How UPA turned NDA’s economic growth into shambles

upaVivek Kaul 

In both love and war, it makes sense to hit where it hurts the most.
The war for the next Lok Sabha elections is currently on. And there is no love lost between the two main parties, the Congress and the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP).
The BJP today hit out at the economic performance of the Congress led United Progressive Alliance government, over the last ten years.
Politically, this makes immense sense given the bad state the economy is in currently. Economic growth as measured by the growth in gross domestic product (GDP) is down to less than 5%. The GDP grew by 4.7% between October and December 2013.
The rate of inflation as measured by the consumer price index had been greater than 10% for a while and has only recently come below 10%. The consumer price inflation for February 2014 came in at 8.1%.
Industrial activity as measured by the index of industrial production (IIP) was flat in January 2014, after falling for a while. The overall index grew by just 0.1% during January 2014. Manufacturing which forms a little over 75% of the index fell by 0.7% during January 2014, in comparison to January 2013. This primarily is on account of the slowdown in consumer demand.
People have been going slow on spending money because of high inflation. This has led to a scenario where they have had to spend more money on meeting daily expenditure. Retail inflation in general and food inflation in particular has been greater than 10% over the last few years, and has only recently started to come down. Given this, people have been postponing all other expenditure and that has had an impact on economic growth. Anyone, with a basic understanding of economics knows that one man’s spending is another man’s income, at the end of the day. When consumers are going slow on purchasing goods, it makes no sense for businesses to manufacture them. When we look at the IIP from the use based point of view it tells us that consumer durables (fridges, ACs, televisions,computers, cars etc) are down by 8.3% in comparison to January 2013. The overall consumer goods sector is down by 0.6%.
This slowdown in consumer demand was also reflected in the gross domestic product(GDP) numbers from the expenditure point of view. Between October and December 2013, the personal final consumption expenditure(PFCE) rose by just 2.6% to Rs 9,81,463 crore in comparison to September to December 2012. In comparison, during the period October to December 2012, the PFCE had grown by 5.1%.
The lack of demand along with a host of other reasons also means that the investment climate for businesses is not really great. This is reflected in the lack of capital goods growth, which was down by 4.2% during January 2014. If one goes beyond this theoretical constructs and looks at real numbers like car sales, they also tell us that the Indian economy is not in a good shape as of now. Smriti Irani,
a television actress turned BJP politician summarized the situation very well, when she said “Today, as the Congress-led UPA leaves office, it leaves behind a legacy of an economy which has been mismanaged.” Yashwant Sinha, former finance minister and senior BJP leader, went a step ahead and said that “an investment crisis” and “a crisis of confidence in the economy”. The Congress party is likely to react to this attack by the BJP by following the conventional line that it has always followed. The party is most likely to say that India has done much better under the UPA than the BJP led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
Prima facie, there is nothing wrong with the argument. Between 1998-99 and 2003-04, when NDA was in power, the average GDP growth rate was at 6% per year. Between 2004-05 and 2012-2013, when the UPA has been in power the average rate of growth has been at 7.9% per year. If one takes into account, the GDP growth rate for this financial year i.e. 2013-2014, this rate of growth will be lower than 7.9%,
but still higher than the 6% per year achieved during NDA rule.
But it is worth remembering here that the economy is not like a James Bond movie, where the storyline of one movie has very little connection with the storyline of the next. An economy is continuous in that sense.
The rate of economic growth in 2003, a few months before the UPA came to power, was at 7.9%. The rate of inflation was at 3.8%. In fact, the rate of inflation during the entire NDA term averaged at 4.8%, whereas during the first nine years of UPA regime between 2004-2005 and 2012-2013, it has averaged at 6.7%.
If we take the rate of inflation during this financial year into account the number is bound to be higher. The index of industrial product, a measure of the industrial activity in the country,
was growing at 8% in early 2004. Currently it is more or less flat.
The fiscal deficit for the year 2003-2004
came in at 4.5% of the GDP. The fiscal deficit for the year 2012-2013 was at 4.9% of the GDP. The fiscal deficit for the year 2013-2014 has been projected to be at 4.6% of the GDP. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends.
As I have explained in the past, this number has been achieved through accounting shenanigans and does not reflect the real state of government accounts. The expenditure and thus the fiscal deficit of the government
is understated to the extent of Rs 2,00,000 crore. This is not to say that there wouldn’t have been any accounting shenanigans under the NDA rule, but they would have been nowhere near the present level.
The broader point here is that the NDA had left the economy in a reasonable good shape on which the UPA could build. And the first few years of growth under the UPA rule came because of this. In simple English, unlike James Bond movies, growth under the UPA cannot be separated totally from the growth under the NDA. The growth under UPA fed on the earlier growth under the NDA.
That’s one point. The second point that needs to be brought out here is that the massive economic growth during 2009 and 2010,
when India grew by 8.5% and 10.5% respectively, was primarily on account of the government expanding its expenditure rapidly.
The government expenditure during 2007-2008 had stood at Rs 7,12,671 crore. This has since rapidly grown by 123% and stood at Rs 15,90,434 crore for 2013-2014. While this rapid rise in government expenditure ensured that India grew at a very rapid rate when the world at large wasn’t, it has since led to substantial economic problems. During the period Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister of India, the government expenditure grew by 68% and stood at Rs 4,71,368 crore during 2003-2004.
This rapid rise in government expenditure in the last few years has led to loads of problems like high interest rates and inflation, as an increase in government spending has led to an increase in demand without matched by an increase in production.

As Ruchir Sharma put it in a December 2013 piece in the Financial Times
“With consumer prices rising at an average annual pace of 10 per cent during the past five years, India has never had inflation so high for so long nor at such an unlikely time…Historically, its inflation was lower than the emerging-market average, but it is now double the average. For decades India’s ranking among emerging markets by inflation rate had hovered in the mid-60s, but lately it has plunged to 142nd out of 153.”
In fact, if one looks at the incremental capital output ratio, it throws up a scary picture.
Swanand Kelkar and Amay Hattangadi in a December 2013 article in the Mint wrote “the Incremental Capital Output Ratio (ICOR)…measures the incremental amount of capital required to generate output or GDP. From FY2004 till FY2011, India’s ICOR hovered around the 4 mark, i.e. it required four units of investment to generate one unit of output. Over the last two years, this number has increased with the latest reading at 6.6 for FY2013.” Currently, the number stands at 7.
This, in turn, has led to a massive fall in investment. As Chetan Ahya and Upasna Chachra or Morgan Stanley write in a recent research report titled
Five Key Reforms to Fix India’s Growth Problem and dated March 24, 2014, “Public and private investment fell from the peak of 26.2% of GDP in F2008 to 17.3% in F2013. Indeed, private investment CAGR[compounded annual growth rate] was just 1.4% between F2008 to F2013 vs. 43% in the preceding five years.”
What all this clearly tells us is that the economic growth during the UPA rule fed on the economic growth during the NDA rule. The UPA has left the economy in shambles, and the government that takes over, will have a tough time turning it around.
The article appeared originally on www.firstpost.com on March 30, 2014
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek) 

Wake up UPA. Central planning didn’t work for Soviet Union, it won’t work for you either

upaVivek Kaul 

In the last ten years that the Congress led United Progressive Alliance(UPA) government has run this country, its solution for almost every socio-economic problem facing this country, has been bigger government. This was a practice followed by the erstwhile Communist countries all over the world, particularly the Soviet Union. And there was a basic reason behind why the system did not work.
Diane Coyle explains this point in her new book
GDP – A Brief But Affectionate History. As she writes “The communist countries had centrally planned economies, not market economies. Ministries in Moscow set the figures for the total number of all items to be produced in the economy and cascaded that down to specific production quotas for different industries and individual factories. With the benefit of hindsight we can see that the idea bureaucrats could possibly known enough about a large, complex economy to plan it from the center successfully is ludicrous.”
Coyle further explains why central planning did not work. “Individual factories were set output targets by the planning ministry. These were expressed in terms of volume—number of TV sets or pairs of shoes—or even weight. Targets of this kind are easy to meet. It doesn’t matter what the shoes are like, whether they are durable, comfortable, in the right sizes for the majority of wearers, or stylish. It doesn’t matter whether the TV sets work after six months or if the panel at the back constantly falls off.”
While India is no longer centrally planned to this extent, but our love for central planning has persisted. Take the case of the Right to Education which was introduced in 2009. At the heart of the Act is a noble idea of ensuring that education is a human right that should be free and compulsory for all children between the ages of 6 and 14.
But like is the case with all big bang centrally planned initiatives the Act tries to achieve too many things at once. It ordered schools to have infrastructure like playgrounds and toilets. Again noble ideas which easy to mandate by law, but difficult to implement immediately.
Many “bottom of the pyramid” kind of private schools have been providing education at a rock bottom fee. If they are asked to suddenly create adequate infrastructure which meets the criteria set under Right to Education, their cost of operation goes up. Their only option is to pass on this cost and increase the fee that they charge.
The trouble is that even though most parents want to educate their children, they may not be in a position to pay the higher fees.
A recent article on www.bbc.com deals with precisely this issue. It quotes Gitanjali Krishnan, a teacher in a school in Panchsheel Enclave in New Delhi as saying that the school would have to triple student fees to meet the criteria set under the Right to Education. And this is something that parents of the children studying in the school won’t be able to afford. “Our parents are the poorest of the poor, labourers and migrant workers, they won’t be able to afford it,” she said.
This has led to a scenario where schools are simply shutting down. “Baladevan Rangaraju, director of think tank India Institute, who has been monitoring media reports, has counted 2,692 schools shut and 17,871 at risk,” the BBC article said.
State governments are also shutting down schools which don’t meet the criteria set under Right to Education. The thinking among bureaucrats seems to be that in private schools the quality of teaching is not guaranteed. This is a rather stupid argument given that if the teaching in government schools was good, then the government employees and bureaucrats would be sending their sons and daughters to these schools, which is not the case.
Also, shutting down schools is not a solution. Even if the education offered by private schools is not upto the mark, isn’t some education better than no education?
As Parth J Shah, founder president of the Centre for Civil Society writes in a blog “Actually many government schools themselves would not be able to meet the rigid input norms((like playground, classroom size and teacher-student ratio) that the Right to Education has mandated.”
Further, what the Right to Education does like all centrally sponsored scheme is to set a target. And the target is to complete the syllabus. Economist Abhijit Banerjee talked about this sometime back. He conducted a small experiment in Bihar and the results were astonishing. “We did one experiment in Bihar which was with government school teachers. This was in summer around two years ago. The teachers were asked that instead of teaching like you usually teach, your job for the next six weeks is to get the children to learn some basic skills. If they can’t read, teach them to read. If they can’t do math, teach them to do math. At the end of six weeks, these teachers were given a small stipend. They had also been given a couple of days of training. At the end of six weeks, the children had closed half the gap between the best performing children and the worst performing children. They had really improved enormously,” said Banerjee.
So what was happening here? The teachers did not have to complete the syllabus in this case. They had to teach students what the students did not know. As Banerjee put it “The reason was they were asked to do a job that actually made sense. They were asked to teach the children what they don’t know. The usual jobs teachers are asked to do is teach the syllabus – which is very different. Under the Right to Education Act, every year you are supposed to cover the syllabus,” said Banerjee.
Central planning essentially tries to implement what should be the best outcome. But that is easier mandated by the law than implemented in reality. As Banerjee put it “One thing that we forget is that the perfect is the enemy of the good. We are trying to have an education system that is perfect and that every child should come out with wisdom at the end of it and as a result they learn nothing.”
Moving beyond the Right to Education, let’s take the case of the food security scheme, which aims at providing subsidised rice and wheat to nearly 82 crore Indians or 67% of the total population. Again, a big Act which tries to achieve the impossible.
Government data over the years has clearly shown that the percentage of hungry people is very low.
An article in the Mint points out “A February[2013] report of the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) shows the proportion of people not getting two square meals a day dropped to about 1% in rural India and 0.4% in urban India in 2009-10. Interestingly, the average cereal consumption of families who reported that they went hungry in some months of the year (in the month preceding the survey) was roughly equal to the average cereal consumption of those who reported receiving adequate meals throughout the year.”
Hence, what people need is not subsidised rice and wheat, but food that is more nutritious. Howarth Bouis, director of HarvestPlus, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), made a very interesting point 
in an interview to the Mint in 2013. “If you look at all the other food groups such as fruits, vegetables, lentils, and animal products other than milk, you will find a steady increase in prices over the past 40 years. So it has become more difficult for the poor to afford food that is dense in minerals and vitamins,” he said.
No steps have been taken to tackle this problem. Over and above this other factors also need to be taken into account. As a research paper titled National Food Security Bill: Challenges and Options authored by economists belonging to the belonging to the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP), which is a part of the Ministry of Agriculture points out “Women’s education, access to clean drinking water, availability of hygienic sanitation facilities are the prime prerequisites for improved nutrition. It needs to be recognised that malnutrition is a multi-dimensional problem and needs a multi-pronged strategy.”
This means taking many small steps in the right direction, which necessarily don’t involve big government and more central planning.
To conclude, the Congress led UPA government is spending its last six weeks in power. And if there is one lesson it can draw from its last ten years in power is that Soviet style central planning doesn’t really work any more and perhaps it never did.
The article originally appeared on www.FirstBiz.com on March 27, 2014

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

UPA destroyed economy. Where will Modi get the money to sort out this financial mess?

narendra_modiVivek Kaul 
The Congress led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) seems to have more or less realized that the 2014 Lok Sabha elections is a lost cause. Hence, the idea seems to be make things difficult for the next government, especially on the finance front.
I had written on this issue on February 17, 2014, the day the finance minister P Chidambaram presented the interim budget. Since then, more details have come out, and these details clearly suggest that things are much worse on the finance front than they first seemed.
A recent news report in the Daily News and Analysis points out that the central government owes the states Rs 50,000 crore on account of compensation for the central sales tax. The newspaper quotes a finance ministry official to point out that a 2% cut in the central sales tax was introduced as a part of the process to phase it out and move towards goods and services tax. The state governments were to be compensated for the losses they had incurred because of this. This payment hasn’t been made for the last three years and the amount has now gone up to close to Rs 50,000 crore.
This is something that the next government will have to deal with. On February 28, 2014, the government raised the dearness allowance of five million central government employees to 100% of their basic salary. This was earlier at 90%. 
This move is expected to cost around Rs 6,390 crore in 2014-2015. Interestingly, the government had hiked the dearness allowance from 80% to 90% of basic only in September 2013, with effect from July 2013.
The government also approved among the terms of reference for the seventh pay commission, the addition of 50% dearness allowance with the basic pay. This is expected to push salaries of public sector employees up by 30%, that is, if the recommendations of the seventh pay commission are implemented in the time to come. Also, once the dearness allowance of the central government employees is increased, it puts an immense amount of pressure on state governments to increase the salaries of their employees as well.
There are some points from the interim budget that need to be highlighted as well. An amount of Rs 1,15,000 crore has been budgeted against food subsidies for 2014-2015(the period between April 1, 2014 and March 31, 2015). Out of this around Rs 88,500 crore has been allocated under the Food Security Act.
The problem with this number is that the food security scheme is expected to cost much more than the amount that has been allocated. (
you can read a detailed explanation here). Also, with Rs 88,500 crore allocated towards food security scheme, it doesn’t leave enough, for the public distribution system that is already in place. As the DNA article cited earlier points out “The next government will have to find a lot of resources for the public distribution subsidy as well. Out of the total Rs 115,000 crore for the food subsidy, the government has allocated Rs 88,500 crore to the Food Security Act.”
And if all this wasn’t enough there are expenditures from the current year that haven’t been accounted for and will spill over to the next year. Estimates suggest that this year close to Rs 1,23,000 crore of subsidies have been postponed to the next year. The next finance minister would have to meet this expenditure.
In fact, in a last ditch effort the government tried to push in nine ordinances before the election commission announced the elections dates. But the President Pranab Mukherjee did not agree to it. As economist Arvind Panagariya 
points out in a recent column in The Times of India “Perhaps the worst poison pill is UPA’s attempt to push as many as nine ordinances and clear vast numbers of projects on literally the last possible day before Election Commission’s Model Code of Conduct was expected to kick in. Only sage advice from the president held back the government’s hand from pushing the vast majority of these ordinances.”
The Congress led UPA government has left the country in a huge financial mess and the next government will have a tough time dealing with it, from day one. And if they mess it up even slightly, India will end up in an even bigger mess than it currently is.
The opinion polls suggest that Narendra Modi is likely to be the next Prime Minister of India. The great Indian middle class has high hopes from Modi and his ability to get the Indian economy back on track. But the question is where will Modi get the money from, for whatever he wants to do, to set the economy back on track? Close to Rs 2,00,000 crore of government expenditure next year, hasn’t been accounted for.
One way out is to cut down on the subsidies. But will Modi be able to do that, given that he is likely to lead a coalition government. Also, during all the years that the BJP has been in opposition it has supported the populist entitlement programmes, which have led to the government expenditure going up big time. So it is really not in a position to reverse that expenditure even if it is voted to power.
As Robert Prior-Wandesforde, an economist at Credit Suisse in Singapore, recently told Mint “The power of the finance minister in the new government will be key… as will be the administration’s ability to either cut spending on social welfare or match that expenditure through revenue.”
Now that, as the common phrase goes, is easier said than done.
The article originally appeared on www.FirstBiz.com on March 13, 2014

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

How the govt itself stoked the fires of food inflation

foodVivek Kaul 
Hindi film songs have words of wisdom for almost all facets of life. Even inflation.
As the lines from a song in the 1974 superhit 
Roti, Kapda aur Makan go “Baaki jo bacha mehangai maar gayi(Of whatever was left inflation killed us).”
Inflation or the rise in prices of goods and services has been killing Indians over the last few years. What has hurt the common man even more is food inflation. Food prices have risen at a much faster pace than overall prices.
A discussion paper titled 
Taming Food Inflation in India released by the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices(CACP), Ministry of Agriculture, on April 1, 2013, points out to the same. “Food inflation in India has been a major challenge to policy makers, more so during recent years when it has averaged 10% during 2008-09 to December 2012. Given that an average household in India still spends almost half of its expenditure on food, and poor around 60 percent (NSSO, 2011), and that poor cannot easily hedge against inflation, high food inflation inflicts a strong ‘hidden tax’ on the poor…In the last five years, post 2008, food inflation contributed to over 41% to the overall inflation in the country,” write the authors Ashok Gulati and Shweta Saini. Gulati is the Chairman of the Commission and Saini is an independent researcher.
During the period 2008-2009 to December 2012, the wholesale price inflation, a measure of the overall rise in prices, averaged at 7.4%. In the same period the food inflation averaged at 10.13% per year.
So who is responsible for food inflation, which is now close to 11%? The short answer is the government. As Gulati and Saini write “
The Economist in its February 2013 issue highlights that it was the increased borrowings by the Indian government which fuelled inflation…It categorically puts the responsibility on the government for having launched a pre-election spending spree in 2008, which continued even thereafter.”
Gulati and Saini build an econometric model which helps them conclude that “fiscal Deficit, rising farm wages, and transmission of the global food inflation; together they explain 98 percent of the variations in Indian food inflation over the period 1995-96 to December, 2012…These empirical results clearly indicate that it would not be incorrect to blame the ballooning fiscal deficit of the country today to be the prime reason for the stickiness in food inflation.”
Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends. In the Indian context, it has been growing in the last few years as the government has been spending substantially more than what it has been earning.
The fiscal deficit of the Indian government in 2007-2008 (the period between April 1, 2007 and March 31, 2008) stood at Rs 1,26,912 crore. This jumped by 230% to Rs 4,18,482 crore, in 2009-2010 (the period between April 1, 2009 and March 31, 2010). This was primarily because the expenditure of the Congress led UPA government went up at a much faster pace than the income.
The government of India had a total expenditure of Rs 7,12,671 crore, during the course of 2007-2008. This grew by nearly 44% to Rs 10,24,487 crore in 2009-2010. The income of the government went up at a substantially slower pace. Between 2007-2008 and 2009-2010, the revenue receipts (the income that the government hopes to earn every year) of the government grew by a minuscule 5.7% to Rs 5,72,811 crore.
And it is this increased expenditure(reflected in the burgeoning fiscal deficit) of the government that has led to inflation. As Gulati and Saini point out “Indian fiscal package largely comprised of boosting consumption through outright doles (like farm loan waivers) or liberal increases in pay to organised workers under Sixth Pay Commission and expanded MGNREGA(Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act expenditures for rural workers. All this resulted in quickly boosting demand.”
So the increased expenditure of the government was on giving out doles rather than building infrastructure.
This meant that the money that landed up in the pockets of citizens was ready to be spent and was spent, sooner rather than later. “But with several supply bottlenecks in place, particularly power, water, roads and railways, etc, very soon, ‘too much money was chasing too few goods’. And no wonder, higher inflation in general and food inflation in particular, was a natural outcome,” write the authors.
So increased expenditure of the government led to increasing demand for goods and services. This increase in demand was primarily responsible for the economy growing by 8.6% in 2009-2010 and 9.3% in 2010-2011(the period between April 1, 2010 and March 31, 2011). But the increase in demand wasn’t met by an increase in supply, simply because India did not have the infrastructure required for increasing the supply of goods and services. And this led to too much money chasing too few goods.
No wonder this sent food prices spiralling. Food prices have continued to rise as the government expenditure has continued to go up. Also food prices have risen at a much faster pace than overall prices. This is primarily because agricultural prices respond much more to an increase in money supply vis a vis manufactured goods where prices tend to be stickier due to some prevalence of long term contracts. As Gulati and Saini put it “In fact, our analysis for the studied period shows that one percent increase in fiscal deficit increases money supply by more than 0.9 percent.”
The other major reason for a rising food prices is the rising cost of food production due to rising farm wages. This pushes inflation at two levels. First is the fact that an increase in farm wages drives up farm costs and that in turn pushes up prices of agricultural products. As the authors point out “During 2007-08 to 2011-12, nominal wages increased at much faster rate, by close to 17.5% per annum…The immediate impact of these increased farm wages is to drive-up the farm costs and thus push-up the farm prices, be it through the channel of MSP(minimum support price) or market forces.”
Rising farm wages also lead to a section of population eating better and which in turn pushes up price of protein food. As Gulati and Saini point out “This study finds that the pressure on prices is more on protein foods (pulses, milk and milk products, eggs, fish and meat) as well as fruits and vegetables, than on cereals and edible oils, especially during 2004-05 to December 2012. This normally happens with rising incomes, when people switch from cereal based diets to more protein based diets.”
In the recent past price of cereals like rice and wheat has also gone up substantially. This is primarily because the government is hoarding onto much more rice and wheat than it requires to distribute under its various social programmes.
If food inflation has to come down, the government has to control expenditure. The authors Gulati and Saini suggest several ways of doing it. The government can hope to earn Rs 80,000-100,000 crore if it can get around to selling the excessive grain stocks that it has. Other than help control its fiscal deficit, the government can also hope to control the price of cereals like rice and wheat which have been going up at a very fast rate by increasing their supply in the open market.
As the authors write “By liquidating(i.e selling) excessive grain stocks in the domestic market or through exports, massive savings of non-productive expenditures can be realized. For example, as against a buffer stock norm of 32 million tonnes of grains, India had 80 million tonnes of grains on July 1, 2012, and this may cross 90 million tonnes in July 2013. Even if one wants to keep 40 million tonnes of reserves in July, liquidating the remaining 50 million tonnes can bring approximately Rs 80,000-100,000 crore back to the exchequer. And with this much grain in the market food inflation will certainly come down. Else, the very cost of carrying this “extra” grain stocks alone will be more than Rs 10,000 crore each year, counting only their interest and storage costs.”
Of course this has its own challenges. More than half of this inventory of grain in India is concentrated in the states of Punjab and Haryana. Moving this inventory from Punjab and Haryana to other parts of the country will not be easy, assuming that the government opts to work on this suggestion. At the same time the government will have to do it in a way so as to ensure that the market prices of rice and wheat don’t collapse. And that is easier said than done.
The authors also recommend that the government can cut down on food and fertiliser subsidy by directly distributing it. “By going through cash transfers route (using Aadhar), one can plug in leakages in PDS(public distribution system) which, as per CACP calculations are around 40%, and save on high costs of storage and movement too, saving in all about Rs 40,000 crore on food subsidy bill,” write Gulati and Saini.
Something similar can be done on the fertiliser front as well. “Fertiliser subsidy, if given directly to farmers on per hectare basis (Rs 4000/ha to all small and marginal farmers which account for about 85 percent of farmers; and somewhat less (Rs 3500 and Rs 3000/ha) as one goes to medium and large farmers, and deregulating the fertiliser sector can bring in large savings of about Rs 20,000 crore along with greater efficiency in production and consumption of fertilisers.”
Whether the government takes these recommendations of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices seriously, remains to be seen. Meanwhile here is another brilliant Hindi film song from the 2010 hit 
Peepli Live: “Sakhi saiyan khoobai kaamat hain, mehangai dayan khaye jaat hai(O friend, my beloved earns a lot, but the inflation demon keeps eating us up).”
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on April 2, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek) 

How Mamata is denting the rupee and bloating the oil bill


Vivek Kaul
A major reason for announcing the so called economic reforms that the Manmohan Singh UPA government did over the last weekend was to get India’s burgeoning oil subsidy bill which was expected to cross Rs 1,90,000 crore during the course of the year, under some control.
One move was the increase in diesel price by Rs 5 per litre and limiting the number of cooking gas cylinders that one could get at the subsidisedprice to six per year. This was a direct step to reduce the loss that the oil marketing companies (OMCs) face every time they sell diesel and cooking gas to the end consumer.
The other part of the reform game was about expectations management.  The announcement of reforms like allowing foreign direct investment in multi-brand foreign retailing or the airline sector was not expected to have any direct impact anytime soon. But what it was expected to do was shore up the image of the government and tell the world at large that this government is committed to economic reform.
Now how does that help in controlling the burgeoning oil bill?
Oil is sold internationally in dollars. The price of the Indian basket of crude oil is currently quoting at around $115.3 per barrel of oil (one barrel equals around 159litres).
Before the reforms were announced one dollar was worth around Rs 55.4(on September 13, 2012 i.e.). So if an Indian OMC wanted to buy one barrel of oil it had to convert Rs 6387.2 into $115.3 dollars, and pay for the oil.
After the reforms were announced the rupee started increasing in value against the dollar. By September 17, one dollar was worth around Rs 53.7. Now if an Indian OMC wanted to buy one barrel of oil it had to convert Rs 6191.6 into $115.3 to pay for the oil.
Hence, as the rupee increases in value against the dollar, the Indian OMCs pay less for the oil the buy internationally.  A major reason for the increase in value of the rupee was that on September 14 and September 17, the foreign institutional investors poured money into the stock market. They bought stocks worth Rs 5086 crore over the two day period. This meant dollars had to be sold and rupee had to be bought, thus increasing the demand for rupee and helping it gain in value against the dollar.
But this rupee rally was short lived and the dollar has gained some value against the rupee and is currently worth around Rs 54.
The question is why did this happen? Initially the market and the foreign investors bought the idea that the government was committed at ending the policy logjam and initiating various economic reforms. Hence the foreign investors invested money into the stock market, the stock market rallied and so did the rupee against the dollar.
But now the realisation is setting in that the reform process might be derailed even before it has been earnestly started. This was reflected in the amount of money the foreign investors brought into the stock market on September 18. The number was down to around Rs 1049.2 crore. In comparison they had invested more than Rs 5080 crore over the last two trading sessions.
Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, a key constituent of the UPA government, has decided to withdraw support to the government. At the same time it has asked the government to withdraw a major part of the reforms it has already initiated by Friday. If the government does that the Trinamool Congress will reconsider its decision.
How the political scenario plays out remains to be seen. But if the government does bow to Mamata’s diktats then the economic repercussions of that decision will be huge. The government had hoped that the losses on account of selling, diesel, kerosene and cooking gas, could have been brought down to Rs 1,67,000 crore, from the earlier Rs 1,92,000 crore by increasing the price of diesel and limiting the consumption of subsidised cooking gas.
If the government goes back on these moves, the oil subsidy bill will go back to attaining a monstrous size. Also, what the calculation of Rs 1,67,000 crore did not take into account was the fact that rupee would gain in value against the dollar. And that would have further brought down the oil subsidy bill. In fact HSBC which had earlier forecast Rs 57 to a dollar by December 2012, revised its forecast to Rs 52 to a dollar on Monday. But by then the Mamata factor hadn’t come into play.
If the government bows to Mamata, the rupee will definitely start losing value against the dollar again. This will happen because the foreign investors will stay away from both the stock market as well as direct investment. In fact, the foreign direct investment during the period of April to June 2012 has been disastrous. It has fallen by 67% to $4.41billion in comparison to $13.44billion, during the same period in 2011. If the government goes back on the few reforms that it unleashed over the last weekend, foreign direct investment is likely to remain low.
One factor that can change things for India is the if the price of crude oil were to fall. But that looks unlikely. The immediate reason is the tension in the Middle East and the threat of war between Iran and Israel. Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, recently said that the United States would not set any deadline for the ongoing negotiations with Iran. This hasn’t gone down terribly well with Israel. Reacting to this Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel said “the world tells Israel, wait, there’s still time, and I say, ‘Wait for what, wait until when? Those in the international community who refuse to put a red line before Iran don’t have the moral right to place a red light before Israel.” (Source: www.oilprice.com)
Iran does not recognise Israel as a nation. This has led to countries buying up more oil than they need and building stocks to take care of this geopolitical risk.In the recent period, since the start of 2012, the increase in stocks has been substantial, i.e. 2 to 3 million barrels per day. These are probably precautionary stocks linked to geopolitical risks,” writes Patrick Artus of Flash Economics in a recent report titled Why is the oil price not falling?
At the same time the United States is pushing nations across the world to not source their oil from Iran, which is the second largest producer of oil within the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec). This includes India as well.
With the rupee losing value against the dollar and the oil price remaining high the oil subsidy bill is likely to continue to remain high. And this means the trade deficit (the difference between exports and imports) is likely to remain high. The exports for the period between April and July 2012, stood at $97.64billion. The imports on the other hand were at $153.2billion. Of this, $53.81billion was spent on oil imports. If we take oil imports out of the equation the difference between India’s exports and imports is very low.
Now what does this impact the value of the rupee against the dollar? An exporter gets paid in dollars. When he brings those dollars back into the country he has to convert them into rupees. This means he has to buy rupees and sell dollars. This helps shore up the value of the rupee as the demand for rupee goes up.
In case of an importer the things work exactly the opposite way. An importer has to pay for the imports in terms of dollars. To do this, he has to buy dollars by paying in rupees. This increases the demand for the dollar and pushes up its value against the rupee.
As we see the difference between imports and exports for the first four months of the year has been around $55billion. This means that the demand for the dollar has been greater than the demand for the rupee.
One way to fill this gap would be if foreign investors would bring in money into the stock market as well as for direct investment. They would have had to convert the dollars they want to invest into rupees and that would have increased the demand for the rupee.
The foreign institutional investors have brought in around $3.86billion (at the current rate of $1 equals Rs 54) since the beginning of the year.  The foreign direct investment for the first three months of the year has been at $4.41 billion.
So what this tells us that there is a huge gap between the demand for dollars and the supply of dollars. And precisely because of this the dollar has gained in value against the rupee. On April 2, 2012, at the beginning of the financial year, one dollar was worth around Rs 50.8. Now it’s worth Rs 54.
This situation is likely to continue. And I wouldn’t be surprised if rupee goes back to its earlier levels of Rs 56 to a dollar in the days to come. It might even cross those levels, if the government does bow to the diktats of Mamata.
This would mean that India would have to pay more for the oil that it buys in dollars. This in turn will push up the demand for dollars leading to a further fall in the value of the rupee against the dollar.
Since the government forces the OMCs to sell diesel, kerosene and cooking gas much below their cost to consumers, the losses will continue to mount. The current losses have been projected to be at Rs 1,67,000 crore. I won’t be surprised if they cross Rs 2,00,000 crore. The government has to compensate the OMCs for these losses in order to ensure that they don’t go bankrupt.
This also means that the government will cross its fiscal deficit target of Rs 5,13,590 crore. The fiscal deficit, which is the difference between what the government earns and what it spends, might well be on its way to touch Rs 7,00,000 crore or 7% of GDP. (For a detailed exposition of this argument click here). And that will be a disastrous situation to be in. Interest rates will continue to remain high. And so will inflation. To conclude, the traffic in Mumbai before the Ganesh Chaturthi festival gets really bad. Any five people can get together while taking the Ganesh statue to their homes, put on a loudspeaker, start dancing on the road and thus delay the entire traffic on the road for hours.  Indian politics is getting more and more like that.
Reforms, like the traffic, may have to wait. Mamata’s revolt is single-handedly worsening the oil bill, thanks, in part, to the rupee’s worsening fortunes. By not raising prices now, the subsidy bill bloat further, and in due course we will be truly in the soup.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on September 20, 2012. http://www.firstpost.com/economy/how-mamata-is-denting-the-rupee-and-bloating-the-oil-bill-461919.html
Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected]