How to think about the budget

This Saturday, I will be a part of a panel discussion about the budget.

This is happening at a college here in Pune, and today’s blog post is an answer to the question that I have been asking myself for the past couple of days: is there anything that has been left unsaid about the budget? For if not, I speaking at that panel discussion is a waste of everybody’s time, including myself.

Here are, very briefly, the three things hat I think are most noteworthy about this budget:

  1. In much the same way that we have the removal of exemptions, but not really, not just yet, we also have an admission of the real extent of the fiscal deficit: but not really, not just yet.

    To the credit of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in this Budget, she has taken significant steps to improve transparency by presenting a statement on the vexed issue of extra-budgetary spending/borrowing (see Annex V of speech Part A and Statement 27 of the Expenditure Profile). That shows a total of about 0.85 per cent of GDP of such expenditures/borrowing in both 2019-20 RE and 2020-21 BE, excluding the footnoted reference to amounts for public sector bank capitalisation. Much of this is for financing the food subsidy through the Food Corporation of India. If added to the “shown” fiscal deficits (FD) for these years, it would raise the ratios to 4.6 and 4.4 per cent, respectively.
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  2. Revenue will be less than the government was hoping for, and as a consequence, it will not be able to spend as much as we would have hoped in an economic slowdown. We also remain dependent on disinvestments working out on a scale that has never before taken place. Read this article, by Vivek Kaul – especially the section titled “The Family Silver”. Note that this was written before the budget came out. This year’s budget is as optimistic, if not more, about income it hopes to earn through disinvestment.
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  3. We are, in the words of Shankar Acharya, lurching towards protectionism.

    For 25 years since 1991, successive Indian governments reformed our trade policies in favour of greater openness and engagement with world trade. Customs duties were greatly reduced and quantitative restrictions largely eliminated. As a result, our foreign trade — both exports and imports — expanded robustly, providing a significant boost to our economic growth and employment. Since 2017, we have reversed policy and retreated from engaging with the world economy. Our ministers and senior officials do not seem to appreciate that higher duties and restrictions on imports hurt our capacity to grow exports. No sizable, non-oil country has sustained high export growth while imposing significant duties and restrictions on imports. And no such country has sustained high overall economic growth without high export growth. We ourselves grew fastest when our exports expanded robustly (1992-97 and 2003-2012).

If you ask me, there really isn’t that much more to say about the budget, that is so noteworthy that it bears repetition and emphasis. In any case, I’d much rather think about the Economic Survey to reflect on that state of the economy, and what needs to be done about it. The budget, Andy Mukherjee says (and I agree), isn’t all that important.

But this past week, I read about Clayton Christensen and Andy Grove. Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, and one of the most respected thinkers on strategy, passed away recently. I had been reading essays and blog posts written in his honor, and came across an essay written by Clayton Christensen himself about the distinction between the “what” and the “how”.

I’ve thought about that a million times since. If I had been suckered into telling Andy Grove what he should think about the microprocessor business, I’d have been killed. But instead of telling him what to think, I taught him how to think—and then he reached what I felt was the correct decision on his own.

The essay is much more than that, and you might want to read it. But that part truly resonated with me: the how over the what.

Now, you might be wondering about what this has to do with the talk on Saturday – or indeed about anything at all.

Well, reading this post by T N Ninan in the Business Standard is what brought the anecdote above to mind:

So it might be a good idea for the next Economic Survey to deal with not just the many “What” and “Why” questions in economics, but also the “How”. There is no other way to understand how the impossible becomes possible — as more than a campaign slogan. India struggles with budgets and procedures, and still has a major corruption problem that can send a project off the rails. China has corruption, for sure, but no other economy with a per capita income of $10,000 is able to grow at 6 per cent, or anywhere near that rate.

Of all the articles I have read about the budget and the economic survey (and there have been a fair few of them) this was the one that resonated the most. Maybe because I just finished reading (and thoroughly enjoyed) In The Service of The Republic, or maybe because of other reasons. But all of those other articles are, using Ninan’s framework, about the “what”. This needs to be done, that needs to be done, if only we had this, that or the other.

And all of those things are true, to be sure. We would be better if all of those many, many things were around. But a la Grove: how, dammit?

Here is Ninan’s solution:

“Is there a solution? Yes, railway engineers of old like the metro builder E Sreedharan, builders of government companies like D V Kapur and V Krishnamurthy, and agricultural scientists like M S Swaminathan have shown how they made a difference when given a free hand. Vineet Nayyar as head of Gas Authority of India was able to build a massive gas pipeline within cost and deadline in the 1980s. The officers who are in charge of Swachh Bharat and Ayushman Bharat, and the one who has cleaned up Indore, are others who, while they may not match China’s speed, can deliver. Perhaps all we have to do is to spot more like them and give them a free hand.”

But as any experienced HR professional will tell you, spotting them is very difficult, even in the corporate world. And as any corporate CEO will tell you, giving these talented folks a free hand is even more difficult. And as any student of government bureaucracy will tell you, achieving the intersection set of these two things in a governmental setup is all but impossible.

And so what we need to study and copy from China is not so much anything else, but lessons in achieving, and sustaining, excellence in government bureaucracy. Or, if you prefer, how to improve state capacity.

In short, quality of government, not size of government, is what matters for freedom and prosperity.

Because we could analyze the budget and its numbers all we like, but without the Grovesian “how”, the “what” is essentially theory without practice.

For just one extremely effective example of the “how”, see this.

So how did China get so very lucky?

Indeed, we may now be living at the peak of the influence of the so-called Class of 1977. A September press conference ahead of the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China gathered together three of China’s top economic technocrats: central bank governor Yi Gang, Finance minister Liu Kun, and National Bureau of Statistics director Ning Jizhe. In an unusually personal moment for such an event, they mentioned that all three of them had taken the college entrance exams in 1977.

That is from Andrew Batson’s blog post titled “A Very Fine Reallocation of Resources“. An opportunity for some of her best and brightest to learn, and therefore apply meaningful change to their society, is one important factor in China’s rise. Du Runsheng, whose write-up I linked to above,  is just one example. There are many, many more.

More important than the budget is the Economic Survey, and I think T N Ninan is right, the next Economic Survey ought to focus on the how, not so much the what.

All that being said, here is a list of articles I enjoyed reading about the Union Budget:

Lessons from 1966 and 1991 for this year’s budget.

Contrary to the received wisdom that she should take steps to increase demand, I think she should do what was done in 1966 for exactly the same reasons: being broke. No fiscal boosters to artificially increase demand.

That said she should also do what the 1991 budget did: free businesses from random, illogical and counter-productive controls.

In short, we need a sensible combination of the1966 and 1991 approaches, namely, deep fiscal prudence (1966) and a withdrawal from the economic stage (1991).

Spend less and increase non-tax revenue significantly – and that’s pretty much the best way to judge if this is a good budget or not, says T C A Srinivasa Raghavan.

Surjit Bhalla’s summary of the good, the bad and the ugly in this year’s budget. I am slightly confused about exactly what his idea of the “good” was. For me, personally, it is the government being clearer about it’s actual expenditure.

Vivek Kaul provides an excellent summary in four parts over on NewsLaundry.

Deepak Nayyar is less than impressed with the budget.

Rathin Roy remains worried about the artihmetic.

 

India: Links for 15th July, 2019

Five articles that help you understand different aspects of water in India.

  1. “Asia’s water resources are largely transnational, making inter-country cooperation and collaboration essential. Yet the vast majority of the 57 transnational river basins in continental Asia have no water-sharing arrangement or any other cooperative mechanism. This troubling reality has to be seen in the context of the strained political relations in several Asian sub-regions.”
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    First, the big picture. This article helps you understand India’s issues with water from a transnational, Asian perspective. The author of this book, by the way, has written an entire book about water and how it might (in his view, probably will) lead to conflict in the region. You might think, by the way, that the article isn’t about India – oh, but it is.
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  2. “The much-awaited train transporting water from Vellore to Chennai was flagged off on Friday morning from Jolarpet station. The water, transported in 50 bogie wagons, is expected to reach the city at around 2 p.m.A senior official of the Southern Railway said the water wagon would by arriving at Villivakkam where State Ministers would be present to receive the train.”
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    Reading this article prompted me to compile today’s list. There really isn’t that much more to say!
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  3. “So-called virtual water exports – the molecules of H20 embedded in exported goods, alongside those rendered unusable by the production of those goods – amount to a net 95.4 billion cubic meters a year, according to data collected by the Water Footprint Network, a group that encourages thriftier usage. This makes India a bigger exporter of water than far better-endowed countries such as Brazil, Russia, the U.S. and Canada, and represents nearly four times the 25 billion cubic meters consumed by India’s households and industrial enterprises.”
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    Not pricing water, as Nitin Pai spoke about in last week’s collection, is a really, really bad idea. This article explains some of the implications. Incentives matter!
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  4. “Based on estimates from the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation in 2017, provision of piped drinking water for all households required close to Rs. 500,000 crores. Even if states are expected to put in around half of what is required, the per annum allocation requirement for a 4-year period will be over 60,000 crores, to cover hardware, human resources, water quality infrastructure, operations and maintenance costs, citizen’s engagement, and special arrangements for quality affected as well as other marginalised populations, according to Raman.”
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    So what is the government planning on doing about this?
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  5. “RWH can be done in homes, apartments, societies, schools, institutions, commercial premises and any other space as long as there is a catchment area in the form of a roof or open space to capture the rain.Domestic rainwater harvesting is a relatively simpler affair, where even a rain barrel can serve as a storage unit for rooftop RWH. Individual homes have successfully implemented this easy and eco-friendly method of augmenting household-level water availability. Farmers also have implemented RWH to transform a barren piece of land into a self sustainable, lush green farm.”
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    OK… so what can I, as an indivdual do about it?

India: Links for 8th July, 2019

  1. “The stark fact is that, by and large, there are few incentives for people to save water. There are few incentives for urban water utilities — who might lose 40 per cent of the water along the way— to become more efficient. There are few incentives for public investment in water supply. Needless to say, other than at the premium segment and in the unregulated tanker racket, no private investor will get anywhere close to the water supply business. That incentive is called price.”
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    Nitin Pai on one of the most important factors behind solving the water crisis: incentives.
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  2. “I would not be surprised if estate tax is reintroduced. The richest 10% of Indians own 77.4% of the country’s wealth. The bottom 60%, which is the majority of the population, owns 4.7%. The richest 1% own 51.5%. There is a huge gap between the rich and the poor, and estate tax can bring equality in distribution of income and wealth. This could be a significant step in that direction. Aside from the economic agenda, the reintroduction can be also politically guided.”
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    This post is being compiled on Friday, the 5th of July, 2019. The budget will say what it has to, and the estate tax may or may not come about. But this paragraph in particular, has much to unpack within it, as a student of economics. Best get a cup of coffee, sit with friends, and debate this piece threadbare.
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  3. ““I have no Homeland,” BR Ambedkar said to Mahatma Gandhi at their first meeting in 1931, “No self-respecting Untouchable worth the name will be proud of this land. The injustice and sufferings inflicted upon us are so enormous that if knowingly or unknowingly we fall prey to disloyalty to this country, the responsibility for that act would be solely hers.”Images of Ambedkar and Gandhi feature in Anubhav Sinha’s powerful film Article 15 – as in a scene where portraits of the two icons flank the desk of IPS officer Ayan (Ayushmann Khurrana), who is investigating caste murders in a small town.”
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    I have not yet seen this movie yet (although I certainly hope to. But that being said, I enjoyed reading this review, as do I enjoy reading practically anything written by Jai Arjun Singh. Scroll through to the bottom of the post for links to other reviews he’s done about movies related to caste in India.
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  4. “The irony, of course, is that not only that historian from a hundred years ago, but many even today, remain reluctant to embrace this aspect of our heritage and tradition. The colonizing of Indian minds in the colonial era by Victorian sensibilities was severe, added to which is generations of patriarchy—it will take time and patience before change comes to how history is imagined. Clubbing a courtesan with a mahatma may not immediately be understood or approved of by some. But that is precisely where the courtesan belongs, for, in the larger scheme of things and the big picture of our civilization, her role is no less significant than that galaxy of saints and monks we have all been taught to venerate.”
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    One, read this piece. Two, listen to this podcast. Three, buy this book. Each action will yield handsome returns.
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  5. “In 1962, India’s per capita GDP (in 2010 constant dollars) was almost twice that of China. India’s renewable internal freshwater resources per capita (henceforth per capita water), measured in cubic metres, was 75% of what it was for China in 1962. By 2014, the latest period for which water statistics are available, India’s per capita water had become 54% of what it was for China, even as China’s 2014 per capita GDP became 3.7 times that of India.”
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    We started with water in India, and let’s finish with water in India. An editorial from the Hindustan Times about water and how it has been (mis)managed in our country.

Links for 13th February, 2019

  1. “The trick in a busy trauma bay is to look at a patient, decide whether he or she is dying in front of you. The way you make that decision is basically trauma poker: You’re looking for the tells that their body, the remarkable machine of the human body, is compensating to keep them alive, or refusing: heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, the color of the skin. The body, if you listen, will tell you what’s going on.”
    A harrowing read on life as a trauma surgeon in Chicago. Lessons on opportunity cost, development, conflict, retaliation, game theory and much more. Great read.
  2. “Bundled pricing is one reason why subscription models like Spotify should ultimately win out over à la carte models like iTunes. Subscription commerce can also be thought of as a form of bundling.”
    Or put another way, in the age of the internet, why does Netflix exist? There are many textbooks that do a better job of explaining this, but for a good primer on bundling, this is a good place to start. Note that this was written in 2012!
  3. “Mature fiscal systems create checks-and-balances which reduce the extent to which debt or off-balance-sheet liabilities can surge. Perhaps less developed countries have weak institutions, and then the political leadership sees a different optimisation. Short bursts of GDP growth can then be achieved in many bad ways, such as a surge in debt, piling up off-balance-sheet liabilities, etc. But this is not sustained growth: We get a spurt of high growth, and then things go wrong.”
    What do I think of this year’s budget? is a question I often get in classes – every year. This blog post is a good way to think about budgets – every year, and irrespective of who is in power.
  4. “The data means that the five warmest years in recorded history have been the last five, and that 18 of the 19 warmest years have occurred since 2001.”
    I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, and I’ll reiterate it repeatedly. We do not worry anywhere near enough about climate change.
  5. “What is more interesting, though, is the story of Windows’ decline in Redmond, culminating with last week’s reorganization that, for the first time since 1980, left the company without a division devoted to personal computer operating systems (Windows was split, with the core engineering group placed under Azure, and the rest of the organization effectively under Office 365; there will still be Windows releases, but it is no longer a standalone business).”
    Ben Thompson on something that I while growing up would have considered absolutely impossible – the end of Windows.

Links for 5th February, 2019

  1. “If there is one number that can make the edifice of budgetary arithmetic collapse and impair the growth prospects, it is the movement of crude oil prices. If for nothing else, but simply reduce the vulnerability of the fisc, this should be done. For, it is the “resource deficit” of the country which is the single biggest threat to sustained growth of 9%”
    How might a new age budget look like? Haseeb Drabu takes a look at the ways – five of them. You’ll be reading this by the time the budget has come out, of course, but it still makes sense to read this in order to think about how the budget needs to be structured.
  2. “The 0.9 per cent year-on-year (YoY) growth in the adjusted net profit of 385 companies, which have released their results for the third quarter (Q3) of the current financial year so far, does not inspire much confidence. If financials and energy companies are removed from the sample, net profit has grown 6.4 per cent in Q3 — the worst performance in five quarters.”
    I’d recommend that you read this article to either get a sense of how to judge the macroeconomic environment (partially!) on the basis of stock market performance, or even better, if you are new to finance, read this with an Investopedia tab open alongside.
  3. “Passenger vehicle sales in China fell for the first time last year since the early 1990s due to a cut to government tax breaks and wider economic sluggishness. Hyundai, which was once the third-largest automaker in China together with Kia, is now sorting out overcapacity as its sales in China have not picked up much since being hit by the anti-Korean consumer backlash in 2017.”
    The FT provides additional information on the slowdown in China – and the link on the anti-Korean backlash is also worth reading.
  4. “From the start of 2012 to the end of 2016, China produced nearly three times as much cement as the US did in the entire 20th century.Much of that investment has gone to waste. A recent study by China’s Southwestern University of Finance and Economics estimates that more than one in five Chinese homes in urban areas, or about 65m apartments, are empty. And if demography is destiny, China’s prospects are bleak. Between 1980 and 2012, China added about 380m people to its working-age population. But that number has been shrinking for the past five years and is expected to fall by a third, or about 220m people, in the next three decades.”
    More grist to the China recession mill, from the FT. The numbers are truly breathtaking – especially that quote about cement!
  5. “China’s fertility rate has officially fallen to 1.6 children per woman, but even that number is disputed. Yi Fuxian, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has written that China’s government has obscured the actual fertility rate to disguise the disastrous ramifications of the “one child” policy. According to his calculations, the fertility rate averaged 1.18 between 2010 and 2018.”
    The NYT picks up from where the FT left off, and tells us about the impending population crisis in China – that there may soon be too few  people in China, not too many.