Optics All The Way: Budget 2017 has brought to fore the astute lawyer-politician in Arun Jaitley

India’s finance minister Arun Jaitley has lived up to his credentials as a lawyer-politician adroitly: he has presented a budget for 2017-18 that pleases everybody but satisfies very few.

The capital markets investor class, including the foreign portfolio investor (FPI), is certainly happy. The movement of the stock market index reflected joy at being left alone: at closing time, the 30-share benchmark sensitive index was up 485 points in a relief rally. Investors were pleased that a rumoured restructuring of long-term capital gains tax was avoided. FPIs, who bring liquidity to India’s shallow markets, were spared additional tax blushes under something called the “indirect transfer provision,” which required tax to be paid on transfer of shares overseas if the underlying assets are located in India.
In the end, budget 2017 seems to be more about being seen to be doing the right thing rather than doing it. Jaitley’s thrust can be summed up in his own words: “My overall approach…has been to spend more in rural areas, infrastructure and poverty alleviation and yet maintain the best standards of fiscal prudence. I have also kept in mind the need to continue with economic reforms, promote higher investments and accelerate growth.”
This requires walking a fine line and Jaitley has husbanded all the political smarts he could muster.

Delicately balanced

On one side, the impending state assembly elections (in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Goa, Manipur and Uttarakhand) which begin on Saturday (Feb. 04) was bound to cast a long shadow on his plans. On the other side, Jaitley had to present a political budget without breaching the election commission’s restrictions.
Jaitley also needed lots of political nous since the budget had to be drafted in the backdrop of some momentous changes: demonetisation (which has dealt a severe demand and supply shock to the economy), the planned move to goods and services tax (GST), political developments in leading developed countries which could lead to severe economic consequences for India and other emerging economies. In addition, the fiscal responsibility and budget management committee’s report tied his hands by advocating fiscal prudence, barring exceptional situations.
On sum, though, there are a lot of announcements and political grand-standing but little by way of on-the-ground impact. For example, total expenditure planned for 2017-18 is up only 6.57% over the Rs 20,14,407 crore actually spent during 2016-17. That barely covers the rate of inflation. What’s even more disappointing, capital expenditure is budgeted to go up by only 10.7%. The country needs public expenditure to kickstart economic growth, especially in the absence of any private sector investment. Strangely, even though Jaitley has acknowledged this in his budget speech, he has failed to walk the talk.
Revenue could be a legitimate constraint. Tax revenues are expected to grow by only 12.7%, while non-tax revenues are actually budgeted to drop. Total revenue, including capital receipts, is expected to rise only 9.7%. One reason for the conservative estimates could be the expected shift to GST from July. The demand compression arising out of demonetisation could be another reason.

Political imperatives

Despite these limitations, the electoral imperative seems to have forced Jaitley to make numerous announcements for farmers, rural areas and allied sectors. In this, Jaitley has chosen to follow the footsteps of his predecessors by announcing grand schemes and allocating large sums. For example, he announced a Rs10 lakh crore agricultural credit target, against Rs9 lakh crore in 2016-17.
It’s curious that successive finance ministers chose to make this proud proclamation in the budget document when the money will actually be lent by various agri-lending agencies, such as the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development. There’s another strange twist: while the government promises to bear the interest subsidy on these concessional loans, the money kept aside for meeting the interest subsidy bill remains unchanged from last year. If the loan volume is likely to go up by Rs1 lakh crore, surely the subsidy element should also rise correspondingly?
Jaitley’s made another strange claim: he maintained that the pace of construction of rural roads under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana had reached 133 km per day during 2016-17. This fact sits uneasily with roads minister Nitin Gadkari’s admission a couple of months ago that his ministry was unable to meet the highway construction target of 40km every day.
The political framework also probably stayed the finance minister’s hand from slashing corporate tax rates further, as had been promised in last year’s budget. In a year when demonetisation has affected millions of livelihoods and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party wants to win Uttar Pradesh elections, the optics of helping large corporates could be a recipe for electoral hara-kiri.
He has instead cut tax rates for micro, small, and medium-scale enterprises with annual turnover up to Rs50 crore. His contention: their effective tax rate is higher than large companies and it is these units which actually create employment at the grass-roots level.
Arun Jaitley’s budget for 2017-18 pushes the political messaging of demonetisation further. He has painted a multi-hued picture that appeals to the stock market investor, because a rising stock index is often mistaken for economic health. His brushstrokes also strive to attract voters in various states by not only promising employment and income opportunities but also by painting the government as pro-disenfranchised and anti-privileged.

The above article was published in http://www.qz.com on February 2, 2017, and can also be read here

Budget And Moral Imperatives

Increasing public investment and employment remains a moral imperative for finance minister Arun Jaitley

Union finance minister Arun Jaitley is probably caught in a cleft stick. With demonetisation throwing a spanner in the works, his fourth budget will understandably try to achieve a balance between reviving economic growth and maintaining fiscal stability. These are two seemingly conflicting goals, with economists sharply split on both sides of the divide. The fiscal responsibility and budget management committee is also believed to have drawn some red lines. But Jaitley may not have much of a choice.
There are two ways to revive growth: either through consumption or through investment. Export-led growth could have been another possibility but India’s persisting trade deficit and the world economy’s delayed recovery makes it a non-starter. With demonetisation squeezing out demand, there could be attempts to stimulate consumption through some restructuring in direct taxes and some realignment of indirect tax rates (especially excise) on goods, in line with the proposed goods and services tax slabs. The clamour for fiscal rectitude, especially the threat perception posed by credit rating agencies, might stay Jaitley’s hand from over-stretching.
The other alternative is government’s capital expenditure, because demand compression is also likely to suck out the private sector’s desire to invest. However, there are valid concerns over the government’s ability to execute projects efficiently and within budgeted costs. Road minister Nitin Gadkari’s recent admission of highway construction falling short of desired targets reflects both private sector lassitude in taking up infrastructure projects and the government’s less-than-stellar record in project execution.
File photo of finance minister Arun Jaitley; photo courtesy: Reuters
At a pre-budget seminar in Mumbai, former Reserve Bank of India governor C. Rangarajan said public investment amounts to roughly 7% of gross domestic product (GDP), with the Centre and the states (collectively) accounting for 1.6% of GDP each and public sector units contributing the balance 3.8%. If quality of execution is a concern, there’s a proposal to re-route part of the Centre’s public investment to public-sector units (PSUs) as equity which, leveraged with bank loans, can be used for greater impact. It’s not the best, or ideal, solution, but it sounds workable.
A section of economists and demonetisation supporters claim that penal taxes collected through the two-tranche income-disclosure scheme are likely to provide Jaitley with elbow room to stretch his capex budget without upsetting fiscal targets. And though that is serendipitous (Rs15,000 crore is expected from just the first tranche), the question arises whether Jaitley would allocate a higher capex outlay even in its absence.
Interestingly, increased capital expenditure meets three objectives simultaneously: reviving economic growth, visible progress towards meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and implementing some of the campaign promises made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the 2014 general election.
India is a signatory to the UN’s SDGs, which succeeded the Millennium Development Goals. The SDGs cover 17 broad goals (incorporating 169 related targets) to be achieved by 2030. The SDGs have been framed with the singular purpose of achieving three overarching objectives: ending poverty, protecting the planet, and ensuring prosperity for all. The Planning Commission’s successor, NITI Aayog, has been entrusted with mapping the targets with different ministries, coordinating with them and helping the government meet the targets.
Goal 9 of the SDGs says: “Build resilient infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.” More importantly, this is directly related to Goal 8: “Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all.” This goes directly to the heart of the debate between fiscal hawks and those wanting the government to expand public investment for kick-starting growth; it also provides a compelling reason for the government to increase outlays for public expenditure.
Employment growth remains stagnant across the world. A joint study (goo.gl/ZvLcsf) by the International Labour Organization, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development found employment elasticity (the direct relationship between employment growth and economic growth) in most G20 countries is low, giving credence to claims of “jobless growth”. India’s employment elasticity is said to be close to zero. A 2014 working paper by RBI staffers (goo.gl/U09o8b) has also pointed out how employment elasticity has declined in the post-reforms era, especially in the manufacturing sector.
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) 2014 campaign manifesto promised to create new employment opportunities: “A strong manufacturing sector will not only bridge the demand-supply gap leading to price stabilization, but also create millions of jobs and increase incomes for the working class.” There were also commitments to create jobs in the small-scale sector, agriculture and agri-related industries. Unfortunately, the narrative in many states with high unemployment rates has changed thereafter.
So far, official data and anecdotes both indicate demonetisation-induced livelihood stress in urban and rural areas. People have lost jobs across manufacturing, service and agricultural occupations. Whether BJP wins or loses the approaching state assembly elections, increasing public investment and employment remains a moral imperative.
The above article was published in Mint newspaper on January 25, 2017. It can also be read here

The world’s strongmen are eroding the autonomy of central banks. Exhibit A: India

Whatever the differences over the demonetisation fallout, there is near consensus over one collateral damage: the reputation of the country’s central bank, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), has taken a severe beating after 86% of the country’s currency (by value) was withdrawn and not replaced on time. But, worse, there is a growing perception that the central bank buckled under government pressure and rubber-stamped demonetisation. Fingers are pointing at governor Urjit Patel for readily agreeing; this may be jumping to conclusions but governor Patel’s non-communicative mien has not helped matters.
Three former RBI governors have publicly lamented the erosion of the central bank’s relative autonomy. Former governor Y V Reddy expressed concern about the knocks the RBI is taking: “For the RBI, for a central bank, reputational risk is the worst risk…And if this is happening in the international opinion, I would say that it is a national problem now and it is not just a political issue.” Even Reddy’s predecessor, Bimal Jalan, chimed in with his concerns over threats to the RBI’s autonomy. The opening line of former deputy governor Usha Thorat’s recent op-ed was anguish-laden: “It is indeed a sad day to see one of the most respected public institutions in India becoming an object of ridicule and scorn.”

India is only playing catch-up

On closer scrutiny, though, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. India is only following a global trend. The world over, in countries with right-wing governments headed by perceived “strongmen,” the executive has locked horns with serving central bank governors, and in some cases even abrogated the relative autonomy of the central bank. India is only playing catch-up: the refusal to extend former governor Raghuram Rajan’s term, and the growing public perception of Patel’s inability to dissent, further reinforces the notion of India tacking on to a global trend.
Two recent examples testify to the global pattern’s prevalence. President-elect Donald Trump denounced US Federal Reserve chief Janet Yellen on his campaign trail, claiming she was playing politics with interest rates (translation: she was keeping interest rates deliberately low to help Hillary Clinton) and should be replaced. Whether he will follow through on that promise will be known only after Jan. 18.
In England, soon after securing the referendum supporting Brexit, Conservative Party grandees—notably Michael Gove and former foreign secretary William Hague—tore into Bank of England (BoE) governor Mark Carney. They were taking their cue from prime minister Theresa May who, at an earlier party conference, had slammed the BoE for the low interest rates and quantitative easing since it short-changed savers. Carney has since dropped dark hints of resigning.
The relationship between elected politicians and central bankers has always been fraught. The 2008 trans-Atlantic financial crisis has deepened the chasm with central banks being increasingly asked to take on quasi-fiscal responsibilities. This has resulted in increasing institutional friction.
In Japan, soon after prime minister Shinzo Abe assumed office in December 2012, he leaned on the Bank of Japan (BoJ) to print more money and to bump up its inflation target from 1% to 2%; both measures would require the BoJ to pursue an expansionary monetary policy. This, the government hoped, would provide the necessary growth stimulus to the economy and finally help Japan escape the pernicious deflationary trap that’s plagued the economy for over 10 years. BoJ governor Masaaki Shirakawa was initially reluctant and when the pressure continued to pile on, he resigned in February 2013, two months before he was due to retire.
The Hungarian president and head of the right-wing party Fidesz, Viktor Orban (who recently built barbed wire fences to keep out immigrants), used his majority powers in parliament to browbeat the central bank into submission. He even went to the extent of replacing the sitting governor with long-time Fidesz politician Gyorgy Matolcsy. Interestingly, Matolcsy currently faces myriad allegations of cronyism and misuse of public funds, including those of the central bank to window-dress the government’s fiscal health.
Closer home, Sri Lanka has been witnessing heightened tensions between central bank governor Indrajit Coomaraswamy and finance minister Ravi Karunanayake.

More than just monetary policy

Bank of Israel governor Stanley Fischer resigned ahead of his retirement date, sparking off rumours of differences with prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Fischer subsequently joined the Federal Reserve as vice-chairman. A year ago, he had delivered a speech on central bank independence, in which he made an interesting point, one that resonates with the Indian situation. He said: “…there is a distinction between the terms monetary policy independence and central bank independence. In the literature that developed before the global financial crisis, central bank independence referred to independence from political influences in the setting of monetary policy. But many central banks have roles outside monetary policy—in particular, bank regulation and supervision. These roles are in certain cases granted their own level of independence…”
This point has also been made by former governor Y V Reddy: “There are two types of confusion… my own suspicion is that the institutional identity of the RBI has been damaged… the RBI is the monetary authority, yes. But it is also a full-service central bank. It is in charge of many other things. The recent emphasis appeared as though monetary policy is the main function. The governor is accountable to monetary policy. Then he is not accountable to regulation, he is not accountable to currency coins? There is a confusion about relative importance. That relative importance is being decided more outside than within.”
Successive governments have found ways of corroding each of these different independent roles. For instance, under the previous Congress-led government, former finance minister Pranab Mukherjee (currently the country’s president) set up in 2013 a new financial sector monitoring body, called Financial Stability and Development Council, to be chaired by the finance minister. This was a clear intrusion; the central bank’s mandate includes financial stability. The RBI governor was put on par with other regulators, which betrays a flawed understanding of a central bank’s role and remit.
The Australian example is instructive. The governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia chairs the single integrated prudential regulator, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority, as well as the Council of Financial Regulators.

Rule by fiat

The process of emasculating the RBI seems to have accelerated now. The surgical changes to RBI’s governance structure are telling: The government’s unwillingness to fill up vacant posts of independent directors is believed to have accelerated the passage of the demonetisation proposal and helped obtain the central bank’s acquiescence overnight. Ordinarily, the central bank would have debated and dissented, after assessing the logistical nightmare of not only distributing fresh cash to the wide network of bank branches across the country but also recalibrating and replenishing over 200,000 ATMs across the country.
Subsequent RBI submissions to parliament’s committee on finance disclosed that the central bank had acted on government advice.
Truth be told, the RBI Act does not empower the central bank with absolute autonomy, but the RBI does have relative autonomy allowing it to pursue certain monetary and regulatory functions with some degree of independence, free from political pressure. Saying “no” in the interest of avoiding short-term volatility and ensuring the economy’s long-term health is part of the job. Tinkering with this fine balance will have massive repercussions, including undermining investor confidence in various asset markets.

The article first appeared in http://www.qz.com on January 15, 2017, and can also be read read here

Demonetisation And Budgets: All In The Mind

Arun Jaitley will soon be presenting the 2017-18 budget and his well-laid plans may have to incorporate demonetisation-induced changes

It’s 690 seats this year; another 964 seats are up for grabs next year, with the general election to follow in 2019. This inescapable political imperative will weigh on finance minister Arun Jaitley’s mind when he drafts India’s economic policy. The battle for occupying popular mindspace over the past two months is now telescoping into a two-year battle. And if the vast majority of Indians feel confounded after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surgical excision of 86% of currency, they shouldn’t despair: They are in the distinguished company of Jaitley who, presumably, is equally disconcerted.
Jaitley will soon be presenting the 2017-18 budget and his well-laid plans may have to incorporate demonetisation-induced changes, over and above those included for introducing the goods and services tax (GST) system. What’s worse, with the GST start likely to be postponed, revenue projections may now have to be recast along traditional lines. Two huge changes in three months is more than just a rude disruption.
Two other elements add to the confusion. One, the railway budget will be merged with the Union budget this year in a meaningful break from a meaningless tradition. Also, the traditional expenditure reporting format under the broad heads of Plan and non-Plan expenditure will be jettisoned.
File photo of Finance Minister Arun Jaitley; Photo courtesy: Mint  
Standing for a moment in Jaitley’s shoes, what’s likely to be more worrying is how the economic slowdown affects revenue growth and how that shapes spending plans—especially committed social sector or infrastructure expenditure—that cannot be trimmed, leave alone eliminated. Jaitley has already promised higher government pump-priming to boost economic growth. Many new variables have cropped up in the meantime, further skewing the math. Modi contributed gamely during his 31 December speech with promises to increase social spending under both new and old schemes.
For example, new interest subventions on small housing loans and farm loans or increases in the number of rural houses built for the poor under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana are some of the schemes which might expand both capital and revenue expenditure bills for 2017-18. It is clear that Jaitley has little option in slashing the outlay for social sector schemes, especially when demonetisation has eroded rural incomes and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is unable to dismount the election treadmill. Apart from state assembly elections for Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Goa, Uttarakhand and Manipur in less than a month, next year will see elections in Tripura, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya.
With the political economy constraining deep spending cuts—at the most, outlays might be shuffled around under different schemes—revenue generation becomes imperative for meeting many of the grand spending plans. This is where rubber hits tarmac.
The demonetisation narrative focused on cornering tax evaders and, through legislative amendments, forcing assessees depositing unreported incomes to pay higher penal rates. This would require enhanced tax scrutiny and inevitably involve some element of persecution. But by stating that demonetisation was launched to punish currency hoarders, it subjected the majority to widespread suffering for the misdemeanours of a few. The messaging was subsequently imbued with nationalist overtones and repurposed to focus on moving India to a less cash economy.
Enter the good cop: News reports claimed that Jaitley had hinted at lower tax rates in a meeting with tax officers, citing how similar attempts earlier had met with success. News leaks from unidentified finance ministry sources also made similar claims.
Jaitley later seemed to deny his statement without actually denying it. There’s no text of Jaitley’s speech; only a summary is available, which has him stating there was an urgent need for a change of mindset: “India has to move towards a mindset of voluntary compliance…payment of legitimate taxes should be considered as part of the process and nobody should think that tax evasion is acceptable.”
This is where things get muddied up. By using the term “mindset”, Jaitley pivots seamlessly into the arcane world of behavioural economics. It is reassuring to note that Jaitley recognizes the importance of mindset in correcting tax compliance behaviour. But his public musings betray a contradiction. Initiating mindset change is a long-term project which involves altering social norms using a combination of psychological and social forces. The post-demonetisation regime instead uses a carrot-and-stick approach: simultaneously offering incentives (aka the Laffer curve) and disincentives (penalties).
The World Bank’s World Development Report 2015—titled “Mind, Society And Behavior”—states clearly that penalties or incentives have failed to improve tax compliance across the world. The UK government’s behavioural insights team, also known as the “nudge unit”, claims to have used behavioural sciences successfully to improve tax compliance in the UK and other countries. Jaitley will do well to remember that like liquor prohibition failed to stem alcoholism and related social problems, a one-time demonetization (or a subsequent penal regime) might not be enough to raise tax revenue on a sustainable basis. While the impact of behavioural sciences in influencing policy outcomes is still imprecise, one thing is clear: lasting changes in social norms require long-term investments.

The above article was first published in Mint newspaper on January 11 and can also be read here

Rex-T: Sharp Edge of Donald Trump’s Foreign Policy

Donald Trump’s choice for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is an old oil hand; do not be surprised if his statecraft leads to fresh geo-strategic conflagrations

A small spark can light up an entire forest and leave it wreathed in smoke and ashes for days. They say the flapping of a butterfly’s wings translates into weather changes halfway across the world. Nassim Nicholas Taleb pulled out a black swan from his risk bucket to explain hard-to-predict catastrophic events.
Will there be one careless spark, a languid butterfly or a black swan to distinguish 2017? Some events of 2016—Brexit, Donald Trump’s surprise election victory, oil prices creeping up, boardroom brawls at Bombay House and demonetization—will continue to influence developments in 2017. But this being the merry season for compulsive crystal gazing, here’s hazarding a wild guess about one risk element that might set 2017 apart.
It’s called Rex-T: US president-elect Trump’s choice for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. He’s not to be mistaken for the Jurassic carnivorous dinosaur; but he’s also not quite the cardboard character from a Steven Spielberg movie set. An Exxon lifer and chief executive officer, Rex-T has been described, variously, as a deal-maker, a hard-boiled negotiator, an inveterate networker. In selecting Rex-T for the position, Trump is bringing the oleaginous mix of history and politics back to centre stage after almost a century.

Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, Donald’s Trump’s choice for secretary of state. Photo credit: Reuters

Anthony Sampson’s classic The Seven Sisters: The Great Oil Companies And The World They Shaped describes how oil multinational corporations exercised inordinate heft in shaping early 20th century geopolitics: “The (US) government…preferred to use the oil companies, at a discreet distance, as the instruments of national security and foreign policy.” Texaco, Exxon, Standard Oil, BP, Shell, Gulf Oil and Mobil carved up vast territories in the Middle East, left behind by a retreating Ottoman empire, between themselves for oil concessions; occasionally, they even helped the US state department or British foreign office redraw political boundaries to suit business interests. Rex-T’s appointment rekindles suspicions of close links between oil and US statecraft.
The first risk arises when the US Senate foreign relations committee meets to confirm Rex-T’s appointment, which will then have to be endorsed by the entire Senate. It is speculated that this could be in jeopardy, given Rex-T’s Exxon background, the company’s business interests in Russia and the man’s proximity to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Many Republican senators have voiced their discomfort with Trump’s choice of the US’ future foreign policy architect: too compromised, too close to the enemy. If the confirmation falls through, events can take a different turn. That’s a risk in the unknown-unknown category because Trump’s backup choice is not known.
Assuming Rex-T obtains the confirmation, the state department can be expected to follow a certain policy trajectory. At this point, it might be safe to assume that part of Rex-T’s foreign policy design will be influenced by three chief factors: his oil background (having worked in Exxon all his life), his company’s Russian assets, rendered uneconomic by US-imposed economic sanctions, and his close friendship with Putin.
It might also be realistic to expect that Rex-T will bring two economic sanctions back into play: Russia and Iran. The US will probably relax economic sanctions against Russia, as Trump has hinted several times. The noose regrettably tightens in Iran’s case. A huge question mark looms over how Trump will follow through with the US’ recent extension of the Iran Sanction Act, which was expected to lapse at December-end. The renewal provides Trump with a window to reimpose punitive sanctions if he is convinced that Iran is violating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed with the US, France, Germany, China, Russia and the UK. Incensed by the renewal, Iran is already threatening to build a nuclear submarine.
Will Rex-T be the spark that ignites this risk? Consider this: The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries’ (Opec’s) members and non-members (primarily Russia) recently agreed to cut oil output. This had an immediate impact: Oil prices moved up sharply. Also consider this: Trump has promised to revive the US’ shale oil and gas industry, asserting during his campaign that this will create two million jobs. This additional output could potentially depress prices again.
The only way to keep prices up is to take out a large producer from the equation. And that could be Iran. The country’s oil exports, which dropped to a low of almost 1.1 million barrels per day (mbd) in 2013, is now back to almost 2.5 mbd on the back of almost 4 mbd of production. However, low oil prices have deterred revenue from reaching pre-2011 levels. Iran, which has so far refused to heed any Opec call for production cuts, seems to have finally agreed during November’s 171st ministerial conference in Vienna to reduce production marginally.
On the stump, Trump repeatedly railed against Iran and carped about the nuclear deal; vice-president-elect Mike Pence even threatened to “rip” it up. Will Rex-T be the sharp edge of this machete, to keep oil prices high and revive his old company’s sunk investments in Russia? Closer home, high oil prices further compromise India’s fiscal fragility. 
There is an even chance that Rex-T will baulk and this risk won’t play out. But, then, Trump has introduced another known-unknown to the equation: Peter Navarro, a well-documented China-baiter, as head of the White House National Trade Council. If Trump’s administration does initiate the promised trade war with China, that’s another future wrinkle for the global economy.
On that note, wish you all a happy 2017!
The above article was first published in Mint newspaper on December 28, 2016. It can also be read here.

Unintended Consequences of Demonetisation

The demonetisation scheme was launched without the govt thinking through consequences, hardships or logistical complexities of such an undertaking

Indian businesses have spawned some unique management practices. In his book When The Penny Drops: Learning What’s Not Taught former Tata Sons executive director R. Gopalakrishnan credits former ICICI chairman N. Vaghul with coining the term “Mafa”. Among the many variants of the acronym, the one that works best for India is “Mistaking Action for Achievement”.
Mafa seems to be a unique Indian trait, found frequently in Indian organizations. Executives, keen to show initiative, are often found launching ill-conceived projects with little or negligible homework. Managements, it seems, are content to see senior executives bustling around launching one abortive project after another, rather than thinking through strategy, returns and risks. Introspection is considered a luxury, a sign of indolence; shoot first, ask questions later.
The demonetisation scheme is an appropriate example. The government launched the exercise without thinking through the consequences, the hardships or the logistical complexities of such a mammoth undertaking.
The daily, arbitrary changes in rules puts demonetisation squarely within the theatre of the absurd. 
But, more importantly, the project also has numerous unintended consequences. In 1936 American sociologist Robert K. Merton wrote a popular paper titled “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action“. The central idea of the theory is that policy action by government can often lead to undesirable outcomes, or unintended consequences, that were not part of the original plan.
The policy landscape is littered with numerous examples. Many commentators link the US government’s determined push to make affordable housing universally available with the 2008 mortgage-fuelled, trans-Atlantic financial crisis. Research shows tightening anti-money laundering rules could end up increasing costs for official remittance channels, forcing remitters to lapse back to unofficial channels. Government incentives in Brazil’s auto sector are said to have caused over-investment, lowered capacity utilization and eventually affected productivity, employment and incomes.
The Indian government’s “surgical strike” on currency notes also has unintended consequences. Here’s how.
Unintended consequence-I: One of the avowed motives behind the 8 November edict was to flush out bank notes hoarded by tax evaders. And while this might succeed somewhat, faulty implementation has given birth to another unintended consequence: re-incentivizing hoarding. A delay in re-monetizing the system, after having sucked out 86% of currency by value, has created an unplanned scarcity. Banks do not have adequate supply—in branches or in alternative channels—of either old Rs 50/100 notes or the new Rs 500. It has forced many economic agents to squirrel away notes. The shortage has acted like a massive shock to the economy. Consequently, instead of draining the swamp, the demonetisation process now threatens to turn it into a crocodile pit.
In a statement read out during the fifth bi-monthly monetary policy press conference on 7 December, Reserve Bank of India deputy governor R. Gandhi said: “The Reserve Bank and the Central Government note presses are working to their full capacities and all efforts are being made to reach the notes to every part of the country… We reiterate that there is adequate supply of notes and hoarding of notes helps nobody’s cause.” The statement clearly shows that the central bank is cognizant of hoarding, and daily news breaks of various raids and recovered currency notes also prove that demonetisation has actually re-ignited the basic hoarding instinct.
Unintended consequence-II: It is now patently clear that the government did not adequately plan for the aftershocks. The exercise has deprived people from retrieving their own money from what were considered fail-safe bank deposits. 
This has a severe unintended consequence: It can erode people’s trust in banks, which has taken years of hard work and perseverance to build. A democratically elected government’s unilateral diktat, increasing the distance between a depositor and her legitimate deposits, can act as a perverse incentive: people may henceforth shove a few banknotes under the mattress before surrendering the rest to banks. This behavioural pattern is hardwired in the Indian psyche, having survived decades of a command-and-control regime which were marked by severe scarcities. 
It is also natural risk mitigation to build buffers against future autarchic government decrees that might once again restrict access to legitimate savings. Nobody likes queueing up for hours to reclaim their own money. While there won’t be a stampede to exit the banking system (and in fact there may be more Jan-Dhan bank accounts opened over the next few years), the demonetisation move has definitely corroded, if only marginally, confidence in the banking network.
There is an apocryphal story about a government rule boomeranging during the Raj. Seeking to clean up snake-infested Delhi, the British rulers announced a bounty for every dead cobra. While genuine snake-catchers got busy, some ingenious Indian entrepreneurs got even busier: they started breeding cobras, killing them and collecting prize money. When the government got wind of this, they shut down the programme abruptly, forcing snake breeders to release their wards back into various parts of Delhi. Hopefully, demonetisation won’t leave behind too many creepy-crawlies.

The above article was first published in Mint newspaper on December 14, 2016. It can also be read here.