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.

 

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: Links for 19th August, 2019

CCS is organizing a conference around the theme “Legal Foundations of a Free Society”, and it is being hosted by the Gokhale Institute. One of the speakers is Shruti Rajagopalan, whose writing I have long admired. Here are five pieces by Shruti that I thoroughly enjoyed reading:

  1. The implementation of laws matters as much as their framing (as any parent will tell you!)
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  2. “Deshmukh, a former RBI governor who had argued against bank nationalization immediately after independence, was also contesting the election, this time supported by the Swatantra Party and Jan Sangh. Giri won with Gandhi’s support, and his legacy is often regarded as that of a rubber-stamp loyalist who damaged the independence of the President’s office.”
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    A little bit of trivia that I was completely unaware of, and makes me think of many counterfactuals – but the article is about how the nationalization of banks came to be.
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  3. Shruti explains (rather acerbically and entirely appropriately so) why the budget is a spectacle we’d all do well to ignore completely.
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  4. “First, we need to create more positions for judges, especially in the lower levels of the judiciary, as caseloads have exploded over the years. India has only 12-15 judges per million people compared to the US’s 110 per million. The immediate goal is to reach the Law Commission’s 50-judges-per-million recommendation. A good start is to double the number of judges across the board in the lower judiciary.”
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    On some much needed reforms to the Indian judiciary.
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  5. A paper by her on a favorite theme (and bugbear) of mine: the complete lack of true decentralization in India.

 

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.

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.