONGC and Oil India Ltd to pay the OMCs for the remaining losses. If the same ratio is followed in this financial year as well, it would mean an extra burden of around Rs 72,000 crore for the government (60% of Rs 1,20,000 crore). The fiscal deficit would go up by a similar amount.
Oil subsidies are the not the government’s only problem. On June 14, 2012, the government had approved the minimum support price (MSP) of rice to be increased by 16% from Rs 1250 per quintal from Rs 1080 per quintal. The Food Corporation of India buys rice from the farmers at the MSP. The food subsidy for the current financial year has been set at Rs 75,000 crore. Experts believe that this number is terribly under-provisioned given the various programmes of the government. Also with a significant increase in the MSP of rice the food subsidy is expected to cost the government around Rs 40,000 crore more from its current estimates. Even this number is likely to be beaten because after increasing the MSP of rice significantly, a similar price increase would have to be made for wheat during the coming months.
What does not help is that interest payments on all the money that the government has previously borrowed, comes to Rs 3,19,759 crore. Other than paying interest the government also needs to repay the past debt that is maturing. This amount comes to Rs 1,24,302 crore. Hence the cost of total debt servicing comes to Rs 4,44,061 crore or around 87% of the projected fiscal deficit of Rs 5,13,590 crore for the year. There is nothing that Manmohan Singh and the government can do to control this.
If all these problems were not enough the monsoon till now has been 23% deficient. This impacts the purchasing power of “rural” India and means lower sales of cars, bikes, white goods and fast moving consumer products in rural India, leading to a lower collection of indirect tax for the government. Lower taxes can drive up the fiscal deficit further.
So what is the way out? The subsidy on various oil products needs to be brought down. That’s the only solution that Manmohan Singh led government has to this problem. But the question is will they bite the bullet and make some tough decisions? From the past record it can be safely said, the answer is no. Given these reasons hoping to control the fiscal deficit remains a distant pipe dream.
Hence it’s time for Manmohan Singh to do what most Indians do when they are stretched and stressed. Pray to god. And hope for the best.
(The article originally appeared in the Asian Age/Deccan Chronicle on July 16,2012. http://www.deccanchronicle.com/editorial/dc-comment/fiscal-deficit-and-prayer-god-905)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])
Decisions are of two kinds. The right one. And the one your boss wants you to make. The twain does not always meet.
Duvvuri Subbarao, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India(RBI), earlier this week, showed us what a right decision is. He decided to hold the repo rate at 8%. Repo rate is the interest rate at which RBI lends to banks. There was great pressure on the RBI governor to cut the repo rate, after the gross domestic product (GDP) growth for the period between January and March 2012 came in at a very low 5.3%.
The Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, declared openly that he was “confident that they (the RBI) will adjust the monetary policy,” which basically meant that he was ordering the RBI to cut the repo rate. The idea was that once the RBI cut the repo rate, banks would also cut interest rates leading to consumers borrowing more to buy homes, cars and durables. Businesses would borrow more to expand and in turn push up economic growth.
But economic theory and practice are not always in line. Subbarao, probably understands this much better than others, though until very recently he had largely stuck to doing what his boss the Finance Minister, wanted him to do. For the first time he has shown signs of breaking free.
The credibility of a repo rate cut
By cutting the repo rate the Reserve Bank essentially tries to send out a signal to banks that it expects interest rates to come down in the days to come. If banks think the signal is credible enough then they cut the interest rates they pay on their deposits as well as the interest rates they charge on their long term loans like home loans, car loans and loans to businesses. But the trouble is that even if the RBI cut the repo rate, the credibility of the signal would be under doubt, and banks wouldn’t have been able to cut interest rates.
Between the six month period of December 2, 2011, and June 1, 2012, banks have given loans amounting to Rs 4,46,563 crore and have borrowed Rs 4,27,709 crore. Hence for every Rs 100 that the banks have borrowed they have lent out Rs 104, which means they have not been able to raise enough deposits during to match their loans. So their ability to cut interest rates is limited. The question is why is the money situation so tight?
High fiscal deficit
The government of India has been running a very high fiscal deficit. For the financial year 2007-2008, the fiscal deficit stood at Rs 1,26,912 crore. It shot up to Rs 5,21,980 crore for 2011-2012. In a time frame of five years the fiscal deficit is up nearly 312%. The income earned by the government has gone up by only 36% to Rs 7,96,740 crore, during the same period. The huge increase in fiscal deficit has primarily happened because of the subsidy on food, fertilizer and petroleum. For the current financial year, the fiscal deficit is projected to be at Rs 5,13,590 crore, which is likely to be missed as has been the case in the last few years. The oil subsidy targets have regularly been overshot. This year the government might even overshoot the food subsidy target of Rs 75,000 crore.
The government finances its fiscal deficit by borrowing. When a government borrows more, as has been the case for the last few years, it ‘crowds out’ the other big borrowers like banks and corporates. This means that the ‘pool of money’ from which banks and companies have to borrow comes down. Hence, they have to offer a higher rate of interest. This is the situation which prevails now. So banks will continue in the high interest rate mode.
What must have also influenced Subbarao’s decision is the high inflationary which prevails. The consumer price inflation for the month of May stood at 10.36%. This is likely to go up even further in the days to come given that the government recently increased the minimum support price(MSP) on khareef crops from anywhere between 15-53%. These are crops which are typically sown around this time of the year for harvesting after the rains. The MSP for paddy (rice) has been increased from Rs 1,080 per quintal to Rs 1,250 per quintal. Other major products like bajra, ragi, jowar, soybean etc, have seen similar increases. This will further fuel food inflation. Also, after dramatically increasing prices for khareef crops, the government will have to follow up the same for rabi crops like wheat. Rabi crops are planted in the autumn season and harvested in winter. Economists expect higher MSP on agriculture products to push up the food subsidy bill by Rs 40,000 crore from its current level of Rs 75,000 crore. This means a higher fiscal deficit and in turn higher interest rates.
In a scenario where the inflation is over 10%, cutting interest rates can fuel further inflation, which isn’t good for anyone. The RBI in a release said that the inflation is “driven mainly by food and fuel prices.” That’s something Subbarao cannot do anything about and is for the government to sort out.
“In the absence of pass-through from international crude oil prices to domestic prices, the consumption of petroleum products remains strong…preventing the much needed adjustment in aggregate demand,” the RBI release said. The Subbarao led RBI seems to be clearing telling the government here to cut down on oil subsidies by increasing fuel prices as and when necessary.
In fact in a rare admission Subbarao even said that the last cut in the repo rate in April may have been a mistake. “The Reserve Bank had frontloaded the policy rate reduction in April with a cut of 50 basis points. This decision was based on the premise that the process of fiscal consolidation critical for inflation management would get under way, along with other supply-side initiatives,” the RBI release said.
What this means in simple English is that the RBI may have been led to believe by the finance ministry that if they went ahead and cut the repo rate in April, the government would follow up by taking emasures to cut the fiscal deficit. But that hasn’t happened. RBI kept its part of the deal. The government did not.
The article originally appeared in the Times of India Crest Edition on June 23,2012.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])
The petrol prices were raised by Rs 6.28 per litre yesterday. With taxes the total comes to Rs 7.54 per litre. Let’s try and understand what impact this increase in prices will have.
The primary beneficiary of this increase will be the oil marketing companies like Indian Oil, Bharat Petroleum and Hindustan Petroleum. The companies had been losing Rs 6.28 per litre of petrol they sold. Since December, when prices were last raised the companies had lost $830million in total. With the increase in prices the companies will not lose money when they sell petrol.
The increase in price will have no impact on the fiscal deficit of the government. The fiscal deficit is the difference between what the government spends and what it earns. The government does not subsidize the oil marketing companies for the losses they make on selling petrol.
It subsidizes them for losses made on selling diesel, kerosene and LPG, below cost.
The losses on account of this currently run at Rs 512 crore a day. The loss last year to these companies because of selling diesel, kerosene and LPG below cost was at Rs 138,541crore. They were compensated for this loss by the government. Out of this the government got the oil and gas producing companies like ONGC, Oil India Ltd and GAIL to pick up a tab of Rs 55,000 crore. The remaining Rs 83,000 odd crore came from the coffers of the government.
What is interesting that when the budget was presented in March, the oil subsidy bill for the year 2011-2012 (from April 1, 2011 to March 31,2012) was expected to be at around Rs 68,500 crore. The final number was Rs 14,500 crore higher.
The losses for this financial year (from April 1, 2012 to March 31,2012) are expected to be at Rs Rs. 193,880 crore. If the losses are divided between the government and the oil and gas producing companies in the same ratio as last year, then the government will have to compensate the oil marketing companies with around Rs 1,14,000 crore. The remaining money will come from the oil and gas producing companies.
The trouble is in two fronts. It will pull down the earnings of the oil and gas producing companies. But that’s the smaller problem. The bigger problem is it will push up the fiscal deficit. If we look at the assumptions made in the budget for the current financial year, the oil subsidies have been assumed at Rs Rs 43,580 crore. If the government has to compensate the oil marketing companies to the extent of Rs 1,14,000 crore, it means that the fiscal deficit will be pushed up by around Rs 70,000 crore more (Rs 1,14,000crore minus Rs 43,580 crore), assuming all other expenses remain the same.
A higher fiscal deficit would mean that the government would have to borrow more. A higher government borrowing will ‘crowd-out’ the private borrowing and push interest rates higher. This would mean higher equated monthly installments(EMIs) for people who have loans to pay off or are even thinking of borrowing.
The only way of bringing down the interest rates is to bring down the fiscal deficit. The fiscal deficit target for the financial year 2012-2013 has been set at Rs 5,13,590 crore. The government raises this money from the financial system by issuing bonds which pay interest and mature at various points of time. Of this amount that the government will raise, it will spend Rs 3,19,759 crore to pay interest on the debt that it already has. Rs 1,24,302 crore will be spent to payback the debt that was raised in the previous years and matures during the course of the year 2012-2013. Hence a total of Rs 4,44,061 crore or a whopping 86.5% of the fiscal deficit will be spent in paying interest on and paying off previously issued debt. This is an expenditure that cannot be done away with.
The other major expenditure for the government during the course of the year are subsidies. The total cost of subsidies during the course of this year has been estimated to be at Rs Rs 1,90,015 crore. The subsidies are basically of three kinds: oil, food and petroleum. The food subsidy is at Rs 75,000 crore. This is a favourite with Sonia Gandhi and hence cannot be lowered. And more than that there is a humanitarian angle to it as well.
The fertizlier subsidies have been estimated at Rs 60,974 crore. This is a political hot potato and any attempts to cut this in the pst have been unsuccessful and have had to be rolled back. There are other subsidies amounting to Rs 10,461 crore which are minuscule in comparison to the numbers we are talking about.
This leaves us with oil subsidies which have been estimated to be at Rs 43,580 crore. This as we see will be overshot by a huge level, if oil prices continue to be current levels. Even if prices fall a little, the subsidy will not come down by much. .
Hence if the government has to even maintain its deficit (forget bringing it down) the only way out currently is to increase the price of diesel, LPG and kerosene. Diesel is a transport fuel and an increase in its price will push prices inflation in the short term. But maintain the fiscal deficit will at least keep interest rates at their current levels and not push them up from their already high levels.
If the government continues to subsidize diesel, LPG and kerosene, interest rates are bound to go up because it will have to borrow more. This will mean higher EMIs for sure. It would also mean businesses postponing expansion because higher interest rates would mean that projects may not be financially viable. It would also mean people borrowing lesser to buy homes, cars and other things, leading to a further slowdown in a lot of sectors. In turn it would mean lower economic growth.
That’s the choice the government has to make. Does it want the citizens of this country to pay higher fuel and gas prices? Or does it want them to pay higher EMIs? There is no way of providing both.
(The article originally appeared at www.rediff.com on May 24,2012. http://www.rediff.com/business/slide-show/slide-show-1-special-higher-oil-prices-or-higher-emis-take-your-pick/20120524.htm)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])
The Congress led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government finally acted hoping to halt the fall of the falling rupee, by raising petrol prices by Rs 6.28 per litre, before taxes. Let us try and understand what will be the implications of this move.
Some relief for oil companies:
The oil companies like Indian Oil Company (IOC), Bharat Petroleum (BP) and Hindustan Petroleum(HP) had been selling oil at a loss of Rs 6.28 per litre since the last hike in December. That loss will now be eliminated with this increase in prices. The oil companies have lost $830million on selling petrol at below its cost since the prices were last hiked in December last year. If the increase in price stays and is not withdrawn the oil companies will not face any further losses on selling petrol, unless the price of oil goes up and the increase is not passed on to the consumers.
No impact on fiscal deficit:
The government compensates the oil marketing companies like Indian Oil, BP and HP, for selling diesel, LPG gas and kerosene at a loss. Petrol losses are not reimbursed by the government. Hence the move will have no impact on the projected fiscal deficit of Rs 5,13,590 crore. The losses on selling diesel, LPG and kerosene at below cost are much higher at Rs 512 crore a day. For this the companies are compensated for by the government. The companies had lost Rs 138,541 crore during the last financial year i.e.2011-2012 (Between April 1,2011 and March 31,2012).
Of this the government had borne around Rs 83,000 crore and the remaining Rs 55,000 crore came from government owned oil and gas producing companies like ONGC, Oil India Ltd and GAIL.
When the finance minister Pranab Mukherjee presented the budget in March, the oil subsidies for the year 2011-2012 had been expected to be at Rs Rs 68,481 crore. The final bill has turned out to be at around Rs 83,000 crore, this after the oil producing companies owned by the government, were forced to pick up around 40% of the bill.
For the current year the expected losses of the oil companies on selling kerosene, LPG and diesel at below cost is expected to be around Rs 190,000 crore. In the budget, the oil subsidy for the year 2012-2013, has been assumed to be at Rs 43,580 crore. If the government picks up 60% of this bill like it did in the last financial year, it works out to around Rs 114,000 crore. This is around Rs 70,000 crore more than the oil subsidy that the government has budgeted for.
Interest rates will continue to remain high
The difference between what the government earns and what it spends is referred to as the fiscal deficit. The government finances this difference by borrowing. As stated above, the fiscal deficit for the year 2012-2013 is expected to be at Rs 5,13,590 crore. This, when we assume Rs 43,580crore as oil subsidy. But the way things currently are, the government might end up paying Rs 70,000 crore more for oil subsidy, unless the oil prices crash. The amount of Rs 70,000 crore will have to be borrowed from financial markets. This extra borrowing will “crowd-out” the private borrowers in the market even further leading to higher interest rates. At the retail level, this means two things. One EMIs will keep going up. And two, with interest rates being high, investors will prefer to invest in fixed income instruments like fixed deposits, corporate bonds and fixed maturity plans from mutual funds. This in other terms will mean that the money will stay away from the stock market.
The trade deficit
One dollar is worth around Rs 56 now, the reason being that India imports more than it exports. When the difference between exports and imports is negative, the situation is referred to as a trade deficit. This trade deficit is largely on two accounts. We import 80% of our oil requirements and at the same time we have a great fascination for gold. During the last financial year India imported $150billion worth of oil and $60billion worth of gold. This meant that India ran up a huge trade deficit of $185billion during the course of the last financial year. The trend has continued in this financial year. The imports for the month of April 2012 were at $37.9billion, nearly 54.7% more than the exports which stood at $24.5billion.
These imports have to be paid for in dollars. When payments are to be made importers buy dollars and sell rupees. When this happens, the foreign exchange market has an excess supply of rupees and a short fall of dollars. This leads to the rupee losing value against the dollar. In case our exports matched our imports, then exporters who brought in dollars would be converting them into rupees, and thus there would be a balance in the market. Importers would be buying dollars and selling rupees. And exporters would be selling dollars and buying rupees. But that isn’t happening in a balanced way.
What has also not helped is the fact that foreign institutional investors(FIIs) have been selling out of the stock as well as the bond market. Since April 1, the FIIs have sold around $758 million worth of stocks and bonds. When the FIIs repatriate this money they sell rupees and buy dollars, this puts further pressure on the rupee. The impact from this is marginal because $758 million over a period of more than 50 days is not a huge amount.
When it comes to foreign investors, a falling rupee feeds on itself. Lets us try and understand this through an example. When the dollar was worth Rs 50, a foreign investor wanting to repatriate Rs 50 crore would have got $10million. If he wants to repatriate the same amount now he would get only $8.33million. So the fear of the rupee falling further gets foreign investors to sell out, which in turn pushes the rupee down even further.
What could have helped is dollars coming into India through the foreign direct investment route, where multinational companies bring money into India to establish businesses here. But for that the government will have to open up sectors like retail, print media and insurance (from the current 26% cap) more. That hasn’t happened and the way the government is operating currently, it is unlikely to happen.
The Reserve Bank of India does intervene at times to stem the fall of the rupee. This it does by selling dollars and buying rupee to ensure that there is adequate supply of dollars in the market and the excess supply of rupee is sucked out. But the RBI does not have an unlimited supply of dollars and hence cannot keep intervening indefinitely.
What about the trade deficit?
The trade deficit might come down a little if the increase in price of petrol leads to people consuming less petrol. This in turn would mean lesser import of oil and hence a slightly lower trade deficit. A lower trade deficit would mean lesser pressure on the rupee. But the fact of the matter is that even if the consumption of petrol comes down, its overall impact on the import of oil would not be that much. For the trade deficit to come down the government has to increase prices of kerosene, LPG and diesel. That would have a major impact on the oil imports and thus would push down the demand for the dollar. It would also mean a lower fiscal deficit, which in turn will lead to lower interest rates. Lower interest rates might lead to businesses looking to expand and people borrowing and spending that money, leading to a better economic growth rate. It might also motivate Multi National Companies (MNCs) to increase their investments in India, bringing in more dollars and thus lightening the pressure on the rupee. In the short run an increase in the prices of diesel particularly will lead higher inflation because transportation costs will increase.
Freeing the price
The government had last increased the price of petrol in December before this. For nearly five months it did not do anything and now has gone ahead and increased the price by Rs 6.28 per litre, which after taxes works out to around Rs 7.54 per litre. It need not be said that such a stupendous increase at one go makes it very difficult for the consumers to handle. If a normal market (like it is with vegetables where prices change everyday) was allowed to operate, the price of oil would have risen gradually from December to May and the consumers would have adjusted their consumption of petrol at the same pace. By raising the price suddenly the last person on the mind of the government is the aam aadmi, a term which the UPAwallahs do not stop using time and again.
The other option of course is to continue subsidize diesel, LPG and kerosene. As a known stock bull said on television show a couple of months back, even Saudi Arabia doesn’t sell kerosene at the price at which we do. And that is why a lot of kerosene gets smuggled into neighbouring countries and is used to adulterate diesel and petrol.
If the subsidies continue it is likely that the consumption of the various oil products will not fall. And that in turn would mean oil imports would remain at their current level, meaning that the trade deficit will continue to remain high. It will also mean a higher fiscal deficit and hence high interest rates. The economic growth will remain stagnant, keeping foreign businesses looking to invest in India away.
Manmohan Singh as the finance minister started India’s reform process. On July 24, 1991, he backed his “then” revolutionary proposals of opening up India’s economy by paraphrasing Victor Hugo: “No power on Earth can stop an idea whose time has come.”
Good economics is also good politics. That is an idea whose time has come. Now only if Mr Singh were listening. Or should we say be allowed to listen..
(The article originally appeared at www.firstpost.com on May 24,2012. http://www.firstpost.com/economy/petrol-bomb-is-a-dud-if-only-dr-singh-had-listened-319594.html)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])
All is well in India under the rule of the “Gandhi” family. That’s what the Finance Minister Pranab Mukjerjee has been telling us. And the rupee’s fall against the dollar is primarily because of problems in Greece. And Spain. And Europe. And other parts of the world. As I write this one dollar is worth around Rs 55 (actually Rs 54.965 to be precise, but we can ignore a few decimal points). The rupee has fallen around 22% in value against the dollar in the last one year.
The larger view among analysts and experts who track the foreign exchange market is that a dollar will soon be worth Rs 60. And by then there might be problems in some other part of the world and the rupee’s fall might be blamed on the problems there. As a late professor of mine used to say, with a wry smile on his face “Since we are all born on this mother earth, there is some sort of symbiosis between us.”
So let’s try and understand why the underlying logic to the rupee’s fall against the dollar is not as simple as it is made out to be.
Dollar is the safe haven
As economic problems have come to the fore in Europe (As I have highlighted in If PIIGS have to fly they will have to exit the Euro http://www.firstpost.com/world/if-piigs-have-to-fly-they-will-need-to-exit-the-euro-314589.html) the large institutional investors have moved out of the Euro into the dollar. A year back one dollar was worth €0.71, now it’s worth €0.78. So the dollar has gained against the Euro, no doubt.
But the argument being made is that this is global trend and that dollar has gained in value against lot of other major currencies. Is that true? A year back one dollar was worth 0.88 Swiss Francs, now it is worth 0.93 Swiss Francs. So it has gained in value against the Swiss currency.
What about the British pound? A year back the dollar was worth £0.62, now it’s worth £0.63. Hence the dollar has barely moved against the pound. A dollar was worth around 82 Japanese yen around a year back. Now it’s worth around 79.5yen. It has lost value against the Japanese yen. The dollar has gained in value against the Brazilian Real. It was worth around 1.63real a year back. It is now worth over 2 real. So yes, the dollar has gained in value against the other currencies but not against all currencies.
What is ironic is that the world at large is considering dollar to be a safe haven and moving money into it, by buying bonds issued by the American government. The debt of the US government is now around $14.6trillion, which is almost equal to the US gross domestic product of $15trillion. But since everyone considers it to be a safe haven it has become a safe haven.
But let’s get back to the point at hand. So, not all currencies have lost value against the dollar and those that have lost value, have lost it in varying degrees. This tells us that there are other individual issues at play as well when it comes to currencies losing value against the dollar.
What is happening in India?
The Indian government has been spending much more money than it has been earning over the last few years. In other words the fiscal deficit of the government has been on its way up. For the financial year 2007-2008 (i.e. the period between April 1,2007 and March 31, 2008) the fiscal deficit stood at Rs 1,26,912 crore. This shot up to Rs 5,21,980 crore for the 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. The fiscal deficit targeted for the current financial year 2012-2013(i.e. between April 1, 2012 and March 31,2013) is a little lower at Rs 5,13,590 crore. The huge increase in fiscal deficit has primarily happened because of the subsidy on food, fertilizer and petroleum.
The tendency to overshoot
Also it is highly likely that the government might overshoot its fiscal deficit target like it did last year. In his budget speech last year Pranab Mukherjee had set the fiscal deficit target for the financial year 2011-2012, at 4.6% of GDP. He missed his target by a huge margin when the real number came in at 5.9% of GDP. The major reason for this was the fact that Mukherjee had underestimated the level of subsidies that the government would have to bear. He had estimated the subsidies at Rs 1,43,750 crore but they ended up costing the government 50.5% more at Rs 2,16,297 crore.
Generally all the three subsidies of food, fertilizer and petroleum are underestimated, but the estimates on the oil subsidies are way off the mark. For the year 2011-2012, oil subsidies were assumed to be at Rs 23,640crore. They came in at Rs 68,481 crore. This has been the case in the past as well. In 2010-2011 (i.e. the period between April 1, 2010 and March 31, 2011) he had estimated the oil subsidies to be at Rs 3108 crore. They finally came in 20 times higher at Rs 62,301 crore. Same was the case in the year 2009-2010 (i.e. the period between April 1, 2009 and March 31, 2010). The estimate was Rs 3109 crore. The real bill came in nearly eight times higher at Rs 25,257 crore (direct subsidies + oil bonds issued to the oil companies).
The increasing fiscal deficit
The fiscal deficit has gone up over the years primarily because an increase in expenditure has not been matched with an increase in revenue. Revenue for the government means various forms of taxes and other forms of revenue like selling stakes in public sector enterprises.
The fact of the matter is that Indians do not like to pay income tax or any other kind of tax. This a throw back from the days of the high income tax rate in the 60s, 70s and the 80s, when a series of Finance Ministers (from C D Deshmukh to Yashwantrao Chavan and bureaucrats like Manmohan Singh) implemented high income tax rates in the hope that taxing the “rich” would solve all of India’s problems.
In the early 1970s the highest marginal rate of tax was 97%. The story goes that JRD Tata sold some property every year to pay taxes (income tax plus wealth tax) which worked out to be more than his yearly income. Of course everybody was not like the great JRD, and because of the high tax rates implemented by various Congress governments over the years, a major part of the Indian economy became black. Dealings were carried out in cash. Transactions were made but they were never recorded, because if they were recorded tax would have to be paid on them.
A series of exemptions were granted to corporate India as well, and companies like Reliance Industries did not pay any income tax for years. As a result of this India and Indians did not and do not like paying tax.
Various lobbies have also emerged which have ensured that those that they represent are not taxed. As Professor Amartya Sen wrote in a column in The Hindu earlier this year “It is worth asking why there is hardly any media discussion about other revenue-involving problems, such as the exemption of diamond and gold from customs duty, which, according to the Ministry of Finance, involves a loss of a much larger amount of revenue (Rs.50,000 crore per year)”.
As he further points out “The total “revenue forgone” under different headings, presented in the Ministry document, an annual publication, is placed at the staggering figure of Rs.511,000 crore per year. This is, of course, a big overestimation of revenue that can be actually obtained (or saved), since many of the revenues allegedly forgone would be difficult to capture — and so I am not accepting that rosy evaluation.”
But even with the overestimation the fact of the matter is that a lot of tax that can be collected from those who can pay is not being collected, and that of course means a higher fiscal deficit.
The twin deficit hypothesis
The hypothesis basically states that as the fiscal deficit of the country goes up its trade deficit (i.e. the difference between its exports and imports) also goes up. Hence when a government of a country spends more than what it earns, the country also ends up importing more than exporting.
But why is that? The fiscal deficit goes up because the increase in expenditure is not matched by an increase in taxes. This leaves people with a greater amount of money in their hands. Some portion of this money is used towards buying goods and services, which might be imported from abroad. This leads to greater imports and thus a higher trade deficit. The situation in India is similar. The government of India has been spending more than it has been earning without matching the increase in income with higher taxes, which in turn has led to increasing incomes and that to some extent has been responsible for an increase in Indian imports. But that could have hardly been responsible for the trade deficit of $185billion that India ran in 2011-2012. The imports for the month of April 2012 were at $37.9billion, nearly 54.7% more than the exports which stood at $24.5billion. So the trend has continued even in this financial year.
The golden oil shock
India exports a major part of its oil needs. On top of that it is obsessed with gold. Last year we imported 1000 tonnes of it. Very little of both these commodities priced in dollars is dug up in India. So we have to import them.
This pushes up our imports and makes them greater than our exports. These imports have to be paid for in dollar. When payments are to be made importers buy dollars and sell rupees. When this happens, the foreign exchange market has an excess supply of rupees and a short fall of dollars. This leads to rupee losing value against the dollar. In case our exports matched our imports, then exporters who brought in dollars would be converting them into rupees, and thus there would be a balance in the market. Importers would be buying dollars and selling rupees. And exporters would be selling dollars and buying rupees. But that isn’t happening in a balanced way.
This to some extent explains the current rupee dollar rate of $1 = Rs 55. The Reserve Bank of India does intervene at times to stem the fall of the rupee. This it does by selling dollars and buying rupee. But the RBI does not have an unlimited supply of dollars and hence cannot keep intervening indefinitely.
As mentioned earlier the major part of the trade deficit is because of the fact that we need to import oil. Oil prices have been high for the last few years, though recently they have fallen. Oil is sold in dollars. Hence when India needs to buy oil it needs to pay in dollars. But with the rupee constantly losing value against the dollar, it means that Indian companies have to more per barrel of oil in rupees.
The government of India does not pass on a major part of the increase in the price of oil to the end consumer and hence subsidizes the prices of diesel, LPG, kerosene etc. This means that the oil companies have to sell these products at a loss to the consumer. The government in turn compensates these companies for the loss. This leads to the expenditure of the government going up and hence it incurs a higher fiscal deficit.
No passing the buck
If the government had not subsidized prices of oil products and passed them onto the end consumer, their consumption would have come down. With prices of oil products not rising as much as they should people have not adjusted their consumption accordingly. An increase in price typically leads to a fall in demand. If the increased price of oil had been passed onto the end consumer, the demand for oil would have come down. This would have meant that a fewer number of dollars would have been required to pay for the oil being imported, in turn leading to a lower trade deficit and hence lesser pressure on the rupee-dollar rate.
So let me summarise the argument I am making. The higher fiscal deficit in the form of subsidies has pushed up the trade deficit which in turn has led to rupee losing value against the dollar. The solution is to get consumers to pay the “right” price. With this the fiscal deficit can be brought down to some extent. If these products are priced correctly, their consumption is likely to come down as well in the near future, given that their prices will go up. Lower consumption is likely to lead to lower imports and thus a lower trade deficit. A lower trade deficit would also mean that the fall of the rupee against the dollar may stop. This in turn would mean a lower price for the oil we import in rupee terms and that in turn help overall economic growth. A lower fiscal deficit will lead to lower government borrowing and hence lesser “crowding out” and so lower interest rates, which might get corporates and individuals interested in borrowing again.
The long term solution
What has been suggested above is a short term solution, which given the way the Congress led UPA government operates is unlikely to be implemented. The main problem is that while it’s quite a noble idea to provide subsidies in the form of food, fertilizer, kerosene etc to the India’s poor, it has to be matched with an increase in taxes. An increase in income taxes rates isn’t going to help much because only a minuscule portion of India pays income tax (basically the salaried class).
What is needed is to get larger number of people to pay tax to pay for all the subsidies that are doled out. This can be done by simplifying the income tax act. This was tried when the government tried to come up with the Direct Taxes Code(DTC), which was very simple and straightforward and had done away with most exemptions. In its original form the DTC was a pleasure to read. But of course if it had been implemented scores of people who do not pay income tax would have to pay income tax. In its current form the DTC is another version of Income Tax Act.
Another way is to target specific communities of people who do not pay income tax even though they earn a huge amount of money, but all in “black”. For starters the targeting property dealers that line up almost every street in Delhi might be a good idea. Once, people see that the government is serious about collecting taxes, they are more likely to pay up than not. And there is no better way than starting with the capital.
(The article originally appeared at www.firstpost.com on May 23,2012. http://www.firstpost.com/economy/dont-blame-greece-cong-policies-responsible-for-rupees-crash-318280.html)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and he can be reached at [email protected])