The Economic Survey, a statutory document tabled in Parliament, is meant to be a scorecard of the economy for the current fiscal year. But over the years, it has morphed into a sourcebook for data and policy analysis. Indeed, economists and even academicians look forward to its scholarly content, even though it may have a partisan outlook.
This year’s Survey too does not disappoint in being a veritable feast and also presenting fairly sober realities. Under the leadership of Chief Economic Adviser (CEA) Arvind Subramanian, one quirk of the Survey is its thematic catchphrases. For instance, a few years ago, the CEA, in the Survey’s preamble, said that the Indian political economy was not capable of big bang reforms. Instead, reforms would be persistent, creative and incremental. It’s a different matter that in November 2016, India got the world’s biggest bang announcement in the form of demonetisation. Last year the Survey introduced the catchphrase JAM (the Jan Dhan, Aadhaar and Mobile trinity) indicating their potent combination of enabling direct benefit transfers and using technology to deliver subsidies as well as trim leakages.
In its first chapter, the latest Survey highlights 10 new facts about the Indian economy. Unfortunately some are not so new, and some are inane. For example, the fact that adverse weather affects agricultural yields and that parents in India have a preference for male children are hardly new “facts”. But others are significant, such as the finding that demonetisation and more formalisation of the economy have led to a huge jump in the number of taxpayers, for both direct and indirect taxes. Or that the formal part of the non-agricultural payroll is much bigger than believed. Unfortunately, this new “fact” is not substantiated with latest data; the Survey presents data from 2012. Surely the government is not stuck in a time warp, is it?
Another interesting fact is that India’s export sector is more diversified in comparison to other peer countries; that is, the top 1% of exporting firms account for a much smaller share of total exports, compared to East Asian countries. It is heartening to note the important role of small and medium enterprises in industrial employment and exports. On the other hand, this could be due to the inability of Indian firms to achieve global scale. Are the scale aspirations being thwarted by restrictive labour laws?
A populist hint
One of the most sobering facts in the Survey has been on the rural and agricultural sector. Farm incomes have remained stagnant for the past four years, hit by a drop in crop prices, output glut, and possibly demonetisation. So what is the prospect of doubling farm incomes in the next few years? Given that the Budget will be the last one before the 2019 general election (a fact reiterated by the Survey), it is almost a foregone conclusion that there will be great emphasis on the farm sector. This also means a tilt towards populism.
How then will the fiscal limits be obeyed? Here the Survey hints that some slippage from pre-announced fiscal deficit targets are to be expected in this pre-election Budget. The bond markets hate fiscal slippage and already there is sell-off of bonds. This will lead to a rise in interest rates. The biggest loser from a higher interest rate is the biggest borrower in the system, the Government of India. Even an increase of 0.5-0.6% rate over one year is an increase in the interest burden of more than ₹40,000 crore, equivalent to the full budget of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.
Hence the government will have to think very carefully on how to avoid slippage and keep bond markets happy. The disinvestment target was overachieved this year which is quite impressive and could be continued next year, given the euphoria in the stock markets. The Survey does point out that India’s stock markets have a different dynamic when compared to global markets. Stock markets all over the world are at record highs and there is concern about a bubble formation. In fact, a new phrase in the international lexicon is melt-up, which is the opposite of melt-down. So whether it’s oil prices or commodity prices, and now stock markets, it’s all going up and this may be the big surge before a crash, big or small.
But in India, according to the Survey, stock market valuations may not be in bubble territory. That is why the disinvestment target for next year may be higher. Also, the widening of the tax net can be positive for revenues, thus cutting the deficit.
The Survey mentions key macroeconomic headwinds from abroad. First, oil prices are going up. This would mean that the triple advantage that the government enjoyed since late-2014 for almost two years of a lower import bill, lower oil subsidy burden and lower inflation is going to go away. Every $10 increase in oil prices can reduce GDP growth by 0.2-0.3%. And oil prices have gone up by almost 60% in the last six months. The second headwind comes from the tightening stance of the world’s most influential central bank, the U.S. Fed. As rates are being tightened in the U.S., it is likely to lead to a reversal of dollar flows, which can impact India’s domestic liquidity situation, the stock market, and perhaps the exchange rate.
In addition, there are domestic challenges. The Budget priorities are clearly in these five areas: job creation; revival of private investment spending; revival of exports; focus on rural and agricultural economy; and bringing the banking sector back to a healthier condition. To this one, in the medium to longer term, add worries about increasing inequality. On the eve of the recent World Economic Forum at Davos, Oxfam released a report which said that 1% of India owns 73% of its wealth. This was reportedly mentioned by the Prime Minister in his meeting with Indian corporate leaders at Davos. One cause of inequality is the strain of indirect taxes, which tend to be regressive because they affect the poor disproportionately. The goods and services tax is an indirect tax. Excise duties on petrol and diesel are indirect taxes. In the last three years, the share of indirect taxes in total taxation has gone up steadily, which needs to be reversed. So there is an expectation that there will be action on the direct tax front to correct this trend.
Finally, the Survey points out that India’s rank in ease of doing business has jumped significantly, but an area which remains a cause for concern is the settlement of disputes or litigation. A telling statistic is the large amount stuck in tax litigation. By definition, one party to the litigation is the tax department, and quite often the other party is also a government company. The total amount estimated to be locked up in tax disputes is more than ₹8.2 lakh crore. And this happens despite the lower authorities or tribunals ruling in favour of the tax-payer; it is automatically escalated to the higher level till it goes to the courts. There is an incentive problem because tax officers are not incentivised to settle claims for fear of being accused of collusion or corruption. The Economic Survey points out that such a high rate of pendency and the huge amounts stuck in litigation are hurting India’s ease of doing business. Another telling statistic is the pendency in settling or granting of patents. These are “property rights” arising out of innovations. More than two lakh applications are pending, and isn’t this a bad sign for innovators?
The Survey is overall an excellent document which doesn’t shy away from painting a realistic picture whether it is about jobs, investments, growth outlook or burdensome litigation. Now all eyes are focussed on the Union Budget. Will it address concerns raised in the Survey or will it go its own way?
Ajit Ranade is an economist