A recurrent allegation against the Modi 1.0 government is that it did not deliver on economic reforms. The noise on need to ‘reform’ is only getting louder as he gets ready to run the world’s fastest-expanding major economy for the next five years – with a bigger mandate.
To be sure, reform means many things to many people.
For equity investors, reforms are decisions leading to higher corporate earnings essential for driving stock prices up. If investment activity is muted, they would call for government spending even if doing so is imprudent. This is a crowd that doesn’t bother about inflation. In fact, it would celebrate price rise even without productivity gains. Inflation means higher profits, more dividend and ever rising equity valuations.
For bond investors, reform is government being prudent. If it borrows more, it would crowd out private investments. It hates inflation because it lowers the value of bonds. If yields spike, it is bad even for the government because it ends up paying more for its own debt. It also hurts future generations as they end up paying the debt the current generation accumulates.
For the corporate world, the burden of compliance should be lesser. Industry chambers forever want lower tax rates on everything from the Audi Q7 to an Atlas bicycle. Curiously, in the name of uniform GST rate, they are demanding the same treatment for goods of essential consumption and those of conspicuous consumption. They always look for concessions for investment and ‘tax-holidays’. During ET’s first Global Business Summit, Prime Minister Modi summed up the attitude well. “If you give something to industry, it is incentive.”
For wealthy individuals, it is low or even nil taxation on their investments because they are contributing to nation building. All the investments they make should be tax exempt — be it mutual funds, private equity or start-ups. Unless you do it, the entrepreneurial eco-system wouldn’t flourish.
For giant corporations, government rules must ensure that entry barriers are high. Their argument is that customer service is so important that small companies would lack economies of scale and consumers end up paying higher prices. But the opposite is true. Industries which are dominated by duopoly or oligopoly structure end up squeezing consumers in the long run and the economy loses out.
For non-banking finance companies, the Reserve Bank of India is a heartless beast that fails to acknowledge their role in providing livelihood for millions of families. They provide credit to a bunch of less creditworthy borrowers risking their capital; so they should be treated kindly. They are not open to the prudential norms that guide banks but want the regulator to be their lender of first resort.
If the administration panders to the demand of all, public policy would end up encouraging crony capitalism rather than creating a level playing field for long run benefits. While fans of John Maynard Keynes would be quick to point out that “in the long run we are all dead”, policy makers have to be mindful of that.
The Oxford Dictionary defines reform in these words: “Make changes in (something, especially an institution or practice) in order to improve it.”
Going by this definition, what did Modi 1.0 do? Three institutional changes come to mind
1) Independence of monetary policy, with the formation of a Monetary Policy Committee that decides on interest rates. The structure frees decision-making even from the Governor, who is appointed by the government.
2) Legislation on bankruptcy. For decades, lenders were at the mercy of borrowers. Now, however, someone who has lent money can take away the assets. That bankers, who were earlier complaining about the lack of such policy support, are not using the mechanism willingly is a signal that the way they do business is changing.
3) Goods and Services Tax. It was a Herculean task that someone as diplomatic as Arun Jaitley (who is out of the race for finance minister now) alone could achieve it. He gave up half his powers by surrendering taxation to the GST Council for a greater good.
Structural changes would not reflect in improvements overnight. These take years to sink into the system and the benefits would be reaped over the years. Like it was when Prime Minister Narasimha Rao opened up the economy in 1991, with local industry complaining about competition. The fruits are there for everyone to see.
A finance minister can give direction to an economy and not drive it. Meddling with banks to bring down interest rates and pushing them to lend to projects can give a feeling the government is active, but it would backfire like it did with the UPA government. Jaitley resisted the temptation.
Modi-Jaitley combo rarely indulged in headline grabbing stuff that was routine with P Chidambaram as finance minister. Headlines can be numerous, but what matters is delivering on structural change. The economy may be better off with a Jaitley-like character in the North Block than Chidambaram.
Source : Economic Times