Econ101: Policy Responses to a Pandemic

If you haven’t played it already, go ahead and give this game a try: The Fed Chairman Game. I have a lot of fun playing this game in class, especially with students who have been taught monetary policy. It usually turns out to be the case that they haven’t understood it quite as well as they think the have! (To be clear, that’s the fault of our educational system, not the students.)

But the reason I started with that is because the game always throws up a scenario that mimics a crisis, and asks you what you would do if you were the Chair of the Fed.

In this case, policymakers the world over are now staring at a very real crisis, and they need to be asking themselves: what should we do?


 

There are two broad answers, of course: monetary policy, and fiscal policy.

The Federal Reserve has cut interest rates to zero, and while it has other tools to stimulate the economy, a crisis like this requires fiscal as well as monetary responses. The legislation passed thus far has been important, but another round of fiscal policy will be required immediately to fully address this crisis.

A robust fiscal response can provide income support to households, ensure broad and continuous access to safety net programs, provide incentives for employers to avoid layoffs, provide loans to small businesses, give liquidity cushions to households and firms, and otherwise stimulate the economy.

That’s a write-up from Brookings. The specifics follow in that article, but the article makes the point that more of the lifting will need to  be done by fiscal, rather than monetary policy. And that is true for a variety of reasons,  which the article does not get into, but long story short – fiscal, more than monetary.

But, ok, fiscal policy of what kind? Should we give money to firms or to workers? Here’s Paul Krugman with his take…

And here’s Alex Tabarrok with his response:

So what’s the correct answer? Well, as we’ve learnt before, and will learn again, macro is hard! In an ideal world, all of the above, but as is manifestly clear, we are not in an ideal world. If we must choose between giving money to firms or to people, to whom should we give it? My opinion? People first, businesses second. This is, of course, a US centric discussion, what’s up with India?


 

Here’s, to begin with, a round-up from around the world – you can search within it for India’s response thus far.

Calls are getting louder for governments to support people and businesses until the new coronavirus is contained. The only questions are how much money to shovel into the economy, how to go about doing it, and whether it will be enough.

Already, officials from Paris to Washington DC are pulling out the playbook used in Asia for slowing the spread of Covid-19: they’re restricting travel and cracking down on public gatherings. While those measures have the potential to reduce deaths and infections, they will also damage business prospects for many companies and cause a synchronized worldwide disruption.

Here’s the FT from two weeks ago about the impending slow down:

Venu Srinivasan, whose company TVS is one of India’s largest makers of motorcycles and scooters, said the business had lost about 10 per cent of production in February owing to a lack of Chinese-made parts for the vehicles’ fuel injection system. He added that TVS has now managed to find a new supplier.

But Mr Srinivasan said he was bracing for India’s recovery to take longer than anticipated. “One would have expected a V-shaped recovery, but instead you have an L shaped recovery,” he said. “It’s been the long haul.”

R Jagannathan in the LiveMint suggests this:

This is how it could be designed. Any unemployed urban youth in the 20-30 age group could be promised 100 days of employment and/or skilling options paid for by the government at a fixed daily rate of ₹300 (or thereabouts, depending on city). At an outlay of ₹30,000 per person annually, the unemployed can be put to work in municipal conservancy services, healthcare support, traffic management, and other duties, with the money also being made available for any skill-acquiring activity chosen by the beneficiary (driver training for Ola-Uber, logistics operations, etc). All companies could be given an opportunity to use the provisions of the Apprentices Act to take on more trainees, with the apprenticeship period subsidized to the limit of ₹30,000 per person in 2020-21. If the pilot works, it could be rolled out as a regular annual scheme for jobs and skills. Skilling works best in an actual jobs environment.

 

He also mentions making the GST simpler, which the Business Standard agrees with:

Certainly, the rationalisation of GST will also affect government revenues. However, a simpler and more transparent system would allow greater collection and reduce evasion. The government will receive a windfall this year from lower crude oil prices. The moment to move on the structural reform agenda is now. The GST Council has done well to address the inverted duty structure in mobile phones. Further rationalisation will give confidence to the market that the government is serious about reforms. It was promised that GST would remain a work in progress, and that the GST Council would act often to improve it. So far, however, the changes have been marginal and haphazard. A more structured and rational approach, which outlines a quick path to a single rate, would pay dividends for the economy in the longer run. It would also be an effective way to manage the immediate effects of a supply shock such as is being caused by the pandemic.

Also from the Business Standard, a report on the government now considering (not happened yet) relaxing bad loan classification rules for sectors hit by the corona virus. That’s pretty soon going to be every sector!


 

Assorted Links about the topic – there’s more to read than usual, please note.

Here is Tyler Cowen on mitigating the economic impacts from the coronavirus crisis.

Here’s Bill Dupor, via MR, about the topic:

First, incentivize behavior to align with recognized public health objectives during the outbreak.

Second, avoid concentrating the individual financial burden of the outbreak or the policy response to the outbreak.

Third, implement these fiscal policies as quickly as possible, subject to some efficiency considerations.

Again, via MR, New Zealand’s macro response.

Arnold Kling is running a series on the macro response to the crisis.

Claudia Sahm proposes direct payment to individuals:

This chapter proposes a direct payment to individuals that would
automatically be paid out early in a recession and then continue annually
when the recession is severe. Research shows that stimulus payments that
were broadly disbursed on an ad hoc (or discretionary) basis in the 2001 and
2008–9 recessions raised consumer spending and helped counteract weak
demand. Making the payments automatic by tying their disbursement to
recent changes in the unemployment rate would ensure that the stimulus
reaches the economy as quickly as possible. A rapid, vigorous response to
the next recession in the form of direct payments to individuals would help
limit employment losses and the economic damage from the recession.

Here are the concrete proposals, the entire paper is worth a read:

Automatic lump-sum stimulus payments would be made to individuals
when the three-month average national unemployment rate rises by
at least 0.50 percentage points relative to its low in the previous 12
months.
• The total amount of stimulus payments in the first year is set to
0.7 percent of GDP.
• After the first year, any second (or subsequent) year payments would
depend on the path of the unemployment rate.

 

Macroeconomics IS HARD!

Economics in the times of COVID-19, there is already a book. I learnt about it from Tim Taylor’s blogpost. I have not read the book, but will soon.

The NYT, two weeks ago, on the scale of the problem facing policymakers.

 

The Return of Protectionism, Writing Better Papers, 100 True Fans, Corona Virus and Classics on the Kindle

Five articles that I enjoyed reading this week, and figure you might as well.

 

Vivek Dehejia raises an uncomfortable question: are we more protectionist now than at any point of time since 1991, and examines some of the possible impacts.

Even the most well-inclined observers can no longer palm-off previous tariff increases by the current government as mere one-offs or aberrations. It is abundantly clear now, unfortunately, that the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in its second innings even more than the first, has abandoned an almost three-decade commitment to trade liberalization, going back to the initial liberalization impetus of 1991. Notably, even governments that did not further liberalize, at the very least refrained from sliding back into protectionism. No more, though—we are now witnessing a more or less explicit embrace of import substitution, which had been thought abandoned in 1991 and beyond.

Useful advice for writing academic papers on development better. Even if you don’t write these yourself, this article might have useful advice about selecting which ones to read.

You win or lose your readers with the introduction of your economics paper. Your title and your abstract should convince people to read your introduction. Research shows that economics papers with more readable introductions get cited more. The introduction is your opportunity to lay out your research question, your empirical strategy, your findings, and why it matters. Succinctly.

Some years ago, Kevin Kelly wrote an article called 1,000 true fans (he does a lot else besides, by the way, and learning more about him is worth your time). Li Jin has written a follow-up piece that I hope rings true in the years to come.

Today, that idea is as salient as ever—but I propose taking it a step further. As the Passion Economy grows, more people are monetizing what they love. The global adoption of social platforms like Facebook and YouTube, the mainstreaming of the influencer model, and the rise of new creator tools has shifted the threshold for success. I believe that creators need to amass only 100 True Fans—not 1,000—paying them $1,000 a year, not $100. Today, creators can effectively make more money off fewer fans.

I have so far resisted linking to or speaking about the Corona virus, primarily because I don’t know enough about the topic to speak responsibly about it. That, I’m sorry to say, hasn’t changed, but reading this article was helpful for me, and hopefully is for you as well!

The next two months will be critical, and it is important for all of us to do everything in our power to minimize viral spread. The simple stuff includes washing hands more frequently, greeting others without handshakes, getting a flu shot (if you haven’t already), and cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects. All of these actions are recommended by the CDC. Hopefully, through behavioral changes such as these, we will be able to keep R0 below 1 and prevent this virus from becoming a pandemic.

A random question asked in class this week spurred this search, and maybe you find this list useful yourself? I certainly did! Free classic literature on Kindle.

On India’s Constitution, Part II

I fear I have taken on more than I can handle, by starting the process of teaching myself more about India’s Constitution.

I started in the previous month with what I thought would be a rather more simple question: how did the constitution start off? What were its founding principles, its aims, its intentions? Why were these the principles, aims and intentions?

Well, if this is indeed a rather more simple question, I fear many more Mondays in the months years to come will be devoted to the entire task I have set myself: to learn more about India’s constitution.

But hey, the one thing we have is time!

So allow me to indulge myself, and devote one more Monday to the topic we covered in January 2020: understand better the founding of the Indian constitution, before moving on to other topics related to it.

I’d recommend you begin by watching this video of a speech given by Rohinton Nariman in the year 2013. It is nearly fifty minutes long, but all of those fifty minutes are worth your time. In my case, I ended up watching it twice, and if only I had time, I would watch it again. It raises many, many questions that make me want to learn more – and that is a good thing.

Here are just five things that I wanted to learn more about:

  1. B.N. Rau and the travels that he undertook before writing the Constitution,
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  2. The city of Danzig and the freedom of movement
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  3. The (to me, frankly amazing) right to property and its understanding and implementation in an Indian context
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  4. Dr. Ambedkar’s opinion about having no axe to grind as a member of the constituent assembly. It is a great way to start thinking about public choice theory, if you ask me
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  5. And how difficult the United States of America and even more so, Australia, have made the process for amending the constitution.

And believe me, I have cherry picked these five, more or less at random. There’s so much more to think about!

Second, in the post I wrote in January, I spoke about wishing I could learn more about how the constituent assembly was formed. Reading this article helped me understand that the people who wrote the constitution (the members of the constituent assembly) also were the people who ratified it!

An even more important point to note is that the Constituent Assembly was deeply involved in the drafting the Constitution itself. It met over 11 sessions and 166 days between 1947 and 1950 to discuss the Constitution. In contrast, in the US, there was a very clear separation between the drafting of the Constitution (done by the Philadelphia convention – a central body with representation from each state), and the state-level ratification conventions, which voted on it later.

This separation meant that the ratifiers did not have their hands dirty in the document, with the exception of a small minority of members who were a common presence in both conventions. They had no emotional stake in the Constitution draft and could vote on it independently. It was up to the drafters of the Constitution to convince them of this document. This is what necessitated the “Federalist Papers” – a remarkable exercise in marketing the newly proposed law of the land.

No such marketing was required in India, given that the ratifiers were the drafters too.

Useful more for trivia buffs (and I enthusiastically plead guilty to the charge) than perhaps for the topic at hand, but an informative read nonetheless is this rather long article in Scroll. On the history of constitutionalism in India:

Knowing only too well that Englishmen only counted as knowledge what Englishmen declared to be so, when Rao wrote to Napier in March 1872 to decline the seat on the Viceregal Council, he appended the relevant sections from Bowring’s Eastern Experiences, adding that nothing could be more interesting than participating in the development of “something like a constitution” wherein “a Native Administration” might be brought under “a system of fundamental principles, derived from the advanced political wisdom of Europe” albeit “carefully adapted to the conditions of the Native society”.

I am somewhat ashamed to note that it took my reading of this article to know what I should have been aware of in any case, given that I teach at the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics:

The most vocal was Rao’s sometime protégé and collaborator, Mahadev Ranade, whose essay, “A Constitution for Native States”, which was published in the Quarterly Journal of the Poona Sarvajanik Sabha, generated much debate and discussion. It eventually prompted a series of remarkable works detailing indigenous forms of constitutionalism.

The most prominent of these works was Kashinath Telang and Ranade’s Rise of the Maratha Power, which carefully explained how much Shivaji’s success owed to the ‘constitutional’ nature of his rule (and concomitantly, how much Maratha decline owed to Shivaji’s descendants departing from such constitutional rule).

And finally, two book recommendations, with the caveat that I myself have as yet not read either. They’re both by the same author, who is currently coordinating with the Hindustan Times to publish a series on the same topic that I am writing about on these pages:

The two books are India’s Founding Moment, and  The Indian Constitution (Oxford India Short Introductions Series). As I said, I haven’t read them myself, but did purchase them today. Why then do I recommend them? Well, one, the relevance to the topic is obvious, but also, this article from Livemint a long time ago really helped.

 

The Constitution is inevitably shaped by and shapes politics. How it does so is a question far too ambitious for my book. But something I do try to gently do, wherever I could, is suggest how certain legal decisions were shaped by the political circumstances as well as how our overemphasis on politics has prevented us from appreciating the legal significance of particular aspects of our Constitutional law.

The good news, for me, is that I get a month to try and read these two books before I tackle the subject of the Indian Constitution once again.

Once again, a tip of the hat by way of thanks to Murali Neelakantan for helpful recommendations, and a request to my readers to help out along similar lines.

Kindle, Vancouver, Onions, Government Size and Quizzing

Five articles that I enjoyed reading this week, with a couple of sentences on why I think you might benefit from reading them.

The extent to which Amazon, via the Kindle, tracks your reading habits. Most of this article did not come as a surprise to me, and of course the Kindle and the books on it are as cheap as they are precisely because Amazon makes money by tracking precisely what this article says they do. Personally, I am OK with that – but you might want to read this before you make your own decision.

Could Amazon’s monopoly over the publishing industry change the nature of books themselves? As a result of the economic pressures of the streaming industry, the length of the average song on the Billboard Hot 100 fell from 3 minutes and 50 seconds to 3 minutes and 30 seconds between 2013 and 2018. Will books be the next art form to be altered? Greer said it is possible.

“Never underestimate the power, or willingness, of tech companies to do almost anything to make a little extra money – including shifting the entire way we make music or read and write books,” she said. “They are perfectly willing for art to be collateral damage in their pursuit of profit.”

The equilibrium is being solved for in Vancouver, by observing the lack of an equilibrium in other cities. On Uber, Lyft, British Columbia, and the last mover advantage:

“A decade after Uber got its start, and eight years after Lyft changed the ride-hail model by allowing anyone to use their everyday car to pick up passengers, British Columbia thinks it has nailed how to regulate these companies, which have often slipped into the gray areas between transportation and labor laws. Call it the last mover advantage. Government officials in the province have spent years studying how other places dealt with an influx of ride-hail vehicles—and the sometimes unfortunate effects they had on local transportation systems.”

Vivek Kaul explains one application of the law of unintended consequences in this article in the Livemint, about onions.

When prices of an essential commodity, like onions, go up, state governments can impose stockholding limits. This leads to a situation where wholesalers, distributors and retailers dealing in the essential commodity need to reduce the inventory that they hold in order to meet the requirements of a reduced stock limit. The idea is to curb hoarding, maintain an adequate supply of the essential commodity and, thus, maintain affordable prices. This is where the law of unintended consequences strikes. Instead of ensuring prices of the essential commodity remain affordable, ECA makes it expensive.

Small governments aren’t necessarily great governments, but large governments don’t always do well either. But if you must choose when it comes to government, size does too matter! Via Marginal Revolution.

The plots do not support the hypothesis that small government produces either greater prosperity or greater freedom. (In reading the charts, remember that the SGOV index is constructed so that 0 indicates the largest government and 10 the smallest government.) Instead, smaller government tends to be associated with less prosperity and less freedom. Both relationships are statistically significant, with correlations of 0.43 for prosperity and 0.35 for freedom.

Samanth Subramanian on the joy of quizzing.

To attend these contests, quizzers rearrange the furniture of their lives, budgeting their time away from their families, or ensuring that they don’t travel overseas for work during a quiz weekend. I know one quizzer who switched jobs because his city’s quiz scene wasn’t active enough; I know another who scheduled his wedding to avoid a clash with a quiz. Once, while we were waiting around for a popular annual quiz to begin, a friend remarked that his wife was heavily pregnant; he hoped she wouldn’t go into labour over the next few hours. That would be unfortunate, we agreed.
“No, you don’t understand,” he said. “If my daughter’s born today, that means she’ll have a birthday party on this date every year. Which means I can never come to this quiz again.”

India and her cities

In the previous week, Livemint published an excellent article, titled “Why India has the fastest-growing cities“. Today’s post is a rumination on that article, and associated thoughts.

Urbanization, I unequivocally hold, is an good thing. This belief has come about as a consequence of learning development economics over many years. It has also come about because I have had the opportunity to read many great books about the topic, of which I think Ed Glaeser’s ‘The Triumph of the City‘ is by far the best one.

The reason I like that book so much is because it is an unapologetic paean to urbanization. It not just defends urbanization, it actively reveres it. And there is something to be said for that argument. Cities, when designed well, are worth revering! Watch this lovely TED talk by Jeff Speck, for example. The talk is ostensibly about how to make cities more walkable, but it covers a lot more ground than just that.

Here’s the most important reason, I think, that cities ought to be revered. It is because of their most important feature, and their most appropriate definition: they are labor markets, first and foremost.

What are cities?

Cities are simply a lot of people packed into a relatively tight space, most whom happen to be open to new job opportunities. That’s a paraphrased definition, and it is certainly not mine. The best way to truly understand what this means in practice is to read a lovely (but by Indian standards, prohibitively expensive) book by Alain Bertaud, called Order Without Design.

As I said, the book is expensive, but I can recommend three freely available online resources that you might want to read, listen and watch instead.

When I quit my job in the analytics industry in 2009, it was because I wanted to switch over to academia. Switching over to academia meant that I had to come to Pune. Now, Pune is my hometown, and I love it to bits, but the reason I had to come to Pune is because there were many more jobs in academia in this city than any other city in India.

Conversely, if you are looking to set up a college, a student exchange program or a university, Pune is the best place to do so, precisely because of the paragraph that precedes this one.

That’s what Alain Bertaud means when he says this:

“Sometimes when I read the papers of my fellow urban planners, I get the sense that they think cities are Disneyland or Club Med. Cities are labor markets. People go to cities to find a good job. Firms move to cities, which are expensive, because they are more likely to find the staff and specialists that they need. If a city’s attractive, that’s a bonus. But basically, they come to get a job.”

“All the jobs are in the cities” is a phrase that you will hear often enough in India, but reading Alain Bertaud’s book helps you understand that the statement is actually tautological.

But, if you think about it, and to the extent that you agree with what is written above, we’re committing a moral crime by not glorifying urbanization. Strong words? Maybe. But, I would argue, true words as well.

Urbanization in India

But then how come urbanization in India is only 31%? If all the jobs are in the cities, and people in India are crying out for jobs, why aren’t they all moving to India’s cities?

There are three responses to that.

First: we make it difficult, expensive and to begin with, potentially unremunerative for people to migrate to India’s cities. Difficult because of a whole host of laws and regulations that hamper and hinder the development of efficient urban labor markets. Expensive because of poor urban planning which means housing and transport are not cheap for first generation immigrants into India’s cities. And potentially unremunerative because a lot of our welfare schemes require their targeted beneficiaries to be citizens of rural, rather than urban India.

Second, they are too moving away from villages! Hop into an Uber in your city, and take the time out to speak to your driver. More likely than not, your driver is likely to have the following characteristics. He will be a he, he will have a parcel of land back home in his native village, and he’ll have come to the city in search of a job. That he is a he is an indictment of our culture and our labor market. That he has a parcel of land back home is an indictment of our lack of reforms when it comes to land. And the fact that he is working as an Uber driver (services) rather than in a factory (manufacturing) is an indictment of our lack of reforms when it comes to labor and land market laws. But, to loop back to the start of this paragraph, people are certainly leaving India’s villages.

Third, in spite of it being difficult, expensive and potentially unremunerative, they are migrating, but to areas just outside our country’s cities. And therein lies a trifecta of tragedies: of policy design, of incorrect measurement and therefore of a poor urban experience.

The Livemint article…

 

… has been written by three people: Kadambari Shah, Vaidehi Tandel and Harshita Agarwal. All three of them work at the excellent IDFC Institute, located in Mumbai. One reason I use the word excellent that is relevant to today’s blog post is the fact they produced a very interesting report, a somewhat abridged version of which is this article, that came out in Livemint a while ago.

In that article, they gave us India’s original definition of urbanization, as it was defined in the year 1961.

“India’s three-tiered census definition of ‘urban’—at least 5,000 inhabitants, density of 400 people per sq. km or more, and at least 75% of male working population engaged in non-farm activities—was first framed in 1961 by then census commissioner Asok Mitra.”

By this three-tier definition of urbanization, we’re at 31%. That is, roughly one-third of our population is urbanized, and the remaining is not.

But does that mean that the remaining is rural (and somehow agrarian)?

No!

Because of what we discussed above, in the section “Urbanization in India”, folks migrate out of villages, but not to India’s cities. They migrate to areas just outside of India’s cities: the so-called satellite towns.

So what’s the big deal?

Well, if you stay out of the local municipal corporation’s limit, it is not obligated to provide you the following services: “town planning, slum improvement, public amenities including street lighting, parking lots, bus stops, solid waste management, building regulations and fire services.”

Sure, of course not, you might think. It won’t be, for example, the Pune Municipal Corporation’s job, but that of the satellite town’s corporation. Ah, but because it is a town (a census town, to use the government’s definition), it will not be covered under the definition of an Urban Local Body (ULB). It will, instead, be a Regional Local Body (RLB).

And the RLB doesn’t need to provide (you might say cannot provide, given financial and other capacity constraints) the services mentioned above.

So What?

So:

  • Urbanization is good, even great
  • We don’t have enough of it in India
    • Because we make it difficult for people to move
    • When they do move, we make it difficult for them to find jobs
    • They still move, but we don’t measure the movement well enough
  • We don’t measure it accurately enough because our approach to the measurement is wrong, and woefully out of date
  • As a consequence, when (and if at all) folks attempt to urbanize, they don’t get the kind of urban amenities that they so desperately need.
  • All of this is assuming, of course, that urban amenities are provided, and ably so, by municipal corporations – but a blog post should only be so long, hey?

On the first Monday of March, we’ll come back to the topic of urbanization and India once again.

 

 

 

 

Corporate panchayats, feni, finance and fiscal deficits

Five articles that I enjoyed reading this week, and figured you might as well.

  1. “Nearly 80% of the village’s estimated 36,000 residents enrolled as members in the movement, which, at that point, was a non-governmental entity. They were all given an electronic card based on economic status. Several benefits, from free medical treatment to discounted groceries, were delivered based on this categorization, undertaken solely based on the company’s internal surveys.In 2015, probably for the first time, a corporate house directly entered the electoral arena in India. It was Kitex. Despite a unified opposition, Twenty20’s candidates won 17 of the 19 gram panchayat seats, cornering over 70% of the polled votes.”
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    A corporate panchayat in Kerla. This was fascinating on so many levels!
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  2. “Vaz begins the tour with an introduction to feni and its history. Considered Goa’s greatest spirit, this colourless clear liquid is said to date back centuries; some believe coconut feni predates the Portuguese capture of Goa. A potent drink with a strong aroma, it is made with coconut or cashew. The cashew feni possesses a Geographical Indication registration since 2009 as a speciality alcoholic beverage from Goa.”
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    On feni tourism.
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  3. “Fiscal Deficit represents Net Borrowings by the Government in a year. Difference between the Debt and Liabilities at the beginning and at the end of a Financial Year also represents Net Borrowings during the year. Fiscal Deficit should therefore equal change in the Debt and Liabilities during the Financial Year. All government expenditure, revenues and debts are required to be carried out through the Consolidated Fund of India (CFI). If it is done so, the fiscal deficit of the Government should equal to the additional debt incurred during the year, all recorded in the CFI.”
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    A 29 point essay on the state of India’s fiscal deficit and debt, by Subhash Chandra Garg. The excerpt is of the first point in its entirety, and the rest of the essay is about why 1. doesn’t quite work. Great read!
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  4. “But what have the Nifty stocks done? 10 years ago, the Nifty had a bunch of stocks. Let’s run a thought experiment. If you had invested an equal amount (Rs. 10,000) in every single Nifty stock in January 2010 and completely forgot about it, what would have happened?”
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    The excellent Deepak Shenoy being, as usual, excellent.
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  5. “After all, according to National Accounts Statistics (NAS) that produce the estimates for national income, consumer expenditure is around 60 per cent of the GDP. Investment (or gross fixed capital formation, to be precise) is about 30 per cent of the GDP, and its growth rate has plummeted to less than 1 per cent according to latest estimates. And while government expenditure has grown at a high rate (around 10 per cent), it is only about 10 per cent of the GDP. Accordingly, growth in investment and government spending contribute 1.3 percentage points to the overall GDP growth rate, and so to get an overall 5 per cent growth rate, consumer expenditure should be growing at higher than 5 per cent.”
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    The rest of this thought-provoking piece by Maitreesh Ghatak explains why a fiscal push will almost certainly be a bigger bang for the buck than the official data might show. Macroeconomics is hard!

The Union Budget: The past, the process and the expectations for 2020

There’s this nagging sense of dissatisfaction: I have spent more than my usual allotment of time coming up with today’s post, and that’s because I have still not been able to find the perfect way to kickstart today’s five links.

I was looking for a nice, easy-to-read and yet informative article about the Union Budget: what is the finance bill, what is the importance of Article 112, what is the process behind the budget being formulated every year, how the budget fits into the medium term fiscal policy – the works. Well, as it turns out, to the best of my knowledge, there is no article that fits (pardon the pun) the bill.

Hence the nagging sense of dissatisfaction. Still, on that rather dispiriting note, here we go: five links about the Union Budget

  1. Moneycontrol to kick things off, on the process behind the budget. Again, not great, but lets run with what we’ve got!
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    “”The budget is made through a consultative process involving ministry of finance, NITI Aayog and spending ministries. Finance ministry issues guidelines to spending, based on which ministries present their demands. The Budget division of the Department of Economic Affairs in the finance ministry is the nodal body responsible for producing the Budget.

    How is the budget made? Budget division issues a circular to all union ministries, states, UTs, autonomous bodies, departments and the defence forces for preparing the estimates for the next year. After ministries & departments send in their demands, extensive consultations are held between Union ministries and the Department of Expenditure of the finance ministry.”
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  2. “Boost to spending can revive the economy, which will improve the returns of equity mutual funds. However, a possible surge in inflation poses a key challenge. A careful tightrope walk is what is required.”
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    Macroeconomics – and I may have said this before, stop me if you’ve heard it – is hard. This article is a classic example of “On the one hand/ but on the other hand…”
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  3. “An MTBF is a set of institutional arrangements for prioritizing, presenting, and managing revenue and expenditure in a multiyear perspective. Such a framework enables governments to demonstrate the impact of current and proposed policies over the course of several years, signal or set future budget priorities, and ultimately achieve better control of public expenditure. An MTBF, therefore, does not refer solely to the actual numerical multiyear revenue and expenditure projections and restrictions presented alongside a given budget. Rather, an MTBF comprises all the systems, rules, and procedures that ensure the government’s fiscal plans are drawn up with a view to their impact over several years.”
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    MTBF stands for Medium Term Budget Framework. We’ve got one of our own! Dr. Vijay Kelkar helped prepare it. The point is this – and any corporate leader will tell you it’s importance – never look at a budget as a stand-alone exercise. It fits into a broader, more long term scheme of things. And we in India need to be aware of the more long term scheme of things. Except, uh…
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    “The idea at the time was that the Ministry of Finance would think on a one-year budget horizon, while the Planning Commission would think about deeper issues in public policy formulation wielding an array of different instruments. Now that the Planning Commission has been disbanded, we will need to build a medium-term budget system that incorporates both points of view. There is a need to clearly define the role and function of NITI Aayog in this new environment, so as to fill these gaps in the mainstream policy apparatus”
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    That excerpt is from a book that perhaps every student of economics should read: In The Service of the Republic, by Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah.
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  4. “However, data on revenue available so far suggests that the government has very little fiscal space for any significant growth stimulus. If the government’s off-budget liabilities (or withheld payments) are taken into account, the central government’s real fiscal deficit could end up being as high as 5.5% of gross domestic product (GDP) in the current fiscal year, a Mint analysis of public accounts suggests.”
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    This is old news to folks who have been following Union Budgets for a while, but might come as a surprise to those of you who are just now discovering the hidden delights of this sport: our fiscal deficit numbers aren’t – and haven’t been for a very long time indeed –  exactly crystal clear.
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  5. “To cut a long story short, there is very little that the government can do in the budget to revive the Indian economy. The government budget is, ultimately, a financial account. And financial accounts, ultimately, are financial accounts and nothing more. Keynes’s formula doesn’t always work, at least not in the way it should. ”
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    I’ve cut to the chase and excerpted the last paragraph from this excellent piece by Vivek Kaul, but you shouldn’t – read the whole thing very, very carefully indeed. I have a couple of points to nitpick here and there, but the broad thrust of the article I can’t help but agree with completely.

India: Five Articles on Makar Sankranti

An attempt, for myself, to understand Makar Sankranti better. Reading up about this festival threw up for me additional information about how the it’s one of the few festivals in the Hindu calendar that is based on the solar calendar. In addition, I got to read about sesame (the word ‘tel’, a professor of mine tells me, may well have its etymological roots in ’til”) and about festivals in other parts of the world that celebrate similar themes.

The traditional Maharashtrian greeting around this time is ’tilghul ghya, god bola’ which translates as – although you lose the romance in the translation – “Eat sesame-jaggery, speak well (of each other)”.

One can hope!

  1. As usual, the Wikipedia article to begin with.
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    “Makara Sankranti or Maghi, is a festival day in the Hindu calendar, dedicated to the deity Surya (sun). It is observed each year in January. It marks the first day of the sun’s transit into Makara (Capricorn), marking the end of the month with the winter solstice and the start of longer days.”
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  2. Heard of Maslenitsa? I hadn’t!
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    “”People burn an effigy made of straw, wood, and cloth, representing Mother Winter, to mark the end of Maslenitsa in the village of Leninskoe, Kyrgyzstan, on March 10, 2019”
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  3. “A Hindu holy man, or naga sadhu, prays as he bathes in the waters of the holy Ganges river during the auspicious bathing day of Makar Sankranti of the Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, India, on January 14, 2013. The Maha Kumbh Mela, believed to be the largest religious gathering on earth is held every 12 years on the banks of Sangam, the confluence of the holy rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. The festival is expected to attract over 100 million people.”
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    A lovely photo essay in the Atlantic about the Kumbh Mela. As the article suggests, best seen on a computer, and that too full screen.
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  4. “Does drinking a live fish out of a jeweled goblet sound like your idea of a party? Better book a trip to Belgium, stat. That’s how locals in the town of Geraardsbergen—and nowhere else in the world, as far as we know—get down on the last Sunday in February. To kick things off, participants (dressed as medieval knights, naturally) march to the top of Oudenberg Hill, where they proceed to toss thousands of krakelingen, or ring-shaped bread rolls, down on the town below. Later on, they set a wooden barrel on fire and carry torches back to the city, symbolizing the seasonal return of light. But not before they take turns drinking a live fish from chalices filled with red wine—even though everyone knows white pairs best with seafood.”
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    A fascinating (to me, at any rate) set of links about how some European cultures celebrate the end of winter and the start of summer. Celebrate, it would seem, the ability to light up a fire – a global phenomenon.
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  5. “Sesame seed makes a grand appearance in January in most parts of India, around the time of Makar Sankranti, as the sun moves into the zodiac of Capricorn. Up north and in the west, it assumes the forms of laddoo, chikki, revdi and gajak. In Punjab, they also go by the name of til pinni. Til pitha and tilor laru are prepared in Assam for Bihu celebrated around the same time.”
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    How could I not include a link about food?

India: Links for 6th January, 2020

It’s the first Monday of the year, and therefore the five articles today will be about the year gone by, the decade gone by, the year to come and – you guessed it – the decade to come. All, of course, focused on India.

 

  1. “Hope springs eternal in the human breast, which perhaps explains why some outrageously hopeful investors took India’s markets to greater heights in 2019, despite economic indicators getting progressively worse. The Nifty 500 index rose 7.7% last year, a marked improvement over 2018, when the index had fallen 3.4%.”
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    Economics professors, such as yours truly, are wont to clear their throats and look away when asked by students about the disconnect between macroeconomic indicators and stock market indices. Mobis Philipose in the Livemint to the rescue.
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  2. “Coming out of the current crisis is priority. But without trying to pick winners, India should also be getting its financial industry ready for the opportunities the 2020s may have in store.”
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    A nice blend of the past, the present, and how to be ready (from a financial markets viewpoint) of what is hopefully to come in the future, by Andy Mukherjee.
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  3. I’m not a fan of lists such as these. Specifically, in this case, the last three or four entries simply exist to take the list to 20. It is striking however, to see the obvious contradictions in the list itself. 20 things expected to happen in 2020, for what it’s worth.
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  4. “But consumption growth in 2019-20 has collapsed. In the first six months of this year, consumption growth has been just 7% (in nominal terms, without adjusting for inflation). It is the first time since 2004-05 that consumption growth has been in single digits.”
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    Vivek Kaul in the Deccan Herald, for the pessimists…
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  5. “In the 2019 Independence Day speech made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a key announcement was investment of Rs. 100 lakh crore in infrastructure over the next five years.This was also one of the promises made in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) manifesto for the Lok Sabha elections held in April and May 2019.
    Following the announcement by the PM, a task force was constituted within the Finance Ministry to create a roadmap for this investment.
    Officials from the Departments of Economic Affairs and Expenditure in the Finance Ministry and NITI Aayog were part of this task force.
    The report of this body was presented on 31 December 2019 by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.”
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    While Aashish Chandorkar with how the NIP might play out, for the optimists.

India: Links for 23rd December, 2019

  1. “When it comes to data centre storage though, India lags behind not just the developed world but even Asia-Pacific. With roughly 40 million less Internet users, Europe has more than 12 times its capacity to store data — 8,600 MW, compared to India’s 700 MW. And while India comprises 25% of Asia-Pacific’s Internet users, in 2017, it accounted for only 8.6% of its data centre growth, as per a 2018 research of the Data Center Advisory Group.”
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    A nice article from the Livemint about how this is set to change.
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  2. A short write-up from the Business Standard on reforms to the GST. The specifics do not matter (to me, that is) as the fact that this article needed to be written at all.
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  3. “The remedial measures have to be a combination of factors: capital infusion, capacity building on the supply side to resolve the unproductive assets, incentives for new entrants and tweaks in the regulatory framework. We need to wipe the slate clean and look ahead. The need of the hour is also to take some hard decisions impacting the current stakeholders. Remember, this situation is akin to the housing-led credit crisis in the US, where a turnaround was led by foreclosed properties and those under development.”
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    On revitalizing the real estate sector in our country. It is going to be a long, hard drive, but one that needs to be undertaken as soon as possible. This is necessary reading for anybody who would like to understand India’s economy today!
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  4. Niranjan Rajadhakshya, about nine months ago, on the need (“maybe?” he said then) for Operation Twist.
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    “One option right now is to borrow a trick from the US Federal Reserve—Operation Twist, named after the dancing style that was all the rage in the years after World War II. There have been two famous instances when the US central bank “twisted” a steep yield curve through clever money market operations, first in 1961 and then in 2011. In each case, the Fed changed the relative amounts of short-term and long-term securities in the market. How? It sold the short-term treasuries it had and used the proceeds to buy long-term securities. The result was that short-term interest rates went up while long-term interest rates came down. The yield curve flattened.”
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  5. And we went ahead and did it. However
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    “Yet it is far from clear that the RBI’s goal will be achieved. Certainly, there might be some flattening of the yield curve. But it is not clear that the amounts being discussed are sufficient. The response of the market for short-term bonds is also being questioned. The sale of the shorter-tenor bonds might well blow up yields in that segment, according to some market participants; on the other hand, liquidity at that end is so ample that there might be an effective cap on yields. The essential problem in the Indian bond market is that the country has, in spite of an apparently manageable debt-to-GDP ratio, entered a state of effective fiscal dominance. “