Fiscal arithmetic & consolidation

Written by Pinaki Chakraborty | Updated: Mar 19 2012, 08:14am hrs
The Budget 2012-13 has been presented in an uncertain global economic environment and declining Indian economic growth. Multiple challenges that had to be factored in while formulating the Budget proposals were global economic uncertainty, eroding investors confidence in India and economic growth and above all the issue of access of government provided services to the poor and deserving particularly the subsidies.

The Budget seems to have followed fiscal expansion both on the direct tax side and on plan expenditure. The direct tax proposal, as estimated, would result in a revenue loss of more than R4,000 crore. But in case of indirect taxes, particularly, in case of excise duty and service tax there has been a general increase in the rate.

Also, a welcome move is the introduction of negative list for service taxation. If implemented effectively, it can really broaden the base of service tax and improve revenues. Some of these tax measures seem to be the key to hold on to the fiscal deficit number at 5.1% of GDP, which is way above the FRBM target of 3%. The real question is whether this fiscal deficit number of 2012-13 is credible. Probably not.

Marginal decline in fiscal deficit as evidenced from 5.9 to 5.1% of GDP between 2011-12 (RE) and 2012-13 (BE) is not only ambitious but also relies on heavy compression of non-plan expenditure. It appears that the arithmetic has been worked out on a difficult to comply assumption, ie compression of non-plan expenditure.

If we look at the aggregate expenditure, the expenditure growth was estimated at 5.04% between 2010-11 actual and 2011-12(BE), while the growth in expenditure when compared with RE of 2011-12 has just doubled to 10.14% primarily due to the increase in revenue expenditure at a very high rate. The non-plan expenditure growth is estimated to be 8.7% for the 2012-13.

Again the expenditure growth in the last year was 9.02% as per the RE against the BE of -0.26%.

If you look at the non-plan expenditure, the Budget estimate for 2011-12 was R816,182 crore while the revised estimates shows an increase to R892,116 crore i.e. an increase to the order of around 10%. If such an overshooting of expenditure happens in the next fiscal year we may not be able to achieve even the 5% fiscal deficit target proposed for 2012-13. At the same time, the large revenue deficit of 3.4% estimated only shows that capital spending will be much lower than the aggregate fiscal deficit number even if one assumes that the government will be able to meet the disinvestment target of R30,000 crore.

In the face of the declining savings rate and policy induced increase in the interest rate to keep inflation under control in recent past has acted as a big deterrent for private investment. It is critically important that fiscal deficit does not add further pressure on interest rate and if the number goes up further it would definitely have adverse effect on growth. However, the sliver lining is that fiscal concerns now are fundamentally different than in the past.

One has to remember that we have lived with bigger fiscal deficits in the past with incredibly weak fiscal fundamentals. Even if the fiscal deficit number is high for 2012-13 and definitely not a happy number for the private investors, the fiscal fundamentals now are not weak. Two important ratios would show that! (a) the incidence of debt burden on the Budget and (b) the debt to GDP ratio. Interest payment is now contributing to around 25% of the revenue expenditure and that is almost half of what it used to be during 1990s.

This certainly gives fiscal space for other expenditures. The debt to GDP ratio as reported is little more than 45% of the GDP, which is much lower than the 13th Finance Commissions proposed fiscal path of 50% in 2012-13. Although these numbers give us some comfort, there is no alternative to fiscal correction, especially when the savings rate is on the decline.