We are in the middle of an incipient financial emergency, which can be triggered by a shock.
Rapid infrastructure development and public investment to strengthen competitive markets are the stepchildren of the annual Budget process. This continues a trend, started by the previous government, of shoring up state government finances, at the risk of being stingy on spending in areas of its own core, constitutional mandate.
The Economic Survey 2017 notes that state fiscal deficits reduced sharply from 4.1 per cent to 2.4 per cent of the gross state domestic product (GSDP) over the last 10 years, since state governments adopted the Fiscal Responsibility Act. Enhanced Central transfers to states and reduced interest payments, courtesy debt restructuring, benefited states to the extent of 1.8 per cent of GSDP. To their credit, most states used the additional fiscal space to cover the revenue deficit and lower the fiscal deficit to below the target of three per cent of GSDP.
But how long can the Centre play the role of a responsible elder brother, darning his own clothes, whilst buying new ones for his younger siblings?
India’s poor infrastructure constrains growth. Low spending on infrastructure also limits job creation — something India needs. The Union government expenditure on infrastructure has increased from 0.6 per cent of GDP in 2015-16 to an estimated 0.9 per cent of GDP in 2017-18. But it remains inadequate. Adding the state government and corporate — public and private — expenditure on infrastructure totals less than three per cent of GDP in 2017-18 versus the five per cent of GDP we should be spending.
Bank and corporate finances are the second black hole which the Centre’s Budget was unable to address. Banks have accumulated bad loans to the extent of `12 trillion, or 17 per cent of their assets. The Economic Survey 2017 exhaustively discusses the “twin balance sheet problem” — of banks that must write down at least one half of the bad loans and of large private companies that face bankruptcy, for failing to use the loans productively over the past eight years.
The finance minister has been explicit that the government should not bail out the private companies who made bad decisions. This is well-intentioned but difficult to implement.
There are 13 public sector banks that account for 40 per cent of these bad loans. Merging them with efficient banks can mask the problem for some more time. But such mergers can spread rather than contain the contagion. Selling or closing a failed public bank or enterprise requires courage and conviction. Our inclination is to retain the “crown jewels” no matter how tarnished they get. Air India has got a capital infusion of Rs 1,800 crores in 2017-18 on top of the Rs 5,765 crores over the last two years.
Fifty private companies account for 71 per cent of the bad loans. The public mood is for the government to go for their jugular. This will make it politically difficult for the government to fund write-downs of debt. But vigilantism against corporates can rock the growth story, which we can ill afford. A fast track quasi-judicial process must distinguish between “wilful” and unintended default, caused by systemic shock. Different rehabilitation regimes should be determined for the two categories of defaulters. Wilful defaulters should be pilloried. The downside is that picking and choosing defaulters, itself can perpetuate what this government abhors — crony capitalism.
The finance minister has allocated Rs 10,000 crores in 2017-18 for recapitalising banks. This is a placeholder. All eyes are trained on the additional resources unearthed by demonetisation. The RBI is yet to disclose the value of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes which remain undeposited. This may be around Rs 1 trillion. Transferring the resultant excess sovereign assets, from the RBI to banks, can buy some breathing room.
Second, the incremental tax collection from demonetised “black money” deposited in banks, can fund infrastructure development or recapitalise banks, as it dribbles in over the next two years. This windfall was to be distributed to the poor as cash support. But recapitalising publicly-owned banks, albeit with more vigorous oversight and more transparent and intrusive stress tests, has a higher priority. More credit for corporates translates into more investments, more jobs and higher economic growth. These are the fundamentals that must accompany fiscal stability.
We are in the middle of an incipient financial emergency, which can be triggered by a shock. The RBI cautions against thinking that inflation has been tamed. Other than food and oil, where prices remain low, inflation hovers just below the red flag of five per cent. This limits the headroom available to overshoot the fiscal deficit red flag of three per cent of GDP.
The Centre needs considerable fiscal slack to fund infrastructure development and recapitalise the banks. State governments can help by enhancing their own tax resources. Imposing income tax on agricultural income and vigorously collecting property tax are low hanging fruit available to them. These measures can add around one per cent of GSDP to their resources. This will enable the Union government to scale back the long list of Central sector schemes for human development and social protection and use the funds instead for its core mandate — developing infrastructure, markets and a competitive private sector.
States may well ask why they should bother, since they were never partners in the illicit gains from mega crony capitalism. But this would be short-sighted. Faltering economic growth adversely affects all boats. An increase of six per cent in economic growth boosts state government tax revenue by one percentage of GDSP with more jobs in tow. But above all, cooperative federalism must have some give — along with the take. This is the time for states to give to the Republic, as equal partners in national development.