India's fiscal mess
The Economic Times has a depressing story on the state of public finances in India:
...Expecting the fiscal deficit to come in at 4.1% of GDP for the whole of 2014-15 was widely predicted to be unrealistic, but the speed at which the gap between actual numbers and the projected figure has closed has exceeded earlier years. Last year, for instance, the fiscal deficit was around a third of the budgeted amount in the first two months of the year. Essentially, what the government did was roll over, to the next year, payments which would have ideally come in towards the end of the previous financial year. The petroleum ministry, for instance, saw its expenditure for the first two months of this year coming in at 39% of its annual budget. In the same months of last year, the petroleum ministry had spent virtually nothing. Effectively what the government had done was delay payments of the fuel subsidy to oil companies till 2014-15. This way, it didn't have to account for the expenditure in the previous year, resulting in a lower deficit. This way, it didn't have to account for the expenditure in the previous year, resulting in a lower deficit. "The government left a number of expenditures uncovered," points out Rajiv Kumar, senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. Kumar points to the interesting fact that the fiscal deficit for the month of March last year was actually negative — in other words, the government received more funds into its coffers than was paid out of them for that month. "There was sharp fiscal compression in that month — more so than in earlier years," he says, alluding to the fact that the government did not spend as much as it usually did. March is an unusual month for government spending as the cement sector is well aware. Every March, cement consumption across the country spikes sharply. In recent years, that spike has been anywhere between 10% and 13%, but it's followed in the subsequent month by a sharp fall. The spike is often because government departments would like to use up their budgets before the end of the financial year and binge on construction activity which was originally budgeted but failed to take off. In contrast, in the early months of the new financial year, construction activity is slow as government budgets take time to be approved. Indeed government expenditure in March is regularly in excess of 15% of the budgeted amount for the year. In other months, the spending averages around 7-8%. In 2013 and 2014, though, the effect was more muted. This, along with rolling over subsidy payments to the next year, helped the government push the fiscal deficit into negative territory. On the revenue side, dividend payments were sharply higher than originally budgeted for 2013-14 — by as much as 44%. "Notice also that the budgeted dividend payments by public sector undertakings [PSUs] for 2014-15 are much lower than earned in 2013-14," says Sabnavis. Effectively the government asked PSUs to pay up higher amounts in dividends the previous financial year, with the sweetener that they wouldn't be forced to do so again next year. Then there is the tactic to give rosy estimates for the coming year, in order to give the markets and economists something to cheer about. Total subsidies for 2014-15 were pegged in the interim budget at just about 0.3% higher than the revised estimates for 2013-14. The government's previous track record in managing subsidies gave little reason to believe this. Last year, for instance, revised estimates were higher than their original budgeted amounts by 11%. Despite that experience, budget estimates were pegged at a lower level than a year before. At the same time, expectations of tax revenues are pegged at overly optimistic levels as well. All this means little fiscal room for Arun Jaitley when he presents his first budget next week.India has enormous potential, but this story is yet another example of why India continues to fail to live up to her potential. I hope Premier Minister Narendra Modi's new government will deliver on the promised reforms. Unfortunately given the historical experience it is hard to be optimistic.