Trend reversion questions formalisation of the economy after Demo and GST. structural formal-informal divide may have happened instead.
Several reports have noted that currency in circulation, or CIC, reached close to pre-demonetisation levels, at 99.2%, on February 23. Given the year-end seasonal rise in currency demand, it will overshoot the Rs 17.977 trillion in circulation on November 4, 2016. Observed from other aspects as well, i.e., normalised to GDP and relative to its long-term average, the accompanying chart illustrates that CIC-GDP ratio has reverted to mean trend and is projected to cross the threshold in March, repeating its past pattern.
Among the questions that surface in the light of this return to cash practice, perhaps the most important and significant is about formalisation: an accelerated shift to formality was expected not only from DeMo but the additional, similar impact of the closely-clubbed GST reform. It is all the more puzzling then to see as much currency circulating in the economy as before these two big changes! The mystery compounds further because of the evidence claimed in support of formalisation in the wake of DeMo and GST. Inter alia, tax base enlargement, as seen from increase in the number of taxpayers, higher tax collections from transition of more transactions to formal mechanisms as well as improved compliance from better information and scrutiny by authorities, digitisation of transactions with more use of non-cash payment and transfer modes, etc, have been the changes so far.
If all these effects have come about because of DeMo and GST, why has the CIC-GDP ratio not settled at a lower level? Where is cash deployed? Which segments or activities continue to be cash dependent? Taking the commonly proffered proofs of formalisation at face value, has cash intensity in some parts of the economy increased? What is the real status of formality in the economy in the post-DeMo and GST period?
An attempt is made here to find some answers to these puzzling trends and obvious questions. It is logical to start with the three sectors that were the most cash-intensive for various reasons. One, the small and tiny units operated by mostly the uneducated—agriculture, trades and many other services—which are the largest sources of self-employment, i.e., informality in the traditional sense seen across developing countries. Two, real estate and construction segment, which has long been loosely regulated, where cash transactions have dominated, giving rise to a sizeable parallel/ black economy and that serves as the major store for illicit wealth and income to evade taxation. Three, gold and jewellery segment, which is the other physical store for genuine savings, illegal wealth and incomes. In the pre-DeMo period, it is well known that a sizeable quantity of currency financed these segments. But curiously, these show substantial moderation more than a year after DeMo and seven months after the arrival of GST. Consider each by turn.
First, the rural-informal sector has been quite regularly reported as strained. In the first round, the pressures were from the DeMo-linked liquidity squeeze that hurt businesses and led to many closures and job losses, disrupted and broke down wholesale-retail supply-chains, adversely affected agri markets and prices. The second disturbance came from GST, from which the formal firms are reported to have gained market share and volumes at the expense of numerous informal firms and suppliers who have either been unable to adapt to the new environment or are still in transition, while others have opted out altogether. For example, some large consumer goods’ firms have established their own direct distribution channels, bypassing previous wholesale chain structures that have either not recovered and are, overall, not expected to restore to pre-DeMo /GST levels. It is equally manifest in many farm-produce markets, where traders are reported to exploit farmers’ preferences for cash payments by depressing purchase prices. The prolonged contraction in consumer durables’ even as non-durables, two-wheeler and farm vehicle sales have revived the past quarter is another indicator. Such trends would suggest less transaction demand for currency than in the pre-DeMo/GST period.
Likewise, the real estate and construction sector has long been subdued. This is observed from large inventory pile-ups, property sales and transaction volumes, demand for cement, steel and related construction materials and so on. Sector estimates in the national accounts statistics match these trends. Moreover, the adverse effects of DeMo and GST, the former drying up liquidity and the latter pushing up costs, have been magnified by new, tighter regulation under RERA and Benami Properties Act, with the latter triggering fear. All have served to pull this sector down. There is little indication that real estate is bustling with activity, leave alone booming, i.e., trends that would explain similar cash operation levels as in the period before DeMo, GST, etc, occurred. It can reasonably be assumed that cash-intensity and use is lower in the latter period.
Last of all is the gold and jewellery segment where stricter regulation and monitoring of cash purchases have pulled down sales. Again, the fear of tax authorities on the trail has also restrained volumes. So, given that the three large cash-intensive parts of the informal economy have fared poorly in post-DeMo and GST, the million-dollar question is where is the previous magnitude of currency now deployed? Has formalisation really occurred as believed from indicative trends? Or, have DeMo and GST had the unintended consequence of increasing informality instead?
The suspicion about the latter effect arises because a return of the currency-GDP ratio to previous trend levels isn’t matched by the preceding intensity of transactions in those parts of the economy which were major cash-users in the pre-DeMo and GST period. It is possible this is what has happened instead: a portion of transactions in these segments have become completely informal in the sense of a clean divide between formal and informal activities compared to the previous situation in which cash operations and exchanges flowed easily between formal and informal sectors. In other words, the formal and informal parts that were closely intertwined through a mix of cash and other payment mechanisms have completely separated after DeMo and GST. The cleavage has occurred because of higher chances of detection under GST and interlinkages between cash and non-cash operations would increase chances of scrutiny, income assessment and taxation.
A complete parallel economy now perhaps operates off the radar and in cash; one counterpart of this may be the believed underreporting of transactions under GST system. The formal economy, which, ironically, would also include those operating informally on the side, executes through proper legal channels. Is this configuration the ‘new normal’? Put succinctly, has informality increased? Time will shed more light on formalisation effects of demonetisation and GST.