Working The Budget: Before India Goes Business As Unusual, Fix Patchwork Policies

One of the promises made by the BJP in its election campaign was to change the mode of governance. This pledge found resonance with voters because the dominant mode of governance and service delivery was felt to have been appropriated by the privileged, which included the politician-bureaucrat-businessman nexus. Narendra Modi’s rhetoric of “minimum government, maximum governance” promised to upend the superstructure. This meant giving the short shrift to business as usual.
But it would appear that it’s not so easy to extirpate the old ways of doing business. The decision to impose a punitive capital gains tax on debt mutual funds (MFs) has classic Indian bureaucratic response to market initiatives written all over it. Household and corporate savings have been exiting bank deposits and heading for fixed maturity plans (FMPs) and debt MFs. The government wanted to stop this because there was a tax arbitrage at play here. But what they failed to see is that there is also an issue of real returns here.

The problem is simple: interest income from bank deposits attracts income tax. After deducting tax and the rate of inflation from interest income, the real return received by depositors is negative in most cases. There are two options thereafter for investors: move their funds to physical assets, such as gold or property, or move to more efficient financial instruments. Since investment in FMPs and debt MFs qualifies for lower taxes, many depositors forsake bank deposits in favour of debt MFs.

The tax arbitrage could be eliminated by improving the real returns provided by bank deposits. In the short term, this can be achieved by aligning tax breaks on bank deposits and debt MFs. But this may be unrealistic and could create an undesirable precedent. In the longer run, though, the only way to provide positive real returns is to ensure that inflation doesn’t erode returns.

While the arbitrage opportunity has now been plugged, there is still no guarantee that all the money invested in debt MFs or FMPs will necessarily return to bank deposits. What the government does not realise is that the money moving from bank deposits to debt MFs stays in the system and is still available for productive investments; money that moves away to physical assets is lost to the economy.

In the end, to foster savings in the economy, the government will have to take a call on what kind of tax breaks it wants to provide on which kinds of financial instruments. The additional Rs 50,000 deduction from income allowed for investment in certain specified instruments suffers from the same syndrome: most of the instruments included in the list yield only negative real returns.

On another note, finance minister Arun Jaitley in his Budget exhibited some concern for the health of his fellow citizens by imposing a punitive levy, the so-called “sin tax”, on cigarettes. Excise duty has shot up from 11% to 72%. But the levy is limited to only cigarettes of 65-mm length and below. So, the message from the government: cigarettes over 65mm length, the “king-size” brands, are safer than the smaller ones.

What about competing tobacco products? The tax on gutka and chewing tobacco has been increased from 60% to 70%. But on pan masala, the duty has gone up from 12% to only 16%. What gives? This is policy, wittingly or unwittingly, creating a new arbitrage window. There have been reports over the last couple of years, ever since states started banning gutka sales, that these sachets of oral tobacco have been masquerading as pan masala. There is now a tax incentive for gutka to impersonate pan masala. Anybody doing research on the “law of unintended consequences” is sure to find a wealth of material in Indian government policy pronouncements.

If it was public health that was causing Jaitley anxiety, it is intriguing why he spared beedis. Perhaps political expediency requires courting some large beedi manufacturers, whose support is crucial for the upcoming state assembly elections.

Jaitley’s arithmetic for estimating revenue and expenditure numbers for 2014-15 have also invited some degree of scepticism. Even if we tamp down on the cynicism, it is clear that a meaningful Budget can be presented only in February 2015.

Published in The Economic Times on August 2, 2014: goo.gl/sKzcta

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