Given the continuing growth slowdown, finance minister P Chidambaram has done well to try and stimulate consumption by fairly sharp cuts in excise duties in sectors like automobiles where, in the case of small cars, scooters, motorcycles and commercial vehicles, the cuts are as high as a third—while the nominal value of the cuts can be as much Rs 800 crore a month, if sales pick up, this will be made up.
Chidambaram would probably have liked to drop last year’s surcharge on income taxes to stimulate consumption but given this in an interim budget, direct taxes cannot be touched. The interim nature of the budget also meant the finance minister could make no major announcements in terms of new policies, reducing the budget exercise to largely an accounting one—one of the reasons why markets look forward to budgets is the sense they give of the direction of policy reform. Markets have cheered the duty cuts—automobile stocks (BSE Auto index) rose 0.76% and the overall Sensex 0.48%—as well as the fact that FY15’s fiscal deficit has been kept at 4.1% of GDP, lower than the 4.2% target in last year’s medium-term fiscal deficit roadmap. Despite the dramatic Rs 76,965 crore shortfall in tax collections—Rs 48,052 crore in net terms—and R29,973 crore in disinvestment receipts, the finance minister managed to shave off Rs 17,960 crore from the FY14 fiscal deficit target. He did this through a Rs 74,863 crore cut in expenditure as well as by leaning on PSUs to give him higher interest/dividends of Rs 17,575 crore over the budget target.
The problem with the budget numbers, however, is that they are increasingly becoming less realistic, though the finance minister made light of this argument by saying a man’s reach must always be more than his grasp. At the time when the economy was struggling in February 2013, finance ministry mandarins thought nothing of projecting a 19% hike in gross tax collections. And though the rupee looked fragile and there was little to suggest oil subsidies would be cut, a R30,000 crore cut was projected in the subsidy numbers for FY14.