Meanwhile, In India…

Yesterday’s post was about taxation (or the lack of it) in the United States of America. Today’s post is about the composition of tax revenues in India (along with some questions to which I would love some answers).

So the Hindu came up with a very interesting analysis on the composition of India’s taxation revenues over the past couple of years:

In FY21, despite a stringent lockdown and a raging COVID-19 first wave, the gross tax revenue collected by the Centre increased over FY20. However, the increase was made possible by a sharp rise in contributions from union excise duties. This compensated for the sharp drop in the share of corporate tax collection. The shift in tax burden from the corporates to the masses has come at a time when the pandemic has led to many job losses and reduced income levels thereby pushing more people into poverty.

https://www.thehindu.com/data/data-centres-tax-revenues-grew-despite-stringent-lockdown-on-the-back-of-excise-duties/article34850754.ece

This is the first chart in their article:

Source: https://www.thehindu.com/data/data-centres-tax-revenues-grew-despite-stringent-lockdown-on-the-back-of-excise-duties/article34850754.ece

I tend to take chart design a little seriously, so before we proceed, a laundry list of ways in which I wish this chart was better:

  • Source! What is the source of your data? As we will see later on in this blogpost, that really matters
  • Dump the y-axes (or at least one of them) and label the series instead. I’d prefer to do this for both series
  • This is especially important because you’ve got “base” numbers on the LHS y-axis and percentage change on the right, and visually, it is very non-intuitive. Especially because the RHS y-axis has zero at a different level when compared to the LHS.
  • A horizontal line next to 0% on the RHS would help provide clarity.
  • Any charting ninjas out there, please let me know where I’m wrong, and what you would do instead 🙂

Now, about the source of the data:

The article mentions that about “about 20.24 lakh crore was collected in FY21”. Since I don’t know which source was used, I’ve gone with the receipts statement from the Budget at a Glance section of the Union Budget website.

https://www.indiabudget.gov.in/doc/Budget_at_Glance/bag5.pdf

Gross tax revenue for 2020-21 (Revised Estimates) is Rs. 1900280. That’s… close enough, I suppose, to 20.24 lakh crores? Not really, if you ask me, but we’ll make do. By the way, to be clear, none of this is intended as a “hah, gotcha!” exercise. If there is a better data source that I should be using, please do let me know.

The excerpt above notes that gross tax revenue went up in FY 21 compared to FY 20. That’s not what this table shows, and I would love to learn more about which data source was used by The Hindu’s data team. That being said, their larger point is valid, and worth thinking about: in a year in which India’s GDP contracted, by around 7% or so, tax collections have been remarkably resilient. Going by the dataset I am using, they haven’t actually increased, but it is a close run thing, and that is remarkable.

[Professor Sabyasachi Kar was kind enough to point out a rather elementary error on my part: what matters is nominal GDP growth rate, not the real GDP growth rate. And nominal GDP contracted by around 3%, not 7% – that does explain a lot about the change in gross tax revenue we are seeing in this blogpost. Thank you, Professor 🙂 ]


Which means, of course, that we should be taking a look at which specific line items are responsible for this increase. And even a cursory glance at the table tells us that the impressive performance is almost single-handedly due to excise taxes. They’ve gone up from a base of Rs. 240615 crores in 2019-2020 to Rs. 361000 crores in 2020-21. That’s some growth!

If you are a student of the Indian economy, you might want to read this article, an excerpt from which is below:

The interesting thing is that the excise duty earned from the petroleum sector has jumped from Rs 99,068 crore in 2014-15 to Rs 2.23 lakh crore in 2019-20. The government has become addicted to easy revenue from taxing petrol and diesel. This year its earnings will be even higher than in 2019-20.

https://vivekkaul.com/2021/02/22/why-the-price-of-petrol-is-racing-towards-rs-100-per-litre/

As a student, never take numbers you read in an article as given. Not, to be clear, because you don’t trust the author, but because you should always go to the source of the data. Here’s one potential answer:

Source: https://www.indiabudget.gov.in/receipt_budget.php

I personally want to learn more about 5.02, 5.03, 5.05, 5.07.10 and the “total” row. That’d be a great masterclass, if you ask me


The bottomline: it is a great time to be a student of the Indian economy. All of what your textbooks tell you, both in terms of theory and in terms of data, is being stress-tested in ways that really test your knowledge of the Indian economy – so long as you look hard enough, and don’t stop asking the right questions.

So please: look, and ask. 🙂

Understanding Fiscal Policy (2/3)

This post should be read as a continuation of yesterday’s post.

What are the things to keep in mind when talking about fiscal policy for India in 2021? Sajjid Chinoy mentions two, and we’ll deal with the first of these in today’s post. It is called “Recalibrating To New Realities


  1. Sajjid Chinoy first points out the fiscal deficit situation. Please, whether you are an economics student or otherwise, familiarize yourself with the budget at a glance document. My take on the fiscal deficit for the FY21-22 is that there is no way on earth we’re going to be able to stick to the budgeted 6.8%. Tax revenues will be lower, borrowing will be higher, and I’m not buying the INR 1,75,000 crores disinvestment target. I hope I am wrong!
  2. He recommends not cutting expenditures even if budgeted revenues don’t materialize, and expanding MNREGA funding – and I completely agree.
    We’re getting into the weeds a little bit, but he also speaks about cash transfers instead of MNREGA given the pandemic, and I agree there too. Effectively, he is saying that people might not choose to apply for work because of the fear of getting infected, so drop the cash for work requirement: just transfer.
  3. “Double down on achieving budgeted asset sales targets, because this will provide space for more debt-free spending.” is one of his recommendations. I agree with the message, but find myself to be (very) cynical about the likelihood of this happening. We haven’t managed to meet these targets even once, and were off by an impossibly large magnitude this year, so I don’t see this happening. Again, I hope I am wrong.
  4. I’m paraphrasing over here, but the implicit request by the author is to keep capital expenditure sacrosanct (because of the multiplier effect). The implicit bit is the corollary: if sacrifices must be made, it is in revenue expenditure. The cynic in me needs to be reined in, but I’ll say it anyway: good luck with that.1
  5. Finally, he makes a request of monetary policy, that is acts as a complement to what is written above. That is, monetary policy should not worry about inflation too much this year. It is more complicated than that, of course, but that’s a separate blogpost in it’s own right.
  1. Let me be clear, I agree! I just don’t see it happening, that’s all[]

Learn Macro by Reading the Paper

Macro, and I’ve said this before, is hard.

But a useful way to start understanding it, at least in an Indian context, is by:

  • carefully reading a well written article
  • understanding and noting for oneself key concepts within that article
  • recreating the charts from that article
    • That includes figuring out the source of the data…
    • … as well as acquiring the ability to build out these charts
  • And most important of all, creating a piece of your own (could be a YouTube video/short, a blog, an Instagram story, a Twitter thread) that helps simplify the article you’ve read.1

Now, Arvind Subramanian and Josh Felman have generously obliged us by writing a well written article. I’ll oblige you by carefully reading it and annotating it, including pointing out key concepts, sources for data and recommendations for building out the charts.

That just leaves the last point for you, dear reader. We’ll call that homework.

Now, the well written article:

For more than a decade, India’s fiscal problem has been on the back-burner, acknowledged as a concern, but excluded from the ranks of pressing issues. Now, however, the problem is back with a vengeance. COVID has upended the fiscal position, and fixing it will require considerable time and effort, even if the economy recovers. This worrisome prospect has prompted calls for the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act (FRBM) to be dusted off, reintroduced, and implemented — this time, strictly and faithfully. But before we heed them, we need to understand why the previous FRBM strategy failed and how to prevent a repeat. We argue below that the new strategy will look nothing like the current FRBM.

https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/coronanvirus-india-economy-gdp-growth-post-covid-7261915/

First things first, what is FRBM?

The Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act, 2003 (FRBMA) is an Act of the Parliament of India to institutionalize financial discipline, reduce India’s fiscal deficit, improve macroeconomic management and the overall management of the public funds by moving towards a balanced budget and strengthen fiscal prudence. The main purpose was to eliminate revenue deficit of the country (building revenue surplus thereafter) and bring down the fiscal deficit to a manageable 3% of the GDP by March 2008.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fiscal_Responsibility_and_Budget_Management_Act,_2003

Think of it as a one-person Alcoholic’s Anonymous club. It is of the government, for the government and by the government, and the idea is to wean the government off a dangerous addiction that it is hopelessly affixed to: debt.


By the way, there are many reasons this is a good essay, not the least of which is how well structured it is. The first three sentences in the very first paragraph, excerpted above, point out the problem that is going to be addressed, without using any difficult words or jargon. Then they point out the tool that will be used to address the problem. Then they point out the tool itself has problems. Finally, the explain that the essay is about fixing those problems. And then the essay follows. You might want to keep this in mind when writing your own essays (or indeed creating your own podcasts/videos etc.)


Now, back to the essay:

  1. What is general government debt? Where can I access the data?
    Note the second hyperlink above: I’ve linked to the Fred St Louis page about India’s debt, which itself gets the data from the IMF. Here is the page from the Ministry of Finance’s own website titled Public Finance Statistics. It has not been updated since September 2015. Here is a Motilal Oswal report on the subject that pegs general government debt at INR 157,227 billion. (Exhibit 1 in the report). If you read footnote 3 of that exhibit, two things happen. The first thing that happens is that you realize that tracking down general government debt might take a while. The second thing that happens is you feel a rather large twinge of sympathy for the folks who have tried to do this exercise.
    Figure 1 in the well-written article that we are analyzing in today’s post doesn’t mention a source, unfortunately. So recreating that chart will involve a rather large part of our day – but I would strongly recommend that you do the exercise. If you want to analyze Indian macroeconomic data for a living, this will be a good initiation. And indeed, a write-up about this exercise alone is a worthy addition to your CV!
  2. Second r-g: what is r, and what is g?
    1. “r” is the policy rate, which in our case will be the repo rate. This is available on the homepage of the RBI, top-left, under current rates.
    2. Time series data? Available on the DBIE page, under key rates.
    3. “g” is the nominal growth rate of the economy, and can be found at MOSPI.
    4. A useful thing to do as a student is to try and recreate the chart in the well-written article.
    5. Pts 1 and 2 here will help you get most of the data, and try and use either Microsoft Excel or Datawrapper to recreate the chart.2
  3. Next, what is primary balance?3 Where does one get that data in India?4
  4. Next, this sentence from the article: “Simple fiscal arithmetic shows that debt does not explode when the former (primary balance) is greater than the latter (interest-growth differential)”. What is this “simple fiscal arithmetic”? They’ve explained it in equations 1 and 2 in this paper.5
  5. The next three paragraphs after Figure 1 in the article point out how precarious India’s situation is when it comes to government debt, and why. It is one thing to read about the equation in a textbook, it is quite another to “run” the numbers in practice. Give it a shot, please, and see if it makes sense.
  6. Next, this paragraph from the article:
    “First, India should abandon multiple fiscal criteria for guiding fiscal policy. The current FRBM sets targets for the overall deficit, the revenue deficit and debt. This proliferation of targets impedes the objective of ensuring sustainability, since the targets can conflict with each other, creating confusion about which one to follow and thereby obfuscating accountability.”
    This paragraph is a good way to understand the importance of reading In The Service of the Republic, by Kelkar and Shah (and also to read up about the Tinbergen Rule).
  7. The next three paragraphs after that are a good way to understand what Goodhart’s Law means in practice.
  8. And finally, see if you can explain to yourself why targeting the primary balance is better than other options. Personally, I agree that it is a better target, and I agree that rather than setting down a concrete number to reach, averaging out half a percentage point worth of reduction is better. In essence, what they’re saying is that you shouldn’t try to reach x kilos of weight on a diet, but lose x% body weight every month. As our ex-captain might have put it, process over results. One of our gods advocates this too, as Navin Kabra points out.
    My reservation comes from the fact that sticking to a diet is hard, and that is true whether you’re targeting a process or a target. In other words, it is the ongoing implementation of the plan that is the challenge, not it’s design!
  9. One last point: without creating something that you are willing to put up for public consumption, and highlighting on your CV as an exercise you have done – you haven’t really learnt. Reading either that article or this blog is the easy part – explaining it somebody else is the much more difficult (and causally speaking, therefore meaningful) bit.
  10. Please, do it!
  1. Skipping this last point is missing the point altogether, rascalla![]
  2. Document your learnings as you go along.[]
  3. Read the whole article, please. It’s a good way to clear your understanding of this topic, and it is free[]
  4. The Excel link under Deficit Statistics was down when I tried to access the data. Your mileage may vary.[]
  5. Page 3[]

India: Links for 22nd July, 2019

Now that the dust has settled, and it isn’t “news” anymore, let’s take a look at the budget.

  1. Rather than reading the budget, a much better use of your time would be to read the economic survey. Still, if you insist, here’s the budget at a glance.
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  2. “Nirmala Sitharaman, India’s first full-time female finance minister, presented the first Budget of Modi government 2.0 yesterday. Unlike, other finance ministers before her, Sitharaman in her speech talked about everything but the Budget—which basically refers to the government’s expenditures on various things during this financial year, and where the earnings to finance those expenditures are likely to come from. But just because she did not discuss the numbers, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t either.”
    ..
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    Vivek Kaul explains, in a very readable article in NewsLaundry, what this particular budget is about.
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  3. Another useful article by the same author, that explains some (non)peculiarities in this year’s budget.
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  4. “Desperation is creeping into India’s economic policy-making. Having lost the fiscal plot, bureaucrats are trying to marshal resources by squeezing taxpayers, foreign investors, firms planning buybacks and even the central bank. Such overreach never ends well.”
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    Andy Mukherjee is less than impressed with this year’s budget.
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  5. “The third respect in which it differed from all previous Budgets — and not just Jaitley’s — was that macroeconomics was simply missing from her speech. As I said, the primary function of a Budget is to control government expenditure and limit it to what the representatives of the people approve. But as governments grew in size, both their Budget balance and their tax and expenditure policies had serious effects on the national economy. Parliaments are supposed to watch and control these effects. . This function was entirely forgotten by Sitharaman. She did not err. Simply, it is her experience that Parliament does not care.”
    ..
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    Ashok Desai is exasperated with the budget, plain and simple.