Budget: Will It Poll-Vault Or Prop Up The Economy?

What rotten luck! Writing a column for a business newspaper on the morning of major policy announcements is replete with its own peculiar set of hazards. Damned if you write about it, and double-damned if you don’t. Look at the quicksand here. Speculate and you could end up with egg on your face. Ignore it, and readers wonder if you’ve finally tipped over to the other side. The only way one can salvage the situation is by moving beyond the present and the immediate.

Today’s column will try to raise some issues that might help readers determine whether the measures have enough horsepower to drag the economy out of the quagmire. Given that there is a general election coming up, it might also be useful to differentiate between prepoll bluster and genuine economic largesse. It might also help to remember that this is going to be one hell of a tightrope walk for this government — throwing cash at the economy at a time when its finances are deteriorating and the global economic environment is in crisis.

The first, and most obvious, question is: will zapping the economy with large doses of stimuli really help? The only way to find out is if the measures announced in the interim budget by stand-in FM Pranab Mukherjee really induce you to go out and spend some of your savings. Given the uncertainty over retaining jobs in most of the urban centres, consumption spending in the metros is likely to remain tardy for some time to come. The next best bet therefore is the rural areas, where the successful monsoons of the past few years have left many people with some disposable incomes. And, there is no immediate threat of layoffs here. So, how does the budget address this constituency? Another broader question: does the interim budget do anything to boost overall consumption — whether it’s rural or urban — and does it manage to put more money into wallets?

Remember, there is a hidden layer just below the level of economic stimulus, and it is called elections. It might be interesting therefore to see how they camouflage some of the political handouts as a part of the stimulus package. Here’s a pointer: with crude oil prices now crashing below $40 per barrel, the government might have slightly greater leeway in their spending plans over the next 15 months. Lower oil prices have direct and indirect effects. It not only reduces India’s import bill immediately, but will also reduce the subsidy bill that the government incurs for compensating oil companies (which had to sell petroleum products to the pubic at a price below their raw material cost). Ditto for fertilisers. So, despite the larger-than-estimated total subsidy bill by the end of the year — primarily because of the high food subsidy bill and the huge oil and fertiliser subsidies incurred in the first six months — the government will have acquired some headroom on the fertiliser and oil subsidy bills now. The question to ask is: are funds being spent on growth-inducing areas, or are they being diverted towards expenditure under the spurious head of “social sector expenditure,” that does nothing to the economy but pays enormous political dividends?

Which brings us to the next question: will this budget create some long-term fiscal burdens? You bet! Government finances are already creaking under the strain of so many stimulus packages and give-aways. Tax collections have already slowed down. The government has already revised its tax collection estimates downwards once. Given the continuing slowdown, experts are wondering whether the government will need to recalibrate its tax revenue estimates further downwards. Whatever might be the analysis, one thing is sure — the government’s tax collections will not only miss this year’s target, but will most certainly further dip in the next financial year. At the same time, with so much money being spent on prodding the economy, the government will have to keep borrowing to finance its ballooning expenses.

The trick might therefore lie in additional revenueraising strategies. One, there is a sure source of revenues in the scheduled auctions for 3G spectrum. The second is, of course selling some of the family property — it is high time the government resumed its divestment programme. The pause button was pressed on this revenue source soon after the UPA government got the Left Front on board. As a result, it missed out on the bull run and an excellent opportunity to bolster revenues. It may not be too late even now. In fact, the government’s selective divestments also could, theoretically, even give the stalled stock markets some sort of a push. Did you spot any additional revenue-raising items?

Finally, it might be a fun idea to try and use the interim budget document to figure out if this government is confident of returning to power. Who knows what clues might be available here. Have fun.

(Courtesy: The Economic Times)

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