There’s No Free Lunch in Economics

free lunch

So here is a small story, which you, dear reader, should probably try and remember all through your life.

There are four mithaiwallahs (sweetshops) in a colony (You can call them cookie shops or cake shops or bakeries, if you want to. It doesn’t change the argument that I am trying to make in anyway).

A fifth mithaiwallah, who is loaded with money, decides to set up shop. Given that his mithais(sweets) are more or less same to what everyone else is offering, he needs to offer something more to attract customers. So, he offers free mithais, up to one kg, every day, for the first 2 months.

Given that we all love a good deal, soon, there is a queue in front of his shop everyday. And not surprisingly, the business of the remaining four mithaiwallahs collapses. There is only so much mithai that people can consume. (I mean they can go briefly overboard on this front, but then there are health consequences that they would have to bear).

The four mithaiwallahs decide to compete with the new kid on the block. They are not as loaded with money as the fifth one to be offering stuff for free, so they cut prices of their mithais. The hope is that at lower prices the consumers who have ditched them, will come back to them. After all, they have shared a healthy relationship over the years.

And come to think of it, it is their fault as well. For a very long time, they have operated like a cartel, and have kept prices high. Given that the four mithaiwallahs are all related, the gains have been shared all within the family.

So, not surprisingly, when the fifth mithaiwallah sets up shop, the consumers who are seeing the benefits of competition for the first time, go running to him. I mean, if someone sells you products of the same and better quality for a lower price, why wouldn’t you buy stuff from him. The money thus saved can be spent somewhere else. At the end, there is only so much money going around and that has to be judiciously spent.

Soon, the four mithaiwallahs come to the realisation that cutting prices isn’t taking them anywhere because the fifth mithaiwallah continues to offer mithais for free. He is bleeding but in the process, he is ensuring that they are bleeding as well.

The fifth mithai wallah has owned government ration shops for many years and has made pot loads of money selling cheap rice, wheat and sugar, in the open market at higher rates. Hence, he is loaded with money and can outlast the four mithailwallahs he is competing with.

In order to compete the four mithaiwallahs also start offering some mithais in a limited amount for free. They are left with no other option. If they have to compete they have to offer stuff for free.

But as a result, they have to dilute the quality of their mithais. In their line of business, quality and quantity rarely go together. The consumer realises this shift in quality. This is not to say that the fifth mithaiwallah was offering good quality mithai. It’s just that he was offering it free. The fall in quality of the four mithaiwallahs leads to a situation where the consumers who were sticking on to them because of their better quality, also decide to desert them.

Soon, because of offering free stuff, they are losing money hand over fist. The wait for the customers to turn up has become endless. Of course, with no money coming in, they find it difficult to repay the loans they had taken from the local bank to build their shops.
Very soon, one of the mithaiwallah defaults on a loan. Soon, the others join them. And the local bank has a problem.

Meanwhile, the fifth mithaiwallah, seeing that his competitors are in trouble, starts cutting down on the free stuff on offer and raises prices. He figures out that soon he will be the only one left with any cash and the market will be all his. So, best to start cashing in on it.

He is the last man standing in the market and can price mithais, any way he wants to. The people are already addicted to his free mithai, cannot do without it and hence, have to pay whatever he asks for.

With the bank tottering, the depositors start making noise, and the local government has to come to their rescue, and ends up in financial trouble as well. This basically means that the taxpayer has to bailout the bank.

Dear Reader, you will see a version of this story, play out over and over again. The point being there are no free lunches in economics. Never!

There is always a cost that the system has to pay. Hence, if something looks too good to be true, maybe it is.

The column originally appeared on EquitymasterThe column originally appeared on Equitymaster on September 25, 2017.

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और फिर शुरू हुआ ममता जी का छाती वाला डांस…

साल था 1994.

श्री विष्णु सिनेमा में राजकुमार की बेताज बादशाह लगने वाली थी. और उस ज़माने जैसा के अक्सर होता था, हम भी पहुंचे वहां फर्स्ट डे फर्स्ट शो देखने.

और राजकुमार की कुछ बात ही निराली थी.

ये वो समय था, जब बच्चन बूढ़े हो चले थे, और खानों की टोली ने अभी तक हिंदी सिनेमा पर अपना दबदबा बनाया नहीं था.

तो हीरो थे राजकुमार और उनकी फिल्मों की जैसी ओपनिंग लगती थी रांची में, वैसी किसी की नहीं लगती थी.
अब हुआ यूं के फिल्म का प्रिंट आया नहीं था, पर टिकटें बेचीं जा चुकी थी और खरीदी जा चुकी थी. ११ से एक बज गया और तब हमने ये सोचा के अब टिकट बेच देनी चाहिए और वापस कॉलेज, जो की बगल में ही था, जाना चाहिए.
जैसी ही टिकट बेचने लगे, किसी ने चिलाया, प्रिंट आ गया है, प्रिंट आ गया है.

प्रिंट आ गया था. और उसकी पूजा भी हो चुकी थी. डब्बे पर किसी पंडित ने लाल तिलक भी लगा दिया था.
कुछ समय में पिक्चर शुरू हुई. और लगभग ३० में ये समझ आ गया, के फिल्म काफी बकवास है. पर अब क्यूंकि पैसे खर्च कर चुके थे, तो फिल्म देखना तो लाज़मी था.(Sunk Cost Fallacy)

और मह्त्वपूर्ण बात ये थी की ममता कुलकर्णी का गाना आया नहीं था.

कौन सा? अरे वही वाला … आपने भी सुना होगा… “चूड़ियां बजाऊंगी प्रेम धुन गाऊँगी…

और फिर शुरू हुआ ममता जी का छाती वाला डांस…

और साथ में शुरू हुई सीटियां, चिल्लम चिल्ली और गाली गलौच जो की केवल ९० के दशक में एक छोटे शहर के सिनेमा घर में सुनी जा सकती थी…

एक विशेष टिपण्णी ये रही के अगर आपने फ्रंट रौ में बैठ कर ममता कुलकर्णी को नहीं देखा, तो क्या देखा…
अब यूँ हुआ के हमारे सामने एक नव विवाहित दम्पति बैठा था. फिल्म में उनकी कोई दिलचस्पी नहीं थी. पर करे भी तो क्या, कोने की टिकेटें नहीं मिली थी.

इधर ममता गा रही उधर बेचैनी बढ़ रही की (नव विवाहित दम्पति की, मेरी नहीं)… पांच मिनट गाना चला…और फिर अचानक से सब शांत हो गया… फिल्म तो चल रही थी…. पर लोग देख नहीं रहे थे..

इस बीच, नव विवाहित दम्पति खड़ा हुआ, और दरवाज़े के तरफ चलने लगा.

और फिर पीछे से एक ज़ोर से आवाज़ आयी, लगता है आज रात को खूब चूड़ी बजेगा…

Fiscal stimulus is already on, why doesn’t the govt try lowering taxes?

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Media reports suggest that the central government is planning a fiscal stimulus. In simple English, what it basically means is that it is planning to spend more than what it had budgeted for, during this financial year.

Fiscal stimulus is an idea that politicians have latched on to for nearly eight decades since the British economist John Maynard Keynes published his tour de force The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money in 1936. What Keynes suggested in this book was that in a tight economic situation, cutting taxes, so that people would have more to spend, was one way out to revive economic growth.

But the best way was for the government to spend more money, and become the “spender of the last resort”. Also, it did not matter if the government ended up running a fiscal deficit in doing so. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends. When Keynes wrote this book, governments budgets used to be balanced (i.e. expenditure was more or less equal to revenue).

It wasn’t fashionable for governments to run a fiscal deficit back then, as it is now. Given this Keynes suggested that in a tight economic situation (the world was going through what we now call the Great Depression) it made sense for the government to spend its way out of trouble. And if that meant running a fiscal deficit, so be it.

Since then, it has been time honoured tradition for politicians and a section of economists to talk about the government spending more, in times of economic trouble. The idea being that with the private consumption slowing down, if the government spends more, incomes will go up, and this will help in reviving private consumption expenditure, which in turn will push up economic growth.

QED.

In fact, the government has already started providing a fiscal stimulus to the economy, during the first few months of this financial year. Take a look at Figure 1.

Figure 1:

Fiscal stimulus 1

Source: http://www.cga.nic.in and http://www.indiabudget.nic.in

What does Figure 1 tell us? It tells that between April and July 2017 of the current financial year, the government has already touched 92.4 per cent of the fiscal deficit target that it had set at the beginning of the year. As is obvious from Figure 1, this is way beyond what usually happens.
Now take a look at Figure 2. It plots the proportion of government expenditure carried out during the period April to July (the first four months of the financial year) against the total expenditure achieved/planned for the financial year.

Figure 2:

fiscal stimulus 2
Source: http://www.cga.nic.in and http://www.indiabudget.nic.in

What does Figure 2 tell us? It tells us that during a normal year, the government spends around one-third of the total expenditure during the first four months of the year. And this is a logical thing to do, given that four months constitute one-third of a year.
This time around, the government expenditure during the first four months of the year is at 37.7 per cent of the total expenditure that the government plans to incur during the year.

What Figure 1 and Figure 2 tells us is that the fiscal stimulus is already on. If the government continues to spend at the same rate as it is currently, it will end up spending 13 per cent more than it had planned at the beginning of the financial year. This will push up the budgeted fiscal deficit by around 51 per cent (assuming government revenues remain the same).

This will push up the fiscal deficit to 4.9 per cent of the gross domestic product(GDP) against the set target of 3.2 per cent of the GDP. Now what the government needs to decide is whether it should continue spending money at the rate that it currently is.
Also, what this means is that people who are now asking for the government to unleash a fiscal stimulus, probably do not know, that a stimulus is already on.

In fact, the government spending more than the usual, helped the GDP grow by 5.7 per cent during the period April to June 2017. In fact, if we leave out the government expenditure from the GDP, the non-government part, which constitutes close to 90 per cent of the GDP, grew by just 4.3 per cent. Hence, the impact of the fiscal stimulus is clearly there to see.

The trouble is that most fiscal stimuli flatter to deceive. It does help in pushing up economic growth initially, but ends up creating more problems, which the economy has to tackle in the years to come.

India’s last experience with a fiscal stimulus was disastrous. It was unleashed in 2008-2009. It propped up economic growth for a couple of years. But it also led to high inflation and high interest rates. It also led to banks going easy on lending and in the process ended up creating a massive amount of bad loans, which the system is still trying to come out from.

Also, it is worth remembering that the state governments run fiscal deficits as well. During 2016-2017, the combined fiscal deficit of the central government as well as the state governments had stood at 6.5 per cent of the GDP, down from 7.5 per cent, in 2015-2016. During this financial year, many state governments are expected to run higher fiscal deficits because they have waived off farmer loans. With the central government also spending more, the combined fiscal deficit will cross the 7 per cent level and that is not a good thing.

People in decision making should remember these points raised above. The trouble is politicians like to look up to the next election. And the fiscal stimulus that has been unleashed now is likely to keep perking up economic growth over the next year or two and this will help the incumbent government in the next elections. Having said that, as I mentioned earlier, it creates other problems in the time to come.

Also, it needs to be clarified here, that Keynes wasn’t an advocate of a government running high budget deficits all the time. Keynes believed that, on an average, the government budget should be balanced. This meant that during years of prosperity, governments should run budget surpluses. But when the environment is recessionary, governments should spend more than what they earn, even running budget deficits.

But over the decades, politicians have only taken one part of Keynes’ argument and run with it. The idea of running deficits during bad times became permanently etched in their minds. However, they forgot that Keynes had also wanted them to run surpluses during good times.

To conclude, other than the government spending more, Keynes also talked about lowering taxes. Why doesn’t the government try and lower the GST rates to start with?

The column originally appeared on Firstpost on September 23, 2017.

Mudra Loans Haven’t Created 8 crore Self-Employment Opportunities

mudra-580x372

Arjun Kumar and Vivek Kaul

In his fourth Independence Day speech on August 15, 2017 as Prime Minister, Narendra Modi said: “Over the past three years, Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana has led to millions and millions of youth becoming self-dependent. It’s not just that, one youth is providing employment to one, two or three more people.”

Similar views were expressed by Amit Shah, the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party in May 2017, when he said: “We have tried to give new perspective to employment as it is not possible to provide employment to everyone in a country of 125 crore people. We are promoting self-employment and the government has made eight crore people self-employed.”

These remarks emerge out of the assumption that each loan given under the Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana(PMMY, and more popularly referred to as a Mudra Loan), leads to the creation of at least one self-employment opportunity. Is that correct? Let’s take a look at Table 1.

Table 1, tells us that up until early September 2017, close to 9 crore loans have been disbursed under the PMMY. When Shah had made the statement in late May, he had perhaps claimed on the basis of this data that the government had made 8 crore people self-employed.

The assumption was that one Mudra loan makes one individual self-employed. PM Modi in his speech essentially seemed to have assumed one Mudra loan leads to one individual becoming self-employed and he, in turn, employs more people. Take a look at Table 2.

What does Table 2 tell us? It tells us that the average loan being given under the PMMY has jumped from Rs 39,405 in 2015-2016 to around Rs 46,528 in the current financial year. Now let’s take a look at the data at a more granular level in Table 3, focusing on two previous financial years.

As can be seen from Table 3, in the previous two financial years, the total number of loans given to new entrepreneurs stood at 2.25 crore. This amounts to a little over 30 per cent of the total loans. Hence, the claim that 8 crore self-employment opportunities have been created because of PMMY loans doesn’t really add up. A bulk of the loans has been given to people who are already self-employed.

The PMMY loans are categorised into three types. These are Shishu (upto Rs 50,000), Kishore (from Rs 50,000 to 5,00,000) and Tarun (from Rs 5,00,000 to 10,00,000). Let’s look at Table 4, which goes into some detail of these different kinds of PMMY loans.

We can see from Table 4 that the most basic Shishu loans over the last two financial years formed around 92-93 per cent of the total loans. Now look at Table 5, which basically tells us the average amount of loan taken under each of the different kind of loans.

The Shishu loans on an average amounted to Rs 19,400 in 2015-2016 and Rs 23,300 in 2016-2017. This basically means that the average loan given under PMMY is very small. It is highly unlikely that such a small amount of capital can create any employment. Hence, it might act more as an overdraft facility for the self-employed (such as Kisan Credit Cards for farmers) than be able to create employment. Also, whether the new entrepreneurs who have taken PMMY loans continue to survive as entrepreneurs, is an interesting question which researchers need to explore.

It is worth pointing out that many self-employed people in India are not self-employed by choice. Economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo call them ‘reluctant entrepreneurs’. They do not have a choice. This can be understood from the fact around 46-47 per cent of the Indian workforce is self-employed. Take a look at Table 6.

The above table clearly indicates that the salaried labour force is way better off than the self-employed. Nearly two-thirds of the self-employed earn up to Rs 7,500 per month. For the salaried, this is at a little over 38 per cent.

To conclude, the CEO of Mudra (Micro Units Development & Refinance Agency Ltd.) in an interview to a private media house, when asked the question on the number of jobs created by the Mudra loans, had said: “We are yet to make an assessment on that… We don’t have a number right now, but I understand that NITI Aayog is making an effort to do that.”

In such a situation, the hypothesis of the government that Mudra loans are making crores of youth self-dependent seems to be flawed. It seems more of a political gimmick, because remaining in power is more important than working to allay the distresses of those who are still seeking employment.

This originally appeared in Newslaundry on September 21, 2017.

Why the weak spin on demonetisation is still going strong

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On August 30, 2017, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), published its much-anticipated Annual Report. Up until last year, only journalists who covered the banking beat, economists and analysts, kept track of the RBI Annual Report.

But this year, many more people were interested. This was primarily because the Annual Report would finally reveal what portion of the demonetised Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, made it back to the banks.

And why was this of interest? After demonetisation had been announced, many people including government ministers and several leading economists, had hoped that a large portion of the demonetised notes won’t come back to the banks. This was because those who had black money in the form of cash wouldn’t want to deposit it into banks, and reveal who they are to the government. In the process, a lot of black money held in the form of cash would be destroyed.

But nothing of that sort happened. The RBI Annual Report revealed that Rs 15.28 lakh crore of the Rs 15.44 lakh crore that was demonetised, made it back into the banks. This meant that nearly 99 per cent of demonetised notes made it back to the banks, and almost no black money was destroyed. Other than not achieving its major goal of destroying black money, demonetisation has also hurt India’s economic growth in general and manufacturing and industrial growth in particular, very badly.

After this, the government as expected has been offering multiple reasons in favour demonetisation. In a press release the ministry of finance offered this reason: “The fact that bulk of specified bank notes (SBNs) have come back to the Banking system shows that the banking system and the RBI were able to effectively respond to the challenge of collecting such a large number of SBNs in a limited time.

What does this even mean? If paper money is made useless overnight, it is bound to come back to the banks. Where else will it go? Another reason offered to show demonetisation as a success is that Rs 3 lakh crore of the Rs 15.28 lakh crore that has come back is black money. No explanations have been offered on how the Rs 3 lakh crore number was arrived on.
But even if we assume that it is black money, the holders of this black money aren’t exactly waiting to hand it over to the government. They have access to chartered accountants as well as lawyers and are ready for a long-drawn battle, if needed.

The weak government spin on demonetisation has continued. The question is why? The answer lies in the fact that a section of the population is still buying this spin on the social media. As Evan Davis writes in Post Truth: “In social media, our disposition to believe things is something a form of bonding. Not only do we tend to reside in echo chambers online, but we actively enjoy becoming closer to our friends by sharing views and agreeing with them. The act of consenting to someone else’s beliefs, and have them consent to ours, is satisfying; and because it is so, it stops us questioning the nonsense that others post.”

This is one explanation for the rather weak defence of demonetisation that is still being put out by the government. Then there is the problem of the narrative, or the prevailing interpretation of a pattern of events. There is a section of population which really wants to believe that demonetisation worked. It’s their narrative.

As Evans writes: “Like-minded groups of individuals share a narrative about many things… These narratives are sometimes true, sometimes not, but they are often like stereotypes… Once embedded in our minds though, they can easily gain excessive traction and trample over truth as willing believers put too much weight on propositions that conform to their narrative without looking for evidence in support of them.

And that explains why the weak spin on demonetisation is still going strong.

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on September 20, 2017.

Gold Imports Surge: Are People Hedging the Risk of Another Demonetisation by Converting Black Money into Gold?

gold

The impact of demonetisation has played out in many ways. Here is one more way: The gold imports between April and July 2017 have been nearly 2.7 times the gold imports during the same period last year.

Let’s take a look at Figure 1 which plots gold imports (in Kgs) over the last few financial years.

Figure 1: 

It is clear from Figure 1 that the gold imports have jumped up big time between April to July 2017, in comparison to last year. In fact, they are the second highest in the last five years. Take a look at Figure 2. Figure 2 plots the money spent on importing gold over the last five years.

Figure 2: 

Even in value terms significantly more gold has been imported this year than last year. The price of gold during the period April to July 2017, averaged at $1257.9 per ounce (one troy ounce equals 31.1 grams). During the same period last year, the price of gold had averaged at $1291.3 per ounce, which was slightly higher.

How do things look if we look at the calendar year instead of the financial year? Between January and July 2017, the total amount of gold imported stands at 6, 61,836 kgs. Between January and July 2016, this had stood at 3,11,938kgs. There is a clear jump in this case as well. In fact, the interesting thing is that the import of gold has been concentrated during the first five months of the calendar year, immediately after demonetisation.

What does this tell us? When and why do people actually buy gold?

The history of economics tells us that people buy gold when the faith in official paper money (in this case the Indian rupee) is low. Take the case of the period between April to July 2013. A lot of gold was bought during this period. The rate of consumer price inflation was at 9-10 per cent. Given this, a section of the population had lost faith in the Indian rupee and was hedging against inflation and buying gold.

What is happening this time around? This time around Indians are buying gold because in the aftermath of demonetisation which was carried out in November 2016, there is a feeling that the government might do it again. Given this, a portion of the black money which was held in the form of cash earlier, is now simply being converted into gold. This seems like the most logical explanation for this surge. The lower price argument doesn’t really hold because prices this year have been more or less similar to prices last year.

Of course, gold is easy to store and has never gone out of fashion. Hence, it can easily be converted into cash at any point of time.

In 2013-2014, people had lost confidence in paper money because of extremely high inflation. This time around, people have lost faith in paper money because of demonetisation. Hence, they are buying gold.

As Indians bought gold in 2013-2014 and a lot of it (close to 4,20,000 kgs, during the first four months of that financial year, as Figure 1 suggests), the demand for dollars went up. India imports almost all of the gold that it consumes. Hence, it buys gold internationally in dollars. As the demand for dollars went up, importers sold rupees and bought dollars. In the process, the rupee lost value rapidly against the dollar.

In April 2013, one dollar was worth Rs 54.23. By August 2013, it was worth Rs 67.4. The rupee simply crashed during the period. It is worth asking here that why a similar situation does not prevail right now. Why hasn’t the rupee crashed like it did when people bought lots of gold between April and July 2013?

This is because while Indians are buying gold, a lot of dollars continue to come to India through the foreign institutional investors route. These investors continue to invest in the Indian stock market and the debt market. Between April and July 2017, the foreign institutional investors have invested a little over Rs 95,000 crore in the stock and the debt market. The foreign institutional investors sell dollars and buy rupees in order to invest in the stock and the debt market. This demand for the Indian rupee has ensured that the dollar has remained stable against the rupee at around Rs 64. Hence, the demand for rupees among these investors is negating the demand for dollars among gold importers. This has led to a stable value of the rupee against the dollar.

What had happened between April and July 2013? While, the demand for gold was very high, the foreign institutional investors were selling out of India. During the period, they encashed close to Rs 27,000 crore from the stock and the debt market. In fact, the foreign institutional investors sold stocks and debt worth over Rs 60,000 crore between June and July 2013.

In order to repatriate this money abroad, they had to sell these rupees and buy dollars. This along with heavy gold buying, which was accompanied by selling of rupees and buying of dollars, pushed up the demand for the dollar, and drove down the value of the rupee.

This essentially explains why the value of the rupee had crashed in 2013-2014, and has remained stable during this financial year. Nevertheless, people are buying gold because their faith in the Indian rupee has gone down and they clearly want to hedge against the risk of another round of demonetisation.

(The column was originally published on Equitymaster on September 19, 2017).

What You Pay For When You Pay for Fuel

narendra modi

The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi addressing the Nation on the occasion of 71st Independence Day from the ramparts of Red Fort, in Delhi on August 15, 2017.

Narendra Modi, took over as the prime minister of the country on May 26, 2014. On that day, the global price of the Indian basket of crude oil was $108.05 per barrel. Back then, one litre of petrol cost Rs 80 in Mumbai. Diesel in the city was being sold at Rs 65.21 per litre.

Three years have gone by since then and meanwhile, the global oil scenario has changed completely. On September 14, 2017, the price of Indian basket of crude oil was at $54.56 per barrel, around half of what it was when Modi took over as prime minister.

At Rs 79.5 per litre, the price of petrol in Mumbai as on September 14, 2017, in Mumbai, was more or less same as it was when Modi took over as prime minister. Diesel at Rs 62.46 per litre was slightly lower.

What is happening here? While, the price of crude oil has halved, the price of petrol and diesel, which are by-products of crude oil, continues to remain more or less the same (This argument may not hold all across the country, given that different states levy different taxes and different rates of taxes on petrol and diesel).

The gain because of fall in price of oil, has been captured majorly by the central government and the state governments, by increasing the different taxes that are levied on petrol and diesel. Lately, the commission given to pumps which sell petrol and diesel, has also gone up.

A small-scale industry has emerged lately, trying to defend the high taxes that consumers pay on petrol and diesel. Here are the arguments on offer:

a) India imports 80 per cent of the oil that it consumes. Given this, prices of petrol and diesel need to be high, in order to discourage people from consuming more and more of it. The assumption is that at lower price levels, people will consume more petrol and diesel.

b) We need to respect the environment. Petrol and diesel pollute the environment, and hence, taxes on petrol and diesel need to be high.

c) The high taxes on petrol and diesel have helped the government bring down its fiscal deficit without having to cut on its expenditure. This is something that is required in an economic environment where growth is slowing down and hence, government spending needs to be strong. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends.

d) High taxes on petrol and diesel help the government earn enough money in order to fund the physical infrastructure that the country badly needs.

e) High petrol and diesel prices push demand towards more fuel-efficient cars. Also, by taxing petrol more than diesel, the government is ensuring that the private modes of transport (which largely use petrol) are taxed more than the public modes of transport (which use diesel).

f) The oil marketing companies need the flexibility to price their products on a day to day basis. It is this flexibility that reflects in the healthy valuations that their stocks currently enjoy in the stock market.

g) High taxes help the government finance the oil marketing companies which can then sell domestic cooking gas and kerosene at lower prices.

Each of these arguments is largely correct (I mean just because a small scale industry has emerged, doesn’t mean they are wrong) except for the last one. The subsidies on domestic cooking gas and kerosene are now down to around Rs 25,000 crore, which isn’t much in comparison to the petroleum subsidy of the past years. Hence, high taxes on petrol and diesel are clearly not required to fund the subsidy.

But there is one point that these economic commentators and analysts do not talk about. High taxes on the petrol and diesel makes the government lazy and helps it to continue favouring the status quo. Allow me to elaborate. It is worth remembering here that money is fungible. Just as high taxes on petrol and diesel allow the government to fund physical infrastructure, they also allow it to do a lot of other things that a government shouldn’t be doing. Let’s look at the points one by one:

a) Between 2010-2011 and 2015-2016, Air India has lost close to Rs. 35,000 crore, and yet it continues to be run. The losses are not surprising, given that the airline business is a very competitive business and the government clearly doesn’t have the wherewithal to run it. The question is where does the money to keep bankrolling Air India come from? The high taxes on petrol and diesel.
Lately, there has been talk of selling the airline. Let’s see, if and when that happens.

b) Or take the case of Hindustan Photo Films Manufacturing Company Ltd. It is the fourth largest loss-making company among the loss making public sector units. It made losses of Rs 2,528 crore in 2015-201 Between 2004-2005 and 2015-2016, the company has made losses of close to Rs 15,000 crore. As mentioned earlier in 2015-2016, the company lost Rs 2,528 crore. It employed 217 individuals. This meant a loss of Rs 11.65 crore per employee. Where does the money to run this company come from?

c) In total, high taxes on petrol and diesel allowed the government to run 78 loss making public sector enterprises in 2015-2016. Between 2011-2012 and 2015-2016, the loss making public sector enterprises have made losses of Rs 1,33,400 crore. Where is the money to finance these losses coming from?

d) Between 2009 and now, the government has spent roughly around Rs 1,50,000 crore, recapitalising public sector banks. The public sector banks have a humungous bad loans portfolio, as they keep writing off the bad loans, their shareholders’ equity keeps coming down and the government as the largest owner, needs to recapitalise them. Bad loans are essentially loans in which the repayment from a borrower has been due for 90 days or more. Take a look at Table 1.

Table 1:

 

  Gross non-performing advances ratio
Indian Overseas Bank 24.99%
IDBI Ltd. 23.45%
Central Bank of India 19.55%
UCO Bank 18.83%
Bank of Maharashtra 18.00%
Dena Bank 17.39%
United Bank of India 16.56%
Oriental Bank of Commerce 14.49%
Bank of India 14.20%
Allahabad Bank 13.72%
Punjab National Bank 13.20%
Andhra Bank 12.91%
Corporation Bank 12.14%
Union Bank of India 11.77%
Bank of Baroda 11.15%
Punjab & Sind  Bank 10.80%
Canara Bank 10.00%

Source: Author calculations on Indian Banks’ Association data.
As on March 31, 2017.

Table 1 tells us that 17 public sector banks have a bad loans ratio of 10 per cent or high. This basically means that of every Rs 100 of loans that they have given, a tenth or more, is not being repaid. The government currently owns 21 banks, after the merger of the associate banks of State Bank of India and the Bhartiya Mahila Bank, with the State Bank of India.

Some of these banks like the Indian Overseas Bank are in a particularly bad state. This bank has a bad loans ratio of close to 25 per cent i.e. one fourth of its loans have been defaulted on.

Where is the money to keep these banks going, coming from? In a world where money wasn’t free flowing because of high taxes on petrol and diesel, banks like the Indian Overseas Bank, UCO Bank, United Bank of India, Dena Bank, etc., would have already been shutdown or perhaps been sold off. These banks are too small on the lending front to make any substantial difference to the total lending carried out by banks in India. But their losses do hurt the government a lot. Every extra rupee that goes towards funding these banks is taken away from something more important areas like education, health and agriculture.

e) Also, given the different taxes implemented by different states, the price of petrol and diesel tend to vary across the country. Take the case of the government of Maharashtra charging a drought cess of Rs 9 every time one litre of petrol is bought in the state. Why is this cess even there during a time when there is really no drought in the state? It is just an easy way for the government to raise money. Most people don’t even know that they are paying for something like this, every time they buy petrol.

Hence, to introduce a sense of equality among citizens living in different states, petrol and diesel need to be taxed under the GST (They are already a part of it, with zero percent tax rates).

The high taxes from petrol and diesel also helps the government to continue running many inefficient firms as well as banks. Any plan of closing down these firms and banks is likely to met with a lot resistance and also, lead to a lot of hungama (for the lack of a better word). Given this, it makes sense for the government to take the easy way out, maintain the status quo and continue running these firms and banks.

As Donald J Boudreaux writes in The Essential Hayek: “People’s intense focus on their interests as producers, and their relative inattention to their interests as consumers, leads to press for government policies that promote and protect the interests of producers.”

Any idea of shutting down or selling an inefficient public sector enterprise or banks, is likely to be met with a lot of protests from the employees as well as the trade unions representing them. The political parties are likely to join in. Hence, it is easy for the government to maintain the status quo and not make any difficult decisions.

But the money that goes towards keeping these individuals happy, is taken away from other areas like education, agriculture, health etc. People who lose out because of this, do not have the kind of representation that people working for government run firms have.

Of course, all this does not mean that there should be no taxes on petrol and diesel. With the right to govern comes the right to tax people. But these taxes should be at a reasonable level. Also, with lower taxes, people will spend more money on personal consumption and that will help economic growth. And the impact of people spending money, on economic growth, is always greater than that of the government.

To conclude, it is worth remembering that every coin has two sides, and it doesn’t always land up heads.

 

A slightly different version of this column appeared on Pragati on September 19, 2017.