The fiscal deficit of the government of India for the period April to November 2014 stood at Rs 5,25,134 crore or 98.9% of the annual target of Rs 5,31,177 crore (4.1% of the GDP). Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends.
As can be seen from the accompanying table this is the second highest fiscal deficit during the first eight months of the financial year since 1997-1998. Also, the level is way higher than the average fiscal deficit of 73.64% between 1997 and 2013.
As far as the total expenditure of the government is concerned it has gone up by only 5% in comparison to the same period in 2013. The major reason for the high fiscal deficit lies in the fact that the total revenues of the government for the period April to November 2014 have grown by 7.8%. The budget presented by finance minister Arun Jaitley in July 2014 had assumed that revenues would grow by 15.6%.
Hence, the revenue growth has been half of the projected level. Things are even worse when it comes to the taxes collected by the government. It was assumed that total tax collected by the government would grow by 16.9% in 2014-2015 in comparison to the same period during the last financial year. The actual growth between April to November 2014 was just 4.3%. The projections made by Jaitley and his team have gone for a toss totally, even after taking into account the fact that the government earns a substantial portion of its tax income during the last quarter of the financial year.
The Mid Year Economic Review which was published in late December 2014 stated that the tax collections will fall short by close to Rs 105,084 crore or around 0.84% of the GDP.
The learning from this is that Jaitley and his team need to be realistic with the projections they make for the next financial year’s budget, which is due next month. There is no point in assuming a very high growth rate in revenues, as was the case this year, and hence, understating the fiscal deficit number for the next financial year.
What these numbers also clearly tell us is that there is no way the government can meet the fiscal deficit target that it set for itself in July, unless it changes course. It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out that there are two things that the government can basically do—cut expenditure and increase revenues.
As far as government expenditure is concerned as I have pointed out in the past the expenditure is categorised into two categories—plan and non-plan. Non-plan expenditure makes up for around 68% of the total expenditure of the government in 2014-2015.
Interest payments on debt, pensions, salaries, subsidies and maintenance expenditure are all non-plan expenditure. As is obvious a lot of non-plan expenditure is largely regular expenditure that cannot be done away with. The government needs to keep paying salaries, pensions and interest on debt, on time. Hence, slashing this expenditure to meet the fiscal deficit target is easier said than done.
What is interesting is that while presenting the budget Jaitley had assumed that non-plan expenditure would grow by 9.4% during the course of the financial year. At the same time he had assumed that plan expenditure would grow by 20.9%.
Jaitley had increased the allocation of plan expenditure by close to Rs 1,00,000 crore to Rs 5,75,000 crore. Planned expenditure is essentially money that goes towards creation of productive assets through schemes and programmes sponsored by the central government. In an environment where the highly indebted private sector is going slow on investment, the government should be spending more on asset creation.
Nevertheless, the government will now ago about slashing plan expenditure big time between January and March 2015. From the looks of it, the government has already started going slow on this front. The plan expenditure between April and November 2014 grew by a minuscule 0.9%.
My broad guess is that Jaitley will cut plan expenditure by around Rs 1,00,000 crore to Rs 4,75,000 crore to keep it at the last year’s level. And this can’t be good news in an environment of slow growth. This is what the previous finance minister Chidambaram did in 2012-2013 and 2013-2014. In 2012-2013, he had budgeted Rs 5,21,025 crore towards plan expenditure. The final expenditure came in 20.6% lower at Rs 4,13,625 crore. In 2013-2014, the plan expenditure was budgeted at Rs 5,55,322 crore. The final expenditure came in 14.4% lower at Rs 4,75,532 crore.
There several other areas where Jaitley will have to copy Chidambaram as well. A recent report in the Business Standard points out that: “Jaitley was likely to ask PSU chiefs to use their cash piles to either boost public investment or partly offset the expected shortfall in tax receipts.”
Chidambaram had done something similar last year by getting public sector companies to pay high dividends. Coal India in particular announced a total dividend of Rs 18,317.46 crore. Of this, a lion’s share of Rs 16,485 crore went to the government. Over and above this, the government also collected Rs 3,100 crore as dividend distribution tax from the company.
Something similar seems to be in the works this year as well. In another report Business Standard had pointed out that public sector units were sitting on cash of close to Rs 2,00,000 crore. Coal India with Rs 54,780.2 crore was right on top. Getting these companies to pay high dividends is essentially an accounting shenanigan where money will be moved from one arm of the government to another.
Jaitley like Chidambaram will also have to postpone payments to the next financial year. Chidambaram postponed more than Rs 1,00,000 crore of payments in order to meet the fiscal deficit target that he had set for the last government. It is highly likely that the same thing might happen again.
A recent report in The Financial Express points out that: “The Food Corporation of India’s (FCI) procurement operations could come to a halt by February unless it is paid a good part of its outstanding dues of a record Rs 58,000 crore soon.” The corporation which buys rice and wheat directly from farmers is currently running on three short-term bank loans of Rs 20,000 crore , on which it is paying an interest of 11.28%.
The report further points out that “The food ministry has requested the finance ministry for Rs 1.47 lakh crore (including Rs 92,000 crore budgeted for FCI’s MSP functions and overall food subsidy arrears from previous years) in the current fiscal.” This looks highly unlikely and which means some expenditure that has to be paid for will get postponed to the next financial year.
What this means is that Jaitley will have to resort to every trick that Chidambaram had resorted to, in order to ensure that he meets the fiscal deficit target. The finance ministry has been vociferous in the recent past regarding achieving the target. The minister of state for finance Jayant Sinha recently said: “We are considering all options (cutting expenditure). We are very confident that we will be able to achieve fiscal deficit target of 4.1 per cent in the current fiscal year.”
Let’s see how things pan out on this front. The Daily Reckoning will keep a close watch.
Postscript: In my last column I had suggested that the prime minister Narendra Modi should give an assurance to public sector banks that the government won’t meddle with their work. Newsreports suggest that the prime minster told the same to a bankers retreat in Pune on Saturday. As he said: “There is a difference between political intervention and political interference… there will never be any phone call from the PMO…But as we are working in a democratic system… there will be intervention as and when required.” If followed this will be a great move.
The column originally appeared on www.equitymaster.com as a part of The Daily Reckoning on January 5, 2015