Interest payments quickly suck dry every year’s Budget. And rolling over old public debt means that Government Borrowing in fact much exceeds the Fiscal Deficit
by Subroto Roy
First published in The Sunday Statesman,
Editorial Page Special Article, 4 February 2007
While releasing Mr Chidambaram’s book some days ago, our PM said that as Narasimha Rao’s Finance Minister in 1991 he had caused “fiscal stabilization” of the country. Unfortunately, Dr Manmohan Singh may have been believing the flattery of his sycophants, since the facts point differently.
The Fiscal Deficit is new borrowing by Government added for a given year. In 1994-1995 for example, the Union Government’s expenditure net of operational and other income was some Rs 1,295 billion (1 billion = 100 crore). Rs. 674 billion was generated for the Union Government by taxation that year (Rs 184 billion from direct taxes, Rs 653 billion from indirect and miscellaneous taxes, less Rs 163 billion as the States’ share). The difference between Rs 1,295 billion and Rs. 674 billion, that is Rs. 621 billion had to be borrowed by the Government of India in the name of future unborn generations of Indian citizens. That was the “Fiscal Deficit” that year. If the stock of Public Debt already accumulated has been B,this Fiscal Deficit, C, adds to the interest burden that will be faced next year since interest will have to be then paid on B + C.
Interest payments on Government debt have dominated all public finance in recent decades, quickly sucking dry the budgets every year both of the Union and each of our more than two dozen States. Some Rs. 440 billion was paid by the Union Government as interest in 1994-1995, and this had risen to some Rs. 1,281 billion by 2003-2004. As a percentage of tax revenue, interest expenditure by the Government of India on its own debt rose from 40% in 1991 to 68% in 2004 ~ through the Finance Ministerships of Manmohan Singh, P Chidambaram, Yashwant Sinha and Jaswant Singh.
Financial control of India’s fiscal condition, and hence monetary expansion, vitally requires control of the growth of these kinds of dynamic processes and comprehension of their analytical underpinnings. Yet such understanding and control seem quite absent from all organs of our Government, including establishment economists and the docile financial press.
For example, contrary to the impression created by the Finance Ministry, RBI and Union Cabinet (whether of the UPA or NDA, while the Communists would only be worse), the Fiscal Deficit has been in fact very far from being all that the Government of India borrows from financial markets in a given year. The stock of Public Debt at any given moment consists of numerous debt-instruments of various sorts at different terms. Some fraction of these come to maturity every year and hence their principal amounts (not merely their interest) must be repaid by Government. What our Government has been doing routinely over decades is to roll over these debts, i.e. issue fresh public debt of the same amount as that being extinguished and more. For example, some Rs. 720 billion, Rs. 1,180 billion, Rs.1,330 billion and Rs. 1,390 billion were amounts spent in extinguishing maturing public debt in 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1996 respectively. No special taxes were raised in those years specifically for that purpose. Instead the Government merely issued additional new debt or “rolled over” or “converted” the old debt in the same amounts and more in the portfolios of the captive nationalized banking system (see graph).
Plainly, the Government of India’s actual “Borrowing Requirement”, as the difference between its Income and Expenditure, when accounted for properly, will be the sum of this rolled over old debt and the Fiscal Deficit (which is merely the additional borrowing required by a single year’s Budget). In other words, the Government’s Borrowing Requirement is the Fiscal Deficit plus the much larger amount required to annually roll over maturing debt. Because the latter expenditure does not appear at all in calculation of the Fiscal Deficit by the subterfuge of having been routinely rolled over every year, the actual difference between Government Expenditure and Income in India has been made to appear much smaller than it really is. Although neglected by the Cabinet, Finance Ministry, RBI and even (almost) the C&AG, the significance of this discrepancy in measurement will not be lost on anyone seriously concerned to address India’s fiscal and monetary problems.
On the expenditure side, Current Expenditure (anachronistically named “Revenue Expenditure” in India as it is supposed to be met by current revenue) meets recurrent liabilities from one budget-date to the next, like salaries of school-staff or coupon payments on Government debt.
Investment Expenditure “of a capital nature” is supposed to increase “concrete assets of a material and permanent character” like spending on a new public library, or reducing “recurring liabilities” by setting aside a sinking fund to reduce Government debt. Some public resources need to be spent to yield benefits or reduce costs not immediately but in the future. Besides roads, bridges and libraries, these may include less tangible investments too like ensuring proper working of law-courts or training police-officers and school-teachers.
Also, there has been large outright direct lending by the Government of India bypassing normal capital markets on the pattern of old Soviet “central planning”, whereby “credit” is disbursed to chosen recipients.
“Current”, “Investment” and “Loan” expenditure decisions of this kind are made on the same activities. For example, in 1994-1995, the Government of India spent Rs. 2.7 billion as “Loans for Power Projects” in addition to Rs. 9.8 billion under Current Expenditure on “Power” and Rs. 15.5 billion as Investment Expenditure on “Power Projects”. By 2003-2004, these had grown to Rs. 50.94 billion, Rs. 31.02 billion, Rs. 28.5 billion respectively. Yet the opaqueness of Government accounts, finances and economic decision-making today is such that nowhere will such data be found in one table giving a full picture of public expenditure on the Power sector as a whole. On the revenue side, Government’s “Current Income” includes direct and indirect taxes, operational income from public utilities (like railways or the post office), and dividends and profits from public assets. There has been a small “Investment Income” too received from sale of public assets like Maruti. Also, since loans are made directly, there has to be a category for their recovery.
“One must not take from the real needs of the people for the imaginary needs of the state”, said Montesquieu; while De Marco in the same vein said “the greatest satisfaction of collective needs” has to be sought by “the least possible waste of private wealth”. Even Mao Zedong reportedly said: “Thrift should be the guiding principle of our government expenditure”. The C&AG requires Government determine “how little money it need take out of the pockets of the taxpayers in order to maintain its necessary activities at the proper standard of efficiency”.
Yet India’s top politicians and bureaucrats spend wildly ~ driven by the organised special interest groups on whom they depend, while ostentatiously consuming public time, space and resources themselves “quite uselessly in the pleasurable business of inflating the ego” (Veblen).
For Government to do what it need not or should not do contributes to its failure to do what it must. Thus we have armies of indolent soldiers, policemen and bureaucrats and piles of rotting supplies in government warehouses while there are queues outside hospitals, schools, courts etc.
Parliament and State Legislatures need to first ask of an annual budget whether it is efficient: “Is expenditure being allocated to enhance the public interest to the greatest extent possible, and if not, how may it be made to do so?” National welfare overall should increase the same whichever public good or service the final million of public rupees has been spent on.
Fundamentally, government finance requires scientific honesty, especially by way of clear rigorous accounting and audit of uses and origins of public resources. That scientific honesty is what we have not had at Union or State level for more than half a century.
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