Understanding fiscal deficits

Fiscal deficit is a phrase that is bandied about every year, but not very well understood – both in terms of how to arrive at it, but also in terms of what it means.

In the first part of today’s post, I’ll explain how to arrive at it. In the second part, I’ll rely on a couple of lines from an excellent article written by Rathin Roy a while ago.

I work at the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune. This means that while I continue to be employed at the Institute, a salary will be credited into my bank account every month. I can also choose to augment my income by, say, breaking a fixed deposit, or by taking a loan. The first part is my “recurring” income, while the latter is a one-time income.

I stay in a rented accommodation. This means I have to pay rent every month. I also have to buy groceries, pay for utilities, and pay the salaries of everybody who works at my household. But also, every now and then, I can, say, buy a car. Or a laptop. Or a house. These are not monthly expenses – at least not in my household they aren’t! The first set of expenses are “recurring” expenses, while the latter are one-time expenses.

Taken together, what matters in my household is that I must be able to arrange for ways to meet my monthly expenses. Let’s write down some very simple numbers:

  1. Assume that my recurring expenses are one lakh rupees – one hundred thousand INR. (Groceries, rent, salaries, petrol, eating out etc etc)
  2. Assume that for the month of March, my capital expenses are also one lakh rupees. (Maybe I’ve chosen to buy the latest M1 Macbook. One can dream.)
  3. So, my expenses, all told, are two lakh rupees for the month of March 2021.
  4. Assume that Gokhale pays me seventy thousand rupees as my salary. Assume that I augment this income by teaching courses in a couple of other colleges. Let’s assume that I earn one lakh rupees through this recurring income (salary plus visiting faculty income is one lakh per month)
  5. I have no other sources of income. So: 1+2 are my total expenses, against which my total income is 1 lakh rupees (4).
  6. Let’s say I am unwilling to break into any of my savings to purchase this laptop, and choose to borrow the amount instead. That is, no capital income, only borrowing.

So, in essence, the amount that I need to borrow after all possible sources of income have been thought of, in order to meet my total expenses…

That borrowing is my “fiscal deficit” for the month of March 2021.

Homework: to check if you have understood this, try reading the budget at a glance document, and see if you get how Nirmala Sitharaman and team arrived at the fiscal deficit for the government. Page 3 in the PDF.*

OK, so now we know what the fiscal deficit is, and how to go about arriving at it. But is a high fiscal deficit a good thing or a bad thing, and how does one decide?

Well, it depends on what you are borrowing for! For example, as I often say when I am talking to students, they are and should be running a fiscal deficit in their own, personal lives. They’re spending money (rent, food, movies, college fees) but not earning anything at the moment. The idea is that this money is being spent in order to acquire skills that enable them to earn much more in the future. Much more, in fact, than they spend on acquiring that education – or that, at any rate, is the plan.

But what if they instead spend an equivalent amount of money, but not to acquire an education. They spend this money, instead, on buying a Honda Gold Wing. (Yes, I know education isn’t quite that expensive just yet.)

That would be problematic, because you are taking on debt, but for acquiring a depreciating asset (a bike that gets worse over time) and not an appreciating one (your education and your years of experience get more valuable over time).

Or as Rathin Roy put it in a recent Business Standard column:

If the government is merely borrowing to fund consumption expenditure then this is difficult to justify.


and a little while later, in the same piece…

For example, the “golden rule,” which states that governments must finance consumption expenditure out of revenue receipts and borrow only for investment.


There is much, much more to take away from Rathin Roy’s piece, of course (and I’ll write a follow-up piece later this week) – but as a first step towards understanding fiscal deficits, this is more than enough.

*If, for whatever reason, the budget at a glance document is not clear, let me know in the comments below. If more than ten people are interested, happy to arrange a quick video call about it (because, you know, there have been so few of ’em this past year!)

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.

  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.
  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.


Etc: Links for 10th January, 2019

Links that I read during the week that I found interesting.


  1. Russia plans to have the ability to cut itself off from “the” internet, but keep “its” internet running.
  2. One of my students might be embarking on a PhD in neuroeconomics, and reading up about the topic got me here. Interesting videos, and a neat set of publications.
  3. Spinach is, is not, no is, no is not, never was, always was, is, isn’t a good source of iron. Via the excellent Navin Kabra.
  4. A profile of Qassem Suleimani in the New Yorker, from almost seven years ago.
  5. Learn SQL by solving a murder mystery.
  6. The last link this Monday was about NIP. Rathin Roy is doubtful about the Indian government’s ability to execute on the plan.

India: Links for 25th November, 2019

  1. A difficult article to excerpt, so go ahead and read it in its entirety: Andy Mukherjee on India’s telecom woes.
  2. “The NFMW should be determined based on macroeconomic considerations, namely (1) whether the NFMW would increase aggregate demand for mass market consumption. (2) Whether there are supply bottlenecks in responding to such aggregate demand and, if so, calibrate the NFMW to not cause inflationary pressures by driving up demand that would not elicit a domestic supply response- mass market textiles is a good example. (3) The impact of the minimum wage on the factor distribution of income i.e. wage and profit shares should be a key consideration not from the point of view of equity, but from that of macroeconomic stability and growth optimisation. (4) Subnational minimum wages could be set above the floor as desired with other considerations in mind.”
    Rathin Roy in an excellent article on the need for minimum wages in India.
  3. Vivek Kaul is less than impressed with the real estate bailout package.
    “According to real estate research firm Liases Foras, the number of unsold homes in the country is more than 1.3 million. The number of unsold homes in India has risen dramatically primarily because of high prices. Builders have cited higher development costs as a reason for their inability to reduce prices of properties. The bailout package of ₹25,000 crore will lead to a further increase in the supply of homes, but without adequate price cuts these homes are not going to get sold. Hence, the problem will only deepen.”
  4. “So he mounted his horse and galloped over to a nearby hill. “From the top of the hill there was a magnificent view embracing old Delhi and all the principal monuments situated outside the town, with the river Jumna winding its way like a silver streak…”The hill, near the village of Raisina, would become the epicentre of the new capital. By October 1912 the government initiated the legal process to acquire land. The first plots, required for the construction of what would be called Rashtrapati Bhavan, amounted to 4,000 acres.”
    Sidin Vadukut in a lovely article on how modern Delhi came to be, well, Delhi.
  5. “The scorers refused to continue after the covering over their heads went up in flames. Fire brigades were called and a riot squad formed a line between the dressing rooms and the pitch.”
    The Guardian on riots in a Test match in Bombay during the 1960’s.