My Recent Works, Interviews etc on India’s Money, Public Finance, Banking, Trade, BoP, Land, etc (an incomplete list)

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My “Critique of Monetary Ideas of Manmohan & Modi: the Roy Model explaining to Bimal Jalan, Nirmala Sitharaman, RBI etc what it is they are doing” of 2019 is here.

 

 

My critical assessment dated 23 August 2013 of Professors Jagdish Bhagwati & Amartya Sen and Dr Manmohan Singh is here

 

 

My critique of PM Modi’s 8 November 2016 statement began on Twitter immediately, and is  summarized here “Modi & Monetary Theory: Economic Consequences of the Prime Minister of India”

 3dec

My critical assessment dated 19 August 2013 of Professor Raghuram Rajan is here and here.

My 3 Dec 2012 Delhi talk on India’s Money is now available at You-Tube in an audio version here

My July 2012 article “India’s Money” in the Caymans Financial Review is here and here https://independentindian.com/2012/07/21/my-article-indias-money-in-the-cayman-financial-review-july-2012/

My 5 December 2012 interview by Mr Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, on Lok Sabha TV, the channel of India’s Lower House of Parliament, broadcast for the first time on 9 December 2012 on Lok Sabha TV, is here and here  in two parts.

My interview by GDI Impuls banking quarterly of  Zürich  published on 6 Dec 2012 is here.

My interview by Ragini Bhuyan of Delhi’s Sunday Guardian published on 16 Dec 2012  is here.

 “Monetary Integrity and the Rupee” (2008)

https://independentindian.com/2008/09/28/monetary-integrity-and-the-rupee/

  “India’s Macroeconomics” (2007)

“Fiscal Instability” (2007)

 “Fallacious Finance” (2007)

https://independentindian.com/2007/03/05/fallacious-finance-the-congress-bjp-cpi-m-et-al-may-be-leading-india-to-hyperinflation/

 “Growth and Government Delusion” (2008)

https://independentindian.com/2008/02/22/growth-government-delusion/

 “Distribution of Govt of India Expenditure (Net of Operational Income) 1995”
https://independentindian.com/2008/07/27/distribution-of-govt-of-india-expenditure-net-of-operational-income-1995/

“India in World Trade & Payments” (2007)

https://independentindian.com/2007/02/12/india-in-world-trade-payments/

“Path of the Indian Rupee 1947-1993″ (1993)

https://independentindian.com/1993/06/01/path-of-the-indian-rupee-1947-1993/

“Our Policy Process” (2007)

https://independentindian.com/2007/02/20/our-policy-process-self-styled-planners-have-controlled-indias-paper-money-for-decades/

“Indian Money and Credit” (2006)

https://independentindian.com/2006/08/06/indian-money-and-credit/

“Indian Money and Banking” (2006)

https://independentindian.com/2006/04/23/indian-money-and-banking/

“Indian Inflation” (2008)

https://independentindian.com/2008/04/16/indian-inflation-upside-down-economics-from-new-delhis-establishment/

 How the Liabilities/Assets Ratio of Indian Banks Changed from 84% in 1970 to 108% in 1998 https://independentindian.com/2008/10/20/how-the-liabilitiesassets-ratio-of-indian-banks-changed-from-84-in-1970-to-108-in-1998/

indiasbanks1

“Growth of Real Income, Money & Prices in India 1869-2004” (2005)

https://independentindian.com/2008/07/28/growth-of-real-income-money-prices-in-india-1869-2004/

“How to Budget” (2008)

https://independentindian.com/2008/02/26/how-to-budget-thrift-not-theft-should-guide-our-public-finances/

“Waffle but No Models of Monetary Policy: The RBI and Financial Repression (2005)”

https://independentindian.com/2005/10/27/waffle-but-no-models-of-monetary-policy-the-rbi-and-financial-repression/

“The Dream Team: A Critique” (2006)

https://independentindian.com/2006/01/08/the-dream-team-a-critique/

 

“Against Quackery” (2007)

https://independentindian.com/2007/09/24/against-quackery/

“Mistaken Macroeconomics” (2009)

https://independentindian.com/2009/06/12/mistaken-macroeconomics-an-open-letter-to-prime-minister-dr-manmohan-singh/

Towards a Highly Transparent Fiscal & Monetary Framework for India’s Union & State Governments (RBI lecture 29 April 2000)

https://independentindian.com/2000/04/29/towards-a-highly-transparent-fiscal-monetary-framework-for-india%E2%80%99s-union-state-governments/

“The Indian Revolution (2008)”

https://independentindian.com/2008/12/08/the-indian-revolution/

Can India Become an Economic Superpower or Will There Be a Monetary Meltdown? (2005)

https://independentindian.com/2005/05/05/can-india-become-an-economic-superpower-or-will-there-be-a-monetary-meltdown-2005/

Memo to Kaushik Basu, 2010

Land, Liberty, & Value, 2006

https://independentindian.com/2006/12/31/land-liberty-value/

On Land-Grabbing, 2007

https://independentindian.com/2007/01/14/on-land-grabbing/

No Marxist MBAs? An amicus curiae brief for the Honourable High Court

https://independentindian.com/2007/08/29/no-marxist-mbasan-amicus-curae-brief-for-the-honourable-high-court/

Coverage in The *Asian Age*/*Deccan Herald* of 4 Dec 2012.

IICtophalf IICtalkbottom,half

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sundayguardiantp sgmiddle sgmid2 sgmid3 sgmid4 sgmid5 3Dec

Posted in Academic research, Amartya Sen, Arvind Panagariya, Bhagwati-Sen spat, Britain in India, China's macroeconomics, China's savings rate, Economic Policy, Economic quackery, Economic Theory, Economic Theory of Growth, Economic Theory of Interest, Economic Theory of Value, Economics of exchange controls, Economics of Public Finance, GDI Impuls Zurich, Government accounting, Government Budget Constraint, Government of India, India's Big Business, India's credit markets, India's Government economists, India's 1991 Economic Reform, India's balance of payments, India's Banking, India's Budget, India's Capital Markets, India's corporate governance, India's corruption, India's currency history, India's Economic History, India's Economy, India's Exports, India's Foreign Exchange Reserves, India's Foreign Trade, India's Government Budget Constraint, India's Government Expenditure, India's Macroeconomics, India's Military Defence, India's Monetary & Fiscal Policy, India's Money, India's nomenclatura, India's political lobbyists, India's Politics, India's pork-barrel politics, India's poverty, India's Public Finance, India's Reserve Bank, India's State Finances, Inflation, Institute of Economic Affairs, International economics, Jagdish Bhagwati, Jean Drèze, Lok Sabha TV, Macroeconomics, Manmohan Singh, Microeconomic foundations of macroeconomics, Milton Friedman, Raghuram Govind Rajan, Raghuram Rajan, Rajiv Gandhi, Reverse-Euro Model for India, Sen-Bhagwati spat, Sonia Gandhi. 1 Comment »

No magic wand, Professor Rajan? Oh but there is…2013 (Plus: 7 Jan 2016 “Professor Rajan stays or goes? My answer to a query”)

7 January 2016
rajan

3 June 2014

from World Economy & Central Banking Seminar at Facebook

Professor Rajan’s statement “I determine the monetary policy. I say what it is….ultimately the interest rate that is set is set by me” equates Indian monetary policy with the money interest rate; but monetary policy in India has always involved far more than that, namely, the bulk of Indian banking and insurance has been in government hands for decades, all these institutions have been willy-nilly compelled to hold vast stocks of government debt, both Union and State, on their asset-sides…and unlimited unending deficit finance has led to vast expansion of money supply, making it all rather fragile. My “India’s Money” in 2012 might be found useful. http://tinyurl.com/o9dhe8d

11 April 2014

from World Economy & Central Banking Seminar at Facebook

I have to wonder, What is Professor Rajan on about? Growth in an individual country is affected by the world monetary system? Everyone for almost a century has seen it being a real phenomenon affected by other real factors like savings propensities, capital accumulation, learning and productivity changes, innovation, and, broadly, technological progress… A “source country” needs to consult “recipient” countries before it starts or stops Quantitative Easing? Since when? The latter can always match policy such as to be more or less unaffected… unless of course it wants to ride along for free when the going is good and complain loudly when it is not…. Monetary policy may affect the real economy but as a general rule we may expect growth (a real phenomenon) to be affected by other real factors like savings propensities, capital accumulation, learning and productivity changes, innovation, and, broadly, technological progress..

22 September 2013

“Let us remember that the postponement of tapering is only that, a postponement. We must use this time to create a bullet proof national balance sheet and growth agenda, which creates confidence in citizens and investors alike…”

I will say the statement above is the first sensible thing I have heard Dr Rajan utter anywhere, cutting through all the hype…I should also think he may be underestimating the task at hand, so here’s some help as to what needs to be done from my 19 Aug 2013 Mint article “A wand for Raghuram Rajan” and my 3 Dec 2012 Delhi lecture:

“Rajan has apparently said, “We do not have a magic wand to make the problems disappear instantaneously, but I have absolutely no doubt we will deal with them.” Of course there are no magic wands but there is a scientific path forward. It involves system-wide improvements in public finance and accounting using modern information technology to comprehend government liabilities and expenditures and raise their productivity. It also involves institutional changes in public decision-making like separating banking and central banking from the treasury while making the planning function serve the treasury function rather than pretend to be above it. It is a road long and arduous but at its end both corruption and inflation will have been reduced to minimal levels. The rupee will have acquired sufficient integrity to become a hard currency of the world in the sense the average resident of, say, rural Madhya Pradesh or Mizoram may freely convert rupees and hold or trade foreign currencies or precious metals as he/she pleases. India signed the treaty of Versailles as a victor and was an original member of the League of Nations, the United Nations and the IMF. Yet sovereign India has failed to develop a currency universally acceptable as freely convertible world money. It is necessary and possible for India to aim to do so because without such a national aim, the integrity of the currency continues to be damaged regularly by governmental abuse. An RBI governor’s single overriding goal should be to try to bring a semblance of integrity to India’s money both domestically and worldwide.”

 

 

19 August 2013

A wand for Raghuram Rajan

9 August 2013

No magic wand, Professor Rajan? Oh but there is… read up all this over some hours and you will find it… (Of course it’s not from magic really,  just hard economic science & politics)

Professor Raghuram Govind Rajan of the University of Chicago Business School deserves everyone’s congratulations on his elevation to the Reserve Bank of India’s Governorship.  But I am afraid I cannot share the wild optimism in India’s business media over this.  Of course there are several positives to the appointment.  First, having a genuine PhD and that too from a top school is a rarity among India’s policy-makers; Rajan earned a 1991 PhD in finance at MIT’s management school for a thesis titled “Essays on banking” (having to do we are told “with the downside to cozy bank-firm relationships”).   Secondly, and related,  he has not been a career bureaucrat as almost all RBI Governors have been in recent decades.  Thirdly, he has been President of the American Finance Association, he won the first Fischer Black prize in finance of that Association, and during Anne Krueger’s 2001-2006 reign as First Deputy MD at the IMF, he was given the research role made well-known by the late Michael Mussa, that of “Economic Counselor” of the IMF.

Hence, altogether, Professor Rajan has come to be well-known over the last decade in the West’s financial media. Given the dismal state of India’s credit in world capital markets, that is an asset for a new RBI Governor to have.

On the negatives, first and foremost, if Professor Rajan has renounced at any time his Indian nationality, surrendered his Indian passport and sworn the naturalization oath of the USA, then he is a US citizen with a US passport and loyalty owed to that country, and by US law he will have to enter the USA using that and no other nationality.  If that happens to be the factual case, it will be something that comes out in India’s political cauldron for sure, and there will arise legal issues and court orders  barring him from heading the RBI or representing India officially, e.g. when standing in for India’s Finance Minister at the IMF in Washington or the BIS in Basle etc.   Was he an Indian national as Economic Counselor at the IMF?   The IMF has a tradition of only European MDs and at least one American First Deputy MD.   The Economic Counselor was always American too; did Rajan break that by having remained Indian, or conform to it by having become American?  It is a simple question of fact which needs to come out clearly.   Even if Rajan is an American, he and the Government of India could perhaps try to cite to the Indian courts the new precedent set by the venerable Bank of England which recently appointed a Canadian as Governor.

Secondly, does Professor Rajan know enough (or “have enough domain knowledge” in the modern term) to comprehend let aside confront India’s myriad monetary and public finance problems?  Much of his academic experience in the USA and his approach to Western financial markets may be quite simply divorced from the reality of Indian credit markets and India’s peculiar monetary and banking system as these have evolved over decades and centuries.  Mathematical finance is a relatively new, small specialised American sub-field of economic theory, and not a part of general economics. Rajan’s academic path of engineering and management in India followed by a finance thesis in the management department of a US engineering school may have exposed him to relatively little formal textbook micro- and macroeconomics, monetary economics, public finance, international economics, economic development etc, especially as these relate to Indian circumstances  “Growing up in India, I had seen poverty all around me. I had read about John Maynard Keynes and thought, wow, here’s a guy who managed to have an enormous influence on the world. Economics must be very important.”… He ran across Robert Merton’s paper on rational option pricing, and something clicked that set him on his own intellectual path. “It all came together. You didn’t have these touchy-feely ways of describing human behavior; there were neat arbitrage ways of pricing things. It just seemed so clever and sophisticated,” he said. “And I could use the math skills that I fancied I had, so I decided to get my PhD.”

Let me take two examples.  Does Rajan realise how the important Bottomley-Chandavarkar debates of the 1960s about India’s rural credit markets influenced George Akerlof’s “Market for Lemons” theory and prompted much work on “asymmetric information”, 325.extract signalling etc in credit-markets, insurance-markets, labour-markets and markets in general, as acknowledged in the awards of several Bank of Sweden prizes?  Or will he need a tutorial on the facts of rural India’s financial and credit markets, and their relationship with the formal sector?  What the Bottomley-Chandavarkar debate referred to half a century ago still continues in rural India insofar as large arbitrage profits are still made by trading across the artificially low rates of money interest caused by financial repression of India’s “formal” monetised sector with its soft inconvertible currency against the very high real rates of return on capital in the “informal” sector.   It is obvious to the naked eye that India is a relatively labour-abundant country.  It follows the relative price of labour will be low and relative price of capital high compared to, e.g. the Western or Middle Eastern economies, with mobile factors of production like labour and capital expected to flow accordingly across national boundaries.   Indian nominal interest-rates in organized credit markets have been for decades tightly controlled, making it necessary to go back to Irving Fisher’s data to obtain benchmark interest-rates, which, as expected, are at least 2%-3% higher in India than in Western capital markets. Joan Robinson once explained “the difference between 30% in an Indian village and 3% in London” saying “side by side with the industrial revolution went great technical progress in the provision of credit and the reduction of lender’s risk.”

What is logically certain is no country can have both relatively low world prices for labour and relatively low world prices for capital!  Yet that impossibility seems to have been what India’s purported economic “planners” have planned to engineer!  The effect of financial repression over decades may have been to artificially “reverse” or “switch” the risk-premium — making it lucrative for there to be capital flight out of India, with real rates of return on capital within India being made artificially lower than those in world markets!   Just as enough export subsidies and tariffs can make a country artificially “reverse” its comparative advantage with its structure of exports and imports becoming inverted, so a labour-rich capital-scarce country may, with enough financial repression, end up causing a capital flight.  The Indian elite’s capital flight out of India exporting their adult children and savings overseas may be explained as having been induced by government policy itself.

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Secondly, Professor Rajan as a finance and banking specialist, will see at once the import of this graph above that has never been produced let aside comprehended by the RBI, yet which uses the purest RBI data.  It shows India’s mostly nationalised banks have decade after decade gotten weaker and weaker financially, being kept afloat by continually pumping in of new “capital” via “recapitalisation” from the government that owns them, using more and more of the soft inconvertible currency that has been debauched merrily by government planners.  The nationalised banks with their powerful pampered employee unions, like other powerful pampered employee unions in the government sector, have been the bane of India, where a mere 30 million privileged people in a vast population work with either the government or the organised private sector.  The RBI’s own workforce at last count was perhaps 75,000… the largest central bank staff in the world by far!

Will Rajan know how to bring some system out of the institutional chaos that prevails in Indian banking and central banking?  If not, he should start with the work of James Hanson “Indian Banking: Market Liberalization and the Pressures for Institutional and Market Framework Reform”, contained in the book created by Anne Krueger who brought him into the IMF, and mentioned in my 2012 article “India’s Money” linked below.

The central question for any 21st century RBI Governor worth the name really becomes whether he or she can stand up to the Finance Ministry and insist that the RBI stop being a mere department of it — even perhaps insisting on constitutional status for its head to fulfill the one over-riding aim of trying to bring a semblance of integrity to India’s currency both domestically and worldwide.  Instead it is the so-called “Planning Commission” which has been dominating the Treasury that needs to be made a mere department of the Finance Ministry, while the RBI comes to be hived off to independence!  

Professor Rajan has apparently said “We do not have a magic wand to make the problems disappear instantaneously, but I have absolutely no doubt we will deal with them.”  Of course there are no magic wands but my 3 December 2012 talk in Delhi  has described the right path forward, complex and difficult as this may be.

The path forward involves system-wide improvements in public finance and accounting using modern information technology to comprehend government liabilities and expenditures and raise their productivity, plus institutional changes in public decision-making like separating banking and central banking from the Treasury while making the planning function serve the Treasury function rather than pretend to be above it.  The road described is long and arduous but at its end both corruption and inflation will have been reduced to minimal levels, and the rupee would have acquired integrity enough to become a hard currency of the world in the sense the average resident of, say, rural Madhya Pradesh or Mizoram may freely convert rupees and hold or trade foreign currencies or precious metals as he/she pleases.

3dec

India signed the Treaty of Versailles as a victor and was an original member of the League of Nations, UN and IMF.  Yet sovereign India has failed to develop a currency universally acceptable as a freely convertible world money. It is necessary and possible for India to do so. Without such a national aim, the integrity of the currency continues to be damaged regularly by governmental abuse. 

Professor Rajan will not want to be merely an adornment for the GoI in world capital markets for a few  years, waiting to get back to his American career and life and perhaps to the IMF again.  As RBI Governor, he can find his magic wand if he reads and reflects hard enough using his undoubted academic acumen, and then acts to lead India accordingly.  Here is the basic reading list:

“India’s Money” (2012)

“Monetary Integrity and the Rupee” (2008)

“India’s Macroeconomics” (2007)

“Fiscal Instability” (2007)

“Fallacious Finance” (2007)

“Growth and Government Delusion” (2008)

“India in World Trade & Payments” (2007)

“Path of the Indian Rupee 1947-1993” (1993)

“Our Policy Process” (2007)

“Indian Money and Credit” (2006)

“Indian Money and Banking” (2006)

Indian Inflation

“Growth of Real Income, Money & Prices in India 1869-2004” (2005)

“How to Budget” (2008)

“Waffle but No Models of Monetary Policy: The RBI and Financial Repression (2005)”

“The Dream Team: A Critique” (2006)

“Against Quackery” (2007)

“Mistaken Macroeconomics” (2009)

“The Indian Revolution (2008)”

https://independentindian.com/2013/11/23/coverage-of-my-delhi-talk-on-3-dec-2012/

Enjoy!

Posted in Academic economics, Academic research, Asia and the West, asymmetric information, Banking, Big Business and Big Labour, Bretton Woods institutions, Britain in India, Capital and labour, Deposit multiplication, Economic Policy, Economic quackery, Economic Theory, Economic Theory of Growth, Economic Theory of Interest, Economic Theory of Value, Economics of exchange controls, Economics of Exchange Rates, Economics of Public Finance, Financial Management, Financial markets, Financial Repression, Foreign exchange controls, Governance, Government accounting, Government Budget Constraint, India's Big Business, India's credit markets, India's Government economists, India's interest rates, India's savings rate, India's stock and debt markets, India's 1991 Economic Reform, India's agriculture, India's balance of payments, India's Banking, India's Budget, India's bureaucracy, India's Capital Markets, India's currency history, India's Foreign Exchange Reserves, India's Foreign Trade, India's Government Budget Constraint, India's Government Expenditure, India's Macroeconomics, India's Monetary & Fiscal Policy, India's nomenclatura, India's Polity, India's poverty, India's Public Finance, India's Reserve Bank, India's State Finances, India's Union-State relations, Inflation, Inflation targeting, Interest group politics, Interest rates, International economics, International monetary economics, International Monetary Fund IMF, Land and political economy, Microeconomic foundations of macroeconomics, Monetary Theory, Money and banking, Paper money and deposits, Power-elites and nomenclatura, Public Choice/Public Finance, Public property waste fraud, Raghuram Govind Rajan, Raghuram Rajan, Rajiv Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, Statesmanship, Unorganised capital markets. Leave a Comment »

Bengal Government Finances 2003/4 data (from my 2007 article)

Govt. of W. Bengal’s Finances 2003-2004

Rs Billion (Hundred Crore)

EXPENDITURE ACTIVITIES:

government & local government                           8.68            1.68%

judiciary                                                                            1.27            0.25%

police (including home guard etc.)                       13.47            2.61%

prisons                                                                               0.62             0.12%

bureaucracy                                                                     5.69            1.10%

collecting land revenue & taxes                                4.32            0.84%

government employee pensions                              26.11           5.05%

schools, colleges, universities, institutes            45.06            8.72%

health, nutrition & family welfare                              14.70           2.84%

water supply & sanitation                                               3.53           0.68%

roads, bridges, transport, etc.                                      8.29           1.60%

electricity (mostly loans to power sector)             31.18           6.03%

irrigation, flood control, environment, ecology 10.78           2.09%

agricultural subsidies, rural development, etc.    7.97            1.54%

industrial subsidies                                                            2.56            0.50%

capital city development                                                 7.29            1.41%

social security, SC, ST, OBC, labour welfare              9.87           1.91%

tourism                                                                                    0.09            0.02%

arts, archaeology, libraries, museums                        0.16            0.03%

miscellaneous                                                                         0.52            0.10%

debt amortization & debt servicing                          314.77          60.89%

total expenditure                                                              516.92

INCOME SOURCES:

tax revenue                                                     141.10

operational income                                          6.06

grants from Union                                            18.93

loans recovered                                                   0.91

total income                                                      167.00

GOVT. BORROWING REQUIREMENT

(total expenditure minus total income )               349.93

financed by:

new public debt issued                                                 339.48

use of Trust Funds etc                                                      10.45

349.93

https://independentindian.com/2007/02/25/bengals-finances/

From the author’s research 2007 and based on latest available data published by the Comptroller & Auditor General of India

Two Different Models for India’s Political Economy: Mine & Dr Manmohan Singh’s (Updated 2013)

see

https://independentindian.com/2013/05/19/cambridge-economics-the-disputation-in-indias-economic-policy/

https://independentindian.com/2013/08/23/did-jagdish-bhagwati-originate-pioneer-intellectually-father-indias-1991-economic-reform-did-manmohan-singh-or-did-i-through-my-encounter-with-rajiv-gandhi-just-as-siddhartha-shan/

https://independentindian.com/2009/06/12/mistaken-macroeconomics-an-open-letter-to-prime-minister-dr-manmohan-singh/

From Facebook

February 24 2011

Subroto Roy does not know if he just heard Manmohan Singh say “inflation will soon come down” — excuse me Dr Singh, but how was it you and all your acolytes uniformly said back in July 2010 that inflation would be down to 6% by Dec 2010? 6%?! 16% more likely! I said. Until he explains his previous error, we may suppose he will repeat it.

January 11 2011:

Subroto Roy can stop the Indian inflation and bring integrity to the currency over time, and Manmohan Singh and his advisers cannot (because they have the wrong economic models/theories/data etc and refuse to change), but then they would have to make me a Minister and I keep getting reminded of what Groucho Marx said about clubs that would have him.

Subroto Roy does not think Dr Manmohan Singh or his acolytes and advisers, or his Finance Minister and his acolytes and advisers, understand Indian inflation. If you do not understand something, you are not likely to change it.

March 6 2010:

Subroto Roy  says the central difference between the Subroto Roy Model for India as described in 1990-1991 to Rajiv Gandhi in his last months, and the Manmohan Singh Model for India that has developed since Rajiv’s assassination, is that by my model, India’s money and public finances would have acquired integrity enough for the Indian Rupee to have become a hard currency of the world economy by now, allowing all one billion Indians access to foreign exchange and precious metals freely, whereas by the model of Dr Singh and his countless supporters, India’s money and public finance remain subject to government misuse and abuse, and access to foreign exchange remains available principally to politicians, bureaucrats, big business and its influential lobbyists, the military, as well as perhaps ten or twenty million nomenclatura in the metropolitan cities.

April 8 2010:

Subroto Roy notes a different way of stating his cardinal difference with the economics of Dr Manmohan Singh’s Govt: in their economics, foreign exchange is “made available” by the GoI for “business and personal uses”. That is different from my economics of aiming for all one billion Indians to have a money that has some integrity, i.e., a rupee that becomes a hard currency of the world economy. (Ditto incidentally with the PRC.)

 

Updates:

From Facebook:

Subroto Roy  reads in *Newsweek* today  (Aug 19) Manmohan Singh “engineered the transition from stagnant socialism to a spectacular takeoff”.  This contradicts my experience with Rajiv Gandhi at 10 Janpath in 1990-91. Dr Singh had not returned to India from his years with Julius Nyerere in his final assignment before retiring from the bureaucracy when Rajiv and I first met on 18 September 1990.

“After (Rajiv Gandhi’s) assassination, the comprador business press credited Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh with having originated the 1991 economic reform.  In May 2002, however, the Congress Party itself passed a resolution proposed by Digvijay Singh explicitly stating Rajiv and not either of them was to be so credited… There is no evidence Dr Singh or his acolytes were committed to any economic liberalism prior to 1991 and scant evidence they have originated liberal economic ideas for India afterwards. Precisely because they represented the decrepit old intellectual order of statist ”Ma-Bap Sarkari” policy-making, they were not asked in the mid-1980s to be part of a “perestroika-for-India” project done at a foreign university ~ the results of which were received…by Rajiv Gandhi in hand at 10 Janpath on 18 September 1990 and specifically sparked the change in the direction of his economic thinking…”

Subroto Roy notes that current Indian public policy discussion has thus far failed to realise that the rise in money prices of real goods and services is the same as the fall in the real value of money.

Subroto Roy  is interested to hear Mr Jaitley say in Parliament today the credibility of Government economists is at stake. Of course it is. There has been far too much greed and mendacity all around, besides sheer ignorance. (When I taught for a year or so at the Delhi School of Economics as a 22 year old Visiting Assistant Professor in 1977-78, I was told Mr Jaitley was in the law school and a student leader of note. I though was more interested in teaching the usefulness of Roy Radner’s “information structures” in a course on “advanced economic theory”.)

 

 

 

 

July 31 2010

Subroto Roy reads in today’s pink business newspaper the GoI’s debt level at Rs 38 trillion & three large states (WB, MH, UP) is at Rs 6 trillion, add another 18 for all other large states together, another 5 for all small states & 3 for errors and omissions, making my One Minute Estimate of India’s Public Debt Stock Rs 70 trillion (70 lakh crores). Interest payments at, say, 9%, keep the banking system afloat, extracting oxygen from the public finances like a cyanide capsule.

July 28 2010

Subroto Roy observes Parliament to be discussing Indian inflation but expects a solution will not be found until the problem has been comprehended.

July 27 2010:

Subroto Roy continues to weep at New Delhi’s continual debauching of the rupee.

July 25 2010:

Subroto Roy  has no idea why Dr Manmohan Singh has himself (along with all his acolytes and flatterers in the Government and media and big business), gone about predicting Indian inflation will fall to 6% by December. 16% may be a more likely figure given a public debt at Rs 40 trillion perhaps plus money supply growth above 20%! (Of course, the higher the figure the Government admits, the more it has to pay in dearness allowance to those poor unionized unfortunates known as Government employees, so perhaps the official misunderestimation (sic) of Indian inflation is a strategy of public finance!)

July 12 2010:

Subroto Roy is amused to read Dr Manmohan Singh’s Chief Acolyte say in today’s pink business newspaper how important accounting is in project-appraisal — does the sinner repent after almost single-handedly helping to ruin project-appraisal  & government accounting & macroeconomic planning over decades?  I  rather doubt it.   For myself, I am amused to see chastity now being suddenly preached from within you-know-where.

July 4 2010:

Subroto Roy does not think the Rs 90 billion (mostly in foreign exchange) spent by the Manmohan Singh Government on New Delhi’s “Indira Gandhi International Airport Terminal 3” is conducive to the welfare of the common man (“aam admi”) who travels, if at all, mostly within India and by rail.

Subroto Roy hears Dr Manmohan Singh say yesterday “Global economic recession did not have much impact on us as it had on other countries”. Of course it didn’t. I had said India was hardly affected but for a collapse of exports & some fall in foreign investment. Why did he & his acolytes then waste vast public resources claiming they were rescuing India using a purported Keynesian fiscal “stimulus” (aka corporate/lobbyist pork)?

May 26 2010:

Subroto Roy  would like to know how & when Dr Manmohan Singh will assess he has finished the task/assignment he thinks has been assigned to him & finally retire from his post-retirement career: when his Chief Acolyte declares on TV that 10% real GDP growth has been reached? (Excuse me, but is that per capita? And about those inequalities….?)

Did the GoI’s MoF’s CEA certify India’s fiscal health yesterday? If so, it is a mistaken certificate

From Facebook:

Subroto Roy reads that Dr Kaushik Basu, Chief Economic Adviser to the Finance Ministry of the Manmohan Singh Government, has “expressed great confidence in the fiscal health of the economy” and says to Kaushik:

You are unaware of that of which you wish to speak.

(Yet Another) Memo to Dr Kaushik Basu

Dear Kaushik,

Apropos your reported predictions, I have had to say at Facebook:

Subroto Roy  is appalled the GoI’s Chief Economic Adviser has declared (as the PM and the PM’s Chief Acolyte had  declared in earlier months) that prices are trending downwards stochastically but amused that at least a stochastic (“fluctuating”) trend got mentioned.

Governor Subbarao has been set a small challenge the other day to release asap for public scrutiny the comprehensive macroeconomic model he says he believes the RBI has — which may be  hard if no such model may exist at the RBI.   Nor does your Ministry or anyone else in New Delhi have such a model.  So what is the Government’s precise scientific basis for predicting a slowing of inflation?  Nothing at all?

The Government needs to begin to try to understand that inflation does not slow down in circumstances where real public debt per capita and money supply have been growing exponentially for decades — to the contrary, inflation tends to rise to dangerous heights!  Debauching of  fiat money would hardly have been allowed if the rupee was a hard currency because we would have seen an honest exchange-rate crashing through the floor with this kind of inflationary finance the Government has given us over the decades. There is, sad to say, zero chance of the rupee becoming a hard currency that all one billion Indians may feel confident about so long as such inflationary finance continues unabated.

Cordially yours

Suby

Memo to Kaushik 

Dr Kaushik Basu, Chief Economic Adviser, Ministry of Finance

Hello Kaushik,

Long time no see.  Happy Holi 2010.

I was glad to see the phrase “the relatively neglected subject of the micro-foundations of macroeconomic policy” mentioned in Chapter 2 of your document for the GoI a few days ago.

But I am unable to see what you could mean by it  because your chapter  seems devoid of any reference  or   allusion to the vast  discussion over decades of the  subject known as the “microeconomic foundations of macroeconomics”. Namely, the attempt to integrate the theory of value (microeconomics) with the theory of money (macroeconomics); or alternatively, the attempt to comprehend aggregate variables like Consumption, Savings, Investment, the Demand for & Supply of Money etc in conceptual terms rooted in theories of constrained optimization by masses of individual people.

It is not an easy task.  Keynes made no explicit attempt at it (recall Joan Robinson’s famous quip) and probably did not have time or patience to try.  Hicks and Patinkin failed, though after valiant efforts.  The modern period on this work began with Clower and Leijonhufvud, followed by the French (like Grandmont), and especially Frank Hahn.   Hahn’s 1976 IMSSS paper “Keynesian Economics and General Equilibrium Theory” is the survey to read, viz., Equilibrium and Macroeconomics and Money, Stability and Growth as well as of course Arrow & Hahn’s General Competitive Analysis.  You may agree that the general theory of value culminated in an important sense in the Arrow-Debreu model of the 1950s — yet that is something in which no money, and hence no macroeconomics, needs to or can really appear.  The hard part is to develop macroeconomic models for policy-discussion which allow for money and public finance while still making some pretence of being rooted in a theory of constrained optimization by individuals, i.e., in microeconomic behaviour.  (E  Roy Weintraub wrote a textbook with “Microfoundations” in its title.)

In the Indian case, I tried to do a little in my Cambridge PhD thesis thirty years ago: “a full frontal assault from the point of view of microeconomic theory on the ‘development planning’ to which everyone routinely declared their fidelity, from New Delhi’s bureaucrats and Oxford’s ‘development’ school to McNamara’s World Bank with its Indian staffers”.    Frank Hahn was very kind to say he thought my “critique of Development Economics was powerful not only on methodological but also on economic theory grounds”.  Some of the results appeared in my December 1982 talk to the AEA’s NYC meetings “Economic Theory & Development Economics” (World Development 1983), and in my 1984 monograph with London’s IEA.  Dr Manmohan Singh received a copy of the latter work in 1986, as well as, in 1993, a published copy of a work presented to Rajiv Gandhi in 1990, Foundations of India’s Political  Economy: Towards an Agenda for the 1990s.

I am glad to see from your Chapter 2 that the GoI now seems to agree with what I had said in 1984 of the need for systems that “locally include direct subsidies to those (whether in rural or urban areas) who are unable to provide any income for themselves…” Your material on the “enabling State” would also find much support in what I said there about the functions of civil government and the need for better, not necessarily more, government. On the other hand, your reliance on the very expensive (Rs.19 billion this year!)  Nandan Nilekani Numbering idea is odd as there seem to me to be insurmountable “incentive-compatibility” problems with that project no matter how much gets spent on it.

Returning to possible “microfoundations of macroeconomics” relevant to the Indian case, you may find of interest

“India’s Macroeconomics” (2007)

“Fiscal Instability” (2007)

“Fallacious Finance” (2007)

“Monetary Integrity and the Rupee” (2008)

“Growth and Government Delusion” (2008)

“India in World Trade & Payments” (2007)

“Our Policy Process” (2007)

“Indian Money and Credit” (2006)

“Indian Money and Banking” (2006)

“Indian Inflation” (2008)

“Growth of Real Income, Money & Prices in India 1869-2004” (2005)

“How to Budget” (2008)

“The Dream Team: A Critique” (2006)

“Against Quackery” (2007)

“Mistaken Macroeconomics” (2009)

These together outline an idea that the link between macroeconomic policy in India and  individual microeconomic budgets of our one billion citizens arises via the “Government Budget Constraint”.  More specifically, the continual deficit-finance indulged in by the GoI for decades has been paid for by invisible taxation of nominal assets, causing the general money-price of real goods and services to rise.  I.e., the GoI’s wild deficit spending over the decades has been paid for by debauching money through inflation.

(The  unrecorded untaxed “black economy” needs a separate chapter altogether, and it seems to me possible it provides enough real income and transactions to be absorbing some of the wilder money supply growth into its hoards.)

India cannot be a major economy of the world until and unless the Rupee  some day becomes a hard currency — for the first time in many decades, indeed perhaps for the first time since the start of fiat money.   It is going to take much more than the GoI inventing a trading symbol for the Rupee!   The appalling state of our government accounting, public finance and monetary policy, caused by the GoI over decades, disallows this from happening any time soon as domestic bank assets (mostly GoI debt, and mostly held by government banks) would inevitably be re-evaluated at world prices foreshadowing a monetary crisis.   Perhaps you will help slow the rot — I trust you will not add to it.

Cordially yours

Suby Roy

Postscript  March 1 2010:   I recalled it as Joan Robinson’s quip, had forgotten it was in fact her quoting Gerald Shove’s quip: “Keynes was not interested in the theory of relative prices. Gerald Shove used to say that Maynard had never spent the twenty minutes necessary to understand the theory of value.” (1963)

see also

My Recent Works, Interviews etc on India’s Money, Public Finance, Banking, Trade, BoP, etc (an incomplete list)

Reflections on Mr Zoellick’s reported claim

From Facebook:

Subroto Roy says that there are no viable macroeconomic models or time series data in the possession of the World Bank, IMF, the Govt of India’s Finance Ministry, Planning Commission, Reserve Bank etc, or any professor from Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, Harvard, Yale, MIT, Stanford to the University of Timbuctoo to justify the reported claim yesterday of World Bank President Robert Zoellick that India is headed to “8-9% growth”. Growth may be higher, may be lower or something else altogether, no one knows because national income measurements have yet to reach SNA standards (in any case it should be *per capita real GDP*… and *even then*, there is no adjustment for inequality...)…

What *is* clear though is that Indian public finance at Union and State level is a mess and paper money has been growing at more than 20% per annum…. (And if you happen to believe the Government of India’s apologists and propagandists about Indian inflation being in single digits, might I interest you in a marble structure in Agra, or a steel bridge over the Hooghly perhaps? Very nice, just like Brooklyn Bridge itself….)

Sketching India’s Rupees 35 (?70?) trillion (lakh crore) public debt?

Exactly nineteen years ago, in late October 1990, I advised the then-Congress Party President Rajiv Gandhi as follows:

“The prime indicator of economic mismanagement today is not the annual deficit, but rather the vast public debt today of more than Rs. 273,000 crores (Rs.2.73 trillion). Our Government has borrowed something like Rs. 3500/- on behalf of each man, woman and child in the country — and spent it. A pile of rupee coins adding up to the public debt of India would stretch 4.55 million km into the sky, or be as long as six trips to the moon and back. That is the size of the problem….”

In recent years I have estimated the stock of India’s public debt has grown to perhaps Rs 30 trillion; after the lobbyist-induced corporate pork aka the “fiscal stimulus” since 2008, it has  perhaps risen to Rs 35 trillion, along with States’ debts, Rs  70 trillion!

[From Facebook July 31 2010

Subroto Roy reads in today’s pink business newspaper the GoI’s debt level at Rs 38 trillion &  that of each of three large states (WB, MH, UP) is at Rs 6 trillion, add another 18 for all other large states together, another 5 for all small states & 3 for errors and omissions, making my One Minute Estimate of India’s Public Debt Stock Rs 70 trillion (70 lakh crores). Interest payments at, say, 9%, keep the banking system afloat, extracting oxygen from the public finances like a cyanide capsule.]

(1 trillion = 1 lakh crore  ie. 1,000,000,000,000 = 100000,0000000)

Now when I advised Rajiv it was still early days in the IT-revolution and in fact I wrote the words quoted above on the first laptop I had ever used which was Rajiv’s own (enormous) Toshiba laptop in an office of his staff.

It was eight years before Google was launched — and now there is even something called Google Sketch which I am downloading as I write.

Today on Facebook, I have reposted this wonderful link sent by a friend of a Google Sketch of what one trillion dollars (or one lakh crore dollars) looks like:

Ten thousand dollars:

packet

1million dollars (i.e. ten lakh dollars):

pile

100 million dollars (i.e. ten crore dollars):

pallet

One billion dollars (i.e. one hundred crore dollars):

pallet_x_10

One trillion dollars (i.e. one lakh crore dollars):

pallet_x_10000

So much for dollars.

May I ask someone to use this link and this one to re-sketch India’s public debt, of perhaps Rs 35 70 trillion, and annual interest-payments, at perhaps 9% per annum on average? (Before the next “Budget” please…)

Subroto Roy

Postscript: Of course, most of this exists intangibly as deposits or accounting-entries, not as tangible cash, but it is fun anyway — and an illustrative way to explain things to politicians and citizens.

Crunch-time: Do New Delhi’s bureaucrats have guts enough to walk away from the ADB, World Bank etc? (And does India have a Plan B, or for that matter a Plan A, in dealing with Communist China?)

I have had slight experience with the so-called multilateral financial institutions — attending a conference and helping to produce a book on Asia & Latin America with the ADB back in Hawaii in the 1980s, and being a consultant for some months at the World Bank and the IMF in Washington DC in the 1990s. The institutions seemed to me gluttonous and incompetent though I did meet a dozen good economic bureaucrats and two or three who were excellent in Washington. The “Asian Development Bank” (under Japan’s sway as the Word Bank is under American sway and the IMF under European sway) was reputedly worst of the three, though the Big Daddy of wasteful intellectually corrupt international bureaucracies must be the UN itself, especially certain notorious UN-affiliates around the world.

Now there are newspapers reports the ADB has apparently voted, under Communist Chinese pressure, to prevent itself from

“formally acknowledging Arunachal Pradesh as part of India”.

This should be enough for any self-respecting Government of India to want to give notice to the ADB’s President that the Republic of India is moving out of its membership. Ongoing projects and any in the pipeline need not be affected as we would meet our debt obligations.  There is no reason after all why a treaty-defined entity may not conclude deals with non-members or former members and vice versa.

But New Delhi’s bureaucrats may not find the guts to think on these lines as they would have to overcome their personal interests involved in taking up the highly lucrative non-jobs that these places offer. They will need some political kicking from the top. Thus in 1990-91 I had said to Rajiv Gandhi that “on foreign policy we should ‘go bilateral’ with good strong ties with individual countries, and drop all the multilateral hogwash”… “We do not ask for or accept public foreign aid from foreign Governments or international organizations at “concessional” terms. Requiring annual foreign aid is an indication of economic maladjustment, having to do with the structure of imports and exports and the international price of the Indian rupee. Receiving the so-called aid of others, e.g. the so-called Aid-India Consortium or the soft-loans of the World Bank, diminishes us drastically in the eyes of the donors, who naturally push their own agendas and gain leverage in the country in various ways in return. Self-reliance from so-called foreign aid would require making certain economic adjustments in commercial and exchange-rate policies, as well as austerity in foreign-exchange spending by the Government….”

Today, nineteen years later, I would say the problem has to do less with the structure of India’s balance of payments than with trying to normalise away from the rotten state of our government accounts and public finances. I have thus said “getting on properly with the mundane business of ordinary government and commerce… may call for a gradual withdrawal of India from all or most of the fancy, corrupt international bureaucracies in New York, Washington, Geneva etc, focussing calmly but determinedly instead on improved administration and governance at home.” We need those talented and well-experienced Indian staff-members in these international bureaucracies to return to work to improve our own civil services and public finances of the Union and our more than two dozen States.

As for India developing a Plan B (or a Plan A) in dealing with Communist China, my ten articles republished here yesterday provide an outline of both.

Finally, a dozen years late, the Sonia-Manmohan Congress takes a small Rajivist step: Yes Prime Minister, our Judiciary is indeed a premier public good (or example of “infrastructure” to use that dreadful bureaucratic term)

I was very harsh and did not beat about the bush in my Sep 23-24 2007 article  in The Statesman “Against Quackery” when I said in its subtitle

“Manmohan and Sonia have violated Rajiv Gandhi’s intended reforms”.

I said inter alia

“WASTE, fraud and abuse are inevitable in the use and allocation of public property and resources in India as elsewhere, but Government is supposed to fight and resist such tendencies. The Sonia-Manmohan Government have done the opposite, aiding and abetting a wasteful anti-economics ~ i.e., an economic quackery. Vajpayee-Advani and other Governments, including Narasimha-Manmohan in 1991-1996, were just as complicit in the perverse policy-making. So have been State Governments of all regional parties like the CPI-M in West Bengal, DMK/ AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, Congress/NCP/ BJP/Sena in Maharashtra, TDP /Congress in Andhra Pradesh, SP/BJP/BSP in Uttar Pradesh etc. Our dismal politics merely has the pot calling the kettle black while national self-delusion and superstition reign in the absence of reason. The general pattern is one of well-informed, moneyed, mostly city-based special interest groups (especially including organised capital and organised labour) dominating government agendas at the cost of ill-informed, diffused anonymous individual citizens ~ peasants, small businessmen, non-unionized workers, old people, housewives, medical students etc….Rajiv Gandhi had a sense of noblesse oblige out of remembrance of his father and maternal grandfather. After his assassination, the comprador business press credited Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh with having originated the 1991 economic reform. In May 2002, however, the Congress Party itself passed a resolution proposed by Digvijay Singh explicitly stating Rajiv and not either of them was to be so credited. The resolution was intended to flatter Sonia Gandhi but there was truth in it too. Rajiv, a pilot who knew no political economy, was a quick learner with intelligence to know a good idea when he saw one and enough grace to acknowledge it. …Rajiv was entirely convinced when the suggestion was made to him in September 1990 that an enormous infusion of public resources was needed into the judicial system for promotion and improvement of the Rule of Law in the country, a pre-requisite almost for a new market orientation. Capitalism without the Rule of Law can quickly degenerate into an illiberal hell of cronyism and anarchy which is what has tended to happen since 1991. The resources put since Independence to the proper working of our judiciary from the Supreme Court and High Courts downwards have been abysmal, while the state of prisons, borstals, mental asylums and other institutions of involuntary detention is nothing short of pathetic. Only police forces, like the military, paramilitary and bureaucracies, have bloated in size….Neither Sonia-Manmohan nor the BJP or Communists have thought promotion of the Rule of Law in India to be worth much serious thought ~ certainly less important than attending bogus international conclaves and summits to sign expensive deals for arms, aircraft, reactors etc. Yet Rajiv Gandhi, at a 10 Janpath meeting on 23 March 1991 when he received the liberalisation proposals he had authorized, explicitly avowed the importance of greater resources towards the Judiciary. Dr Singh and his acolytes were not in that loop, indeed they precisely represented the bureaucratic ancien regime intended to be changed, and hence have seemed quite uncomprehending of the roots of the intended reforms ever since 1991.”

Days after the article appeared there were press reports Dr Singh was murmuring about quitting, and then came a fierce speech in Hindi from the Congress President saying “enemies” would receive their dues or whatever – only to be retracted a few days later saying that no more had been meant than a local critique of the BJP in Haryana politics!  (Phew! I said to myself in relief…)

Today I am very happy to learn that Dr Manmohan Singh spoke on Sunday of the importance of the Rule of Law and an effective and efficient judiciary. The new Law Minister in the second Sonia-Manmohan Government has been eagerly saying the same.

All this is constructive and positive, late as it is since Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh both became heavy-duty Congress Party politicians for the first time a dozen years ago.

I was privileged to advise a previous Congress President in his last months from September 1990 as has been told elsewhere. And six years before that I had  said:

“….….The most serious examples of the malfunctioning of civil government in India are probably the failure to take feasible public precautions against the monsoons and the disarray of the judicial system. …The Statesman lamented in July 1980:`The simplest matter takes an inordinate amount of time, remedies seldom being available to those without means or influence. Of the more than 16,000 cases pending in the Supreme Court, about 5,000 were introduced more than five years ago; while nearly 16,000 of the backlog of more than 600,000 cases in our high courts have been hanging fire for over a decade. Allahabad is the worst offender but there are about 75,000 uncleared cases in the Calcutta High Court in addition to well over a million in West Bengal’s lower courts.” Such a state of affairs has been caused not only by lazy and corrupt policemen, court clerks and lawyers, but also by the paucity of judges and magistrates. . . . a vast volume of laws provokes endless litigation as much because of poor drafting which leads to disputes over interpretation as because they appear to violate particular rights and privileges…. When governments determinedly do what they need not or should not do, it may be expected that they will fail to do what civil government positively should be doing.” A few months ago was the 25th anniversary of this statement… ! 🙂

Yes Prime Minister, having an effective and efficient judiciary is indeed a premier public good and one that has failed to be provided to India’s people from Nehru’s time and through Indira’s. I managed to persuade Rajiv about it completely. Might I next be so bold as to draw attention as well to the paragraphs of the 2007 article that followed?

“Similarly, Rajiv comprehended when it was said to him that the primary fiscal problem faced by India is the vast and uncontrolled public debt, interest payments on which suck dry all public budgets leaving no room for provision of public goods.  Government accounts: Government has been routinely “rolling over” its domestic debt in the asset-portfolios of the nationalised banks while displaying and highlighting only its new additional borrowing in a year as the “Fiscal Deficit”. More than two dozen States have been doing the same and their liabilities ultimately accrue to the Union too. The stock of public debt in India is Rs 30 trillion (Rs 30 lakh crore) at least, and portends a hyperinflation in the future. There has been no serious recognition of this since it is political and bureaucratic actions that have been causing the problem. Proper recognition would entail systematically cleaning up the budgets and accounts of every single governmental entity in the country: the Union, every State, every district and municipality, every publicly funded entity or organisation, and at the same time improving public decision-making capacity so that once budgets and accounts recover from grave sickness over decades, functioning institutions exist for their proper future management. All this would also stop corruption in its tracks, and release resources for valuable public goods and services like the Judiciary, School Education and Basic Health. Institutions for improved political and administrative decision-making are needed throughout the country if public preferences with respect to raising and allocating common resources are to be elicited and then translated into actual delivery of public goods and services. Our dysfunctional legislatures will have to do at least a little of what they are supposed to. When public budgets and accounts are healthy and we have functioning public goods and services, macroeconomic conditions would have been created for the paper-rupee to once more become a money as good as gold ~ a convertible world currency for all of India’s people, not merely the metropolitan special interest groups that have been controlling our governments and their agendas.”

Subroto Roy

Kolkata


Schoolboys exchanging fisticuffs in a school playground or elderly men battling over power and policy? Why did Manmohan Singh and LK Advani apologize to one another? Is Indian politics essentially collusive, not competitive, aiming only to preserve and promote the post-1947 Dilli Raj at the expense of the whole of India? We seem to have no Churchillian repartee (except perhaps from Bihar occasionally)

Yesterday the PM is reported to have been asked by someone travelling on his aeroplane from Moscow “whether he had forgiven Advani for calling him a ‘weak Prime Minister’”.

The question was absurd, almost ridiculous, typical of our docile ingratiating rather juvenile English-language press and media, as if any issue of forgiveness arises at all about what one politician says during an election campaign about another politician’s performance in office.

Dr Manmohan Singh’s answer was surprising too: “I was compelled to reply to what Advani said…On May 16 when (Advani) telephoned me, he told me that he was hurt by some of my statements. He said he was hurt and regretted his statements… I apologised to him if I have hurt him. I am looking forward to a close relationship with the Leader of the Opposition.”

So LK Advani appears to have apologised to Manmohan Singh and Manmohan Singh to LK Advani for what they said about each other during the recent general election campaign! What is going on? Were they schoolboys exchanging fisticuffs in a school playground or elderly men battling over power and policy in modern Indian politics?

What would we have done if there was a Churchill in Indian politics today – hurling sarcastic insults at domestic opponents and foreign leaders while guiding a nation on its right course during turbulent times?

Churchill once famously said his parents had not shown him “The Boneless Wonder” in PT Barnum’s circus because it was too horrible a sight but now he had finally seen such a “Boneless Wonder” in his opponent on the Treasury Benches, namely, Ramsay MacDonald. Of the same opponent he said later “He has the gift of compressing the largest number of words into the smallest amount of thought”.

When accused of being drunk by a woman MP he replied “And you are very ugly, but tomorrow I’ll be sober”. Today’s politically correct world would scream at far less. Field Marshall Montgomery told Churchill, “I neither drink nor smoke and am 100% fit,” to which Churchill replied, “I drink and smoke and I am 200% fit”. That too would be politically incorrect today.

Churchill described Prime Minister Clement Attlee as “a modest man with much to be modest about”; also about Attlee: “If any grub is fed on Royal Jelly it turns into a Queen Bee”. Yet Attlee had enough dignity and self-knowledge and self-confidence to brush it all off and instead respect and praise him. In the 1954 volume Winston Spencer Churchill Servant of Crown and Commonwealth Attlee added his own tribute to his great opponent: “I recall…the period when he was at odds with his own party and took a seat on the Bench below the Gangway on the Government side. Here he was well placed to fire on both parties. I remember describing him as a heavily armed tank cruising in No Man’s Land. Very impressive were the speeches he delivered as the international horizon grew darker. He became very unpopular with the predominant group in his own party, but he never minded fighting a lone battle.”

Stanley Baldwin, who as PM first appointed Churchill as Chancellor of the Exchequer, once said “There comes Winston with his hundred horsepower mind”. Yet Churchill was to later say harshly “I wish Stanley Baldwin no ill, but it would have been much better had he never lived.”

Of Lenin, Churchill said, he was “transported in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland into Russia”. Of Molotov: “I have never seen a human being who more perfectly represented the modern concept of a robot.” Of Hitler, “If [he] invaded hell I would at least make a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons”. Of De Gaulle, “He was a man without a country yet he acted as if he was head of state”.” Of John Foster Dulles, “[He] is the only bull who carries his china shop with him”. Of Stafford Cripps, British Ambassador to the USSR, “…a lunatic in a country of lunatics”; and also “There but for the Grace of God, goes God”.

Decades later, that great neo-Churchillian Margaret Thatcher was on the receiving end of a vast amount of sarcasm. “President Mitterrand once famously remarked that Thatcher had ‘the eyes of Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe’. Rather less flatteringly, Dennis Healey described her as Attila the Hen. She probably took both descriptions as compliments.” (Malcolm Rifkind in Margaret Thatcher’s Revolution: How it Happened and What it Meant edited by Subroto Roy and John Clarke, 2005).

Politics is, and should be, grown up stuff because it deals with human lives and national destinies, and really, if you can’t take the heat please do not enter the kitchen. The slight Churchillian sarcasm that does arise within modern Indian politics comes very occasionally from Bihar but nowhere else, e.g. about the inevitability of aloo in samosas and of bhaloos in the jungle but no longer of Laloo being in the seat of power. In general, everyone seems frightfully sombre and self-important though may be in fact short of self-knowledge and hence self-confidence.

What had Manmohan Singh said about LK Advani that he felt he had to apologise for? That Advani had no substantial political achievement to his credit and did not deserve to be India’s PM. Manmohan was not alone in making the charge – Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and numerous other spokesmen and representatives of their party said the same. Has Manmohan’s apology to Advani been one on behalf of the whole Congress Party itself?

Was Advani’s apology to Manmohan one on behalf of the whole BJP too?

What had the BJP charged Manmohan with that Advani felt he had to apologise for?  Being a “weak PM”.

Hmmm. Frankly, thinking about it, it is hard to count who has not been weak as a PM in India’s modern history.

Certainly Vallabhai Patel as a kind of co-PM was decisive and far from weak back in 1947-48.

Lal Bahadur Shastri was not weak when he told Pakistan that a Pakistani attack on Kashmir would result in an Indian attack on Pakistan.

Indira Gandhi was not weak when she resisted the Yahya Khan-Tikka Khan tyranny against Bangladesh.

Had he not been assassinated, Rajiv Gandhi in a second term would have been decisive and not weak in facing up to and tackling the powerful lobbies and special interest groups that have crippled our domestic economic policy for decades.

But the number of such examples may be counted by hand.  Perhaps VP Singh might count, riding in an open jeep to Amritsar, as might AB Vajpayee’s Pokhran II and travelling on a bus to Lahore. In general, the BJP’s charge that Manmohan was “weak” may have constructively led to serious discussion in the country about the whole nature of the Prime Ministership in modern India, which means raising a whole gamut of issues about Indian governance – about India being the softest of “soft states”, with the softest of “soft government budget constraints” (i.e., endless deficit finance and paper money creation) etc.

Instead, what we have had thus far is apologies being exchanged for no real political reason between the leaderships of the Government and the Opposition. If two or three sellers come to implicitly carve up a market between themselves they are said by economic theory to be colluding rather than being in competition. Indian politics may be revealing such implicit collusive behaviour. The goal of this political oligopoly would seem to be to preserve and promote the status quo of the post-1947 Dilli Raj with its special hereditary nomenclatura, at the expense of anonymous diffused teeming India.

Subroto Roy

Postscript July 15 2009: Churchill’s mature opinion of Baldwin was one of the fullest praise at the 20 May 1950 unveiling of a memorial to him.  See his In the Balance, edited by Randolph S Churchill, 1951, p. 281

Mistaken Macroeconomics: An Open Letter to Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh 12 June 2009

 

 

12 June 2009

The Hon’ble Dr Manmohan Singh, MP, Rajya Sabha

Prime Minister of India

 

 

Respected Pradhan Mantriji:

 

In September 1993 at the residence of the Indian Ambassador to Washington, I had the privilege of being introduced to you by our Ambassador the Hon’ble Siddhartha Shankar Ray, Bar-at-Law. Ambassador Ray was kind enough to introduce me saying the 1991 “Congress manifesto had been written on (my laptop) computer” – a reference to my work as adviser on economic and other policy to the late Rajiv Gandhi in his last months. I presented you a book Foundations of India’s Political Economy: Towards an Agenda for the 1990s created and edited by myself and WE James at the University of Hawaii since 1986 — the unpublished manuscript of that book had reached Rajivji by my hand when he and I first met on September 18 1990. Tragically, my pleadings in subsequent months to those around him that he seemed to my layman’s eyes vulnerable to the assassin went unheeded.

 

 

When you and I met in 1993, we had both forgotten another meeting twenty years earlier in Paris. My father had been a long-time friend of the late Brahma Kaul, ICS, and the late MG Kaul, ICS, who knew you in your early days in the Government of India. In the late summer of 1973, you had acceded to my father’s request to advise me about economics before I embarked for the London School of Economics as a freshman undergraduate. You visited our then-home in Paris for about 40 minutes despite your busy schedule as part of an Indian delegation to the Aid-India Consortium. We ended up having a tense debate about the merits (as you saw them) and demerits (as I saw them) of the Soviet influence on Indian economic “planning”. You had not expected such controversy from a lad of 18 but you were kindly disposed and offered when departing to write a letter of introduction to Amartya Sen, then teaching at the LSE, which you later sent me and which I was delighted to carry to Professor Sen.

 

 

I may add my father, back in 1973 in Paris, had predicted to me that you would become Prime Minister of India one day, and he, now in his 90s, is joined by myself in sending our warm congratulations at the start of your second term in that high office.

 

 

The controversy though that you and I had entered that Paris day in 1973 about scientific economics as applied to India, must be renewed afresh!

 

 

This is because of your categorical statement on June 9 2009 to the new 15th Lok Sabha:

 

 

“I am convinced, since our savings rate is as high as 35%, given the collective will, if all of us work together, we can achieve a growth-rate of 8%-9%, even if the world economy does not do well.” (Statement of Dr Manmohan Singh to the Lok Sabha, June 9 2009)

 

 

I am afraid there may be multiple reasons why such a statement is gravely and incorrigibly in error within scientific economics. From your high office as Prime Minister in a second term, faced perhaps with no significant opposition from either within or without your party, it is possible the effects of such an error may spell macroeconomic catastrophe for India.

 

 

As it happens, the British Labour Party politician Dr Meghnad Desai made an analogous statement to yours about India when he claimed in 2006 that China

 

 

“now has 10.4% growth on a 44 % savings rate… ”

 

Indeed the idea that China and India have had extremely high economic growth-rates based on purportedly astronomical savings rates has become a commonplace in recent years, repeated endlessly in international and domestic policy circles though perhaps without adequate basis.

 

 

 

1.   Germany & Japan

 

What, at the outset, is supposed to be measured when we speak of “growth”? Indian businessmen and their media friends seem to think “growth” refers to something like nominal earnings before tax for the organised corporate sector, or any unspecified number that can be sold to visiting foreigners to induce them to park their funds in India: “You will get a 10% return if you invest in India” to which the visitor says “Oh that must mean India has 10% growth going on”. Of such nonsense are expensive international conferences in Davos and Delhi often made.

 

You will doubtless agree the economist at least must define economic growth properly and with care — what is referred to must be annual growth of per capita inflation-adjusted Gross Domestic Product. (Per capita National Income or Net National Product would be even better if available).

 

West Germany and Japan had the highest annual per capita real GDP growth-rates in the world economy starting from devastated post-World War II initial conditions. What were their measured rates?

 

West Germany: 6.6% in 1950-1960, falling to 3.5% by 1960-1970 falling to 2.4% by 1970-1978.

 

Japan: 6.8 % in 1952-1960 rising to 9.4% in 1960-1970 falling to 3.8 % in 1970-1978.

 

Thus in recent decadesonly Japan measured a spike in the 1960s of more than 9% annual growth of real per capita GDP. Now India and China are said to be achieving 8%-10 % and more year after year routinely!

 

Perhaps we are observing an incredible phenomenon of world economic history. Or perhaps it is just something incredible, something false and misleading, like a mirage in the desert.

 

You may agree that processes of measurement of real income in India both at federal and provincial levels, still remain well short of the world standards described by the UN’s System of National Accounts 1993. The actuality of our real GDP growth may be better than what is being measured or it may be worse than what is being measured – from the point of view of public decision-making we at present simply do not know which it is, and to overly rely on such numbers in national decisions may be unwise. In any event, India’s population is growing at near 2% so even if your Government’s measured number of 8% or 9% is taken at face-value, we have to subtract 2% population growth to get per capita figures.

 

 

 

 

 

2.  Growth of the aam admi’s consumption-basket

 

 

The late Professor Milton Friedman had been an invited adviser in 1955 to the Government of India during the Second Five Year Plan’s formulation. The Government of India suppressed what he had to say and I had to publish it 34 years later in May 1989 during the 1986-1992 perestroika-for-India project that I led at the University of Hawaii in the United States. His November 1955 Memorandum to the Government of India is a chapter in the book Foundations of India’s Political Economy: Towards an Agenda for the 1990s that I and WE James created.

 

At the 1989 project-conference itself, Professor Friedman made the following astute observation about all GNP, GDP etc growth-numbers that speaks for itself:

 

 

“I don’t believe the term GNP ought to be used unless it is supplemented by a different statistic: the rate of growth of the average consumption basket consumed by the ordinary individual in the country. I think GNP rates of growth can give very misleading information. For example, you have rapid rates of growth of GNP in the Soviet Union with a declining standard of life for the people. Because GNP includes monuments and includes also other things. I’m not saying that that is the case with India; I’m just saying I would like to see the two figures together.”

 

 

You may perhaps agree upon reflection that not only may our national income growth measurements be less robust than we want, it may be better to be measuring something else instead, or as well, as a measure of the economic welfare of India’s people, namely, “the rate of growth of the average consumption basket consumed by the ordinary individual in the country”, i.e., the rate of growth of the average consumption basket consumed by the aam admi.

 

 

It would be excellent indeed if you were to instruct your Government’s economists and other spokesmen to do so this as it may be something more reliable as an indicator of our economic realities than all the waffle generated by crude aggregate growth-rates.

 

 

 

 

3.  Logic of your model

 

Thirdly, the logic needs to be spelled out of the economic model that underlies such statements as yours or Meghnad Desai’s that seek to operationally relate savings rates to aggregate growth rates in India or China. This seems not to have been done publicly in living memory by the Planning Commission or other Government economists. I have had to refer, therefore, to pages 251-253 of my own Cambridge doctoral thesis under Professor Frank Hahn thirty years ago, titled “On liberty and economic growth: preface to a philosophy for India”, where the logic of such models as yours was spelled out briefly as follows:

 

Let

 

 

Kt be capital stock

 

Yt be national output

 

It be the level of real investment

 

St be the level of real savings

 

By definition

 

It = K t+1 – Kt

 

By assumption

 

Kt = k Yt 0 < k < 1

 

St = sYt 0 < s <1

 

In equilibrium ex ante investment equals ex ante savings

 

It = St

 

Hence in equilibrium

 

sYt = K t+1 – Kt

 

Or

 

s/k = g

 

where g is defined to be the rate of growth (Y t+1-Yt)/Yt  .

 

The left hand side then defines the “warranted rate of growth” which must maintain the famous “knife-edge” with the right hand side “natural rate of growth”.

 

Your June 9 2009 Lok Sabha statement that a 35% rate of savings in India may lead to an 8%-9% rate of economic growth in India, or Meghnad Desai’s statement that a 44% rate of savings in China led to a 10.4% growth there, can only be made meaningful in the context of a logical economic model like the one I have given above.

 

[In the open-economy version of the model, let Mt be imports, Et be exports, Ft net capital inflows.

 

Assume

 

Mt = aIt + bYt 0 < a, b < 1

 

Et = E for all t

 

Balance of payments is

 

Bt = Mt – Et – Ft

 

In equilibrium It = St + Bt

 

Or

 

Ft = (s+b) Yt – (1-a) It – E is a kind of “warranted” level of net capital inflow.]

 

 

 

You may perhaps agree upon reflection that building the entire macroeconomic policy of the Government of India merely upon a piece of economic logic as simplistic as the

 

s/k = g

 

equation above, may spell an unacceptable risk to the future economic well-being of our vast population. An alternative procedural direction for macroeconomic policy, with more obviously positive and profound consequences, may have been that which I sought to persuade Rajiv Gandhi about with some success in 1990-1991. Namely, to systematically seek to improve towards normalcy the budgets, financial positions and decision-making capacities of the Union and all state and local governments as well as all public institutions, organisations, entities, and projects in general, with the aim of making our domestic money a genuine hard currency of the world again after seven decades, so that any ordinary resident of India may hold and trade precious metals and foreign exchange at his/her local bank just like all those glamorous privileged NRIs have been permitted to do. Such an alternative path has been described in “The Indian Revolution”, “Against Quackery”, “The Dream Team: A Critique”, “India’s Macroeconomics”, “Indian Inflation”, etc.

 

 

 

4. Gross exaggeration of real savings rate by misreading deposit multiplication

 

 

Specifically, I am afraid you may have been misled into thinking India’s real savings rate, s, is as high as 35% just as Meghnad Desai may have misled himself into thinking China’s real savings rate is as high as 44%.

 

 

Neither of you may have wanted to make such a claim if you had referred to the fact that over the last 25 years, the average savings rate across all OECD countries has been less than 10%. Economic theory always finds claims of discontinuous behaviour to be questionable. If the average OECD citizen has been trying to save 10% of disposable income at best, it appears prima facie odd that India’s PM claims a savings rate as high as 35% for India or a British politician has claimed a savings rate as high as 44% for China. Something may be wrong in the measurement of the allegedly astronomical savings rates of India and China. The late Professor Nicholas Kaldor himself, after all, suggested it was rich people who saved and poor people who did not for the simple reason the former had something left over to save which the latter did not!

 

 

And indeed something is wrong in the measurements. What has happened, I believe, is that there has been a misreading of the vast nominal expansion of bank deposits via deposit-multiplication in the Indian banking system, an expansion that has been caused by explosive deficit finance over the last four or five decades. That vast nominal expansion of bank-deposits has been misread as indicating growth of real savings behaviour instead. I have written and spoken about and shown this quite extensively in the last half dozen years since I first discovered it in the case of India. E.g., in a lecture titled “Can India become an economic superpower or will there be a monetary meltdown?” at Cardiff University’s Institute of Applied Macroeconomics and at London’s Institute of Economic Affairs in April 2005, as well as in May 2005 at a monetary economics seminar invited at the RBI by Dr Narendra Jadav. The same may be true of China though I have looked at it much less.

 

 

How I described this phenomenon in a 2007 article in The Statesman is this:

 

 

“Savings is indeed normally measured by adding financial and non-financial savings. Financial savings include bank-deposits. But India is not a normal country in this. Nor is China. Both have seen massive exponential growth of bank-deposits in the last few decades. Does this mean Indians and Chinese are saving phenomenally high fractions of their incomes by assiduously putting money away into their shaky nationalized banks? Sadly, it does not. What has happened is government deficit-financing has grown explosively in both countries over decades. In a “fractional reserve” banking system (i.e. a system where your bank does not keep the money you deposited there but lends out almost all of it immediately), government expenditure causes bank-lending, and bank-lending causes bank-deposits to expand. Yes there has been massive expansion of bank-deposits in India but it is a nominal paper phenomenon and does not signify superhuman savings behaviour. Indians keep their assets mostly in metals, land, property, cattle, etc., and as cash, not as bank deposits.”

 

 

An article of mine in 2008 in Business Standard put it like this:

 

 

“India has followed in peacetime over six decades what the US and Britain followed during war. Our vast growth of bank deposits in recent decades has been mostly a paper (or nominal) phenomenon caused by unlimited deficit finance in a fractional reserve banking system. Policy makers have widely misinterpreted it as indicating a real phenomenon of incredibly high savings behaviour. In an inflationary environment, people save their wealth less as paper deposits than as real assets like land, cattle, buildings, machinery, food stocks, jewellery etc.”

 

 

If you asked me “What then is India’s real savings rate?” I have little answer to give except to say I know what it is not – it is not what the Government of India says it is. It is certainly unlikely to be anywhere near the 35% you stated it to be in your June 9 2009 Lok Sabha statement. If the OECD’s real savings rate has been something like 10% out of disposable income, I might accept India’s is, say, 15% at a maximum when properly measured – far from the 35% being claimed. What I believe may have been mismeasured by you and Meghnad Desai and many others as indicating high real savings is actually the nominal or paper expansion of bank-deposits in a fractional reserve banking system induced by runaway government deficit-spending in both India and China over the last several decades.

 

 

 

 

5. Technological progress and the mainsprings of real economic growth

 

 

So much for the g and s variables in the s/k = g equation in your economic model. But the assumed constant k is a big problem too!

 

During the 1989 perestroika-for-India project-conference, Professor Friedman referred to his 1955 experience in India and said this about the assumption of a constant k:

 

“I think there was an enormously important point… That was the almost universal acceptance at that time of the view that there was a sort of technologically fixed capital output ratio. That if you wanted to develop, you just had to figure out how much capital you needed, used as a statistical technological capital output ratio, and by God the next day you could immediately tell what output you were going to achieve. That was a large part of the motivation behind some of the measures that were taken then.”

 

The crucial problem of the sort of growth-model from which your formulation relating savings to growth arises is that, with a constant k, you have necessarily neglected the real source of economic growth, which is technological progress!

 

I said in the 2007 article referred to above:

 

“Economic growth in India as elsewhere arises not because of what politicians and bureaucrats do in capital cities, but because of spontaneous technological progress, improved productivity and learning-by-doing on part of the general population. Technological progress is a very general notion, and applies to any and every production activity or commercial transaction that now can be accomplished more easily or using fewer inputs than before.”

 

In “Growth and Government Delusion” published in The Statesman last year, I described the growth process more fully like this:

 

“The mainsprings of real growth in the wealth of the individual, and so of the nation, are greater practical learning, increases in capital resources and improvements in technology. Deeper skills and improved dexterity cause output produced with fewer inputs than before, i.e. greater productivity. Adam Smith said there is “invention of a great number of machines which facilitate and abridge labour, and enable one man to do the work of many”. Consider a real life example. A fresh engineering graduate knows dynamometers are needed in testing and performance-certification of diesel engines. He strips open a meter, finds out how it works, asks engine manufacturers what design improvements they want to see, whether they will buy from him if he can make the improvement. He finds out prices and properties of machine tools needed and wages paid currently to skilled labour, calculates expected revenues and costs, and finally tries to persuade a bank of his production plans, promising to repay loans from his returns. Overcoming restrictions of religion or caste, the secular agent is spurred by expectation of future gains to approach various others with offers of contract, and so organize their efforts into one. If all his offers ~ to creditors, labour, suppliers ~ are accepted he is, for the moment, in business. He may not be for long ~ but if he succeeds his actions will have caused an improvement in design of dynamometers and a reduction in the cost of diesel engines, as well as an increase in the economy’s produced means of production (its capital stock) and in the value of contracts made. His creditors are more confident of his ability to repay, his buyers of his product quality, he himself knows more of his workers’ skills, etc. If these people enter a second and then a third and fourth set of contracts, the increase in mutual trust in coming to agreement will quickly decline in relation to the increased output of capital goods. The first source of increasing returns to scale in production, and hence the mainspring of real economic growth, arises from the successful completion of exchange. Transforming inputs into outputs necessarily takes time, and it is for that time the innovator or entrepreneur or “capitalist” or “adventurer” must persuade his creditors to trust him, whether bankers who have lent him capital or workers who have lent him labour. The essence of the enterprise (or “firm”) he tries to get underway consists of no more than the set of contracts he has entered into with the various others, his position being unique because he is the only one to know who all the others happen to be at the same time. In terms introduced by Professor Frank Hahn, the entrepreneur transforms himself from being “anonymous” to being “named” in the eyes of others, while also finding out qualities attaching to the names of those encountered in commerce. Profits earned are partly a measure of the entrepreneur’s success in this simultaneous process of discovery and advertisement. Another potential entrepreneur, fresh from engineering college, may soon pursue the pioneer’s success and start displacing his product in the market ~ eventually chasers become pioneers and then get chased themselves, and a process of dynamic competition would be underway. As it unfolds, anonymous and obscure graduates from engineering colleges become by dint of their efforts and a little luck, named and reputable firms and perhaps founders of industrial families. Multiply this simple story many times, with a few million different entrepreneurs and hundreds of thousands of different goods and services, and we shall be witnessing India’s actual Industrial Revolution, not the fake promise of it from self-seeking politicians and bureaucrats.”

 

 

Technological progress in a myriad of ways and discovery of new resources are important factors contributing to India’s growth today. But while India’s “real” economy does well, the “nominal” paper-money economy controlled by Government does not. Continuous deficit financing for half a century has led to exponential growth of public debt and broad money, and, as noted, the vast growth of nominal bank-deposits has been misinterpreted as indicating unusually high real savings behaviour when it in fact may just signal vast amounts of government debt being held by our nationalised banks. These bank assets may be liquid domestically but are illiquid internationally since our government debt is not held by domestic households as voluntary savings nor has it been a liquid asset held worldwide in foreign portfolios.

 

 

What politicians of all parties, especially your own and the BJP and CPI-M since they are the three largest, have been presiding over is exponential growth of our paper money supply, which has even reached 22% per annum. Parliament and the Government should be taking honest responsibility for this because it may certainly portend double-digit inflation (i.e., decline in the value of paper-money) perhaps as high as 14%-15% per annum, something that is certain to affect the aam admi’s economic welfare adversely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6. Selling Government assets to Big Business is a bad idea in a potentially hyperinflationary economy

 

 

Respected PradhanMantriji, the record would show that I, and really I alone, 25 years ago, may have been the first among Indian economists to advocate  the privatisation of the public sector. (Viz, “Silver Jubilee of Pricing, Planning and Politics: A Study of Economic Distortions in India”.) In spite of this, I have to say clearly now that in present circumstances of a potentially hyperinflationary economy created by your Government and its predecessors, I believe your Government’s present plans to sell Government assets may be an exceptionally unwise and imprudent idea. The reasoning is very simple from within monetary economics.

 

Government every year has produced paper rupees and bank deposits in practically unlimited amounts to pay for its practically unlimited deficit financing, and it has behaved thus over decades. Such has been the nature of the macroeconomic process that all Indian political parties have been part of, whether they are aware of it or not.

 

Indian Big Business has an acute sense of this long-term nominal/paper expansion of India’s economy, and acts towards converting wherever possible its own hoards of paper rupees and rupee-denominated assets into more valuable portfolios for itself of real or durable assets, most conspicuously including hard-currency denominated assets, farm-land and urban real-estate, and, now, the physical assets of the Indian public sector. Such a path of trying to transform local domestic paper assets – produced unlimitedly by Government monetary and fiscal policy and naturally destined to depreciate — into real durable assets, is a privately rational course of action to follow in an inflationary economy. It is not rocket-science to realise the long-term path of rupee-denominated assets is downwards in comparison to the hard-currencies of the world – just compare our money supply growth and inflation rates with those of the rest of the world.

 

The Statesman of November 16 2006 had a lead editorial titled Government’s land-fraud: Cheating peasants in a hyperinflation-prone economy which said:

 

 

“There is something fundamentally dishonourable about the way the Centre, the state of West Bengal and other state governments are treating the issue of expropriating peasants, farm-workers, petty shop-keepers etc of their small plots of land in the interests of promoters, industrialists and other businessmen. Singur may be but one example of a phenomenon being seen all over the country: Hyderabad, Karnataka, Kerala, Haryana, everywhere. So-called “Special Economic Zones” will merely exacerbate the problem many times over. India and its governments do not belong only to business and industrial lobbies, and what is good for private industrialists may or may not be good for India’s people as a whole. Economic development does not necessarily come to be defined by a few factories or high-rise housing complexes being built here or there on land that has been taken over by the Government, paying paper-money compensation to existing stakeholders, and then resold to promoters or industrialists backed by powerful political interest-groups on a promise that a few thousand new jobs will be created. One fundamental problem has to do with inadequate systems of land-description and definition, implementation and recording of property rights. An equally fundamental problem has to do with fair valuation of land owned by peasants etc. in terms of an inconvertible paper-money. Every serious economist knows that “land” is defined as that specific factor of production and real asset whose supply is fixed and does not increase in response to its price. Every serious economist also knows that paper-money is that nominal asset whose price can be made to catastrophically decline by a massive increase in its supply, i.e. by Government printing more of the paper it holds a monopoly to print. For Government to compensate people with paper-money it prints itself by valuing their land on the basis of an average of the price of the last few years, is for Government to cheat them of the fair present-value of the land. That present-value of land must be calculated in the way the present-value of any asset comes to be calculated, namely, by summing the likely discounted cash-flows of future values. And those future values should account for the likelihood of a massive future inflation causing decline in the value of paper-money in view of the fact we in India have a domestic public debt of some Rs. 30 trillion (Rs. 30 lakh crore) and counting, and money supply growth rates averaging 16-17% per annum. In fact, a responsible Government would, given the inconvertible nature of the rupee, have used foreign exchange or gold as the unit of account in calculating future-values of the land. India’s peasants are probably being cheated by their Government of real assets whose value is expected to rise, receiving nominal paper assets in compensation whose value is expected to fall.”

 

Shortly afterwards the Hon’ble MP for Kolkata Dakshin, Km Mamata Banerjee, started her protest fast, riveting the nation’s attention in the winter of 2006-2007. What goes for government buying land on behalf of its businessman friends also goes, mutatis mutandis, for the public sector’s real assets being bought up by the private sector using domestic paper money in a potentially hyperinflationary economy. If your new Government wishes to see real assets of the public sector being sold for paper money, let it seek to value these assets not in inconvertible rupees that Government itself has been producing in unlimited quantities but perhaps in forex or gold-units instead!

 

 

In the 2004-2005 volume Margaret Thatcher’s Revolution: How it Happened and What it Meant, edited by myself and Professor John Clarke, there is a chapter by Professor Patrick Minford on Margaret Thatcher’s fiscal and monetary policy (macroeconomics) that was placed ahead of the chapter by Professor Martin Ricketts on Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation (microeconomics). India’s fiscal and monetary or macroeconomic problems are far worse today than Britain’s were when Margaret Thatcher came to power. We need to get our macroeconomic problems sorted before we attempt the  microeconomic privatisation of public assets.

 

It is wonderful that your young party colleague, the Hon’ble MP from Amethi, Shri Rahul Gandhi, has declined to join the present Government and instead wishes to reflect further on the “common man” and “common woman” about whom I had described his late father talking to me on September 18 1990. Certainly the aam admi is not someone to be found among India’s lobbyists of organised Big Business or organised Big Labour who have tended to control government agendas from the big cities.

 

With my warmest personal regards and respect, I remain,

Cordially yours

Subroto Roy, PhD (Cantab.), BScEcon (London)

 

see also https://independentindian.com/thoughts-words-deeds-my-work-1973-2010/rajiv-gandhi-and-the-origins-of-indias-1991-economic-reform/did-jagdish-bhagwati-originate-pioneer-intellectually-father-indias-1991-economic-reform-did-manmohan-singh-or-did-i-through-my-e/

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How tightly will organised Big Business be able to control economic policies this time?

The power of organised Big Business over New Delhi’s economic policies (whether Congress-led or BJP-led) was signalled by the presence in the audience at Rashtrapati Bhavan last week of several prominent lobbyists when Dr Manmohan Singh and his senior-most Cabinet colleagues were being sworn-in by the President of India. Why were such witnesses needed at such an auspicious national occasion?

Organised Big Business (both private sector and public sector) along with organised Big Labour (whose interests are represented most ably by New Delhi’s official communist parties like the CPI-M and CPI), are astutely aware of how best to advance their own economic interests; this usually gets assisted nicely enough through clever use of our comprador English-language TV, newspaper and magazine media. Shortly after the election results, lobbyists were all over commercial TV proposing things like FDI in insurance and airports etc– as if that was the meaning of the Sonia-Rahul mandate or were issues of high national priority. A typical piece of such “pretend-economics” appears in today’s business-press from a formerly Leftist Indian bureaucrat: “With its decisive victory, the new Manmohan Singh government should at last be able to implement the required second generation reforms. Their lineaments (sic) are well known and with the removal of the Left’s veto, many of those stalled in the legislature as well as those which were forestalled can now be implemented. These should be able to put India back on a 9-10 per cent per annum growth rate…”

Today’s business-press also reports that the new Government is planning to create a fresh “Disinvestment Ministry” and Dr Singh’s chief economic policy aide is “a frontrunner among the names short-listed to head the new ministry” with Cabinet rank.

Now if any enterprising doctoral student was to investigate the question, I think the evidence would show that I, and I alone – not even BR Shenoy or AD Shroff or Jagdish Bhagwati — may have been the first among Indian economists to have argued in favour of the privatisation of India’s public sector. I did so precisely 25 years ago in Pricing, Planning and Politics: A Study of Economic Distortions in India, which was so unusual for its time that it attracted the lead editorial of The Times of London on the day it was published May 29 1984, and had its due impact on Indian economic policy then and since, as has been described elsewhere here.  In 1990-1991 while with Rajiv Gandhi, I had floated an idea of literally giving away shares of the public sector to the public that owned it (as several other countries had been doing at that time), specifically perhaps giving them to the poorest panchayats in aid of their development.  In 2004-2005, upon returning to Britain after many years, I helped create the book Margaret Thatcher’s Revolution: How it Happened and What it Meant, and Margaret Thatcher if anyone was a paragon of privatisation.

That being said, I have to say I think a new Indian policy of creating a Ministry to privatise India’s public sector is probably a very BAD idea indeed in present circumstances — mainly because it will be driven by the interests of the organised Big Business lobbies that have so profoundly and subtly been able to control the New Delhi Government’s behaviour in recent decades.

Such lobbyist control is exercised often without the Government even realising or comprehending its parameters. For example, ask yourself: Is there any record anywhere of Dr Manmohan Singh, in his long career as a Government economist and then as a Rajya Sabha MP, having ever proposed before 2004-2005 that nuclear reactors were something vitally important to India’s future? And why do you suppose the most prominent Indian business lobby spent a million dollars and registered itself as an official lobbyist in Washington DC to promote the nuclear deal among American legislators? Because Big Business was feeling generous and altruistic towards the “energy security” of the ordinary people of India? Hardly.  Indian Big Business calculates and acts in its own interests, as is only to be expected under economic assumptions; those interests are frequently camouflaged by their lobbyist and media friends into seeming to be economic policy for the country as a whole.

Now our Government every year produces paper rupees and bank deposits in  practically unlimited amounts to pay for its practically unlimited deficit financing, and it has behaved thus over decades. Why we do not hear about this at all is because the most prominent Government economists themselves remain clueless — sometimes by choice, mostly by sheer ignorance — about the nature of the macroeconomic process that they are or have been part of.  (See my  “India’s Macroeconomics”, “The Dream Team: A Critique” etc elsewhere here). As for the Opposition’s economists, the less said about the CPI-M’s economists the better while the BJP, poor thing, has absolutely no economists at all!

Briefly speaking, Indian Big Business has acquired an acute sense of this long-term nominal/paper expansion of India’s economy, and as a result acts towards converting wherever possible its own hoards of paper rupees and rupee-denominated assets into more valuable portfolios for itself of real or durable assets, most conspicuously including hard-currency denominated assets, farm-land and urban real-estate, and, now, the physical assets of the Indian public sector. Such a path of trying to transform local domestic paper assets – produced unlimitedly by Government monetary and fiscal policy and naturally destined to depreciate — into real durable assets, is a privately rational course of action to follow in an inflationary economy.  It is not rocket-science  to realise the long-term path of the Indian rupee is downwards in comparison to the hard-currencies of the world – just compare our money supply growth and inflation rates with those of the rest of the world.

The Statesman of November 15 2006 had a lead editorial titled Government’s land-fraud: Cheating peasants in a hyperinflation-prone economy. It said:

“There is something fundamentally dishonourable about the way the Centre, the state of West Bengal and other state governments are treating the issue of expropriating peasants, farm-workers, petty shop-keepers etc of their small plots of land in the interests of promoters, industrialists and other businessmen. Singur may be but one example of a phenomenon being seen all over the country: Hyderabad, Karnataka, Kerala, Haryana, everywhere. So-called “Special Economic Zones” will merely exacerbate the problem many times over. India and its governments do not belong only to business and industrial lobbies, and what is good for private industrialists may or may not be good for India’s people as a whole. Economic development does not necessarily come to be defined by a few factories or high-rise housing complexes being built here or there on land that has been taken over by the Government, paying paper-money compensation to existing stakeholders, and then resold to promoters or industrialists backed by powerful political interest-groups on a promise that a few thousand new jobs will be created. One fundamental problem has to do with inadequate systems of land-description and definition, implementation and recording of property rights. An equally fundamental problem has to do with fair valuation of land owned by peasants etc. in terms of an inconvertible paper-money. Every serious economist knows that “land” is defined as that specific factor of production and real asset whose supply is fixed and does not increase in response to its price. Every serious economist also knows that paper-money is that nominal asset whose price can be made to catastrophically decline by a massive increase in its supply, i.e. by Government printing more of the paper it holds a monopoly to print. For Government to compensate people with paper-money it prints itself by valuing their land on the basis of an average of the price of the last few years, is for Government to cheat them of the fair present-value of the land. That present-value of land must be calculated in the way the present-value of any asset comes to be calculated, namely, by summing the likely discounted cash-flows of future values. And those future values should account for the likelihood of a massive future inflation causing decline in the value of paper-money in view of the fact we in India have a domestic public debt of some Rs. 30 trillion (Rs. 30 lakh crore) and counting, and money supply growth rates averaging 16-17% per annum. In fact, a responsible Government would, given the inconvertible nature of the rupee, have used foreign exchange or gold as the unit of account in calculating future-values of the land. India’s peasants are probably being cheated by their Government of real assets whose value is expected to rise, receiving nominal paper assets in compensation whose value is expected to fall.”

Mamata Banerjee started her famous protest fast-unto-death in Kolkata not long afterwards, riveting the nation’s attention in the winter of 2006-2007.

What goes for the government buying land on behalf of its businessman friends also goes, mutatis mutandis, for the public sector’s real assets being bought up by the private sector using domestic paper money in a potentially hyperinflationary economy.  If Dr Singh’s new Government wishes to see real public sector assets being sold, let the Government seek to value these assets not in inconvertible rupees which the Government itself has been producing in unlimited quantities but rather in forex or gold-units instead!

Today’s headline says “Short of cash, govt. plans to revive disinvestment ministry”. Big Business’s powerful lobbies will suggest  that real public assets must be sold  (to whom? to organised Big Business of course!) in order to solve the grave fiscal problems in an inflationary economy caused precisely by those grave  fiscal problems! What I said in 2002 at IndiaSeminar may still be found to apply: I said the BJP’s privatisation ideas “deserve to be condemned…because they have made themselves believe that the proceeds of selling the public sector should merely go into patching up the bleeding haemorrhage which is India’s fiscal and monetary situation… (w)hile…Congress were largely responsible for that haemorrhage to have occurred in the first place.”

If the new Government would like to know how to proceed more wisely, they need to read and grasp, in the book edited by myself and Professor John Clarke in 2004-2005, the chapter by Professor Patrick Minford on Margaret Thatcher’s fiscal and monetary policy (macroeconomics) before they read the chapter by Professor Martin Ricketts on Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation (microeconomics).  India’s fiscal and monetary or macroeconomic problems are far worse today than Britain’s were when Thatcher came in.

During the recent Election Campaign, I contrasted Dr Singh’s flattering praise in 2005 of the CPI-M’s Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee with Sonia Gandhi’s pro-Mamata line in 2009 saying the CPI-M had taken land away from the poor.  This may soon signal a new fault-line in the new Cabinet too on economic policy with respect to not only land but also public sector privatisation – with Dr Singh’s pro-Big Business acolytes on one side and Mamata Banerjee’s stance in favour of small-scale unorganised business and labour on the other.  Party heavyweights like Dr Singh himself and Sharad Pawar and Pranab Mukherjee will weigh in one side or the other with Sonia being asked in due course to referee.

I personally am delighted to see the New Rahul Gandhi deciding not to be in Government and to instead reflect further on the “common man” and “common woman” about whom I had described his father talking to me on September 18 1990 at his home. Certainly the “aam admi” is not someone to be found among India’s organised Big Business or organised Big Labour nor their paid lobbyists in the big cities.

Subroto Roy

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Letter to the GoI’s seniormost technical economist, May 21

“May 21 2009    It is wonderful to hear from you and I am honoured to find myself, perhaps accidentally, on the same list as so many of your distinguished colleagues among Government economists.

Your essay is most engaging. I am afraid I disagree with your assessment that the current problems “did not originate in the real sector of the economy” but were “triggered by the excesses of the financial system”. I have said to the contrary There is no clear path to solving the great (alleged) economic and financial crisis because no one wants to admit its roots were the overvaluation (over decades) of American real-estate, and hence American assets in general.”

There is no more real sector than real-estate itself and American real-estate has tended to be overvalued as a result of government policy since the Carter Administration; the accumulated dangers along that path came to explode in the sub-prime crisis. Here as elsewhere in economics, the financial tail has not wagged the non-financial dog but vice versa.

I have also said “(i) foreign central banks might have been left holding more bad US debt than might be remembered, and dollar depreciation and an American inflation seem to be inevitable over the next several years; (ii) all those bad mortgages and foreclosures could vanish within a year or two by playing the demographic card and inviting in a few million new immigrants into the United States; restoring a worldwide idea of an American dream fueled by mass immigration may be the surest way for the American economy to restore itself.”

Re the comparison with the Great Depression, I believe

“there are overriding differences. Most important, the American economy and the world economy are both incomparably larger today in the value of their capital stock, and there has also been enormous technological progress over eight decades. Accordingly, it would take a much vaster event than the present turbulence — say, something like an exchange of multiple nuclear warheads with Russia causing Manhattan and the City of London to be destroyed — before there was a return to something comparable to the 1929 Crash and the Great Depression that followed. Besides, the roots of the crises are different. What happened back then? In 1922, the Genoa Currency Conference wanted to correct the main defect of the pre-1914 gold standard, which was freezing the price of gold while failing to stabilise the purchasing power of money. From 1922 until about 1927, Benjamin Strong of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York adopted price-stabilisation as the new American policy-objective. Britain was off the gold standard and the USA remained on it. The USA, as a major creditor nation, saw massive gold inflows which, by traditional gold standard principles, would have caused a massive inflation. Governor Strong invented the process of “sterilisation” of those gold inflows instead and thwarted the rise in domestic dollar prices of goods and services. Strong’s death in 1928 threw the Federal Reserve System into conflict and intellectual confusion. Dollar stabilisation ended as a policy. Surplus bank money was created on the release of gold that had been previously sterilised. The traditional balance between bulls and bears in the stock-market was upset. Normally, every seller of stock is a bear and every buyer a bull. Now, amateur investors appeared as bulls attracted by the sudden stock price rises, while bears, who sold securities, failed to place their money into deposit and were instead lured into lending it as call money to brokerages who then fuelled these speculative bulls. As of October 22, 1929 about $4 billion was the extent of such speculative lending when Chase National Bank’s customers called in their money. Chase National had to follow their instructions, as did other New York banks. New York’s Stock Exchange could hardly respond to a demand for $4 billion at a short notice and collapsed. Within a year, production had fallen by 26 per cent, prices by 14 per cent, personal income by 14 per cent, and the Greatest Depression of recorded history was in progress — involuntary unemployment levels in America reaching 25 per cent. That is not, by any reading, what we have today. Yes, there has been plenty of bad lending, plenty of duping shareholders and workers and plenty of excessive managerial payoffs. It will all take a large toll, and affect markets across the world. But it will be a toll relative to our plush comfortable modern standards, not those of 1929-1933. In fact, modern decision-makers have the obvious advantage that they can look back at history and know what is not to be done. The US and the world economy are resilient enough to ride over even the extra uncertainty arising from the ongoing presidential campaign, and then some.”

These quotes are from recent publications and may be found most easily under “America’s financial crises” at my site http://www.independentindian.com.

What may be of interest to the Government of India’s economists also may be a sample of my recent short articles on India’s monetary and fiscal economics based on my research beginning with my doctoral work under Frank Hahn at Cambridge in the 1970s and followed by my work with James Buchanan and Milton Friedman in America in the 1980s and 1990s and later. One of these is even named “The Rangarajan Effect” which I first defined at a seminar invited by Dr Jadav at the RBI in May 2005!

https://independentindian.com/2008/08/24/rangarajan-effect/

https://independentindian.com/2008/09/28/monetary-integrity-and-the-rupee/

https://independentindian.com/2007/01/20/indias-macroeconomics/

https://independentindian.com/2007/02/04/fiscal-instability/

https://independentindian.com/2008/07/16/india-in-world-trade-payments/

https://independentindian.com/2007/03/05/fallacious-finance-the-congress-bjp-cpi-m-et-al-may-be-leading-india-to-hyperinflation/

https://independentindian.com/2007/02/20/our-policy-process-self-styled-planners-have-controlled-indias-paper-money-for-decades/

https://independentindian.com/2008/07/28/growth-of-real-income-money-prices-in-india-1869-2004/

https://independentindian.com/2008/07/17/growth-government-delusion/

https://independentindian.com/2008/07/09/indian-inflation-upside-down-economics-from-new-delhis-establishment/

https://independentindian.com/2008/02/26/how-to-budget-thrift-not-theft-should-guide-our-public-finances/

https://independentindian.com/2008/02/21/a-note-on-the-indian-policy-process/

With warm regards,

Cordially,

Subroto Roy, PhD (Cantab.), BScEcon(London)

Sometime Adviser to the Late Rajiv Gandhi, 1990-1991

An eminent economist of India passes away

Dr Raja Chelliah (1922-2009) may have been India’s only serious public finance economist in living memory.   He first and more clearly than anyone warned of the out-of-control fiscal situation and the grave burden of the public debt.

Unfortunately he has left no professional successors.  The institute he founded appears to consist mostly of a name and some  buildings and a lot of wasteful bureaucratic public expenditure as is typical of the new Dilli Raj of recent decades.   I recall a heated discussion with two of his successors there in the late 1990s in which they somehow attempted to say they were beyond Government of India control and could do as they pleased (which they had in fact proceeded to do).  Neither could be said to have been familiar with Indian public finance data at the degree of precision necessary to grasp  the fiscal problems Dr Chelliah had warned against.  Like the Planning Commission and similar sets of public buildings, it is all mostly a waste;   Delhi’s “think tanks” have been largely incapable of any real thought.

Raja Chelliah very kindly met me in the summer of 1987 or the winter of 1988 at his Planning Commission offices when I was putting together the University of Hawaii perestroika-for-India project  that led in due course to sparking the 1991 reform  thanks to Rajiv Gandhi in his last months.    I wish very much I could have had  Dr Chelliah join the project but he was over-committed.

His passing means there is no one left in the Indian economic-policy establishment who has (or wishes to have ) the faintest clue about the gravity of the fiscal situation.  It may be a sign of the times that the business press is reporting on the same day  that the current head of the RBI bureaucracy has been  saying that monetising Indian fiscal deficits seems to him “benign”, pointing abroad and saying something like “Look aren’t they doing it too?”!    (Contemporary Delhi and Bombay are self-deluded and  so enamoured with   five-star hotel rooms that they may be unable to cope with  economic reality outside such an environment.)

Dr Chelliah was professionally serious, committed to truth-telling, personally modest and truly eminent in his contribution to modern Indian economic thought.

Subroto Roy, Kolkata

“A Dialogue in Macroeconomics” 1989 etc: sundry thoughts on US economic policy discourse

I have said here recently that some of the wisest advice President Obama or any leader anywhere can receive is that contained in Oliver Cromwell’s famous words “Think it possible you may be mistaken”.

This seems especially significant in context of new American macroeconomic and financial policies.  Mr Steve Clemons reports today there may be less intellectual diversity in the new President’s economic team than is possible or desirable; if so, conversation may become stifled and a greater propensity towards groupthink may arise, hence a greater likelihood of mistakes.

It is possible the directions that different people might like to see the conversation extended are different, and that would be a good sign of course!  For example, someone might think a Barro or a Mishkin could be the right addition of intellectual diversity, whereas others might suppose that to be the wrong direction towards more “market fundamentalism”.    But it would be a pity if the economic conversation within the new Administration came to be artificially or ideologically circumscribed in any direction.

Certainly I believe macroeconomic policy-discourse in the United States or elsewhere needs to proceed to a recognition of the existence of JM Keynes’s original concept of “involuntary unemployment” as well as to ask whether the actual unemployment happens to be or  not be of this sort.   (It may be “frictional” or “structural” or “voluntary” or “seasonal” etc, not the involuntary unemployment Keynes had meant.)  Furthermore, even if significant involuntary unemployment is identified, it needs to be asked whether government policy can be expected to improve or worsen outcomes.   The argument must be made either way, and, in John Wisdom’s phrase,  “Argument must be heard”.

“A Dialogue in Macroeconomics” which was Chapter 8 of my 1989 book Philosophy of Economics (Routledge,  Library of Congress HB 72.R69)  may provide some useful ballast.  The saga  that followed the  book’s publication left me unable to write about the US economy anymore, except briefly in 1992 and 1994-95 in Washington and New York, read only by a few friends.   Now in late 2008, I have published “October 1929? Not!” and “America’s divided economists” which may be of interest too, and which are republished below as well.

I have also added a couple of sundry points from an international perspective that I pointed to last September-October, namely

(i)  foreign central banks might have been left holding more bad US debt than might be remembered, and dollar depreciation and an American inflation seem to be inevitable over the next several years;

(ii) all those bad mortgages and foreclosures could vanish within a year or two by playing the demographic card and inviting in a few million new immigrants into the United States; restoring a worldwide idea of an American dream fueled by mass immigration may be the surest way for the American economy to restore itself.

Subroto Roy

I.

from Philosophy of Economics Routledge 1989

“Chapter 8.
A Dialogue in Macroeconomics

OUR next example is of quite a different sort, namely, the academic debate which has occurred in macroeconomics and monetary theory since Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. This has of course received a great amount of attention, with innumerable commentaries having been written by many scores of protagonists and moderators around the world. Only a brief and highly simplified summary of these many conversations can be attempted here, within our limited objective of illustrating once more how it may be possible for critical discussion to be seen to proceed freely and yet objectively in economics. In the previous chapter we were fortunate to have had an actual conversation to consider; here our method shall have to be one of constructing a model of a conversation. In honour of Plato, we might name our conversants Athenian and Stranger.

ATHENIAN Tell me, have you perhaps been following the discussions among macroeconomists? I shall be interested to know what you take their present state to be.

STRANGER Indeed I have, though of course it is not possible or worthwhile to follow all of what has been said. But yes I have followed some of it, and certainly we can make it a topic of conversation.

ATHENIAN Please begin.

STRANGER Very well. Shall we do so in ‘36 with the publication of Keynes’s book? Rightly or wrongly, this must be considered a watershed in the history of modern economics, if only because most economists since have had either to admit its arguments in some measure or define and explain their disagreement. You’ll remember at one time it was said by many that Keynes had fathered a revolution in economic science.

ATHENIAN Except Chicago and the Austrians.

STRANGER Quite so. Now more recently a renewal of neoclassical thought has been under way, and many doubts have been raised about the keynesian consensus, so much so that some of the main questions of the thirties seem in modern form to continue to be at issue today.

ATHENIAN The more things change, the more they stay the same! But when you say Keynes has been a central figure, I take it you mean only that he has been among the most influential and most discussed and nothing more. It is not to preclude judgement on the merits of his book, which is itself of very uneven clarity. Besides there has been too much idolatry and hagiography.

STRANGER Yes, there is so often a rush to belief and worship. There may have been less if Keynes had survived longer. Yet I should say the broad aim of the work is not hard to see. Keynes himself clearly believes that he is starting a revolution — going so far as to suggest a comparison with contemporary physics. The first chapter says the book aims to provide a “general” theory, which will explain the traditional model as a “limiting” case. The second chapter says the theory of value has been hitherto concerned with the allocation of given resources between competing ends; Keynes is going to explain how the actual level of employment comes to be what it is.

ATHENIAN And so begs the question?

STRANGER Or does traditional theory? That seems to be at the heart of it.

ATHENIAN Go on.

STRANGER The theory will be of the short run in Marshall’s sense of taking capital as a fixed factor. Traditional theory is said to postulate about the labour market (i) that the real wage equals the marginal product of labour, so there is an assumption of profit maximization by competitive producers giving rise to a short run demand curve for labour; and (ii) that the utility of the wage at a given level of employment equals the marginal disutility of that amount of employment; i.e., the real wage is just sufficient to induce the volume of labour which is actually forthcoming. So it can account for unemployment due to temporary miscalculations, or intermittent demand, or the refusal or inability of labour to accept a job at a given wage due to legislation or social practices or collective bargaining or obstinacy, or merely a rational choice of leisure — i.e., it can account for frictional and voluntary unemployment but not for what Keynes wants to call involuntary unemployment. What it can suggest is either such things as improvements in foresight, information, organization and productivity, or a lowering of the real wage. But Keynes’s critique will not have to do with such causes of the contemporary unemployment; instead the population is said to be seldom “doing as much work as it would like to do on the basis of the current wage…. More labour would, as a rule, be forthcoming at the existing money wage if it were demanded.” But it is not being demanded, and it is not being demanded because there has been a shortfall of “effective demand”. That is why there is as much unemployment as there is.

ATHENIAN Or so Keynes claims. And he would take it the neoclassical view would be that it must be the real wage is too high; it is only because the real wage has not fallen by enough that unemployment continues.

STRANGER Right. To which there are two observations. The first has to do with the actual attitude of workers towards the money wage and the real wage respectively. The traditional supply function of labour is a function of the latter; Keynes claims that at least within a certain range it must be workers are concerned more with the former.

ATHENIAN How so?

STRANGER By the interesting and perhaps plausible claim that workers are found to withdraw labour if the money wage falls but do not seem to do the same if the price level rises. A real wage reduction caused by a fall in the money wage and the same real wage reduction caused by an increase in prices seem to have different effects on labour supply. “Whether logical or illogical, experience shows that this is how labour in fact behaves.” And he cites U. S. data for ‘32 to say labour did not refuse reductions in the money wage nor did the physical productivity of labour fall yet the real wage fell and unemployment continued. “Labour is not more truculent in the depression than in the boom — far from it.”

ATHENIAN And the second observation?

STRANGER This may be of more interest. “Classical theory assumes that it is always open to labour to reduce its real wage by accepting a reduction in its money wage… [it] presumes that labour itself is in a position to decide the real wage for which it works…” Keynes does not find a traditional explanation why prices tend to follow wages, and suggests it could be because the price level is being supposed to be determined by the money supply according to the quantity theory. Keynes wants to dispute the proposition “that the general level of real wages is directly determined by the character of the wage bargain…. For there may be no method available to labour as a whole whereby…. [it] can reduce its real wage to a given figure by making revised money bargains with the entrepreneurs.” Hence he arrives at his central definition of involuntary unemployment: if the real wage falls marginally as a consequence of the price level rising with the money wage constant, and there is greater employment demanded and supplied in consequence, the initial state was one of involuntary unemployment.

ATHENIAN You are saying then that Keynes’s intent is to establish the existence of involuntary unemployment?

STRANGER At least a major part of the intent yes. To make the concept meaningful, to argue that it refers to a logical possibility, and also that much of the actual unemployment of the time may be falling under it, and is a result of lack of “effective demand”.

ATHENIAN The neoclassicals have been said to be cavalier about fluctuations in economic activity, when in fact Wicksell and Marshall and Thornton, let alone Hawtrey or Hayek as Keynes’s own critics, certainly had profound enough theories of the cycle. Before we go further, I think we should remind ourselves of what they actually said.

STRANGER Very well.

ATHENIAN Would you agree that can be summarized, then as now, as the quantity theory of money married to the theory of general equilibrium?

STRANGER Though it may be better to speak of divorce perhaps rather than marriage, in view of the dichotomy.

ATHENIAN From Smith to Mill, political economists broadly agree the role of government should extend and be restricted to such activities as defence, civil protection, the rule of law, the provision of public goods, education, the encouragement of competition, and so on. The traditional agenda does not as a rule include direct activity to restrain or otherwise change the natural course of trade, production, or consumption, and certainly no theory of what today is called macroeconomic policy. Underlying it is a broad belief that the competitive pursuit of private welfare within the necessary and minimal framework of the institutions of government, will result in tolerable social outcomes, and any further activity may be counterproductive. The State is after all endogenous to the economy, without any resources to its own name.

STRANGER The minimal state, though not so minimal perhaps as we sometimes think.

ATHENIAN The main function of money is seen to be that of facilitating real transactions. Hence the main component of the demand for money is the transactions demand, and the broad objective of monetary policy is the maintenance of the stability of the price of money. But this is recognized to be something elusive in practice, and fluctuations in economic activity are expected to occur in spite of the best intentions of the monetary authorities.

STRANGER How so?

ATHENIAN Well we might imagine two or three distinct but related markets: one for real investment and savings determined by intertemporal preferences, resources, and technologies; one a market for investment and savings defined in terms of money; one a short term credit market. The market for real investment and savings is, as it were, unobservable to the naked eye. Yet it drives the second and third markets for nominal savings and investment in which we actually participate. Monetary equilibrium requires the observable money rates of interest to equal the unobservable real rate of return on the market for physical capital. In particular, the real or natural rate of interest determined in the equilibrium of the first market is not, and perhaps ultimately cannot be, affected by nominal or monetary disturbances in the second or third markets.

STRANGER Why call it “natural”?

ATHENIAN In the sense it is a function of the real data of intertemporal preferences, resources, and technologies being what they are. If these data changed it should be expected to change too. But given these data, it would be the rate at which intertemporal constrained maximizations by individual agents resulted in planned present consumption equaling planned present production at the same time as planned future consumption equaled planned future production.

STRANGER In other words, real planned savings equal real planned investment.

ATHENIAN Exactly. It is the real interest rate, or rather the whole structure of own-rates and cross-rates at various terms, which is the key price signal for macroeconomic equilibrium.

STRANGER “Natural” seems to me to carry a physiocratic connotation. A better nomenclature would replace it with something else — perhaps “equilibrium real rate” or just “walrasian” rate.

ATHENIAN Very well, though I for one do not bias myself against the physiocrats! Now consider how a simple business cycle might occur on wicksellian lines. From a position of full real and monetary equilibrium, an expansion of credit has its first effect on the banks, increasing reserves and inducing more lending for reserve/deposit ratios to be restored, and so lowering the loan rate. But customers are only able to perceive a lowering of this nominal rate of interest and cannot know the equilibrium real rate has not changed. As far as households know, the relative price of present consumption has fallen and there is an incentive for greater consumption and lesser savings. As far as businesses know, the relative price of the future good has risen, and there is an incentive for greater investment. Inventories are run down, and markets for both consumer goods and capital goods are stimulated and show signs of excess demand. But if there was a walrasian equilibrium initially, then the economy will now show signs of inflation; with a gold standard, there would be increased demand for imports and an external drain of reserves, and even perhaps an internal drain if there was a panic and a run on the banks. The loan rate will have to rise once more to reign in reserves, but if the rate is now raised too high relative to the still unchanged real rate, there would be the makings of a recession.

STRANGER Your point being that economists before Keynes had recognized the decentralized economy may be fluctuating continually.

ATHENIAN Surely they had done so quite fully. A first set of causes such as wars, disasters, discoveries and migrations would change the real data of the economy, while a second set would be monetary disturbances like the failure of the authorities to adequately follow the dictates of the real data of the economy, i.e., failure to observe the equilibrium real rate of interest. It may even be intrinsic to the problem that they must fail in the attempt to observe, let aside compute, the equilibrium real rate warranted at a given time by the structure of the real data.

STRANGER Hence the conclusion that they cannot hope to do better than establish a climate of monetary and fiscal stability, such as by declaring a long term policy and staying with it.

ATHENIAN Exactly. Private economic agents already face endemic uncertainty with respect to changes in the real data, and must be assumed to not want more added by government policy. You appear to have seen my point nicely.

STRANGER Very well. But you have jumped ahead as this kind of a conclusion sounds very modern to me. You made me stop all the way back at Keynes’s notion of effective demand!

ATHENIAN As I said, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

STRANGER Let us go back a little. I think we may be able to rejoin our initial route at a point which may bring us close to where we seem to have come by the route you have taken. Specifically suppose we go back to the question of the money wage and the real wage, and of the real wage being “too high”.

ATHENIAN That has been interpreted a number of ways, has it not?

STRANGER Yes it has. One would be to say Keynes was merely simple minded and assumed money illusion on the part of workers. Another would be to say Keynes assumed a short run context of fixed prices, so it would not make a difference whether labour happened to be concerned with changes in the real or the money wage. Yet a third would be to say Keynes, whether he realized it or not, had come upon a recondite truth about the sort of complex monetary economy in which we live — namely, that when transactions are quoted and made in a monetary economy, it may become difficult ipso facto for the walrasian equilibrium to be achieved. Even workers might fully recognize the real wage to be too high and be prepared to work more at a lower wage, but be unable to signal this willingness to potential employers.

ATHENIAN So involuntary unemployment becomes another sort of equilibrium outcome.

STRANGER Exactly. Not only of labour but of machines too, along with the unintended holding of inventories. It is as if firms would have sold what they had planned to if only workers had the income to buy it, which they would have done if only they had been able to sell as much labour they had planned to, which they would have done if only there had been an effective demand for it, which there would have been if firms had not cut back on production because they found themselves unable to sell what they had planned to sell. A kind of vicious circle, due to pessimistic and self-fulfilling expectations all around.

ATHENIAN An unhappy solution to a non-cooperative game you might say.

STRANGER Quite so. Keynes does not deny there may be a monetary route out of the impasse. A wage deflation would eventually lead to price deflation, raising the real value of money holdings, so via liquidity preference lead to an increased demand for bonds, raising their price and lowering money interest rates, which through the investment function would lead eventually to increased effective demand. But the fiscal route may be more direct and quicker in its effect on expectations. Trying to deflate across the board in the face of what seem to be excess supplies of goods and labour might be counterproductive, causing unexpected transfers from debtors to creditors and precipitating bankruptcies. Instead: “Government investment will break the vicious circle. If you can do that for a couple of years, it will have the effect, if my diagnosis is right, of restoring business profits more nearly to normal, and if that can be achieved then private enterprise will be revived. I believe you have first of all to do something to restore profits and then rely on private enterprise to carry the thing along….”

ATHENIAN A shot in the arm for enterprise in the hope of breaking the pessimism. But Keynes was hardly alone in such thinking.

STRANGER Quite true.

ATHENIAN And he certainly seemed to treat the opinions of others without due respect, which is to say he may have exaggerated the significance of his own. Hinting that he was the Einstein of economics set an especially bad example. Only the other day one eminence was comparing himself to Newton, and another was calling his friend Shakespeare. It will be Joyce and Pasternak next!

STRANGER Flattery and nepotism are common weaknesses, my friend. Like the rush to belief and worship.

ATHENIAN Besides you would have to assume the government to be outside the game, and only so being able to see the problem which private agents could not from inside the game. That may be too large an assumption, don’t you think?

STRANGER Yes it may. Yet it seems to me pump-priming was a possible solution being offered to a temporary problem. Many of the controversies may have come about because it became institutionalized, because discretionary fiscal policy became a permanent part of the government agenda.

ATHENIAN And a more direct route out was available too, was it not? With wealth placed in the consumption function directly, a deflation would increase the real value and affect effective demand directly. We would not have to wait for the roundabout effects through so-called liquidity preference.

STRANGER Which in a way brings us back to a central pillar of traditional theory: with given real data and given velocity of circulation, desired holding of real money balances will roughly be constant. In particular the demand for real money balances should not be seen as a function of the interest rate.

ATHENIAN The real rate or the monetary rate?

STRANGER For neoclassicals certainly the real; Keynes does not seem clear.

ATHENIAN There may lie a problem.

STRANGER The title of the book says “Employment, Interest, and Money”. No question employment is real and money is money — interest is the bridge. If you ask me to bet I would say Keynes’s agents make real responses to signals expressed as they must be in a large economy in monetary terms.

ATHENIAN Perhaps we ought to move on. Tell me, if you think Keynes’s book rightly or wrongly ranks as the most influential document of the last fifty years, would you agree it is Friedman’s address on the role of monetary policy which must rank second to it if not on a par with it?

STRANGER Certainly there can be few competitors.

ATHENIAN Well then, it appears to me the net effect of Friedman’s critique has been a restoration of the wicksellian theory and a banishment of the keynesian theory.

STRANGER Friedman of course makes his approach via a critique of the Phillips’ Curve.

ATHENIAN Yes, but it is Wicksell whom he acknowledges in advancing the notion of a natural rate of unemployment, one which has been “ground out by the walrasian system of general equilibrium equations” — in other words, one which happens to be consistent with the structure of the real data of the economy at a particular time.

STRANGER Though again we may as well speak of walrasian instead of natural.

ATHENIAN A monetary policy which tried to peg unemployment at lower than such a rate (if such a rate could be determined, which it cannot) is likely to be counterproductive. The initial effect of an expansionary policy on a walrasian equilibrium may be to increase real output. Workers assume the increase to reflect an increase in the unobservable real demand for their services, and hence they expect a higher real wage. Businesses see the same and assume it to reflect an increase in the unobservable real demand for their goods. But given there was no real excess demand in the first place for either labour or goods, the effect outside anything but the short run will be a return to the initial structure of real wages, and the temporary decline in unemployment is reversed to the walrasian rate at higher prices. If the government tries to maintain unemployment at less than the walrasian rate, it will have to concede — indeed it will have caused — accelerating inflation without any real fall in unemployment.

STRANGER And vice versa perhaps, so there would be a kind of knife-edge.

ATHENIAN Now your remark about Friedman making his approach via the Phillips Curve seems to me interesting. We may have been too hasty to make a comparison with the debate in the thirties. For the world suffers a very real and severe shock between Keynes’s book and the keynesian consensus, which is the Second World War itself.

STRANGER I am not sure I follow.

ATHENIAN Well think of the consensus afterwards on the need for macroeconomic policy — it is actually Tinbergen’s notion of a “policy-maker” which is married to what seems to be Phillips’s finding of a trade-off between inflation and unemployment. It becomes the role of the macroeconomist to advise the politician on how to minimize social disutility from inflation and unemployment subject to the Phillips Curve. Macroeconomics becomes a so-called “policy science”. Give your expert economist your social utility function, and he will tell you where to slide to on your Phillips Curve.

STRANGER The available instruments being money supply and tax rates. That is what I meant in saying Keynes’s idea became institutionalized.

ATHENIAN It seems to me this consensus is born out of the War.

STRANGER How so?

ATHENIAN Well just think of the structural problems of the time: demobilization of large armies, reconstruction, all the displaced peoples, and so on. What are democratic governments to do? Say to their voters, right, thank you very much, now could you please go home quietly? What could have been expected except an Employment Act? Governments were going to help their returning citizens find work, or at least it would have seemed irresponsible if they had not said they were going to.

STRANGER You are saying then that Friedman may have been arguing against a new orthodoxy, grown out of what might have been a sensible idea.

ATHENIAN Exactly. The world is a very different place now than in 1945, in ‘45 than in ‘33, in ‘33 than in 1914. Real shocks every time. It may be a grave mistake for us to look for a unique and universal theory which is supposed to explain all particular circumstances, all of history.

STRANGER Reminds me of the historical school.

ATHENIAN Why not? Again I hold no prejudice against them! Anyhow, consider that Lucas and others have followed Friedman to argue it is a mistake to formulate the problem as Tinbergen had done, with unemployment as a target in a social utility function along with inflation. If it ought to be assumed that people will not continually make the same mistakes in predicting policy, then a systematic employment policy is going to be discovered quickly enough and rendered either ineffective or counterproductive. This idea too has its origins in Wicksell. Examining an opinion that inflation might stimulate enterprise and free debtors, Wicksell says: “It need only be said that if this fall in the value of money is the result of our own deliberate policy, or indeed can be anticipated and foreseen, then these supposed beneficial effects will never occur, since the approaching rise in prices will be taken into account in all transactions by reasonably intelligent people.”

STRANGER Wicksell said that?

ATHENIAN Precisely that.

STRANGER It does sound very modern.

ATHENIAN Now Lucas speaks of how the advice that economists give should be limited only to “the well understood and empirically substantiated propositions of monetary economics, discouragingly modest as these may be.” What can we take him to mean? It seems to me he is sharing Friedman’s scepticism of the possibilities which had been claimed for macroeconomics by the keynesian consensus. And that surely has been a healthy scepticism, befitting good economists.

STRANGER As I said, there is so often a rush to belief.

ATHENIAN Which is really disastrous when combined with the craving for power.

STRANGER But the question remains, does it not, as to which propositions of monetary economics are to be considered “well understood and empirically substantiated”. I cannot help think the propositions taken to be well understood and empirically substantiated in Chicago may be very different from those taken to be well understood and empirically substantiated in Cambridge, or for that matter, those in the U. S. from those in Europe.

ATHENIAN I don’t see any difficulty in this. For first, it would have been granted there are propositions in economics which can be well understood and empirically substantiated. And that must be counted as progress! For something cannot be well understood if it cannot be understood at all, and where there is the possibility of understanding there must be the possibility of objective knowledge as well. And second, why should we not say the most appropriate task of economic theory or analytical economics is simply one of clarification and elucidation of the conceptual basis of economic thinking and expression? All theory ultimately is, or ought to be, “Critique of Language”. When we are faced with a particular and concrete problematic situation, the theorist is to whom we turn for conceptual guidance and criticism. If instead you take the role of the theorist to be one of searching the universe for grand and general and absolute and abstract truths, which need to be discovered before we can say anything about some concrete set of particulars, then it seems to me you will be either struck dumb by a total and debilitating scepticism or become very shrill in your dogmatism or alternate wildly between the two. To me it seems unimportant ultimately to whose flag one shows allegiance, or indeed that allegiance to any flag must be shown.

STRANGER It seems again I will not disagree. But you have sketched the critique of Friedman and Lucas and indeed the ghost of Wicksell addressed to the dogmas of the keynesian orthodoxy. And I have agreed with you this has been a healthy criticism of the sort we should expect economists to provide. But there has been serious question too of the framework used by Friedman and Lucas, hasn’t there? I am thinking especially of Tobin and Hahn.

ATHENIAN Tobin has done much to add clear and reasonable thinking about Keynes — his suggestion that a certain amount of inflation may be the only way to bring down real wages towards their walrasian rates in complex monetary economics is especially interesting; it shows how wide the common ground can be upon which the debate may occur. But you will have to tell me what Hahn’s criticisms have been. I have always found them too abstract and too caustic.

STRANGER That they tend to be, but don’t let that deter you. As I see it, Hahn argues somewhat as follows. We should grant Friedman and Lucas two important points: first, the government is itself a large economic agent whose actions and announced plans enter the calculations of private agents; secondly, erratic changes in monetary policy away from a steady k% rule may have perverse effects “by confusing signals of relative scarcity with those that arose from the monetary policy”. Also, we may accept that the assumptions sufficient for a full walrasian equilibrium with rational expectations suffice for the absence of any persistent involuntary unemployment by Keynes’s definition. But Hahn would say this may not be the relevant empirical description.

ATHENIAN In what way?

STRANGER Well for one thing the pricing axiom or the recontracting assumption of stability theory remains unexplained. It is possible traders will face quantity constraints, and this often seems so in markets for labour and credit. We may simply find prices not moving in the direction of excess demand even when a quantity constraint happens to be binding. The structure of wages may be “neither fixed, nor arbritrary, nor inflexible; it is what it is because given conjectures, no agent finds it advantageous to change it.” Moreover, it may not be plausible to suppose there will be convergence after arbitrary displacements back towards a stable equilibrium, because the conditions for stability are very stringent and uniqueness of equilibrium may also need to be postulated. Furthermore, it may be quite unsatisfactory to treat money in models which are isomorphic to the Arrow-Debreu model, because in such a world there is no logical use for money, so there must be some essential features of reality which have failed to be features of the model.

ATHENIAN You don’t think Patinkin’s integration was adequate?

STRANGER For many practical purposes perhaps, but certainly not to full logical satisfaction. If you put real money balances into the utility function and treat money just about like any other good, you have to be prepared to accept a possible equilibrium in which the price of money is zero. Lastly, if there are internal debts denominated in money as there are in fact, you may not assume equiproportional changes in all prices will not have real effects, unless you are prepared to assume away redistributions between creditors and debtors, which you can do only under another assumption that all households have parallel and linear Engel curves through the origin. Hahn’s line of argument is admittedly abstract, but you will have to admit it raises some fundamental questions.

ATHENIAN Another example we might say of the healthy scepticism of the theorist. It seems my turn to agree with you. But we can imagine replies too can we not?

STRANGER What do you have in mind?

ATHENIAN Well to argue there can be unemployment which is involuntary is not to have argued that an employment policy can be expected to remove it. This seems a premise and conclusion too frequently confounded by both keynesians and their critics, with disastrous consequences. Then, Buchanan would argue that a more thorough characterization needs to be given of the making of government policy, especially when it is proposed to supplant the market outcome. Policies are after all proposed, enacted, and put into effect by actual people — all of whom may need to be assumed to be pursuing private rewards as well in the course of their public duties. The relevant description for the economist needs to be one including this further fact that actual proposals of public policy can embody the private interests of the proposers too.

STRANGER Making it that much more difficult to determine what is in the public interest in a given case.

ATHENIAN Exactly. And so reinforcing the case for predictability and an orderliness in the framework of government.

STRANGER But we have been talking now for quite long enough my friend. I seem to feel a fear too that we have not gained anything at all in our discussions.

ATHENIAN Don’t be so pessimistic! Surely the point of reconstructing such conversations as we have done is not to hold absolutely to the matters raised in them. You and I after all have been making summary and highly simplified and unauthorized interpretations. I take the point of it to have been clarifying our thoughts, and perhaps to show ourselves how discussion can proceed between economists of different schools of thought. Arguments might come to a halt for any of a number of reasons, but they needn’t be supposed to have any logical or necessary end. Too often we let people retreat into different dogmatic positions, fostering the belief that each is starting from some set of absolute axioms ultimately irreconcilable with those of the other. We may need to keep insisting instead that the pursuit of knowledge and understanding is an open-ended activity with potentially indefinite limits. It yields conclusive results but has no absolute end. You or I might call a halt and retire from it, but that will not mean it cannot or will not continue without us.

STRANGER Perhaps so. But you are younger than I, and I have become tired by all these thrusts and parries. Besides, there has been the enjoyment of conversation itself.”

II

October 1929? Not!  by Subroto Roy / First published in Business Standard September 18, 2008

“Lehman Brothers filing for bankruptcy protection, Merrill Lynch taken over by Bank of America, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and now AIG being nationalised by the US Government, Bear Stearns getting a government bailout, many thousands of low-quality loans going bad … Does it all add up to an American financial crisis in the autumn of 2008 comparable to that in the autumn of 1929? Even Alan Greenspan himself has gone on record on TV saying it might.

But there are overriding differences. Most important, the American economy and the world economy are both incomparably larger today in the value of their capital stock, and there has also been enormous technological progress over eight decades. Accordingly, it would take a much vaster event than the present turbulence — say, something like an exchange of multiple nuclear warheads with Russia causing Manhattan and the City of London to be destroyed — before there was a return to something comparable to the 1929 Crash and the Great Depression that followed.

Besides, the roots of the crises are different. What happened back then? In 1922, the Genoa Currency Conference wanted to correct the main defect of the pre-1914 gold standard, which was freezing the price of gold while failing to stabilise the purchasing power of money. From 1922 until about 1927, Benjamin Strong of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York adopted price-stabilisation as the new American policy-objective. Britain was off the gold standard and the USA remained on it. The USA, as a major creditor nation, saw massive gold inflows which, by traditional gold standard principles, would have caused a massive inflation. Governor Strong invented the process of “sterilisation” of those gold inflows instead and thwarted the rise in domestic dollar prices of goods and services.

Strong’s death in 1928 threw the Federal Reserve System into conflict and intellectual confusion. Dollar stabilisation ended as a policy. Surplus bank money was created on the release of gold that had been previously sterilised.

The traditional balance between bulls and bears in the stock-market was upset. Normally, every seller of stock is a bear and every buyer a bull. Now, amateur investors appeared as bulls attracted by the sudden stock price rises, while bears, who sold securities, failed to place their money into deposit and were instead lured into lending it as call money to brokerages who then fuelled these speculative bulls. As of October 22, 1929 about $4 billion was the extent of such speculative lending when Chase National Bank’s customers called in their money.

Chase National had to follow their instructions, as did other New York banks. New York’s Stock Exchange could hardly respond to a demand for $4 billion at a short notice and collapsed. Within a year, production had fallen by 26 per cent, prices by 14 per cent, personal income by 14 per cent, and the Greatest Depression of recorded history was in progress — involuntary unemployment levels in America reaching 25 per cent.

That is not, by any reading, what we have today. Yes, there has been plenty of bad lending, plenty of duping shareholders and workers and plenty of excessive managerial payoffs. It will all take a large toll, and affect markets across the world.

But it will be a toll relative to our plush comfortable modern standards, not those of 1929-1933. In fact, modern decisionmakers have the obvious advantage that they can look back at history and know what is not to be done. The US and the world economy are resilient enough to ride over even the extra uncertainty arising from the ongoing presidential campaign, and then some.”


III

America’s divided economists by Subroto Roy First published in Business Standard October 26, 2008

“Future doctoral theses about the Great Tremor of 2008 will ask how it was that the Fed chief, who was an academic economist, came to back so wholeheartedly the proposals of the investment banker heading the US Treasury. If Herbert Hoover and FDR in the 1930s started something called fiscal policy for the first time, George W Bush’s lameduck year has marked the total subjugation of monetary policy.

In his 1945 classic, History of Banking Theory, the University of Chicago’s Lloyd Mints said: “No reorganisation of the Federal Reserve System, while preserving its independence from the Treasury, can offer a satisfactory agency for the implementation of monetary policy. The Reserve banks and their branches should be made agencies of the Treasury and all monetary powers delegated by Congress should be given to the Secretary of the Treasury…. It is not at all certain that Treasury control of the stock of money would always be reasonable… but Treasury influence cannot be excluded by the creation of a speciously independent monetary agency that cannot have adequate powers for the performance of its task…” Years later, Milton Friedman himself took a similar position suggesting legislation “to end the independence of the Fed by converting it into a bureau of the Treasury Department…”(see, for example, Essence of Friedman, p 416).

Ben Bernanke’s Fed has now ended any pretence of the monetary policy’s independence from the whims and exigencies of executive power. Yet Dr Bernanke’s fellow academic economists have been unanimous in advising caution, patience and more information and reflection upon the facts. The famous letter of 122 economists to the US Congress was a rare statement of sense and practical wisdom. It agreed the situation was difficult and needed bold action. But it said the Paulson-Bernanke plan was an unfair “subsidy to investors at taxpayers’ expense. Investors who took risks to earn profits must also bear the losses. Not every business failure carries systemic risk. The government can ensure a well-functioning financial industry, able to make new loans to creditworthy borrowers, without bailing out particular investors and institutions whose choices proved unwise.”

Besides, the plan was unclear and too far-reaching. “Neither the mission of the new agency nor its oversight are clear. If taxpayers are to buy illiquid and opaque assets from troubled sellers, the terms, occasions, and methods of such purchases must be crystal clear ahead of time and carefully monitored afterwards…. If the plan is enacted, its effects will be with us for a generation. For all their recent troubles, America’s dynamic and innovative private capital markets have brought the nation unparalleled prosperity. Fundamentally weakening those markets in order to calm short-run disruptions is desperately short-sighted.”

The House’s initial bipartisan “backbench revolt” against “The Emergency Economic Stabilisation Act of 2008” (ESSA) followed this academic argument and rejected the Bernanke Fed’s advice. Is there an “emergency”, and if so what is its precise nature? Is this “economic stabilisation”, and if so, how is it going to work? The onus has been on Dr Bernanke and his staff to argue both, not merely to assert them. Even if the House “held its nose” and passed the measure for now, the American electorate is angry and it is anybody’s guess how a new President and Congress will alter all this in a few months.

Several academic economists have argued for specific price-stabilisation of the housing market being the keystone of any large, expensive and risky government intervention. (John McCain has also placed this in the political discussion now.) Roughly speaking, the housing supply-curve has shifted so far to the right that collapsed housing prices need to be dragged back upward by force. Columbia Business School economists Glenn Hubbard and Chris Mayer, both former Bush Administration officials, have proposed allowing “all residential mortgages on primary residences to be refinanced into 30-year fixed-rate mortgages at 5.25 per cent…. close to where mortgage rates would be today with normally functioning mortgage markets….Lower interest rates will mean higher overall house prices…” Yale’s Jonathan Koppell and William Goetzmann have argued very similarly the Treasury “could offer to refinance all mortgages issued in the past five years with a fixed-rate, 30-year mortgage at 6 per cent. No credit scores, no questions asked; just pay off the principal of the existing mortgage with a government check. If monthly payments are still too high, homeowners could reduce their indebtedness in exchange for a share of the future price appreciation of the house. That is, the government would take an ownership interest in the house just as it would take an ownership interest in the financial institutions that would be bailed out under the Treasury’s plan.”

Beyond the short run, the US may play the demographic card by inviting in a few million new immigrants (if nativist feelings hostile to the outsider or newcomer can be controlled, especially in employment). Bad mortgages and foreclosures would vanish as people from around the world who long to live in America buy up all those empty houses and apartments, even in the most desolate or dismal locations. If the US’s housing supply curve has moved so far to the right that the equilibrium price has gone to near zero, the surest way to raise the equilibrium price would be by causing a new wave of immigration leading to a new demand curve arising at a higher level.

Such proposals seek to address the problem at its source. They might have been expected from the Fed’s economists. Instead, ESSA speaks of massive government purchase and control of bad assets “downriver”, without any attempt to face the problem at its source. This makes it merely wishful to think such assets can be sold for a profit at a later date so taxpayers will eventually gain. It is as likely as not the bad assets remain bad assets.

Indeed the University of Chicago’s Casey Mulligan has argued there is a financial crisis involving the banking sector but not an economic one: “We’re not entering a second Great Depression.” The marginal product of capital remains high and increasing “far above the historical average. The third-quarter earnings reports from some companies already suggest that America’s non-financial companies are still making plenty of money…. So, if you are not employed by the financial industry (94 per cent of you are not), don’t worry. The current unemployment rate of 6.1 per cent is not alarming, and we should reconsider whether it is worth it to spend $700 billion to bring it down to 5.9 per cent.”

Dr Bernanke has been a close student of A Monetary History of the United States in which Milton Friedman and Anna J Schwartz argued that the Fed inadvertently worsened the Great Contraction of 1929-1933 by not responding to Congress. Let not future historians find that the Fed, at the behest of the Treasury Secretary, worsened the Great Tremor of 2008 by bamboozling Congress into hasty action.”

IV

Would not a few million new immigrants solve America’s mortgage crisis?
October 10, 2008 — drsubrotoroy | Edit

America was at its best when it was open to mass immigration, and America is at its worst when it treats immigrants with racism and worse (for seeming “uppity”).

All those bad mortgages and foreclosures could vanish within a year or two by playing the demographic card and inviting in a few million new immigrants into the United States.  They would pour in from China, Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Mexico, South America,  South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Israel, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan,  India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and yes, Pakistan too, and more.  They would happily buy up all those empty houses and apartments, even in all those desolate  dismal locations.  If the USA’s housing supply curve has moved so far to the right that the equilibrium price has gone to near zero, the surest way to raise the equilibrium price would be by causing a  new wave of  immigration leading to a new demand curve arising at a higher level.   But yes, nativist feelings of racism towards the outsider or the newcomer would have to be controlled  especially in employment — racists after all are often rather “sub-prime” themselves and hence unable to accept characters who may be “prime” or at least less “sub-prime” from foreign immigrant communities.   Restoring a worldwide idea of an American dream fuelled by mass immigration may be the surest way for the American economy to restore itself.

V

122 Sensible American economists

September 26, 2008 — drsubrotoroy | Edit

“$700 billion comes to more than, uhhhm, $6,000 per income taxpayer in the USA.

I was glad to see the sensible letter of 122 American economists to US legislators regarding the Paulson-Bernanke plan to address America’s financial crisis.

Somehow, I have an inkling that foreign central banks have been left holding more bad US debt than might be remembered — which would explain the embarrassment of Messrs Paulson and Bernanke vis-a-vis their foreign counterparts… Dollar depreciation and an American inflation seem to be inevitable over the next several years.”

Could the Satyam/PwC fraud be the visible part of an iceberg? Where are India’s “Generally Accepted Accounting Principles”? Isn’t governance rather poor all over corporate India? Bad public finance may be a root cause

In a March 5 2007 article in The Statesman, I said:

“Our farmers are peaceful hardworking people who should be paying taxes and user-fees normally but should not be otherwise disturbed or needlessly provoked by outsiders. It is the businessmen wishing to attack our farm populations who need to look hard in the mirror – to improve their accounting, audit, corporate governance, to enforce anti-embezzlement and shareholder protection laws etc.”

In a September 23-24 2007 article in The Sunday Statesman I said:

“… Government, instead of hobnobbing with business chambers, needed to get Indian corporations to improve their accounting, audit and governance, and reduce managerial pilfering and embezzlement, which is possible only if Government first set an example.”

In a February 4 2007 article in The Statesman, I said:

“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…. 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.”

All three articles are available elsewhere here and are republished below together.  I have published elsewhere today my brief 2006 lecture on corporate governance.  (See also my “The Indian Revolution”, “Monetary Integrity & the Rupee”, “Indian Inflation”,  “The Dream Team: A Critique”, “India’s Macroeconomics”, “Growth & Government Delusion”, etc).

The fraud at Satyam amounts to it having been long bankrupt but not seemingly so.  The fact it was long bankrupt was apparently overlooked or condoned by its auditors Pricewaterhouse Coopers! This may be big news today but the response of corporate India and the Indian business media seems utterly insincere (and there has been a lot of fake pontificating on TV by some notorious frauds).  Remember the head of Satyam received awards with all the other honchos at those fake ceremonies that businessmen and the business media keep holding at this or that hotel.  (See my several articles here under the categories “Satyam corporate fraud”, “Corporate governance” etc.)

Government agencies, as enforcers of the law, must be seen in such circumstances to have greater credibility than the violators, but who can say that Government accounting and audit and corporate governance in India is not as bad as that of the private sector?    It may be in fact far, far worse.   Poor accounting, endless deficit finance, unlimited paper money creation, false convertibility of the rupee etc is what emerges from our supposedly wise economic policy-makers.

When was the last time some major businessman or top politician spoke publicly about the importance of “Generally Accepted Accounting Principles”?   The answer is never.   Government (of this party or that) has become well-oiled by political lobbyists and is hand-in-glove with organized business, especially in a few cities.  Until Government gets its own accounts straight, stops its endless deficit finance, reins in unlimited paper money-creation, creates an honest currency domestically and externally, there is no proper example or standard set for the private sector, and such scandals will erupt along with insincere responses from the cartels of corporate India.

What emerges from New Delhi’s economists seems often to have as much to do with economics as Bollywood has to do with cinema.

Subroto Roy

Fallacious Finance: Congress, BJP, CPI-M et al may be leading India to hyperinflation

by

Subroto Roy

First published in The Statesman, March 5 2007 Editorial Page Special Article http://www.thestatesman.net

It seems the Dream Team of the PM, Finance Minister, Mr. Montek Ahluwalia and their acolytes may take India on a magical mystery tour of economic hallucinations, fantasies and perhaps nightmares. I hasten to add the BJP and CPI-M have nothing better to say, and criticism of the Government or of Mr Chidambaram’s Budget does not at all imply any sympathy for their political adversaries. It may be best to outline a few of the main fallacies permeating the entire Governing Class in Delhi, and their media and businessman friends:

1. “India’s Savings Rate is near 32%”. This is factual nonsense. Savings is indeed normally measured by adding financial and non-financial savings. Financial savings include bank-deposits. But India is not a normal country in this. Nor is China. Both have seen massive exponential growth of bank-deposits in the last few decades. Does this mean Indians and Chinese are saving phenomenally high fractions of their incomes by assiduously putting money away into their shaky nationalized banks? Sadly, it does not. What has happened is government deficit-financing has grown explosively in both countries over decades. In a “fractional reserve” banking system (i.e. a system where your bank does not keep the money you deposited there but lends out almost all of it immediately), government expenditure causes bank-lending, and bank-lending causes bank-deposits to expand. Yes there has been massive expansion of bank-deposits in India but it is a nominal paper phenomenon and does not signify superhuman savings behaviour. Indians keep their assets mostly in metals, land, property, cattle, etc., and as cash, not as bank deposits.

2. “High economic growth in India is being caused by high savings and intelligently planned government investment”. This too is nonsense. Economic growth in India as elsewhere arises not because of what politicians and bureaucrats do in capital cities, but because of spontaneous technological progress, improved productivity and learning-by-doing on part of the general population. Technological progress is a very general notion, and applies to any and every production activity or commercial transaction that now can be accomplished more easily or using fewer inputs than before. New Delhi still believes in antiquated Soviet-era savings-investment models without technological progress, and some non-sycophant must tell our top Soviet-era bureaucrat that such growth models have been long superceded and need to be scrapped from India’s policy-making too. Can politicians and bureaucrats assist India’s progress? Indeed they can: the telecom revolution in recent years was something in which they participated. But the general presumption is against them. Progress, productivity gains and hence economic growth arise from enterprise and effort of ordinary people — mostly despite not because of an exploitative, parasitic State.

3. “Agriculture is a backward sector that has been retarding India’s recent economic growth”. This is not merely nonsense it is dangerous nonsense, because it has led to land-grabbing by India’s rulers at behest of their businessman friends in so-called “SEZ” schemes. The great farm economist Theodore W. Schultz once quoted Andre and Jean Mayer: “Few scientists think of agriculture as the chief, or the model science. Many, indeed, do not consider it a science at all. Yet it was the first science – Mother of all science; it remains the science which makes human life possible”. Centuries before Europe’s Industrial Revolution, there was an Agricultural Revolution led by monks and abbots who were the scientists of the day. Thanks partly to American help, India has witnessed a Green Revolution since the 1960s, and our agriculture has been generally a calm, mature, stable and productive industry. Our farmers are peaceful hardworking people who should be paying taxes and user-fees normally but should not be otherwise disturbed or needlessly provoked by outsiders. It is the businessmen wishing to attack our farm populations who need to look hard in the mirror – to improve their accounting, audit, corporate governance, to enforce anti-embezzlement and shareholder protection laws etc.

4. “India’s foreign exchange reserves may be used for ‘infrastructure’ financing”. Mr Ahluwalia promoted this idea and now the Budget Speech mentioned how Mr Deepak Parekh and American banks may be planning to get Indian businesses to “borrow” India’s forex reserves from the RBI so they can purchase foreign assets. It is a fallacy arising among those either innocent of all economics or who have quite forgotten the little they might have been mistaught in their youth. Forex reserves are a residual in a country’s balance of payments and are not akin to tax revenues, and thus are not available to be borrowed or spent by politicians, bureaucrats or their businessman friends — no matter how tricky and shady a way comes to be devised for doing so. If anything, the Government and RBI’s priority should have been to free the Rupee so any Indian could hold gold or forex at his/her local bank. India’s vast sterling balances after the Second World War vanished quickly within a few years, and the country plunged into decades of balance of payments crisis – that may now get repeated. The idea of “infrastructure” is in any case vague and inferior to the “public goods” Adam Smith knew to be vital. Serious economists recommend transparent cost-benefit analyses before spending any public resources on any project. E.g., analysis of airport/airline industry expansion would have found the vast bulk of domestic airline costs to be forex-denominated but revenues rupee-denominated – implying an obvious massive currency-risk to the industry and all its “infrastructure”. All the PM’s men tell us nothing of any of this.

5. “HIV-AIDS is a major Indian health problem”. Government doctors privately know the scare of an AIDS epidemic is based on false assumptions and analysis. Few if any of us have met, seen or heard of an actual incontrovertible AIDS victim in India (as opposed to someone infected by hepatitis-contaminated blood supplies). Syringe-exchange by intravenous drug users is not something widely prevalent in Indian society, while the practise that caused HIV to spread in California’s Bay Area in the 1980s is not something depicted even at Khajuraho. Numerous real diseases do afflict Indians – e.g. 11 children died from encephalitis in one UP hospital on a single day in July 2006, while thousands of children suffer from “cleft lip” deformity that can be solved surgically for 20,000 rupees, allowing the child a normal life. Without any objective survey being done of India’s real health needs, Mr Chidamabaram has promised more than Rs 9.6 Billion (Rs 960 crore) to the AIDS cottage industry.

6. “Fiscal consolidation & stabilization has been underway since 1991”. There is extremely little reason to believe this. If you or I borrow Rs. 100,000 for a year, and one year later repay the sum only to borrow the same again along with another Rs 40,000, we would be said to have today a debt of Rs. 140,000 at least. Our Government has been routinely “rolling over” its domestic debt in this manner (in the asset-portfolios of the nationalised banking system) but displaying and highlighting only its new additional borrowing in a year as the “ Fiscal Deficit” (see graph, also “Fiscal Instability”, The Sunday Statesman, 4 February 2007). More than two dozen State Governments have been doing the same though, unlike the Government of India, they have no money-creating powers and their liabilities ultimately accrue to the Union as well. The stock of public debt in India may be Rs 30 trillion (Rs 30 lakh crore) at least, and portends a hyperinflation in the future. Mr Chidambaram’s announcement of a “Debt Management Office” yet to be created is hardly going to suffice to avert macroeconomic turmoil and a possible monetary collapse. The Congress, BJP, CPI-M and all their friends shall be responsible.

Against Quackery

First published in two parts in The Sunday Statesman, September 23 2007, The Statesman September 24 2007, http://www.thestatesman.net

By Subroto Roy

Manmohan and Sonia have violated Rajiv Gandhi’s intended reforms; the Communists have been appeased or bought; the BJP is incompetent

WASTE, fraud and abuse are inevitable in the use and allocation of public property and resources in India as elsewhere, but Government is supposed to fight and resist such tendencies. The Sonia-Manmohan Government have done the opposite, aiding and abetting a wasteful anti-economics ~ i.e., an economic quackery. Vajpayee-Advani and other Governments, including Narasimha-Manmohan in 1991-1996, were just as complicit in the perverse policy-making. So have been State Governments of all regional parties like the CPI-M in West Bengal, DMK/ AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, Congress/NCP/ BJP/Sena in Maharashtra, TDP /Congress in Andhra Pradesh, SP/BJP/BSP in Uttar Pradesh etc. Our dismal politics merely has the pot calling the kettle black while national self-delusion and superstition reign in the absence of reason.

The general pattern is one of well-informed, moneyed, mostly city-based special interest groups (especially including organised capital and organised labour) dominating government agendas at the cost of ill-informed, diffused anonymous individual citizens ~ peasants, small businessmen, non-unionized workers, old people, housewives, medical students etc. The extremely expensive “nuclear deal” with the USA is merely one example of such interest group politics.

Nuclear power is and shall always remain of tiny significance as a source of India’s electricity (compared to e.g. coal and hydro); hence the deal has practically nothing to do with the purported (and mendacious) aim of improving the country’s “energy security” in the long run. It has mostly to do with big business lobbies and senior bureaucrats and politicians making a grab, as they always have done, for India’s public purse, especially access to foreign currency assets. Some $300 million of India’s public money had to be paid to GE and Bechtel Corporation before any nuclear talks could begin in 2004-2005 ~ the reason was the Dabhol fiasco of the 1990s, a sheer waste for India’s ordinary people. Who was responsible for that loss? Pawar-Mahajan-Munde-Thackeray certainly but also India’s Finance Minister at the time, Manmohan Singh, and his top Finance Ministry bureaucrat, Montek Ahluwalia ~ who should never have let the fiasco get off the ground but instead actively promoted and approved it.

Cost-benefit analysis prior to any public project is textbook operating procedure for economists, and any half-competent economist would have accounted for the scenario of possible currency-depreciation which made Dabhol instantly unviable. Dr Singh and Mr Ahluwalia failed that test badly and it cost India dearly. The purchase of foreign nuclear reactors on a turnkey basis upon their recommendation now reflects similar financial dangers for the country on a vastly larger scale over decades.

Our Government seems to function most expeditiously in purchasing foreign arms, aircraft etc ~ not in improving the courts, prisons, police, public utilities, public debt. When the purchase of 43 Airbus aircraft surfaced, accusations of impropriety were made by Boeing ~ until the local Airbus representative said on TV that Boeing need not complain because they were going to be rewarded too and soon 68 aircraft were ordered from Boeing!

India imports all passenger and most military aircraft, besides spare parts and high-octane jet fuel. Domestic aviation generates near zero forex revenues and incurs large forex costs ~ a debit in India’s balance of payments. Domestic airline passengers act as importers subsidised by our meagre exporters of textiles, leather, handicrafts, tea, etc. What a managerially-minded PM and Aviation Minister needed to do before yielding to temptations of buying new aircraft was to get tough with the pampered managements and unions of the nationalized airlines and stand up on behalf of ordinary citizens and taxpayers, who, after all, are mostly rail or road-travellers not jet-setters.

The same pattern of negligent policy-behaviour led Finance Minister P. Chidambaram in an unprecedented step to mention in his 2007 Union Budget Speech the private American companies Blackstone and GE ~ endorsing the Ahluwalia/Deepak Parekh idea that India’s forex reserves may be made available to be lent out to favoured private businesses for purported “infrastructure” development. We may now see chunks of India’s foreign exchange reserves being “borrowed” and never returned ~ a monumental scam in front of the CBI’s noses.

The Reserve Bank’s highest echelons may have become complicit in all this, permitting and encouraging a large capital flight to take place among the few million Indians who read the English newspapers and have family-members abroad. Resident Indians have been officially permitted to open bank accounts of US $100,000 abroad, as well as transfer gifts of $50,000 per annum to their adult children already exported abroad ~ converting their largely untaxed paper rupees at an artificially favourable exchange-rate.

In particular, Mr Ratan Tata (under a misapprehension he may do whatever Lakshmi Mittal does) has been allowed to convert Indian rupees into some US$13,000,000,000 to make a cash purchase of a European steel company. The same has been allowed of the Birlas, Wipro, Dr Reddy’s and numerous other Indian corporations in the organised sector ~ three hundred million dollars here, five hundred million dollars there, etc. Western businessmen now know all they have to do is flatter the egos of Indian boxwallahs enough and they might have found a buyer for their otherwise bankrupt or sick local enterprise. Many newcomers to New York City have been sold the Brooklyn Bridge before. “There’s a sucker born every minute” is the classic saying of American capitalism.

The Sonia-Manmohan Government, instead of hobnobbing with business chambers, needed to get Indian corporations to improve their accounting, audit and governance, and reduce managerial pilfering and embezzlement, which is possible only if Government first set an example.

Why have Indian foreign currency reserves zoomed up in recent years? Not mainly because we are exporting more textiles, tea, software engineers, call centre services or new products to the world, but because Indian corporations have been allowed to borrow abroad, converting their hoards of paper rupees into foreign debt. Forex reserves are a residual in a country’s international balance of payments and are not like tax-resources available to be spent by Government; India’s reserves largely constitute foreign liabilities of Indian residents. This may bear endless repetition as the PM and his key acolytes seem impervious to normal postgraduate-level economics textbooks.

Other official fallacies include thinking India’s savings rate is near 32 per cent and that clever bureaucratic use of it can cause high growth. In fact, real growth arises not because of what politicians and bureaucrats do but because of spontaneous technological progress, improved productivity and learning-by-doing of the general population ~ mostly despite not because of an exploitative parasitic State. What has been mismeasured as high savings is actually expansion of bank-deposits in a fractional reserve banking system caused by runaway government deficit-spending.

Another fallacy has been that agriculture retards growth, leading to nationwide politically-backed attempts at land-grabbing by wily city industrialists and real estate developers. In a hyperinflation-prone economy with wild deficit-spending and runaway money-printing, cheating poor unorganised peasants of their land, when that land is an asset that is due to appreciate in value, has seemed like child’s play.

What of the Opposition? The BJP/RSS have no economists who are not quacks though opportunists were happy to say what pleased them to hear when they were in power; they also have much implicit support among organised business lobbies and the anti-Muslim senior bureaucracy. The official Communists have been appeased or bought, sometimes so cheaply as with a few airline tickets here and there. The nonsensical “Rural Employment Guarantee” is descending into the wasteland of corruption it was always going to be. The “Domestic Violence Act” as expected has started to destroy India’s families the way Western families have been destroyed. The Arjun-DMK OBC quota corrodes higher education further from its already dismal state. All these were schemes that Congress and Communist cabals created or wholeheartedly backed, and which the BJP were too scared or ignorant to resist.

And then came Singur and Nandigram ~ where the sheer greed driving the alliance between the Sonia-Manmohan-Pranab Congress and the CPI-M mask that is Buddhadeb, came to be exposed by a handful of brave women like Mamata and Medha.

2. A Fiscal U-Turn is Needed For India to Go in The Right Economic Direction

Rajiv Gandhi had a sense of noblesse oblige out of remembrance of his father and maternal grandfather. After his assassination, the comprador business press credited Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh with having originated the 1991 economic reform. In May 2002, however, the Congress Party itself passed a resolution proposed by Digvijay Singh explicitly stating Rajiv and not either of them was to be so credited. The resolution was intended to flatter Sonia Gandhi but there was truth in it too. Rajiv, a pilot who knew no political economy, was a quick learner with intelligence to know a good idea when he saw one and enough grace to acknowledge it.

Rule of Law

The first time Dr Manmohan Singh’s name arose in contemporary post-Indira politics was on 22 March 1991 when M K Rasgotra challenged the present author to answer how Dr Singh would respond to proposals being drafted for a planned economic liberalisation that had been authorised by Rajiv, as Congress President and Opposition Leader, since September 1990. It was replied that Dr Singh’s response was unknown and he had been heading the “South-South Commission” for Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, while what needed to be done urgently was make a clear forceful statement to restore India’s credit-worthiness and the confidence of international markets, showing that the Congress at least knew its economics and was planning to take bold new steps in the direction of progress.

There is no evidence Dr Singh or his acolytes were committed to any economic liberalism prior to 1991 as that term is understood worldwide, and scant evidence they have originated liberal economic ideas for India afterwards. Precisely because they represented the decrepit old intellectual order of statist ”Ma-Bap Sarkari” policy-making, they were not asked in the mid-1980s to be part of a “perestroika-for-India” project done at a foreign university ~ the results of which were received, thanks to Siddhartha Shankar Ray, by Rajiv Gandhi in hand at 10 Janpath on 18 September 1990 and specifically sparked the change in the direction of his economic thinking.

India is a large, populous country with hundreds of millions of materially poor citizens, a weak tax-base, a vast internal and external public debt (i.e. debt owed by the Government to domestic and foreign creditors), massive annual fiscal deficits, an inconvertible currency, and runaway printing of paper-money. It is unsurprising Pakistan’s economy is similar, since it is born of the same land and people. Certainly there have been real political problems between India and Pakistan since the chaotic demobilisation and disintegration of the old British Indian Army caused the subcontinent to plunge into war-like or “cold peace” conditions for six decades beginning with a bloody Partition and civil war in J&K. High military expenditures have been necessitated due to mutual and foreign tensions, but this cannot be a permanent state if India and Pakistan wish for genuine mass economic well-being.

Even with the continuing mutual antagonism, there is vast scope for a critical review of Indian military expenditures towards greatly improving the “teeth-to-tail” ratio of its fighting forces. The abuse of public property and privilege by senior echelons of the armed forces (some of whom have been keen most of all to export their children preferably to America) is also no great secret.

On the domestic front, Rajiv was entirely convinced when the suggestion was made to him in September 1990 that an enormous infusion of public resources was needed into the judicial system for promotion and improvement of the Rule of Law in the country, a pre-requisite almost for a new market orientation. Capitalism without the Rule of Law can quickly degenerate into an illiberal hell of cronyism and anarchy which is what has tended to happen since 1991.

The Madhava Menon Committee on criminal justice policy in July proposed a Hong Kong model of “a single high-tech integrated Criminal Justice complex in every district headquarters which may be a multi-storied structure, devoting the ground floor for the police station including a video-installed interrogation room; the first floor for the police-lockups/sub-jail and the Magistrate’s Court; the second floor for the prosecutor’s office, witness rooms, crime laboratories and legal aid services; the third floor for the Sessions Court and the fourth for the administrative offices etc…. (Government of India) should take steps to evolve such an efficient model… and not only recommend it to the States but subsidize its construction…” The question arises: Why is this being proposed for the first time in 2007 after sixty years of Independence? Why was it not something designed and implemented starting in the 1950s?

The resources put since Independence to the proper working of our judiciary from the Supreme Court and High Courts downwards have been abysmal, while the state of prisons, borstals, mental asylums and other institutions of involuntary detention is nothing short of pathetic. Only police forces, like the military, paramilitary and bureaucracies, have bloated in size.

Neither Sonia-Manmohan nor the BJP or Communists have thought promotion of the Rule of Law in India to be worth much serious thought ~ certainly less important than attending bogus international conclaves and summits to sign expensive deals for arms, aircraft, reactors etc. Yet Rajiv Gandhi, at a 10 Janpath meeting on 23 March 1991 when he received the liberalisation proposals he had authorized, explicitly avowed the importance of greater resources towards the Judiciary. Dr Singh and his acolytes were not in that loop, indeed they precisely represented the bureaucratic ancien regime intended to be changed, and hence have seemed quite uncomprehending of the roots of the intended reforms ever since 1991.

Similarly, Rajiv comprehended when it was said to him that the primary fiscal problem faced by India is the vast and uncontrolled public debt, interest payments on which suck dry all public budgets leaving no room for provision of public goods.

Government accounts
Government has been routinely “rolling over” its domestic debt in the asset-portfolios of the nationalised banks while displaying and highlighting only its new additional borrowing in a year as the “Fiscal Deficit”. More than two dozen States have been doing the same and their liabilities ultimately accrue to the Union too. The stock of public debt in India is Rs 30 trillion (Rs 30 lakh crore) at least, and portends a hyperinflation in the future.

There has been no serious recognition of this since it is political and bureaucratic actions that have been causing the problem. Proper recognition would entail systematically cleaning up the budgets and accounts of every single governmental entity in the country: the Union, every State, every district and municipality, every publicly funded entity or organisation, and at the same time improving public decision-making capacity so that once budgets and accounts recover from grave sickness over decades, functioning institutions exist for their proper future management. All this would also stop corruption in its tracks, and release resources for valuable public goods and services like the Judiciary, School Education and Basic Health. Institutions for improved political and administrative decision-making are needed throughout the country if public preferences with respect to raising and allocating common resources are to be elicited and then translated into actual delivery of public goods and services. Our dysfunctional legislatures will have to do at least a little of what they are supposed to. When public budgets and accounts are healthy and we have functioning public goods and services, macroeconomic conditions would have been created for the paper-rupee to once more become a money as good as gold ~ a convertible world currency for all of India’s people, not merely the metropolitan special interest groups that have been controlling our governments and their agendas.

Fiscal Instabilty

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, February 4 2007, http://www.thestatesman.net

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.

India’s “pork-barrel politics” needs a nice (vegetarian) Hindi name! “Teli/oily politics” perhaps? (And are we next going to see a Bill of Rights for Lobbyists?)

“Pork barrel politics” has been known as a concept  in America and other Western countries for more than a century. India is clearly playing catch-up here but advancing quickly. The so-called “second fiscal stimulus” announced yesterday by Dr Manmohan Singh’s chief economic policy aide no longer makes any pretence of any engagement with serious public finance economics at all and is instead a plain bill of rights for lobbyists, especially organised business (and with it, organised labour).

In fact New Delhi’s way seems to be for organised lobbies to deal directly with the higher bureaucracy with executive political approval or acquiescence;  pork arising from legislative politics may be secondary.

Now “pork” is too ugly a term for our Indian sensibilities and not many people eat any in the country (though, believe it or not, pork-production literally speaking is still the recipient of a government subsidy!).  So we do need a nice preferably vegetarian name for “pork-barrel politics” Indian-style.  “Tel” or “oil” may provide some ideas, and as a rough approximation I would suggest “Teli politics” or “Oily politics” but suggestions are welcome.

There are groups in America known as “Porkbusters” :

porkbustersnewsm

Any similar resistance in India responding to our version of pork-barrel politics might have to be called “Tel busters” or “Oil busters” or just  “Detergents”.

And finally, since there has been a complete takeover of the economic policy process (and the mainstream media) by organised business lobbies, are we going to be perhaps seeing next a formal Bill of Rights for Lobbyists?

Subroto Roy, Kolkata

Pump-priming for car-dealers: Keynes groans in his grave (If evidence was needed of the intellectual dishonesty of New Delhi’s new macroeconomic policy, here it is)

Pump-priming for car-dealers: Keynes groans in his grave

(If evidence was needed of the intellectual dishonesty of New Delhi’s new macroeconomic policy, here it is)

by

Subroto Roy

I have said the  Government of India’s new macroeconomic policy announced on Sunday by Dr Manmohan Singh’s main economic policy aide has no economic models or data to support it, and may as likely worsen rather than dampen any business-cycle India might be on for the simple reason that no one has a clue where we are in the cycle, or indeed even if such a cycle exists. (See https://independentindian.com/2008/12/07/will-the-government-of-indias-economic-policy-dampen-or-worsen-the-business-cycle-if-such-a-cycle-exists-at-all-no-one-knows-%E2%80%9Cwhere-ignorance-is-bliss-%E2%80%98tis-folly-to-be-wise/)

The policy appears to be the result of the usual intense lobbying by organised  capital and organised labour with the Government’s Ministries in New Delhi.

If evidence was needed of this root intellectual dishonesty, one need look only as far as “Highlights of India’s fiscal stimulus package” (Daily News and Analysis, December 7 2008) and note the item:

” Norms for government departments to replace vehicles relaxed”.

Dr Singh’s aide, after announcing the policy, openly spoke of how private automobile manufacturers had accumulated a lot of unintended inventory due to falling sales, and how they needed, in his opinion, to lower prices.  Evidently, the Government has also decided to itself  buy a lot of that unintended inventory too, using  the very scarce  public  resources of India’s ordinary people.  Pump-priming for car-dealers — JM Keynes groans in his grave!  Watch out for those fancy  fast new cars carrying India’s bureaucrats, politicians and their friends and family!

The Indian Revolution

The Indian Revolution

by

Subroto Roy

 

Prefatory Note Dec 2008: This outlines what might have happened if (a) Rajiv Gandhi had not been assassinated; (b) I had known at age 36 all that I now know at age 53. Both are counterfactuals and hence this is a work of fiction. It was written long before the Mumbai massacres; the text has been left unchanged.

 

 

“India’s revolution, when it came, was indeed bloodless and non-violent but it was firm and clear-headed and inevitably upset a lot of hitherto powerful people.

 

The first thing the Revolutionary Government declared when it took over in Delhi was that the rupee would become a genuine hard currency of the world economy within 18 months.  This did not seem a very revolutionary thing to say and the people at first did not understand what was meant.  The Revolutionaries explained: “Paper money and the banks have been abused by all previous regimes ruling in Delhi since 1947 who learnt their tricks from British war-time techniques.  We will give you for the first time in free India a rupee as good as gold, an Indian currency as respectable as any other in the world, dollar, pound, yen, whatever.  What you earn with your hard work and resources will be measured by a sound standard of value, not continuously devalued in secret by government misuse”.

 

The people were intrigued but not enlightened much.  Nor did they  grasp things to come when the Revolutionary Government abolished the old Planning Commission, sending its former head as envoy to New Zealand (with a long reading-list); attached the Planning Commission as a new R&D wing to the Finance Ministry; detached the RBI from the Finance Ministry; instructed the RBI Governor to bring proper work-culture and discipline to his 75,000 staff and instructed the Monetary Policy Deputy Governor to prepare plans for becoming a constitutionally independent authority, besides a possible monetary decentralization towards the States.  India’s people did not understand all this, but  there began to be a sense that something was up in Lutyens’ Delhi faraway.

 

The Revolutionary Government started to seem a little revolutionary when it called in  police-chiefs of all States — the PM himself then signed an order routed via the Home Ministry that they were to state in writing, within a fortnight, how they intended to improve discipline and work-culture in the forces they commanded.  Each was also asked to name three reliable deputies, and left in no doubt what that meant.  State Chief Ministers murmured objections but rumours swirled about more to come and they shut up quickly.  The Revolutionary Government sent a terse note to all CMs asking their assistance in implementation of this and any further orders.  It also set up a “Prison Reform and Reconstruction Panel” with instructions to (a) survey all prisons in the country with a view to immediately reduce injustices within the prison-system; (b) enlarge capacity in the event fresh enforcement of the Rule of Law came to demand this.

 

The Revolutionary Government then asked all senior members of the judiciary to a meeting in Trivandrum.  There they declared the judiciary must remain impartial and objective, not show favoritism even to members of the Revolutionary Party itself who might be in court before them for whatever reason.  The judges were assured of carte blanche by way of resources to improve quality of all public services under them; at the same time, a new “Internal Affairs Department” was formed that would assure the public that the Bench and the Bar never forgot their noble calling.  When a former judge and a former senior counsel came to be placed in two cells of the new prison-system, the public finally felt something serious was afoot.  Late night comics on TV led the public’s mirth — “Thieves have authority when judges steal themselves”, waxed one eloquently.

 

The Revolutionary Government’s next step reached into all nooks and crannies of the country.  A large room in the new Finance Ministry was assigned to each State – a few days later, the Revolutionary Government announced it had taken over control under the Constitution’s financial emergency provision of all State budgets for a period of six months at the outset.

 

Now there was an irrepressible outcry from State Chief Ministers, loud enough for the Revolutionary Government to ask them to a national meeting, this time in Agartala.  When the Delhi CM sweetly complained she did not know how to get there, she got back two words “Get there”; and she did.

 

There the PM told the CMs they would get their budgets back some day but only after the Revolutionary Government had overseen their cleaning and restoration to financial health from their current rotten state.   “But Prime Minister, the States have had no physical assets”, one bright young CM found courage to blurt out.

 

“That is the first good question I have heard since our Revolution began,” answered the PM. “We are going to give you the Railways to start with —  Indian Railways will keep control of a few national trains and tracks but will be instructed to devolve control and ownership of all other assets to you, the States.  See that you use your new assets properly”.  There was a collective whoop of excitement.  “During the time your budgets remain with us, get your police, transport, education and hospital systems to work for the benefit of common people, confer with your oppositions about how you can get your legislatures to work at all.  Keep in mind we are committed to making the rupee a hard currency of the world and we will not stand for any waste, fraud or abuse of public moneys. We really don’t want to be tested on what we mean by that. We are doing the same with the Union Government and the whole public sector”.  The Chief Ministers went home nervous and excited.

 

Finally, the Revolutionary Government turned to Lutyens’ Delhi itself. Foreign ambassadors were called in one by one and politely informed a scale-back had been ordered in Indian diplomatic missions in their countries, and hence by due protocol, a scale-back in their New Delhi embassies was called for.  “We are pulling our staff, incidentally, from almost all international and UN agencies too because we need such high-quality administrators more at home than abroad”, the Revolutionary Foreign Minister told the startled ambassadors.

 

Palpable tension rose in the national capital when the Revolutionary Government announced that Members of Parliament would receive public housing of high quality but only in their home constituencies!  The MPs would have to vacate their Delhi bungalows and apartments! “But we are Delhi!  We must have facilities in Delhi!”, MPs cried. “Yes, rooms in nationalized hotels suffice for your legislative needs; kindly vacate the bungalows as required; we will be building national memorials, libraries and museums there”, replied the radicals in power.  Tension in the capital did not subside for weeks because the old political parties all had thrived on Delhi’s social circuit, whose epicenter swirled around a handful of such bungalows.  Now those old power-equations were all lost.  A few MPs decided to boycott Delhi and only work in their constituencies.

 

When the Pakistan envoy was called with a letter for her PM, outlining a process of détente on the USSR-USA pattern of mutual verification of demilitarization, both bloated militaries were upset to see their jobs and perks being cut but steps had been taken to ensure there was never any serious danger of a coup.  The Indian Revolution was in full swing and continued for a few years until coherence and integrity had been forced upon the public finances and currency of a thousand million people….”

see also

https://independentindian.com/2013/11/23/coverage-of-my-delhi-talk-on-3-dec-2012/

Will the Government of India’s new macroeconomic policy dampen or worsen the business-cycle (if such a cycle exists at all)? No one knows! “Where ignorance is bliss, ‘Tis folly to be wise.”

I began a two part article published in The Statesman last year (September 23-24 2007) titled “Against Quackery” saying:

“WASTE, fraud and abuse are inevitable in the use and allocation of public property and resources in India as elsewhere, but Government is supposed to fight and resist such tendencies. The Sonia-Manmohan Government have done the opposite, aiding and abetting a wasteful anti-economics ~ i.e., an economic quackery. Vajpayee-Advani and other Governments, including Narasimha-Manmohan in 1991-1996, were just as complicit in the perverse policy-making. So have been State Governments of all regional parties…. Our dismal politics merely has the pot calling the kettle black while national self-delusion and superstition reign in the absence of reason.  The general pattern is one of well-informed, moneyed, mostly city-based special interest groups (especially including organised capital and organised labour) dominating government agendas at the cost of ill-informed, diffused anonymous individual citizens ~ peasants, small businessmen, non-unionized workers, old people, housewives, medical students etc….

The cheap money policy announced yesterday and now the so-called “fiscal stimulus” announced today may be a case in point.  Dr Manmohan Singh’s main economic policy aide said the aim was for Government to act in a “contra-cyclical”  manner,  presumably referring to an attempted “counter cyclical policy” to dampen the amplitude of a business-cycle.

But has anyone asked — let aside, does anyone know — where precisely, in terms of phase, period and amplitude, India’s macro-economy happens to be on its presumed business-cycle?  Of course not.   No one has the faintest clue.   There are no models of such a cycle existing and there are no data which have been fit to such non-existent models.   Not in Delhi, not in Mumbai, not with any international agency.

[Inspector Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Sherlock  Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Inspector Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Sherlock  Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”]

A cheap money policy and a so-called “fiscal stimulus” may in fact, for all that anyone in the Government of India or outside it really knows, exacerbate the amplitude of a business-cycle — making it worse, not better.

In such a  state of ignorance,  it is odd for policy-makers to go about glibly formulating and announcing so many policy-changes at once.   (It may all add up to be just incoherent waffle.)   Such has been the typical pattern to emerge from the process of political lobbying by “well-informed, moneyed, mostly city-based special interest groups”.   Organised capital and organised labour (as well as of course bureaucrats and politicians) will likely do very well from all this as usual, at the expense of  “ill-informed, diffused anonymous individual citizens” of India.


America’s divided economists


America’s divided economists

by

Subroto Roy

First published in

Business Standard 26 October 2008

Future doctoral theses about the Great Tremor of 2008 will ask how it was that the Fed chief, who was an academic economist, came to back so wholeheartedly the proposals of the investment banker heading the US Treasury. If Herbert Hoover and FDR in the 1930s started something called fiscal policy for the first time, George W Bush’s lameduck year has marked the total subjugation of monetary policy.

In his 1945 classic, History of Banking Theory, the University of Chicago’s Lloyd Mints said: “No reorganisation of the Federal Reserve System, while preserving its independence from the Treasury, can offer a satisfactory agency for the implementation of monetary policy. The Reserve banks and their branches should be made agencies of the Treasury and all monetary powers delegated by Congress should be given to the Secretary of the Treasury…. It is not at all certain that Treasury control of the stock of money would always be reasonable… but Treasury influence cannot be excluded by the creation of a speciously independent monetary agency that cannot have adequate powers for the performance of its task…” Years later, Milton Friedman himself took a similar position suggesting legislation “to end the independence of the Fed by converting it into a bureau of the Treasury Department…”(see, for example, Essence of Friedman, p 416).

Ben Bernanke’s Fed has now ended any pretence of monetary policy’s independence from the whims and exigencies of executive power. Yet Dr Bernanke’s fellow academic economists have been unanimous in advising caution, patience and more information and reflection upon the facts. The famous letter of 122 economists to the US Congress was a rare statement of sense and practical wisdom. It agreed the situation was difficult and needed bold action. But it said the Paulson-Bernanke plan was an unfair “subsidy to investors at taxpayers’ expense. Investors who took risks to earn profits must also bear the losses. Not every business failure carries systemic risk. The government can ensure a well-functioning financial industry, able to make new loans to creditworthy borrowers, without bailing out particular investors and institutions whose choices proved unwise.”

Besides, the plan was unclear and too far-reaching. “Neither the mission of the new agency nor its oversight are clear. If taxpayers are to buy illiquid and opaque assets from troubled sellers, the terms, occasions, and methods of such purchases must be crystal clear ahead of time and carefully monitored afterwards…. If the plan is enacted, its effects will be with us for a generation. For all their recent troubles, America’s dynamic and innovative private capital markets have brought the nation unparalleled prosperity. Fundamentally weakening those markets in order to calm short-run disruptions is desperately short-sighted.”

The House’s initial bipartisan “backbench revolt” against “The Emergency Economic Stabilisation Act of 2008” (ESSA) followed this academic argument and rejected the Bernanke Fed’s advice. Is there an “emergency”, and if so what is its precise nature? Is this “economic stabilisation”, and if so, how is it going to work? The onus has been on Dr Bernanke and his staff to argue both, not merely to assert them. Even if the House “held its nose” and passed the measure for now, the American electorate is angry and it is anybody’s guess how a new President and Congress will alter all this in a few months.

Several academic economists have argued for specific price-stabilisation of the housing market being the keystone of any large, expensive and risky government intervention. (John McCain has also placed this in the political discussion now.) Roughly speaking, the housing supply-curve has shifted so far to the right that collapsed housing prices need to be dragged back upward by force. Columbia Business School economists Glenn Hubbard and Chris Mayer, both former Bush Administration officials, have proposed allowing “all residential mortgages on primary residences to be refinanced into 30-year fixed-rate mortgages at 5.25 per cent…. close to where mortgage rates would be today with normally functioning mortgage markets….Lower interest rates will mean higher overall house prices…” Yale’s Jonathan Koppell and William Goetzmann have argued very similarly the Treasury “could offer to refinance all mortgages issued in the past five years with a fixed-rate, 30-year mortgage at 6 per cent. No credit scores, no questions asked; just pay off the principal of the existing mortgage with a government check. If monthly payments are still too high, homeowners could reduce their indebtedness in exchange for a share of the future price appreciation of the house. That is, the government would take an ownership interest in the house just as it would take an ownership interest in the financial institutions that would be bailed out under the Treasury’s plan.”

Beyond the short run, the US may play the demographic card by inviting in a few million new immigrants (if nativist feelings hostile to the outsider or newcomer can be controlled, especially in employment). Bad mortgages and foreclosures would vanish as people from around the world who long to live in America buy up all those empty houses and apartments, even in the most desolate or dismal locations. If the US’s housing supply curve has moved so far to the right that the equilibrium price has gone to near zero, the surest way to raise the equilibrium price would be by causing a new wave of immigration leading to a new demand curve arising at a higher level.

Such proposals seek to address the problem at its source. They might have been expected from the Fed’s economists. Instead, ESSA speaks of massive government purchase and control of bad assets “downriver”, without any attempt to face the problem at its source. This makes it merely wishful to think such assets can be sold for a profit at a later date so taxpayers will eventually gain. It is as likely as not the bad assets remain bad assets.

Indeed the University of Chicago’s Casey Mulligan has argued there is a financial crisis involving the banking sector but not an economic one: “We’re not entering a second Great Depression.” The marginal product of capital remains high and increasing “far above the historical average. The third-quarter earnings reports from some companies already suggest that America’s non-financial companies are still making plenty of money…. So, if you are not employed by the financial industry (94 per cent of you are not), don’t worry. The current unemployment rate of 6.1 per cent is not alarming, and we should reconsider whether it is worth it to spend $700 billion to bring it down to 5.9 per cent.”

Dr Bernanke has been a close student of A Monetary History of the United States in which Milton Friedman and Anna J Schwartz argued that the Fed inadvertently worsened the Great Contraction of 1929-1933 by not responding to Congress. Let not future historians find that the Fed, at the behest of the Treasury Secretary, worsened the Great Tremor of 2008 by bamboozling Congress into hasty action.

Monetary Integrity and the Rupee

 

Monetary Integrity and the Rupee: Three British Raj relics have dominated our macroeconomic policy-making

First published in Business Standard 28 September 2008

 

Taxation via inflation “does not require detailed legislation, and can be administered very simply. All that it requires is to spend newly created notes. The resulting inflation automatically imposes a tax on cash balances by depreciating the value of money”. Philip Cagan said this in a pioneering 1956 study of hyperinflations worldwide. Britain’s Hugh Dalton observed how government deficits could be met by “use of the printing press to manufacture legal tender paper money” to pay government creditors either directly “with new paper money specially printed for the purpose” or indirectly “out of loans to itself from the Central Bank”. Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz pointed to America’s wartime resort to inflation.

 

Government debt held by a central bank quickly filters through to appear as an asset in balance-sheets of commercial banks, causing expansion of bank-lending and hence of bank-deposits and broad money. After the attack on Pearl Harbour, the US Treasury could get from the Federal Reserve or commercial banks “any funds that it needed beyond those secured by taxation and by borrowing from non-bank sources”. America’s wartime banking system became “a mechanism for providing funds to finance government expenditure” — deposits grew because “bank buying of government securities increases bank deposits”.

 

In RF Harrod’s words: “There is a well-known aphorism that ‘bank loans create deposits’…. if the central bank has an increase of assets, whether through a gold inflow or its own increase of ‘lending’ (including the purchase of bills or bonds), some commercial bank will have an increase of assets of equal amount, in the form of claims on the central bank (deposits at it or notes issued by it) and an increase of deposit liabilities of equal amount to its customers”.

 

India has followed in peacetime over six decades what the USA and Britain followed during war. Our vast growth of bank-deposits in recent decades has been mostly a paper (or nominal) phenomenon caused by unlimited deficit-finance in a fractional reserve banking system. Policy-makers have widely misinterpreted it as indicating a real phenomenon of incredibly high savings behaviour. In an inflationary environment, people save their wealth less as paper deposits than as real assets like land, cattle, buildings, machinery, food-stocks, jewellery etc.

 

Almost 50% of annual public revenues in real terms may have been arising from inflationary finance in recent decades. To take a specific example, during Dr Manmohan Singh’s tenure as Finance Minister, Union Government expenditure net of operational income was some Rs. 1.3 trillion (Rs 1.3 lakh crore) in 1994-1995. Some Rs. 675 billion (1 bn= 100 crore) was raised from all taxation that year, Rs 183 billion from direct taxes. The remaining Rs. 620.8 billion was borrowed on behalf of future generations of citizens using the Government of India’s credit. What is termed “Gross Fiscal Deficit” is this additional or marginal annual borrowing — it adds itself to the ongoing stock of public debt every year and has been continually monetised insofar as our mostly nationalized banking system annually comes to hold government securities to that additional amount.

 

India’s inflation-history shows a first phase from the 1870s until the Second World War when money prices fluctuated in response to real shocks, positive and negative, domestic and international. E.g., the US Civil War and First World War caused demand surges for Indian manufactures like cotton textiles and steel railway-tracks, while the Great Depression saw Indian prices crashing with world prices.

 

During the Second World War, money prices in India rose at their fastest rate ever, caused by deliberate British policy to pay for war expenditure by printing money. The British resort to inflationary wartime finance saw the highest money supply growth rates in India ever to occur to date. This pattern came to be adopted and institutionalised by independent India’s socialist authorities, so there has been a third phase of steady inflationary finance from the 1950s until today, along with negative shocks like military and civil conflicts, droughts and oil price-rises, as well as happier developments like technological progress leading to growth of real income (see graph).

 

Two more relics from the wartime British Raj continue to dominate Indian macroeconomic policy to this day. One is unlimited spending on vast standing armies — our supposed adversary itself being a political remnant of the Raj with similar macroeconomic problems to ourselves. India’s army has some 19 divisions facing Pakistan, Pakistan’s army has 19 divisions facing India!

 

The other relic has been the Indian rupee becoming inconvertible as a world money ever since import quotas were imposed across the Sterling Area in 1940-1942.  Lack of convertibility has made all government finance in India unlike that in modern Western economies. US government bonds are held freely in foreign portfolios so a Swiss household or Japanese bank may trade these as they please. Bond prices vary inversely with interest-rates, and yield curves would be attempted to be defined reflecting the maturity-structure and state of expectations. Competitive arbitrage in international capital markets may succeed in ensuring government debt is priced accurately.

 

A central bank with a convertible currency sells debt to raise monetary interest rates and attract capital flows, buys up its debt to lower rates and cause capital outflows. Money growth unwarranted by real growth depreciates the currency under floating exchange rates; a partial export of inflation occurs under fixed-rates. Debt instruments are liquid near-moneys, and it is because US Government debt has been liquid that debt instruments of its sub-sovereign divisions like States or municipalities are almost as liquid. If sovereign debt is not liquid, nor will be sub-sovereign debt.

 

In India, bank assets may be liquid domestically but are illiquid internationally. Government debt is not held by domestic households as voluntary savings nor has it been a liquid asset held worldwide in foreign portfolios. The same holds *a fortiori* for debt issued by more than two dozen State Governments. “Mutual funds” created in recent years do contain government debt on modern principles of portfolio-selection but amounts involved are small. The Rupee achieving monetary integrity after more than six decades of governmental misuse would be indicated only when any ordinary Indian resident can freely hold or trade India’s money for foreign moneys or precious metals as he/she pleases. India’s economy and money can begin to move towards coherence and integrity only when we put to rest the three relics from the wartime British Raj which we unthinkingly have allowed to dominate our macroeconomic policy-making ever since.

 

The Excel graphs built on my data were made into a nice picture by Business Standard but seem to have been removed from their website, and hence are reproduced here now for the first time today, Oct 2, 2011:

 

See also, more recently,

India’s Money, 2012,

Critical assessments of India’s economic policy, plus my 3 Dec 2012 Delhi talk on India’s money, Interview on Lok Sabha TV 2012, GDI Impuls Zürich Interview, Sunday Guardian Interview & Asian Age/Deccan Herald coverage

https://independentindian.com/2013/11/23/coverage-of-my-delhi-talk-on-3-dec-2012/

 

Growth of Real Income, Money & Prices in India 1869-2008

I have warned against a “monetary meltdown” in India for more than a decade and a half now.  I said it to Rajiv Gandhi (who listened with care and respect) and after he was gone I have said it to Government economists in India, to IMF/World Bank bureaucrats in Washington, to academic audiences in India and the UK and to India’s general newspaper reading public.

Obviously I hope such a meltdown does not come about.   But inflation, or the decline in the value of money, presently is in double-digits even by the Government’s own admission.  (As a general rule, I think the decline in the value of money has been higher by several percent than what the Government says at any given time.)  Hence I am publishing again some results of my macroeconomic research on India over the years.   You are free to use them and communicate with me about them but please acknowledge them properly and do not steal.

The first graph of 1869-2004 data was published in print to accompany my Growth and Government Delusion in The Statesman February 22, 2008; it had also accompanied other similar articles, e.g. The Dream Team: A Critique in January 2006.  The second graph of 1935-2008 data was published in print to accompany my article Indian Inflation in The Statesman of  April 22 2008.

Subroto Roy

Distribution of Govt of India Expenditure (Net of Operational Income) 1995

For more than a decade and a half now, I have been engaged in some “fundamental research” about India’s public finances.  This has involved inter alia transforming the entire set of government accounting data (both Union and all States) from their present obscurity and opaqueness to what I have called a condition of “maximum feasible transparency” (see my April 29 2000 address to the Reserve Bank’s Conference of Finance Secretaries).

Here is an example of the Union Government’s 1994-1995 expenditure (net of operational income).

It is from my unpublished ongoing research and is being released as a public service for India’s people.  Readers are welcome to use it with acknowledgement under the normal “fair use” rule.  Please try not to steal it, i.e. use it without proper acknowledgement.

from-ongoing-research-of-dr-subroto-roy-on-india

Subroto Roy

see also https://independentindian.com/2013/11/23/coverage-of-my-delhi-talk-on-3-dec-2012/

India’s Budget Process (in Theory)

(This was a front-page signed editorial article in The Statesman on Budget Day 2008; it had been preceded by How to Budget: Thrift,Not Theft, Needs to Guide Our Public Finances, and by Growth & Government Delusion a few days earlier. Other related articles published over the last year in The Statesman include India’s Macroeconomics, Fiscal Instability, Fallacious Finance, Against Quackery, etc.)

Budget process, in theory

by Subroto Roy

First published in The Statesman, February 29, 2008, Front Page

India follows the British system of public finance ~ except it is very far from having followed or even being aware of numerous deep improvements the UK made in its system in recent decades.

Government accounts are divided between the “Consolidated Fund of India”, “Contingency Fund” and “Public Account”. The first is most important and credits all revenues received and all loans raised by issue of government debt, and all moneys received in repayment of loans. The second is for unforeseen expenditure pending subsequent authorisation by Parliament. The last includes “trust funds” and is where all transactions relating to debt, deposits, advances, remittances are made.

The annual financial statement of the Union government presented to Parliament is popularly known as “the Budget”. Parliament’s “Vote on Account” is to enable estimates to be considered more carefully.

There is a “Revenue” Budget referring to expenditures and receipts of an annually recurrent nature; for example, staff-salaries of a school is revenue expenditure. There is a “Capital Budget” referring to investment expenditure “incurred with the object either of increasing concrete assets of a material and permanent character or of reducing recurring liabilities”. Spending today on a new school-building or setting aside a sinking fund to reduce the stock of extant public debt is supposed to be what capital expenditure includes. Capital expenditure should be met “generally… from receipts of a capital, debt, deposit or banking character as distinguished from ordinary taxes, duties….” but the government is also allowed to meet it from ordinary current revenues when these are “sufficient”.

In addition there has been in the Indian case large outright direct annual lending undertaken by the government to chosen recipients, bypassing normal capital markets. All three types of expenditure, “Current”, “Investment” and “Loan”, are of spending decisions made at the same time about the same or a similar set of activities. Yet nowhere in the Government of India’s accounts today is to be found clear actionable data that public expenditures on e.g. the power sector in a given year happens to include “Loans for Power Projects” under Account Head 6801, current expenditure on “Power” under Account Head 2801 and capital expenditure on “Power Projects” under Account 4801. It is only when these are added can a picture emerge about total expenditure on the power sector. Government accounts remain on a cash and not accrual basis, unlike the best practices adopted internationally in recent decades.

The process includes preparation of the Budget by the Executive; its consideration and adoption by the Legislature; its implementation by the administration and government agencies; and post-evaluation of achievement and performance by the Public Accounts Committee, Estimates Committee, Committee of Public Undertakings etc of Parliament.

In addition, there is Audit. Where private sector audit systems show how much profit may be properly “put into the pockets of the proprietors”, government audit is supposed to find the least cost to taxpayers in providing necessary public goods and services “to enable Government to determine how little money it need take out of the pockets of the tax-payers in order to maintain its necessary activities at the proper standard of efficiency”. That maxim of India’s Auditor-General in 1930 captures part of the normative intent of public finance in any country at any time. The office of “Comptroller & Auditor General” is charged with independently assessing and evaluating the effectiveness of outcomes generated by the fiscal process, the “high independent statutory authority… who sees on behalf of the Legislature that… money expended was legally available for and applied to the purpose or purposes to which it has been applied….. Audit… is the main instrument to secure accountability of the Executive to the Legislature…. The fundamental object of audit is to secure real value for the taxpayer’s money”. That is the theory at least.

Similar processes on smaller scales are supposed to get carried out in our more than two dozen States, though there the role of the (extra-constitutional) “Planning Commission” has been prevailing while that of the (constitutional) Finance Commission has been diminished.

The crucial variable to look out for in Mr P Chidambaram’s speech will be how much interest expenditure the Government of India has to make on its debt already incurred. That may be nearing Rs 2 trillion (or Rs 2 lakhs of crores) – and could be more than 100% of the Gross Fiscal Deficit! It is an amount “charged” directly to the Consolidated Fund of India and not submitted to the vote of Parliament though Parliament has a right to discuss it. If you want to know who in Parliament is awake and aware of our nation’s economic and financial good, look for anyone who discusses or wants to discuss the size of that amount! It may be best to ignore all attempts at joking and poetry as distractions because the situation is grim ~ although of course there is such a thing as “gallows humour”.

How to Budget: Thrift, Not Theft, Needs to Guide Our Public Finances

How to Budget:

 

Thrift, Not Theft, Needs to Guide Our Public Finances

 

By Subroto Roy

 

First published in The Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article, http://www.thestatesman.net, February 26 2008

 

For most family households in India as elsewhere, the time for weekly or monthly budgeting and accounting is a time of sobriety ~ when reality must be faced about which goals and desires can be achieved and which cannot, about how incomings and outgoings of family resources are going to be matched. The same holds for corporations when their managements must face their boards, shareholders or workers, though individual stakeholders in large corporations may be so ignorant of the facts or so small and insignificant in size that top management can get away with a lot of bluff.

 

When it comes to entities the size of countries, the scope for feeding illusions to the general public becomes enormously large; hence there is need for scientific honesty in government accounting and finance, and when that is lacking as it often is in any country, there is need for intense public awareness and vigorous criticism of what the government of the day may be up to with the public purse.

 

‘Seignorage’

 

Mao Zedong once said “Thrift should be the guiding principle of our government expenditure”. Those who govern fiscal and monetary processes, whether autocratically or democratically, have a general duty to be frugal or economic in using resources that have been forcibly raised from the public and which could have been spent privately in other welfare-enhancing directions.

 

“One must not take from the real needs of the people for the imaginary needs of the state” said Montesquieu. National Governments “take” from the people not only via direct taxation (e.g. of income) and indirect taxation (e.g. of expenditure) but also via inflation ~ invisibly reducing the purchasing power or value of paper money and other paper assets by exploiting the government’s monopoly over currency-printing (a process that economists traditionally termed “seignorage” from the debasing of metal coins that kings historically indulged in to pay for wars).

 

In providing public goods and services, if a government does what it need not do it may end up failing to do what it must and which only it can do. “That part of the public expenditure, which is devoted to the maintenance of civil and military establishments (i.e., all except the interest of the national debt), affords, in many of its details, ample scope for retrenchment. But while much of the revenue is wasted under the mere pretence of public service, so much of the most important business of government is left undone, that whatever can be rescued from useless expenditure is urgently required for useful” (JS Mill).

 

Such an idea that “whatever can be rescued from useless expenditure is urgently required for useful” was used in Gordon Brown’s 2004 rhetoric as Britain’s Finance Minister when, for example, he said 40,000 jobs would be reduced in the UK civil services to release resources to enhance “frontline” public services like schools and hospitals.

 

From such a practical point of view, three questions must be typically addressed by any Parliament or Government trying to optimally align public expenditure and income in a budget placed before it:


(1) Is public expenditure allocated efficiently in given circumstances, in a manner that enhances the public interest to the greatest degree possible? If not, how may it be made to do so?


(2) Can income from government operations be enhanced in given circumstances? What taxation should be imposed, raised, lowered or abolished, why so, and at what least cost to the population?


(3) If government expenditure exceeds income from taxation and operations, how should the borrowing be financed at least cost? Is the government’s existing portfolio of assets and liabilities of different liquidity and term-structure efficient, or can it be improved?

 

Unfortunately, we do none of this in India and have not done so for decades. Indeed New Delhi’s establishment economists and the media have not ever even been thinking on such practical lines. Instead, each bureaucratic department tries to maintain or enlarge its own size and claims on public funds every year. What New Delhi does, in a nutshell, is to allow every Ministry (especially the military) to add a 10-20% inflation-premium to its previous year’s expenditures and assert a new claim during the Budget season. (The most accurate measure of inflation in India may be that involved in growth of nominal expenditure on Government’s bureaucracy). Organised business, organised labour, exporters, importers, farmers, women, and every sundry political lobbyist then assert their claims to subsidies and concessions as well ~ and some gargantuan number comes to be added up.

 

To that number must be added the vast annual expenditure on interest payments by Government on the public debt accumulated from previous years and decades ~ payments which keep afloat the entire banking system in India because our nationalized banks hold such debt-instruments as their main assets where customer-deposits are their main liabilities.

 

A crucial question in relation to the convertibility of the rupee has to do with international valuation of that vast public debt (hence valuation of the asset side of our banking system) in the event the rupee became freely exchangeable into gold and foreign exchange for the general public, not merely city-based super-elites and NRIs.

 

Once interest payments have been added to other government expenditures, some humongous number comes to be reached. That number, and how it breaks down between interest expenditures, military expenditures and other expenditures, is among the key variables to look out for in Mr Chidambaram’s forthcoming Budget-Speech. From it will be subtracted the total taxation and non-tax revenues of the Government ~ each after it has been subjected to its own political lobbying process by different interest groups who have managed to obtain access to the Finance Minister. The residual (government expenditure minus government income) is the “Gross Fiscal Deficit” which is how much the Government of India says it plans to newly borrow from the (mostly captive) domestic financial markets. That residual in turn will add itself to next year’s accumulating public debt on which interest payments will have to be then made. The Finance Minister and his spokesmen typically quote the Gross Fiscal Deficit as some percentage of GDP figures; a better ratio to look for may be the size of Government interest payments per head as a percentage of tax revenues per head.

 

Corruption

 

The Union Finance Ministry no longer appears to exercise effective managerial control over the budgets and accounts of the innumerable publicly funded institutions, entities and projects in the country, nor even remembers how to do so. Everyone knows that the eventual aggregate result of public financial processes will be more deficit-finance paid for by silent and unlimited money-printing. Thus, for example, we see enormous building and construction plans being requested and granted for public institutions and agencies to indulge in ~ if the private builders and developers involved in such public contracts throw in an urban apartment or two for the heads of such institutions, who are powerful enough to be making the spending decisions with their friends, what does it really matter? Deficit-finance, arising from an abysmal state of government and public sector accounting, makes government corruption quite simple and straightforward if one thinks about it.

 

It is sad to say that the principle guiding our public finances may have become theft, not thrift, because political and administrative decision-makers throughout the system, instead of being sober, remain drunk when it comes to spending India’s public resources.

Growth & Government Delusion

Growth & Government Delusion:

Progress Comes From Learning, Enterprise, Exchange, Not The Parasitic State

By Subroto Roy

First published in The Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article,
February 22 2008

 

P Chidambaram, Montek Ahluwalia and Manmohan Singh, like their BJP predecessors, delude themselves and the country as a whole when they claim responsibility for phenomenal economic growth taking place. “My goal is to continue to maintain growth but at the same time the government reserves the right to make rapid adjustments depending upon the evolving international situation” is a typical piece of nonsensical waffle.

Honest Finance Ministers in any country cannot take personal responsibility for rates of economic growth nor is any government in the world nimble, well-informed and intelligent enough to respond to exogenous shocks in a timely manner. The UPA and NDA blaming one another for low growth or taking credit for high growth merely reveal the crude mis-education of their pretentious TV economists. There are far too many measurement and data problems as well as lead-and-lag problems for any credibility to attach to what is said.

Per capita real GDP

Indian businessmen and their politician/ bureaucratic friends seem to think “growth” refers to nominal earnings before tax for the corporate sector, or some such number that can be sold to visiting foreigners to induce them to park their money in India: “You will get a 10 per cent return if you invest in India” to which the visitor says “Oh that must mean India has 10 per cent growth going on”. Of such nonsense are expensive Davos and Delhi conferences made.

What is supposed to be measured when we speak of economic growth? It is annual growth of per capita inflation-adjusted Gross Domestic Product (National Income or Net National Product would be better if available). West Germany and Japan had the highest annual per capita real GDP growth-rates in the world starting from devastated post-War initial conditions. What were their rates? West Germany: 6.6 per cent in 1950-1960, falling to 3.5 per cent by 1960-1970, and 2.4 per cent by 1970-1978. Japan: 6.8 per cent in 1952-1960; 9.4 per cent in 1960-1970, 3.8 per cent in 1970-1978. Thus, only Japan in the 1960s measured more than 9 per cent annual growth of real per capita GDP.

Now India and China are said to be achieving 9 per cent plus routinely. Perhaps we are observing an incredible phenomenon of world economic history. Or perhaps we are just being fed something incredible, some humbug. India’s population is growing at 2 per cent so even if the Government’s number of 9 per cent is taken at face-value, we have to subtract 2 per cent population growth to get per capita figures. Typical official fallacies include thinking clever bureaucratic use of astronomically high savings rates causes growth. For example, Meghnad Desai of Britain’s Labour Party says: “China now has 10.4 per cent growth on a 44 per cent savings rate… ” Indian savings have been alleged near 32 per cent. What has been mismeasured as high savings is actually paper expansion of bank-deposits in a fractional reserve banking system induced by runaway government deficit-spending in both countries.

Real economic growth arises from spontaneous technological progress, improved productivity and learning-by-doing of the general population. World economic history suggests growth occurs in spite of, rather than due to, behaviour of an often parasitic State. Technological progress in a myriad of ways and discovery of new resources are important factors contributing to India’s growth today. But while the “real” economy does well, the “nominal” paper-money economy controlled by Government does not.

Continuous deficit financing for half a century has led to exponential growth of public debt and broad money. The vast growth of bank-deposits has been misinterpreted as indicating unusual savings behaviour when it in fact signals vast government debt being held by nationalised banks. What Messrs Chidambaram, Ahluwalia,Manmohan Singh, the BJP et al have been presiding over is annual paper-money supply growth of 22 per cent! That is what they should be taking honest responsibility for because it certainly implies double-digit inflation (i.e. decline in the value of paper-money) perhaps as high as 14 or 15 per cent. If you believe Government numbers that inflationis near 5 per cent you may believe anything.

The mainsprings of real growth in the wealth of the individual, and so of the nation, are greater practical learning, increases in capital resources and improvements in technology. Deeper skills and improved dexterity cause output produced with fewer inputs than before, i.e. greater productivity. Adam Smith said there is “invention of a great number of machines which facilitate and abridge labour, and enable one man to do the work of many”.

Consider a real life example. A fresh engineering graduate knows dynamometers are needed in testing and performance-certification of diesel engines. He strips open a meter, finds out how it works, asks engine manufacturers what design improvements they want to see, whether they will buy from him if he can make the improvement. He finds out prices and properties of machine tools needed and wages paid currently to skilled labour, calculates expected revenues and costs, and finally tries to persuade a bank of his production plans, promising to repay loans from his returns.

Overcoming restrictions of religion or caste, the secular agent is spurred by expectation of future gains to approach various others with offers of contract, and so organize their efforts into one. If all his offers ~ to creditors, labour, suppliers ~ are accepted he is, for the moment, in business. He may not be for long ~ but if he succeeds his actions will have caused an improvement in design of dynamometers and a reduction in the cost of diesel engines, as well as an increase in the economy’s produced means of production (its capital stock) and in the value of contracts made. His creditors are more confident of his ability to repay, his buyers of his product quality, he himself knows more of his workers’ skills, etc. If these people enter a second and then a third and fourth set of contracts, the increase in mutual trust in coming to agreement will quickly decline in relation to the increased output of capital goods. The first source of increasing returns to scale in production, and hence the mainspring of real economic growth, arises from the successful completion of exchange.

Risk and enterprise

Transforming inputs into outputs necessarily takes time, and it is for that time the innovator or entrepreneur or “capitalist” or “adventurer” must persuade his creditors to trust him, whether bankers who have lent him capital or workers who have lent him labour. The essence of the enterprise (or “firm”) he tries to get underway consists of no more than the set of contracts he has entered into with the various others, his position being unique because he is the only one to know who all the others happen to be at the same time. In terms introduced by Professor Frank Hahn, the entrepreneur transforms himself from being “anonymous” to being “named” in the eyes of others, while also finding out qualities attaching to the names of those encountered in commerce.

Profits earned are partly a measure of the entrepreneur’s success in this simultaneous process of discovery and advertisement. Another potential entrepreneur, fresh from engineering college, may soon pursue the pioneer’s success and start displacing his product in the market ~ eventually chasers become pioneers and then get chased themselves, and a process of dynamic competition would be underway. As it unfolds, anonymous and obscure graduates from engineering colleges become by dint of their efforts and a little luck, named and reputable firms and perhaps founders of industrial families. Multiply this simple story many times, with a few million different entrepreneurs and hundreds of thousands of different goods and services, and we shall be witnessing India’s actual Industrial Revolution, not the fake promise of it from self-seeking politicians and bureaucrats.

see also 12 June 2009 https://independentindian.com/2009/06/12/mistaken-macroeconomics-an-open-letter-to-prime-minister-dr-manmohan-singh/

Our Dismal Politics: Will Independent India Survive Until 2047? (from 2008)

Our Dismal Politics
Will Independent India Survive Until 2047?

By SUBROTO ROY

First published in The Statesman Editorial Page, Special Article, Feb 1 2008

Mayawati and Narendra Modi are both in their 50s. So are the current leaders of Russia, Germany, Britain, France, the USA. No country, not even Communist Party China, is as pretentiously corrupt as ours in allowing a whole generation to be bred of “babalog” politicians among children of dead politicians or existing elderly politicians in their 70s and 80s. These babalog, Rahul Gandhi pre-eminent among them, are usually in their late 30s or early 40s. Having developed no useful marketable skills in life nor done anything worthwhile or creative, they have tended to arbitrage the political positions of their parents (whether departed or living) into gaining access and advantage in Delhi or the State capitals. Some nepotism is being seen in the USA with the Bush and Clinton families but nobody had heard of a Putin, Merkel or Sarkozy before they won their way into political power.

Inheriting advantage

The Indian phenomenon of the inheritance of advantage is also seen in organised business, in Bollywood and in journalism, which, like our politics, tend to be sold via TV. Academic institutions and the civil and military services are not far behind although there the phenomenon more usually involves exporting adult children (and bank accounts) especially to the USA or UK or Australia, and then making annual trips abroad during the hot summer months to be able to tell the neighbours about later.

The idea that the future of Indian politics is in the hands of a babalog GenNext is sheer nonsense and fantasy. The victories of Mayawati and Modi were also defeats of the expectations raised by Rahul Gandhi’s Congress. There is a continuity of years between someone like Sonia Gandhi and her children which implies there can be no discontinuous jump from Sonia to Rahul in the leadership of the Congress. In between, as it were, are people like Kamal Nath among “Friends of Sanjay” or Mani Shankar Aiyar (a solitary Rajivist), both of whom have won seats in the Lok Sabha unlike Sonia’s current elderly PM. If Sonia Gandhi devolves political power to her son who then leads the Congress into another defeat, of which UP and Gujarat have been examples, there will be a revolt among senior middle-aged politicians in the Congress, and the Congress may splinter into a Right Faction and Left Faction leaving Rajiv Gandhi’s family to look after the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation which is what they should have been doing in the first place rather than playing at Indian politics.

A Congress disintegration may or may not finally cause a useful bipolarisation in Indian politics because Indian politics has not only an economic dimension, it has a social or communal dimension too. Besides being (ostensibly) pro-poor or anti-poor, you can be either “Islamophilic” or “Islamophobic” ~ i.e. either pro-Muslim “secularist” /”pseudo-secularist”/minorityist, or anti-Muslim “communalist”/ “fascist”/majority communitarian.

Narasimha Rao cleverly manipulated the median parliamentary vote along these two dimensions so as to maintain a weak Government in power for five years by seeming to ally with the BJP on economic issues and seeming to ally with Leftists on social issues. If the Congress splits after another major defeat caused by Sonia-Rahul incompetence, with the Right Faction joining hands with whatever the BJP morphs into, and the Left Faction joining hands with whatever the CPI-M and CPI morph into, the central question will become which side of the split along the economic dimension holds the median voter along the pro-Muslim/anti-Muslim social dimension.

The BJP remains as dreadful and unscientific a gathering as it has been always without displaying the slightest creative trace of being able to evolve into a serious Conservative Party that India remains in desperate need of. AB Vajpayee and LK Advani led it into electoral defeat but that was not enough for their patriarchy to be disturbed by competent new younger people. In any case, the BJPs more articulate better-educated members in their 50s and 60s are unable to command nation-wide respect nor, with the exception of Modi, are they able to win an election on their own steam. The idea that e.g. Pramode Mahajan’s son could “succeed” him on the 10 JanPath pattern fortunately self-exploded. The best the BJP could do was to choose an inarticulate member as its nominal head while the patriarchy continued unchanged in its backward communalised thinking. Its RSS parent occasionally shows a little savant-like intelligence but generally remains in mental and physical regression.

As for the so-called Left, its multi-dimensional hypocrisy and incompetence has been permanently exposed in the heartland of what passes for Indian communism, Bengal. After the demise of the USSR and transition of Communist China towards Capitalism/ Fascism, there has been no real reason why the CPI and CPI-M cannot merge into one and then renounce together their retrograde ideology in favour of becoming a genuine Social Democratic and Labour Party representing working people and the poor. But that, like any corporate merger, would mean administrative redundancies, retrenchment and new management, and the last thing Stalinist politburo members like is the idea of losing their Rajya Sabha sinecures (in Russia and China they lost their heads but Indian conditions are kinder, gentler, more non-violent).

Besides the Congress, BJP and “Left”, most other parties in India revolve around the whims, personality and IQ of some single local political warlord/warlady. The Naxals and other extremists, including Hindu and Muslim religious terrorists, at least make some pretence at representing political interests of some sections of the people; there is thus at least a slight authenticity about them, no matter how disengaged their thought processes may be from realities around them.

Endless deficit finance

The 2008 Budget or the 2009 General Election seem likely to remain in the grip of all such dramatis personae permanently on the Indian stage, and no new real creative constructive force seems likely to appear. Every political misdemeanour will be paid for by endless deficit finance and money-printing, the accounts and auditing of all public institutions shall remain in a shambles while private pockets of the heads of public institutions come to be lined with gold, the armed forces shall be ready to fight their Pakistani counterparts while deferring to any more formidable adversary, rich business people will continue with their grotesque conspicuous consumption, young people graduating from India’s pampered institutions of tertiary education will continue to line up outside foreign embassies to seek hope and escape.

Can India survive as an independent democratic republic for 100 years after 1947, let alone be a country where all citizens are reasonably free and comfortable? A worst-case scenario may see North India in endless conflict with a chaotic Pakistan, Eastern India hived off under Beijing’s influence, and peninsular India from Surat to Vizag being Western-dominated with “SEZs” on the pattern of pre-communist Coastal China. The failure of our elite classes to provide healthy creative governance over generations must inevitably result in the putrefaction of our body politic.

(Author’s Note: The graph that accompanied this article is published elsewhere here under the title “Median Voter Model of India’s Electorate”.)

Against Quackery

Against Quackery

 

 

First published in two parts in The Sunday Statesman, September 23 2007, The Statesman September 24 2007

 

by

Subroto Roy

 

 

Manmohan and Sonia have violated Rajiv Gandhi’s intended reforms; the Communists have been appeased or bought; the BJP is incompetent

 

 

WASTE, fraud and abuse are inevitable in the use and allocation of public property and resources in India as elsewhere, but Government is supposed to fight and resist such tendencies. The Sonia-Manmohan Government have done the opposite, aiding and abetting a wasteful anti-economics ~ i.e., an economic quackery. Vajpayee-Advani and other Governments, including Narasimha-Manmohan in 1991-1996, were just as complicit in the perverse policy-making. So have been State Governments of all regional parties like the CPI-M in West Bengal, DMK/ AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, Congress/NCP/ BJP/Sena in Maharashtra, TDP /Congress in Andhra Pradesh, SP/BJP/BSP in Uttar Pradesh etc. Our dismal politics merely has the pot calling the kettle black while national self-delusion and superstition reign in the absence of reason.

 

 

The general pattern is one of well-informed, moneyed, mostly city-based special interest groups (especially including organised capital and organised labour) dominating government agendas at the cost of ill-informed, diffused anonymous individual citizens ~ peasants, small businessmen, non-unionized workers, old people, housewives, medical students etc. The extremely expensive “nuclear deal” with the USA is merely one example of such interest group politics.

 

 

Nuclear power is and shall always remain of tiny significance as a source of India’s electricity (compared to e.g. coal and hydro); hence the deal has practically nothing to do with the purported (and mendacious) aim of improving the country’s “energy security” in the long run. It has mostly to do with big business lobbies and senior bureaucrats and politicians making a grab, as they always have done, for India’s public purse, especially access to foreign currency assets. Some $300 million of India’s public money had to be paid to GE and Bechtel Corporation before any nuclear talks could begin in 2004-2005 ~ the reason was the Dabhol fiasco of the 1990s, a sheer waste for India’s ordinary people. Who was responsible for that loss? Pawar-Mahajan-Munde-Thackeray certainly but also India’s Finance Minister at the time, Manmohan Singh, and his top Finance Ministry bureaucrat, Montek Ahluwalia ~ who should never have let the fiasco get off the ground but instead actively promoted and approved it.

 

 

Cost-benefit analysis prior to any public project is textbook operating procedure for economists, and any half-competent economist would have accounted for the scenario of possible currency-depreciation which made Dabhol instantly unviable. Dr Singh and Mr Ahluwalia failed that test badly and it cost India dearly. The purchase of foreign nuclear reactors on a turnkey basis upon their recommendation now reflects similar financial dangers for the country on a vastly larger scale over decades.

 

 

Our Government seems to function most expeditiously in purchasing foreign arms, aircraft etc ~ not in improving the courts, prisons, police, public utilities, public debt. When the purchase of 43 Airbus aircraft surfaced, accusations of impropriety were made by Boeing ~ until the local Airbus representative said on TV that Boeing need not complain because they were going to be rewarded too and soon 68 aircraft were ordered from Boeing!

 

 

India imports all passenger and most military aircraft, besides spare parts and high-octane jet fuel. Domestic aviation generates near zero forex revenues and incurs large forex costs ~ a debit in India’s balance of payments. Domestic airline passengers act as importers subsidised by our meagre exporters of textiles, leather, handicrafts, tea, etc. What a managerially-minded PM and Aviation Minister needed to do before yielding to temptations of buying new aircraft was to get tough with the pampered managements and unions of the nationalized airlines and stand up on behalf of ordinary citizens and taxpayers, who, after all, are mostly rail or road-travellers not jet-setters.

 

 

The same pattern of negligent policy-behaviour led Finance Minister P. Chidambaram in an unprecedented step to mention in his 2007 Union Budget Speech the private American companies Blackstone and GE ~ endorsing the Ahluwalia/Deepak Parekh idea that India’s forex reserves may be made available to be lent out to favoured private businesses for purported “infrastructure” development. We may now see chunks of India’s foreign exchange reserves being “borrowed” and never returned ~ a monumental scam in front of the CBI’s noses.

 

 

The Reserve Bank’s highest echelons may have become complicit in all this, permitting and encouraging a large capital flight to take place among the few million Indians who read the English newspapers and have family-members abroad. Resident Indians have been officially permitted to open bank accounts of US $100,000 abroad, as well as transfer gifts of $50,000 per annum to their adult children already exported abroad ~ converting their largely untaxed paper rupees at an artificially favourable exchange-rate.

 

 

In particular, Mr Ratan Tata (under a misapprehension he may do whatever Lakshmi Mittal does) has been allowed to convert Indian rupees into some US$13,000,000,000 to make a cash purchase of a European steel company. The same has been allowed of the Birlas, Wipro, Dr Reddy’s and numerous other Indian corporations in the organised sector ~ three hundred million dollars here, five hundred million dollars there, etc. Western businessmen now know all they have to do is flatter the egos of Indian boxwallahs enough and they might have found a buyer for their otherwise bankrupt or sick local enterprise. Many newcomers to New York City have been sold the Brooklyn Bridge before. “There’s a sucker born every minute” is the classic saying of American capitalism.

 

 

The Sonia-Manmohan Government, instead of hobnobbing with business chambers, needed to get Indian corporations to improve their accounting, audit and governance, and reduce managerial pilfering and embezzlement, which is possible only if Government first set an example.

 

 

Why have Indian foreign currency reserves zoomed up in recent years? Not mainly because we are exporting more textiles, tea, software engineers, call centre services or new products to the world, but because Indian corporations have been allowed to borrow abroad, converting their hoards of paper rupees into foreign debt. Forex reserves are a residual in a country’s international balance of payments and are not like tax-resources available to be spent by Government; India’s reserves largely constitute foreign liabilities of Indian residents. This may bear endless repetition as the PM and his key acolytes seem impervious to normal postgraduate-level economics textbooks.

 

 

Other official fallacies include thinking India’s savings rate is near 32 per cent and that clever bureaucratic use of it can cause high growth. In fact, real growth arises not because of what politicians and bureaucrats do but because of spontaneous technological progress, improved productivity and learning-by-doing of the general population ~ mostly despite not because of an exploitative parasitic State. What has been mismeasured as high savings is actually expansion of bank-deposits in a fractional reserve banking system caused by runaway government deficit-spending.

 

 

Another fallacy has been that agriculture retards growth, leading to nationwide politically-backed attempts at land-grabbing by wily city industrialists and real estate developers. In a hyperinflation-prone economy with wild deficit-spending and runaway money-printing, cheating poor unorganised peasants of their land, when that land is an asset that is due to appreciate in value, has seemed like child’s play.

 

 

What of the Opposition? The BJP/RSS have no economists who are not quacks though opportunists were happy to say what pleased them to hear when they were in power; they also have much implicit support among organised business lobbies and the anti-Muslim senior bureaucracy. The official Communists have been appeased or bought, sometimes so cheaply as with a few airline tickets here and there. The nonsensical “Rural Employment Guarantee” is descending into the wasteland of corruption it was always going to be. The “Domestic Violence Act” as expected has started to destroy India’s families the way Western families have been destroyed. The Arjun-DMK OBC quota corrodes higher education further from its already dismal state. All these were schemes that Congress and Communist cabals created or wholeheartedly backed, and which the BJP were too scared or ignorant to resist.

 

 

And then came Singur and Nandigram ~ where the sheer greed driving the alliance between the Sonia-Manmohan-Pranab Congress and the CPI-M mask that is Buddhadeb, came to be exposed by a handful of brave women like Mamata and Medha.

 

 

A Fiscal U-Turn is Needed For India to Go in The Right Economic Direction

 

Rajiv Gandhi had a sense of noblesse oblige out of remembrance of his father and maternal grandfather. After his assassination, the comprador business press credited Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh with having originated the 1991 economic reform. In May 2002, however, the Congress Party itself passed a resolution proposed by Digvijay Singh explicitly stating Rajiv and not either of them was to be so credited. The resolution was intended to flatter Sonia Gandhi but there was truth in it too. Rajiv, a pilot who knew no political economy, was a quick learner with intelligence to know a good idea when he saw one and enough grace to acknowledge it.

 

 

Rule of Law

 

The first time Dr Manmohan Singh’s name arose in contemporary post-Indira politics was on 22 March 1991 when M K Rasgotra challenged the present author to answer how Dr Singh would respond to proposals being drafted for a planned economic liberalisation that had been authorised by Rajiv, as Congress President and Opposition Leader, since September 1990. It was replied that Dr Singh’s response was unknown and he had been heading the “South-South Commission” for Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, while what needed to be done urgently was make a clear forceful statement to restore India’s credit-worthiness and the confidence of international markets, showing that the Congress at least knew its economics and was planning to take bold new steps in the direction of progress.

 

 

There is no evidence Dr Singh or his acolytes were committed to any economic liberalism prior to 1991 as that term is understood worldwide, and scant evidence they have originated liberal economic ideas for India afterwards. Precisely because they represented the decrepit old intellectual order of statist ”Ma-Bap Sarkari” policy-making, they were not asked in the mid-1980s to be part of a “perestroika-for-India” project done at a foreign university ~ the results of which were received, thanks to Siddhartha Shankar Ray, by Rajiv Gandhi in hand at 10 Janpath on 18 September 1990 and specifically sparked the change in the direction of his economic thinking.

 

 

India is a large, populous country with hundreds of millions of materially poor citizens, a weak tax-base, a vast internal and external public debt (i.e. debt owed by the Government to domestic and foreign creditors), massive annual fiscal deficits, an inconvertible currency, and runaway printing of paper-money. It is unsurprising Pakistan’s economy is similar, since it is born of the same land and people. Certainly there have been real political problems between India and Pakistan since the chaotic demobilisation and disintegration of the old British Indian Army caused the subcontinent to plunge into war-like or “cold peace” conditions for six decades beginning with a bloody Partition and civil war in J&K. High military expenditures have been necessitated due to mutual and foreign tensions, but this cannot be a permanent state if India and Pakistan wish for genuine mass economic well-being.

 

 

Even with the continuing mutual antagonism, there is vast scope for a critical review of Indian military expenditures towards greatly improving the “teeth-to-tail” ratio of its fighting forces. The abuse of public property and privilege by senior echelons of the armed forces (some of whom have been keen most of all to export their children preferably to America) is also no great secret.

 

 

On the domestic front, Rajiv was entirely convinced when the suggestion was made to him in September 1990 that an enormous infusion of public resources was needed into the judicial system for promotion and improvement of the Rule of Law in the country, a pre-requisite almost for a new market orientation. Capitalism without the Rule of Law can quickly degenerate into an illiberal hell of cronyism and anarchy which is what has tended to happen since 1991.

 

 

The Madhava Menon Committee on criminal justice policy in July proposed a Hong Kong model of “a single high-tech integrated Criminal Justice complex in every district headquarters which may be a multi-storied structure, devoting the ground floor for the police station including a video-installed interrogation room; the first floor for the police-lockups/sub-jail and the Magistrate’s Court; the second floor for the prosecutor’s office, witness rooms, crime laboratories and legal aid services; the third floor for the Sessions Court and the fourth for the administrative offices etc…. (Government of India) should take steps to evolve such an efficient model… and not only recommend it to the States but subsidize its construction…” The question arises: Why is this being proposed for the first time in 2007 after sixty years of Independence? Why was it not something designed and implemented starting in the 1950s?

 

 

The resources put since Independence to the proper working of our judiciary from the Supreme Court and High Courts downwards have been abysmal, while the state of prisons, borstals, mental asylums and other institutions of involuntary detention is nothing short of pathetic. Only police forces, like the military, paramilitary and bureaucracies, have bloated in size.

 

 

Neither Sonia-Manmohan nor the BJP or Communists have thought promotion of the Rule of Law in India to be worth much serious thought ~ certainly less important than attending bogus international conclaves and summits to sign expensive deals for arms, aircraft, reactors etc. Yet Rajiv Gandhi, at a 10 Janpath meeting on 23 March 1991 when he received the liberalisation proposals he had authorized, explicitly avowed the importance of greater resources towards the Judiciary. Dr Singh and his acolytes were not in that loop, indeed they precisely represented the bureaucratic ancien regime intended to be changed, and hence have seemed quite uncomprehending of the roots of the intended reforms ever since 1991.

 

 

Similarly, Rajiv comprehended when it was said to him that the primary fiscal problem faced by India is the vast and uncontrolled public debt, interest payments on which suck dry all public budgets leaving no room for provision of public goods.

 

 

 

Government accounts


Government has been routinely “rolling over” its domestic debt in the asset-portfolios of the nationalised banks while displaying and highlighting only its new additional borrowing in a year as the “Fiscal Deficit”. More than two dozen States have been doing the same and their liabilities ultimately accrue to the Union too. The stock of public debt in India is Rs 30 trillion (Rs 30 lakh crore) at least, and portends a hyperinflation in the future.

 

 

There has been no serious recognition of this since it is political and bureaucratic actions that have been causing the problem. Proper recognition would entail systematically cleaning up the budgets and accounts of every single governmental entity in the country: the Union, every State, every district and municipality, every publicly funded entity or organisation, and at the same time improving public decision-making capacity so that once budgets and accounts recover from grave sickness over decades, functioning institutions exist for their proper future management. All this would also stop corruption in its tracks, and release resources for valuable public goods and services like the Judiciary, School Education and Basic Health. Institutions for improved political and administrative decision-making are needed throughout the country if public preferences with respect to raising and allocating common resources are to be elicited and then translated into actual delivery of public goods and services. Our dysfunctional legislatures will have to do at least a little of what they are supposed to. When public budgets and accounts are healthy and we have functioning public goods and services, macroeconomic conditions would have been created for the paper-rupee to once more become a money as good as gold ~ a convertible world currency for all of India’s people, not merely the metropolitan special interest groups that have been controlling our governments and their agendas.

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Maharashtra’s Money

Maharashtra Govt Finance 2004 Table

 

Maharashtra’s Money: Those Who Are Part Of The Problem Are Unlikely To Be A Part Of Its Solution

first published in The Statesman April 24 2007, Editorial Page

by Subroto Roy

Mr Percy Mistry, according to the World Bank’s official chronology, worked there with Moeen Qureshi, and S Javed Burki. Mr Qureshi was doyen of Pakistani bureaucrats in Washington and something of a king-maker back home, briefly becoming Pakistan’s PM himself; Mr Burki briefly became Pakistan’s Finance Minister and is an author in the book Foundations of Pakistan’s Political Economy created by WE James and myself in the 1980s in the USA. Although Mr Mistry claims no special expertise about India’s monetary economy or public finances, he was appointed by Finance Minister P. Chidambaram to head an official committee that has given an opinion on a crucial monetary issue facing the country today, namely, the rupee’s convertibility. Mr Mistry apparently authored the report but resigned before its release, making it unclear who is responsible for its contents.

 

Mr Mistry has glossed over India’s present fiscal circumstances, said nothing of the limitless waste, fraud and abuse of the public purse the Sonia-Manmohan Government have been indulging in (like their Vajpayee-Advani predecessor) yet declared the rupee should be freed in 2008 ~ telling Business Standard a convertible rupee will allow people like “Ratan” and “Kumar” to raise capital in India for their foreign purchases, and not have to go to London as they must do now, poor things. All this in a report purporting to be a plan to make Mumbai an “international financial centre”, which is a different subject altogether.

Mr Mistry thus becomes a certifiable member of the “Dream Team” of Dr Singh, Mr Chidambaram, Mr Montek Ahluwalia, Mr Deepak Parekh and their big business/big labour/big media friends across political parties. Dreaming involves constructs in which normal logic and facts have no place. In the waking world, India is a labour-rich, capital-scarce country where wages are lower and interest-rates are higher respectively than in labour-scarce, capital-rich Western countries; hence India will be importing not exporting capital. In the real world too, Mumbai is not an off-shore island-resort outside India (like the so-called SEZs are going to be from a legal standpoint) but happens to be located in Maharashtra, whose public finances urgently require hard investigation and sober thought.

 

Now there used to be a “Bombay State” coinciding with the old Bombay Presidency plus “princely states” plus Marathi-majority districts of MP and Hyderabad and excluding Kannada-majority districts to Mysore. On May 1 1960, after much agitation, this became the new States of Gujarat and Maharashtra. There was talk of making Bombay city a Union Territory but the Marathis would have none of it. In fact, within a few weeks, Maharashtra reverted to calling itself “Bombay State” and it was not until the end of the year the Government of India officially declared it must be called Maharashtra.

 

The same quest for, or confusion about, cultural and political identity continues in recent times and may be at the root of the Shiv Sena’s erratic political behaviour which rocks Maharashtra politics so frequently. “Bombay” may be “Mumba Bai” or “Mumba Devi” but it had not been a Marathi town any more than Calcutta had been a Bengali town. Bombay’s traders and businessmen descended there while it developed after the decline of Surat, where the British initially came to trade in the 17th Century. Modern Bombay retains some of its “all-India” character and even today you cannot make money in its markets unless you speak Gujarati. Marathi-speakers have tended to wish Maharashtra was “Maratha-rashtra” reminiscent of the great Shivaji Bhonsla (1627-1680) but others have read the name only as “Great State”.

 

This continuing identity crisis had its most devastating costly impact through the Dabhol-Enron fiasco. As recently as March 4 2007, Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh said frankly “We could not generate a single megawatt of electricity in the last 10 years due to the Enron issue”, adding demand for electric power had been growing in the State at 10% per annum.

 

Indeed, before the 2005-2006 nuclear or any other deal could be contemplated with the Americans, the US-India Business Council, the American business lobbyist (and recent guest and soon-to-be host of the CPI-M’s Buddhadeb Bhattacharya), insisted India pay up fully for the Dabhol-Enron fiasco. Maharashtra and its sovereign guarantor the Government of India, duly paid out at least $140-$160 million ($14-$16 crore) to each General Electric and Bechtel Corporation in “an amicable settlement”. It was only then that Dr Manmohan Singh could be hosted in the White House and in turn play host to President George W. Bush.

 

Without entering the intricacies of the fiasco, it may be still asked who was responsible. And in retrospect the finger must point both at the Mahajan-Munde BJP/ Thakeray-Joshi Shiv Sena, and at the Sharad Pawar Government and Manmohan-Montek Union Finance Ministry at the time. The BJP-Shiv Sena declared an intent to “throw Enron into the Arabian Sea” and thus vitiated the atmosphere with the Americans. Americans are shrewd and practical people in commercial matters and accounted for such contingencies in their deal-making, tidily earning their money anyway, winning the arbitration awards in due course. Maharashtra’s identity confusion was exemplified by Rebecca Mark having to visit Bal Thakeray before a policy flip-flop could be permitted.

 

If the basic technical cause Enron’s electricity became too expensive was that it was denominated in dollar prices and the rupee depreciated rapidly during and after the deal-making, then the financial responsibility for the fiasco must be ultimately traced to India’s Finance Minister in the early 1990s, namely Dr Singh, and his chief acolyte and Finance Secretary Mr Ahluwalia. Maharasthtra is not a sovereign country, and it was the Union Finance Ministry’s responsibility to oversee the necessary cost-benefit and project appraisal analyses, and these if properly done would have accounted for exchange-rate depreciation scenarios. It is no wonder the World Bank later refused to finance the project because they had done their studies better. The same kind of cavalier unprofessional attitude in spending scarce foreign moneys earned by India’s public has been displayed now more than a decade later by the Manmohan-Montek duo, though on a vastly larger scale, in regard to the planned purchase of nuclear reactors from Russia, the USA etc on a turnkey basis.

 

Maharashtra may be a Great State but its public finances are in as great a shambles as any other. The table for 2003-2004 (before the Enron payments were made) reveals the very high continuing public indebtedness, and the same pattern as the budgets of West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh described in these columns earlier. A closer look would reveal, e.g., that Rs 814.36 crore (Rs. 8.14 billion) were spent in collecting Rs1,205.97 crore. (Rs. 12.05 billion) of “Vehicle Tax”! There is much that Mumbai’s and Maharashtra’s and India’s citizens have to ponder over and act upon before serious thought can be put to restoring the integrity of India’s money. In that process, those who have been part of the problem are unlikely to be part of its solution.

 

Govt. of Maharashtra Finances 2003-04
EXPENDITURE ACTIVITIES: RsBn (Hundred Crore)
governance & local governance 18.19 2.58%
judiciary 2.96 0.42%
police (including vigilance etc) 19.81 2.81%
prisons 0.86 0.12%
bureaucracy 27.97 3.97%
collecting land revenue & taxes 42.25 6.00%
government employee pensions 26.36 3.74%
schools, colleges, universities, institutes 93.74 13.31%
health, nutrition & family welfare 23.42 3.33%
water supply & sanitation 10.22 1.45%
roads, bridges, transport etc. 12.96 1.84%
electricity 16.96 2.41%
irrigation, flood control, environ, ecology 70.79 10.05%
agricultural subsidies, rural development 41.30 5.86%
industrial subsidies 2.60 0.37%
capital city development 6.25 0.89%
social security, SC, ST, OBC, lab.welfare 25.40 3.61%
tourism 0.89 0.13%
arts, archaeology, libraries, museums 0.75 0.11%
miscellaneous -0.47 -0.07%
debt amortization & debt servicing 261.03 37.07%
total expenditure 704.22

INCOME SOURCES:
tax revenue 285.52
operational income 35.49
grants from Union 22.70
loans recovered 4.82
total income 348.53

GOVT. BORROWING REQUIREMENT (total expenditure minus total income) 355.70

financed by:
new public debt issued 317.02
use of Trust Funds etc 38.68
355.70
from author’s research and using C&AG data

Swindling India

SWINDLING INDIA

by

Subroto Roy

First published in slightly abbreviated form as “A scam in the making” in The Sunday Statesman April 1 2007, Front page comment

A gigantic financial scheme is in the making. Will it come to be seen in future years as having been in fact a scam – indeed India’s scam of the 21st Century for which India’s unknowing masses will be made to pay for many generations? The scheme is mind-boggling in size as well as its sheer audacity. Bofors, Quattrochi etc amount to peanuts in comparison.

No less a personage than the Finance Minister of India, P Chidambaram, has openly praised the potential of this financial scheme. And he has done so in no less an open and transparent place than his latest Budget Speech to Parliament last February.

It is a scheme openly advocated and currently being developed by our Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s closest acolytes, Planning Commission head Mr Montek Singh Ahluwalia and HDFC head Mr Deepak Parekh, in collaboration with Reserve Bank Governor Dr YV Reddy and the Finance Ministry’s top bureaucrats. The PM himself has come close to endorsing it explicitly. And this PM is not an elected member of the Lok Sabha but holds office and acts as the executive agent of the UPA Chairperson and Lok Sabha Member from Rae Bareilly, Sonia Gandhi.

I hasten to add nobody in the BJP has objected to this financial scheme — in fact had the BJP been in power today instead of Congress, they would have been likely even more agreeable to the scheme given their close proximity to business lobbies and organized capital. As for the Communists, none of their JNU economics professors is technically competent enough to comprehend or recognize what is going on.

The scheme involves private companies “borrowing” India’s foreign exchange reserves from the Reserve Bank of India, allegedly for purpose of “infrastructure” creation — in collaboration with the American bank Citigroup, the American financial business, Blackstone Group, and possibly the American giant, GE Capital too. Mr Chidambaram took the unprecedented step of naming Mr Deepak Parekh as well as Citigroup and Blackstone in the text of his Budget Speech.

To begin to comprehend the nature of this scheme, we need to recall an earlier case.

Foreign exchange reserves of countries typically include foreign currency holdings as well as gold stocks. One of the biggest Wall Street scams of the 1980s-1990s involved private companies borrowing not countries’ foreign currency reserves but their gold reserves.

In that scam, it was not the Reserve Bank of India that was cheated but the Central Banks of Poland, Malaysia, Portugal and Yugoslavia. The New York financial company involved was a subsidiary of the Drexel Burnham Lambert Group. The Drexel parent went bankrupt on February 13 1990 and its subsidiary followed on May 9 1990.

A report on June 4 1990 by Leah J. Nathans (now Leah Nathans Spiro) in New York’s highly respected Business Week magazine said: “Central banks, those pillars of monetary virtue, lost $219 million ($21.9 crore) to an obscure commodities subsidiary called Drexel Burnham Lambert Trading Corporation”. The sum was small by American standards but it was “a big, big number” for the countries involved at the time.

What had these national central banks done? They had been lured into becoming greedy. They had been sitting on stocks of gold as part of their national reserves which they felt “just collect dust”. So they yielded to the temptation offered by the Drexel subsidiary of leasing the gold to private parties.

In Ms. Nathans’ words, “By leasing gold, a central bank earns a modest interest rate, ranging from less than 0.5% to 2.5%. Typically, the central bank consigns the gold to a dealer – say, for 90 days. The dealer can then lend the gold to a customer, at a higher interest rate. It may be a speculator, who hopes to repay the borrowed gold when the price falls, or a gold mine that wants to repay the broker with gold produced later.”

But the Drexel parent and subsidiary went bankrupt through bad financial decisions. Drexel’s Michael Milken went to jail. The Central Banks of Poland, Malaysia, Portugal and Yugoslavia were left empty-handed – and had to sue as creditors in New York’s courts trying desperately to get back the gold they had been lured into parting with. It would be unwise to take bets on how much of their gold they ever got back.

All the present PM’s men — Messrs Chidambaram, Ahluwalia, Parekh, Reddy et al in collaboration with one or two American financial companies – now have a scheme that will use not the RBI’s gold but its foreign currency reserves.

Mr Ahluwalia and Mr Parekh have made the outlandish claim that “India needs US$320 billion” (US 32,000 crore) by way of “investment for physical infrastructure” during the so-called “Eleventh Five-Year Plan”. (How many so-called “Five Year Plans” is India going to have incidentally? We had our “First Plan” when Manmohan Singh was a student at Punjab University. Stalin, who invented the “Five Year Plan”, died during that time, and even his old USSR has ceased to exist, let alone its “Five Year Plans”.)

That vast amount of “investment for physical infrastructure” is what Mr Ahluwalia says he knows India needs for his purported “9% growth rate” to be achieved. Where are the macroeconomic models and time-series data sets from him or his friends to back such assertions? There are none. None of the PM’s men, no one in the Finance Ministry or RBI or Planning Commission, nor any of their JNU economics professor friends or anyone else in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata etc have any such models or data with which to back such assertions. Nor do the World Bank etc. It is all sheer humbug – all a lie. It is part of the mendacity and self-delusion that our capital city has been floating upon.

In any event, the RBI reportedly has “opposed the idea of deploying forex reserves for infrastructure development on the grounds that it will create monetary expansion”. But Mr Chidambaram’s Finance Ministry owns the RBI, and the Ministry has said “the RBI’s concerns had been taken care of, as the investments would be deployed only through a structured mechanism”. (Business Standard 23 March 2007, p. 3)

What is a “structured mechanism”? Mr Chidambaram, mentioning Citigroup and Blackstone Group specifically, said in his Budget Speech that Mr Deepak Parekh has “suggested the establishment of two wholly-owned overseas subsidiaries of India Infrastructure Finance Company Ltd with the following objectives: (i) to borrow funds from the RBI and lend to Indian companies implementing infrastructure projects in India, or to co-finance their External Commercial Borrowings for such projects, solely for capital expenditure outside India; and (ii) to borrow funds from the RBI, invest such funds in highly rated collateral securities, and provide ‘credit wrap’ insurance to infrastructure projects in India for raising resources in international markets. The loans by RBI to these two subsidiary companies will be guaranteed by the Government of India and the RBI will be assured of a return higher than the average rate of return on its incremental investment.”

You do not understand? Well, no one is supposed to. The most exquisite thievery occurs after all not in darkness but in broad daylight with everyone watching but no one able to see or comprehend anything. So let us return to elementary first principles.

What are foreign exchange reserves and why do countries hold them? It is quite simply answered. Consider the USA and Canada, each with its own dollar. Canadians want to purchase American goods and services, give gifts and make loans to American residents, and make investments in the USA. Americans want to do the same in Canada. Each has to use the domestic money of the other when it does so. If an American wishes to lend money to a Canadian or to purchase something from him, he receives Canadian dollar notes from the Canadian Government to make his Canadian transactions, handing over his American dollar notes instead. The American dollar notes he hands over become part of Canada’s foreign exchange reserves, held by its Central Bank. Roughly speaking, a country’s foreign exchange reserves are the residual foreign currency assets its central bank holds after all these transactions are carried out on both sides of the border.

In the US-Canada case, neither Government prevents its citizens from exchanging domestic money for foreign money. In India, our rupee has been inconvertible since about 1940. The average Indian cannot freely exchange his/her rupee-denominated assets for foreign exchange denominated ones even if he/she wished to. There has been some import-liberalisation in recent years but only someone with the political access of Mr Tata or Mr Birla can purchase foreign assets and foreign companies using their Indian money – because the rupee is inconvertible, any bad financial decisions they make in using their foreign assets will be implicitly paid for by the Indian public.

Now a country’s central bank, such as our Reserve Bank, is the custodian of its foreign exchange reserves. India’s reserves are supposed to have reached $195.96 Billion ($19,596 Crore) as of March 16 2007. Keep in mind we do not know why they have risen: they can rise merely because foreigners (including NRIs) have lent us more of their money, not because foreigners have bought more of our goods and services. In fact Business Standard yesterday 31 March 2007 said on its front page “external commercial borrowing” was “a major source of accretion” of India’s reserves.

Also keep in mind that the Reserve Bank has the duty to manage these foreign-denominated assets against which it has already issued Indian rupees. It might receive a small conservative income from the cash-management aspect of this but it may not risk them or place them in any jeopardy!

Yet the whole idea behind the Chidambaram-Ahluwalia-Parekh-Reddy scheme under discussion by the Sonia-Manmohan Government is that the RBI will “lend” some of the billions of Americans dollars in its custody to overseas subsidiaries of Indian companies – say, for example, to the Tatas who have now bought foreign “capital assets” of some US$ 12 Billion ($1200 Crore) from Corus without having anything near that kind of foreign income.

Such favoured Indian companies might then use these “borrowed” funds as collateral for other borrowings. In exchange, they will go about undertaking purported “infrastructure” projects in India. So much for the “structured mechanisms” being touted by Messrs Chidambaram, Ahluwalia, Parekh et al.

Before India’s public understands it, the schemers will shout (as they have done with the SEZ Act) that Parliament has passed it. The BJP will applaud with envy. The Communists might uncomprehendingly complain a little, and then be bought off with a sop or two that they do understand, like a little pro-China rhetoric or being let off lightly on Nandigram.

Now international institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the Bank of International Settlements officially exist to advise central banks to stay along the straight and narrow and to avoid all such mischief. Here is what the IMF explicitly warned about such schemes in its Guidelines for Foreign Exchange Reserve Management dated September 20 2001:

Liquidity risk. The pledging of reserves as collateral with foreign financial institutions as support for loans to either domestic entities, or foreign subsidiaries of the reserve management entity, has rendered reserves illiquid until the loans have been repaid. Liquidity risks have also arisen from the direct lending of reserves to such institutions when shocks to the domestic economy led to the borrowers’ inability to repay their liabilities, and impairment of the liquidity of the reserve assets.
Credit risk. Losses have arisen from the investment of reserves in high-yielding assets that were made without due regard to the credit risk associated with the issuer of the asset. Lending of reserves to domestic banks, and overseas subsidiaries of reserve management entities, has also exposed reserve management entities to credit risk.”

Dostoevsky believed man could have evil intent. Socrates was more generous and said man does not do wrong knowingly. It is not impossible our Indian schemers have innocent intent and do not even realize how close they are to becoming scamsters, or are already in the grip of scamsters. But at least we are now forewarned: India faces a clear risk of being swindled of its foreign exchange reserves. Prevention is better than cure.

Uttar Pradesh Polity and Finance

Uttar Pradesh Polity & Finance


A Responsible New Govt May Want To Declare A Financial Emergency

First published in

The Statesman Editorial Page, March 24 2007

by

Subroto Roy

 

 

Uttar Pradesh goes to the polls beginning April 7. Nothing may succeed better in focusing the minds of its citizens and political candidates than some hard macroeconomic realities. Discussing UP’s public finances may be the first step to bringing cool rationality to the cauldron of its politics ~ consisting as it does of seemingly deep and irreconcilable divisions of religion, caste and personality.

 

UP shared initials of the old British “United Provinces of Agra and Oudh”, and in 1947 was mostly the same territory. It deserves better than to be known merely as our “Northern State”: UP has been India’s fulcrum, deeply affecting our history, culture and politics. There could have been today not merely a new Uttarakhand but also perhaps Agra, Bareilly (Rohilkhand), Jhansi (Bundelkhand), Meerut, Avadh (Ayodhya, Oudh), Kanauj, Varanasi etc.

 

 

History and politics

 

Each has had its history. Oudh was seen by the British before Dalhousie as a northern buffer for their Bengal possessions. Bareilly was “an important centre of disaffection” of Muslim soldiers against the British in 1857 and also where Hindus after Aurangzeb’s death in 1707 had “thrown off the imperial yoke” refusing to pay tribute to Delhi. The very idea of “Pakistan” was mostly a UP-invention. Long before Iqbal and Jinnah, Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi (1786-1831) initiated a mass migration of Muslims and created a theocratic principality in the NWFP (Tariqah-i-Muhammadiyah) which collapsed due to conflict between his Pashtun and North Indian followers. Pervez Musharraf’s family were frankly nostalgic during their India-visit, and indeed Pakistan’s Mohajirs long for fertile UP more than the arid country they in fact possess ~ even more than for J&K on which Pakistanis since Liaquat (UP’s most prominent Muslim legislator between 1926-1940) became fixated instead.

 

 

In the 1980s and 1990s, the “Ram Janambhoomi/Babri Masjid” dispute may have been mostly a gigantic, inchoate, incoherent national exercise in defining our identity: “Who are we?” or perhaps “Who are we not?” as modern Indians, questions that remain unanswered. Certainly, in 1908 the Imperial Gazetteer of India Vol XIX pp 279-280 reported: “After Babar had gained a footing in Hindustan by his victory at Panipat in 1526, and had advanced to Agra, the defeated Afghan house of Lodhi still occupied the Central Doab, Oudh, and the eastern districts of the present United Provinces. In 1527, Babar, on his return from Central India, defeated his opponents in Southern Oudh near Kanauj, and passed on through the Province as far as Ajodhya where he built a mosque in 1528, on the site renowned as the birthplace of Rama. The Afghans remained in opposition after the death of Babar in 1530, but were defeated near Lucknow in the following year.”

 

 

History books and doctoral theses should have been perhaps where all such old facts deserved to remain in a modern self-confident, self-aware India.

 

 

Today’s UP at more than 166 million people exceeds in population France and Germany combined. One in every six or seven Indians is from UP. The State has become notorious for its chaotic politics, its “history-sheeters”, its corruption, crimes, badlands, astrology and other superstition. Its popular power gets divided between Mulayam, Mayawati and the BJP: each the self-appointed spokesman of Muslims, “Bahujans” and Hindu upper castes respectively. Congress, once India’s grand old secular national party, has been side-lined in UP politics.

 

 

Yet UP’s pivotal role remains such that the healthiest development for Indian democracy today may be for the Lok Sabha Member from Rae Bareilly to close down 10 Janpath as a residence and office for herself, and live instead as an exemplary parliamentarian among the common people of her constituency, setting the example too for her son to do the same in Amethi. Their permanent departure from New Delhi, becoming prominent UP politicians instead, would be the desperately needed “tough love” required by the Congress Party ~ which finally, after many decades, would be compelled to grow up and elect a leadership for itself based on some real political principles and not mere sycophancy.

 

 

Focussing on UP’s Public Finances is the first constructive step towards a rational political economy arising in the interests of its many citizens. As with other States of our Union, it is not impossible to understand what is going on with UP’s finances, though it does take some serious effort. The State receives tax revenues, income from State operations (like bus fares etc), and grants transferred from the Union. Of these revenues, more than 70% arise from taxation. Of those taxes, about 45% is collected by the Union on behalf of the State according to the Finance Commission’s formulae; 55% is collected by the State itself, and about 50% of what the State collects is Sales Tax. On the expenditure side, some 43% has been going to repay the State’s debts plus interest owed on that debt. The remainder gets distributed as summarily shown in the table.

 

 

Audit and restructuring

As with the Union of India, as well as with other States like West Bengal, the wide difference between income and expenditure implies the Government must then issue new public debt, which typically has been a larger and larger sum every year, greater than the maturing debt being amortised or extinguished. The grave consequences of this will be obvious to any householder, and makes it imperative that calm, sober thought and objective analysis occur about UP’s financial condition and budget constraint. E.g., what is revealed at a higher level of detail is that in 2003-2004, Rs. 5.43 Bn (Rs 543 crores) were spent to collect Rs. 1.18 Bn (Rs. 118 crores) of land revenue! UP has also spent extraordinarily vast public resources (and World Bank loans) on electricity ~ yet its power supply remains dismal.

 

 

These kinds of facts may be enough for any responsible new Government of UP (perhaps even a “Unity Government”) to declare a financial emergency under Article 360 of the Constitution, followed by ordering the most stringent of audits of all government departments and projects using public resources as well as recognition of public assets, followed in turn by a restructuring of the public budget over a few years with the aim of cutting all waste, fraud and abuse, and directing public resources instead to areas of highest social usefulness.

The author is Contributing Editor, The Statesman

UP Government Finance 2003-2004
EXPENDITURE ACTIVITIES : Rs Billion (Hundred Crore)
government & local government
judiciary
police (including vigilance etc)
prisons
bureaucracy
collecting land revenue & taxes
government employee pensions
schools, colleges, universities, institutes
health, nutrition & family welfare
water supply & sanitation
roads, bridges, transport etc.
electricity
irrigation, flood cntrl., environ, ecology
agricultural subsidies, rural development
industrial subsidies
capital city development
social security, SC, ST, OBC, lab.welfare
tourism
arts, archaeology, libraries, museums
miscellaneous
debt amortization & debt servicing
total expenditure

30.33
3.17
25.81
1.13
11.63
8.41
29.00
62.79
18.97
6.04
16.13
200.22
29.98
16.07
8.19
1.08
18.36
0.20
0.37
0.53
373.60

3.52%
0.37%
2.99%
0.13%
1.35%
0.98%
3.36%
7.28%
2.20%
0.70%
1.87%
23.23%
3.48%
1.86%
0.95%
0.13%
2.13%
0.02%
0.04%
0.06%
43.34%

tax revenue
operational income
grants from Union
loans recovered
total income
268.74
22.82
24.82
124.98
Govt. Borrowing Requirement:
(total expenditure minus total income) 420.67
financd by:
new public debt issued
use of Trust Funds etc.

385.41
35.26
420.67

From the author’s research based on latest available data published by the C&AG of India

Fallacious Finance: Congress, BJP, CPI-M et al may be leading India to hyperinflation (2007)

Fallacious Finance: Congress, BJP, CPI-M et al may be leading India to hyperinflation

by

Subroto Roy

first published in The Statesman, March 5 2007

Editorial Page Special Article

It seems the Dream Team of the PM, Finance Minister, Mr. Montek Ahluwalia and their acolytes may take India on a magical mystery tour of economic hallucinations, fantasies and perhaps nightmares. I hasten to add the BJP and CPI-M have nothing better to say, and criticism of the Government or of Mr Chidambaram’s Budget does not at all imply any sympathy for their political adversaries. It may be best to outline a few of the main fallacies permeating the entire Governing Class in Delhi, and their media and businessman friends:

1. “India’s Savings Rate is near 32%”. This is factual nonsense. Savings is indeed normally measured by adding financial and non-financial savings. Financial savings include bank-deposits. But India is not a normal country in this. Nor is China. Both have seen massive exponential growth of bank-deposits in the last few decades. Does this mean Indians and Chinese are saving phenomenally high fractions of their incomes by assiduously putting money away into their shaky nationalized banks? Sadly, it does not. What has happened is government deficit-financing has grown explosively in both countries over decades. In a “fractional reserve” banking system (i.e. a system where your bank does not keep the money you deposited there but lends out almost all of it immediately), government expenditure causes bank-lending, and bank-lending causes bank-deposits to expand. Yes there has been massive expansion of bank-deposits in India but it is a nominal paper phenomenon and does not signify superhuman savings behaviour. Indians keep their assets mostly in metals, land, property, cattle, etc., and as cash, not as bank deposits.

2. “High economic growth in India is being caused by high savings and intelligently planned government investment”. This too is nonsense. Economic growth in India as elsewhere arises not because of what politicians and bureaucrats do in capital cities, but because of spontaneous technological progress, improved productivity and learning-by-doing on part of the general population. Technological progress is a very general notion, and applies to any and every production activity or commercial transaction that now can be accomplished more easily or using fewer inputs than before. New Delhi still believes in antiquated Soviet-era savings-investment models without technological progress, and some non-sycophant must tell our top Soviet-era bureaucrat that such growth models have been long superceded and need to be scrapped from India’s policy-making too. Can politicians and bureaucrats assist India’s progress? Indeed they can: the telecom revolution in recent years was something in which they participated. But the general presumption is against them. Progress, productivity gains and hence economic growth arise from enterprise and effort of ordinary people — mostly despite not because of an exploitative, parasitic State.

3. “Agriculture is a backward sector that has been retarding India’s recent economic growth”. This is not merely nonsense it is dangerous nonsense, because it has led to land-grabbing by India’s rulers at behest of their businessman friends in so-called “SEZ” schemes. The great farm economist Theodore W. Schultz once quoted Andre and Jean Mayer: “Few scientists think of agriculture as the chief, or the model science. Many, indeed, do not consider it a science at all. Yet it was the first science – Mother of all science; it remains the science which makes human life possible”. Centuries before Europe’s Industrial Revolution, there was an Agricultural Revolution led by monks and abbots who were the scientists of the day. Thanks partly to American help, India has witnessed a Green Revolution since the 1960s, and our agriculture has been generally a calm, mature, stable and productive industry. Our farmers are peaceful hardworking people who should be paying taxes and user-fees normally but should not be otherwise disturbed or needlessly provoked by outsiders. It is the businessmen wishing to attack our farm populations who need to look hard in the mirror – to improve their accounting, audit, corporate governance, to enforce anti-embezzlement and shareholder protection laws etc.

4. “India’s foreign exchange reserves may be used for ‘infrastructure’ financing”. Mr Ahluwalia promoted this idea and now the Budget Speech mentioned how Mr Deepak Parekh and American banks may be planning to get Indian businesses to “borrow” India’s forex reserves from the RBI so they can purchase foreign assets. It is a fallacy arising among those either innocent of all economics or who have quite forgotten the little they might have been mistaught in their youth. Forex reserves are a residual in a country’s balance of payments and are not akin to tax revenues, and thus are not available to be borrowed or spent by politicians, bureaucrats or their businessman friends — no matter how tricky and shady a way comes to be devised for doing so. If anything, the Government and RBI’s priority should have been to free the Rupee so any Indian could hold gold or forex at his/her local bank. India’s vast sterling balances after the Second World War vanished quickly within a few years, and the country plunged into decades of balance of payments crisis – that may now get repeated. The idea of “infrastructure” is in any case vague and inferior to the “public goods” Adam Smith knew to be vital. Serious economists recommend transparent cost-benefit analyses before spending any public resources on any project. E.g., analysis of airport/airline industry expansion would have found the vast bulk of domestic airline costs to be forex-denominated but revenues rupee-denominated – implying an obvious massive currency-risk to the industry and all its “infrastructure”. All the PM’s men tell us nothing of any of this.

5. “HIV-AIDS is a major Indian health problem”. Government doctors privately know the scare of an AIDS epidemic is based on false assumptions and analysis. Few if any of us have met, seen or heard of an actual incontrovertible AIDS victim in India (as opposed to someone infected by hepatitis-contaminated blood supplies). Syringe-exchange by intravenous drug users is not something widely prevalent in Indian society, while the practise that caused HIV to spread in California’s Bay Area in the 1980s is not something depicted even at Khajuraho. Numerous real diseases do afflict Indians – e.g. 11 children died from encephalitis in one UP hospital on a single day in July 2006, while thousands of children suffer from “cleft lip” deformity that can be solved surgically for 20,000 rupees, allowing the child a normal life. Without any objective survey being done of India’s real health needs, Mr Chidamabaram has promised more than Rs 9.6 Billion (Rs 960 crore) to the AIDS cottage industry.

6. “Fiscal consolidation & stabilization has been underway since 1991”. There is extremely little reason to believe this. If you or I borrow Rs. 100,000 for a year, and one year later repay the sum only to borrow the same again along with another Rs 40,000, we would be said to have today a debt of Rs. 140,000 at least. Our Government has been routinely “rolling over” its domestic debt in this manner (in the asset-portfolios of the nationalised banking system) but displaying and highlighting only its new additional borrowing in a year as the “ Fiscal Deficit” (see graph, also “Fiscal Instability”, The Sunday Statesman, 4 February 2007). More than two dozen State Governments have been doing the same though, unlike the Government of India, they have no money-creating powers and their liabilities ultimately accrue to the Union as well. The stock of public debt in India may be Rs 30 trillion (Rs 30 lakh crore) at least, and portends a hyperinflation in the future. Mr Chidambaram’s announcement of a “Debt Management Office” yet to be created is hardly going to suffice to avert macroeconomic turmoil and a possible monetary collapse. The Congress, BJP, CPI-M and all their friends shall be responsible.

Of related interest: Mistaken Macroeconomics,
“The Indian Revolution”, “Against Quackery”, “The Dream Team: A Critique”, “India’s Macroeconomics”, “Indian Inflation”

Posted in Academic research, Banking, Big Business and Big Labour, BJP, China, China's macroeconomics, China's savings rate, China's Economy, Communists, Congress Party, Deposit multiplication, Economic Policy, Economic quackery, Economic Theory of Growth, Economics of exchange controls, Economics of Public Finance, Economics of real estate valuation, Finance, Financial Management, Financial markets, Financial Repression, Foreign exchange controls, Governance, Government accounting, Government Budget Constraint, Government of India, India's Big Business, India's credit markets, India's Government economists, India's interest rates, India's savings rate, India's stock and debt markets, India's agriculture, India's Agriculture & Food, India's balance of payments, India's Banking, India's Budget, India's bureaucracy, India's Capital Markets, India's corporate finance, India's corporate governance, India's currency history, India's Democracy, India's Economic History, India's Economy, India's Exports, India's farmers, India's Finance Commission, India's Foreign Exchange Reserves, India's Foreign Trade, India's Government Budget Constraint, India's Government Expenditure, India's grassroots activists, India's Health/Medicine, India's Industry, India's inflation, India's Labour Markets, India's Land, India's Macroeconomics, India's Monetary & Fiscal Policy, India's nomenclatura, India's peasants, India's political lobbyists, India's Polity, India's pork-barrel politics, India's poverty, India's Public Finance, India's Reserve Bank, India's State Finances, India's Union-State relations, Inflation, Interest group politics, Macroeconomics, Manmohan Singh, Mendacity in politics, Monetary Theory, Money and banking, Paper money and deposits, Political cynicism, Political Economy, Political mendacity, Public Choice/Public Finance, Redeposits, Unorganised capital markets. 3 Comments »

Our Policy Process: Self-Styled “Planners” Have Controlled India’s Paper Money For Decades

Our Policy Process:

 

Self-Styled “Planners” Have Controlled India’s Paper Money For Decades

 

by

Subroto Roy

 

First published in The Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article, Feb 20 2007

 

 

Three agencies of the Executive Branch of our Government have controlled the country’s fiscal and monetary processes. The most glamorous is the Planning Commission, a nominated agency of the Government of the day without constitutional status but which has informally charged itself with articulating national and provincial preferences on public spending. It has overshadowed in impact and prestige the Finance Ministry or Treasury, which normally would design the budget, raise taxes, run the fiscal machinery and be accountable to Parliament (the Legislative Branch) via the person of the Finance Minister. In turn, the Finance Ministry owns and controls the Reserve Bank, effectively placing India’s paper money and bank deposits at the discretion of New Delhi’s purported “economic planners”.

 

 

In addition, the Finance Commission is charged with articulating a suitable allocation of public resources between the Union and States, setting some medium-term parameters of federal finance. And the Comptroller & Auditor General is supposed to assess effectiveness of Government behaviour: the “high independent statutory authority..… who sees on behalf of the Legislature that … money expended was legally available for and applied to the purpose or purposes to which it has been applied.” “Audit … is the main instrument to secure accountability of the Executive to the Legislature …. The fundamental object of audit is to secure real value for the taxpayer’s money” (Indian Government Accounts & Audit, 1930).

 

 

Weakness of Parliament

 

In parliamentary government, the whole Executive Branch is accountable to and the agent of the Legislative Branch. But the utter weakness of our Parliament over decades has led its institutions, including the C&AG, to be run roughshod over by the Government of the day. The Finance Commission, being a temporary and transient body, can hardly take on the entrenched bureaucracy the Planning Commission has become.

 

This unconstitutional subservience of policy-making to the Planning Commission began when the first planners said on December 7 1952: “The raison d’etre of a planned economy is the fullest mobilisation of available resources and their allocation so as to secure optimum results …. There is no doubt that the RBI, which is a nationalised institution, will play its appropriate part in furthering economic development along agreed lines”. When Jawaharlal Nehru as free India’s first prime minister chose to himself lead the “Second Plan”, the fate of India’s paper money was sealed. “Insofar as government expenditure is financed by central bank credit, there is a direct increase in currency in circulation”. That May 14 1956 statement marked the last mention for the next 43 years of India’s money during the process of articulating India’s public expenditure priorities.

 

The Reserve Bank has indeed behaved “along agreed lines”. While superficially presiding over currency, banking and foreign exchange, it has been legally and practically a department (with some 75,000 employees today) of the Finance Ministry. Since the vast bulk of customer deposits are held by nationalized banks owned and managed by the Finance Ministry, India has had practically a “one-tier” banking system on the old USSR model.

 

The “Ninth” and “Tenth” Planning Commissions included not only Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee but also his Finance and Foreign Ministers as members. It was not our Reserve Bank but such persons, including the prominent official (now in post-retirement service) Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who declared on April 5 1999 in the “Ninth Five Year Plan” that a “viable monetary posture” was “to accept an average inflation rate in the region of 7 per cent per annum, which would justify a growth rate of money supply (base money) of 16 per cent per annum”. Recent money supply growth rates under the Sonia-Manmohan Congress have been near 19%-21%, and inflation properly measured may be well above 10%.

 

In Western countries, it would be normal procedure for an acceptable level of inflation to be decided upon, followed by monetary and fiscal targets being set in view of what is statistically expected by way of real economic growth, since growth is mainly a result not of Government behaviour but of spontaneous technological progress and increase in productivity. By contrast, our “planning” process has allowed unconstrained fiscal expenditure to emerge out of chaotic and unconstrained nationwide politics on the sure-fire assumption that budget deficits are going to be “paid for” by money-printing (and hence by invisible taxation of the paper assets of an unknowing public).

 

For a PM and Finance Minister to sign off on fiscal-monetary targets during the “planning” process commits the entire Executive Branch to it. Reversing or even critically discussing such intentions would require nothing less than a Parliamentary Vote of No-Confidence, which itself would require public dissemination of economic models and data exclusively available to the Executive Branch, whether or not the Executive Branch is aware of it. Public exhortations and rhetoric then follow from politicians, bureaucrats and their businessman friends as to how much real growth needs to occur in order for inflation not to be above a given level!

 

The cart is thus squarely placed in front of and not behind the buffalo. If exhortations are not met by reality it is typically said ~ in bureaucrat-speak that avoids accountability ~ “slippages” occurred due to outside factors like rainfall, American business cycles or perhaps, now, global warming and AIDS.

 

Indeed because the upside-down nature of this process has likely not been grasped even by politicians, bureaucrats and establishment economists participating in it, let aside Parliament or the public, it hardly seems a conscious or deliberate “macroeconomic policy” at all, but rather an outcome of habitual, ritualistic routines taking place year after year for decades. And India’s financial press and TV media, instead of soberly seeking facts, have tended merely to flatter top politicians and bureaucrats, as is the wont of businessmen to do.

 

 

War finance, not peace

 

The structure of incentives and information has become such that no one in government, academia, international credit-rating agencies or elsewhere, is able to effectively point out that fiscal intentions expressed in a “Plan” may be infeasible, inflationary or generally unwise. This includes the IMF and World Bank who lead India’s creditors in Western financial markets, and whose staff are generally uninterested in the countries they work on except to make sure loans received are large and repayments timely (as their personal livelihoods depend on such factors). But a brave anonymous squeak can be found hidden in thousands of pages of “Tenth Plan” verbiage dated December 21 2002 ~ that it is all being “financed almost entirely by borrowing …. India’s public finance inherits the consequence of fiscal mismanagement in the past.” Efforts of one recent Governor to carve out a modern independent role for the Reserve Bank have apparently gone in vain, and he too has been co-opted as a Government spokesman in retirement.

 

 

The Bank of England could at one time “theoretically lend the full amount” the British Government was authorized to spend by the UK Parliament (Hirsch). For decades, the RBI has been required by our Government to do almost that in practice (see graph). During the Second World War, the US Government was assured its Central Bank “could and would see that the Treasury was supplied with all the money that it needed for war finance … beyond those secured by taxation and by borrowing from non-bank sources” (Chandler). India’s politicians and bureaucrats have given us macroeconomic processes that pretend our country has since Independence remained at war ~ when in fact we have been mostly at peace.

India’s Macroeconomics

(NB This is one of a set of articles that include “India in World Trade & Payments”, “Fiscal Instability”, “Fallacious Finance”, “Indian Money & Credit”, “Indian Money & Banking”, “Against Quackery”, “Indian Inflation”, “Monetary Integrity and the Rupee”, “The Dream Team: A Critique” etc., as well as “Mistaken Macroeconomics” etc. See My Recent Works, Interviews etc on India’s Money, Public Finance, Banking, Trade, BoP, Land, etc (an incomplete list) )

India’s Macroeconomics

Real growth has steadily occurred because India has shared the world’s technological progress. But bad fiscal, monetary policies over decades have led to monetary weakness and capital flight

by

Subroto Roy

First published in The Sunday Statesman Editorial Page Special Article

January 20 2007

Anyone wishing to understand India’s macroeconomics today must seek to grasp how Government expenditure and taxing behaviour have become related over decades to Government’s rapid creation of paper-money and bank-deposits. Even those policy-makers who have caused this phenomenon (notably our present PM during his long career as the top economic bureaucrat, as well as his many acolytes and foreign and domestic flatterers) seem to have failed to grasp this. Thus they may be unlikely to identify let alone carry out the key political task facing India today, which is to transform the feeble existing state corroded by corruption and waste into a robust modern one with public institutions of a quality meeting or exceeding world standards.

Government expenditure in a democracy is supposed to be representative of real public needs. But democracy is everywhere imperfect, and spending tends to follow instead the pattern of special interest groups, i.e., who has how much organised lobbying power in the polity. “Whatever can be rescued from useless expenditure is urgently required for useful”, said JS Mill. How can public spending be made more productive (or less unproductive) by cutting waste, fraud and abuse, and instead better alleviate mass ignorance, poverty and destitution? And how can there be reduced chance of a collapse of confidence in public institutions, especially currency and the banks as has happened in other countries at different times? These are central questions for serious macroeconomic policy-making in India today. In fact, it is likely the Indian people are at present both over-taxed and under-taxed: we are over-taxed by the corroded, corrupt wasteful polity that has actually arisen, while we are under-taxed relative to the fiscal and monetary needs of a robust modern democratic polity yet to exist.

India has shared the technological progress the world economy witnessed in the 20th Century. Private ingenuity, enterprise and business acumen at all scales of operation are manifest in countless examples across the country every day. Real economic growth has taken place steadily as a result, and there is no doubt average levels of health, education, and material well-being have improved almost everywhere ~ often despite government action, sometimes thanks to it. Our legendary population has grown mainly due to lowering of mortality rates via better health, nutrition and awareness, causing longer life-spans than ever before. Our village festivals, market-towns and city-streets are filled with bustling shops with busy people and merchandise, while large concrete buildings are being built everywhere by invisible builders. There is no apparent lack of a potential basis for taxation of private resources for public uses in the country.

At the same time, monumental problems of absolute poverty, ignorance, destitution and inequality remain obvious to the naked eye everywhere in India, affecting hundreds of millions of citizens. A rare candid Government study said: “It does not require clever tools of measurement to demonstrate that there are millions of children in India who are totally deprived of any education worth the name. And it is not as if they are invisible, remote, and therefore unreached. They are everywhere in the cities: on the streets, wiping cars at traffic junctions, picking rags in mounds of waste; in the roadside eateries; in small factories, as cheap labour or domestic help; at ‘home’ completing household chores. In the villages again they are everywhere, responding to the contextual demands of family work as well as bonded labour.” (India Education Report, 2002, p. 47). Such and similar children, their parents and kith and kin constitute the hundreds of anonymous millions of India today.

Less than 30 million people are employed in the “organised” sector, about 18 by government and 12 by the “organised private sector”. Even if four dependents are assumed for each, that hardly makes 15% of the whole population of one billion people today. So while there may be some 150 million people in India who in one way or another engage with the “organised sector”, there may be 850 million who do not ~ reminiscent of Disraeli’s “Two Nations” of Dickensian England.

India’s tax-revenues are raised in proportion of about 30% direct to 70% indirect, where the same ratio for an advanced economy like the USA is about 90% direct to 10% indirect. A mere 10 million income-tax returns are received in a given year in all of India. The masses are being taxed, perhaps heavily, though they are mostly unaware of what is being indirectly extracted out of their household budgets through ubiquitous archaic systems of Customs and Excise. From long before the British arrived in India, there was a tax on salt via government monopoly, and long after MK Gandhi’s march to the Arabian Sea to produce salt freely, indirect taxes bear down invisibly upon the masses of democratic India today. Nicholas Kaldor approved the current system in 1956 but by 1959 had retracted and recommended widespread direct taxation instead, which has never happened. Kaldor’s best known Indian student is today PM of the country.

Also, everyone’s holdings of monetary assets in India have been taxed by inflation, without people realising it except for a continual feeling or memory of the dwindling value of the rupee and other paper assets. Government debt, the quantity of money and general price-level of real goods and services (the inverse of the price of money) have been on exponential growth paths, most conspicuously since the compulsory government take-over of banks in the early 1970s, though origins reach back to the start of pseudo-socialist “planning” in the 1950s (see graph).

When transparent visible taxation cannot be proposed and voted for in the “real” economy because it needs too much political effort or insight, governments resort to invisible, undemocratic means of taxing the public’s monetary resources by the subterfuge of inflating currency and bank deposits. Inflation has everywhere raised real resources for governments too weak to administer proper tax systems or resist the onslaught of organised pressure-groups in incurring public expenditure.

Taxation via inflation “does not require detailed legislation, and can be administered very simply. All that it requires is to spend newly created notes. The resulting inflation automatically imposes a tax on cash balances by depreciating the value of money” (Cagan). A routine means of meeting a government’s deficits can become “use of the printing press to manufacture legal tender paper money”, either directly by paying its creditors “with new paper money specially printed for the purpose”, or indirectly by paying its creditors “out of loans to itself from the Central Bank”, issuing money to that amount in exchange for government debt (Dalton). Because public memories are short and economic models and data unavailable to ordinary people, a large scope exists for governments to extract real resources by inflation before “money-illusion” comes to be dispelled. Briefly, such has been how India’s continuous budget-deficits have been financed ever since Independence – made possible with impunity because our rulers have also kept our currency from being internationally convertible (except for themselves).

These quite subtle facts remain practically unknown to the Indian public whose lives and those of future generations are deeply affected by them, though in recent decades elite elements like bureaucrats, academics, military officers, businessmen, politicians etc with better information and access to resources have sensed monetary weakness in the country and exported their adult children and savings abroad expeditiously. The sphere of knowledge and concerns of most people are so close to needs of their own survival that they make easy prey for the machinations of others with better information or access to resources. This may help explain why we, who for more than a century and a half have seen a vast political awakening take place and can take pride in having a free press and the world’s largest electorate, at the same time have had our political life and public institutions wracked by enormous corruption, fraud and venality, enfeebling the political economy by widespread cynicism and loss of confidence, and inducing capital flight abroad on the part of a vapid elite.

Milton Friedman: A Man of Reason, 1912-2006

A Man of Reason


Milton Friedman (1912-2006)

 

First published in The Statesman, Perspective Page Nov 22 2006

 

Milton Friedman, who died on 16 November 2006 in San Francisco, was without a doubt the greatest economist after John Maynard Keynes. Before Keynes, great 20th century economists included Alfred Marshall and Knut Wicksell, while Keynes’s contemporaries included Irving Fisher, AC Pigou and many others. Keynes was followed by his younger critic FA Hayek, but Hayek is remembered less for his technical economics as for his criticism of “socialist economics” and contributions to politics. Milton Friedman more than anyone else was Keynes’s successor in economics (and in applied macroeconomics in particular), in the same way David Ricardo had been the successor of Adam Smith. Ricardo disagreed with Smith and Friedman disagreed with Keynes, but the impact of each on the direction and course both of economics and of the world in which they lived was similar in size and scope.

 

Friedman’s impact on the contemporary world may have been largest through his design and advocacy as early as 1953 of the system of floating exchange-rates. In the early 1970s, when the Bretton Woods system of adjustable fixed exchange-rates collapsed and Friedman’s friend and colleague George P. Shultz was US Treasury Secretary in the Nixon Administration, the international monetary system started to become of the kind Friedman had described two decades earlier. Equally large was Friedman’s worldwide impact in re-establishing concern about the frequent cause of macroeconomic inflation being money supply growth rates well above real income growth rates. All contemporary talk of “inflation targeting” among macroeconomic policy-makers since the 1980s has its roots in Friedman’s December 1967 presidential address to the American Economic Association. His main empirical disagreement with Keynes and the Keynesians lay in his belief that people held the intrinsically worthless tokens known as “money” largely in order to expedite their transactions and not as a store of value – hence the “demand for money” was a function mostly of income and not of interest rates, contrary to what Keynes had suggested in his 1930s analysis of “Depression Economics”. It is in this sense that Friedman restored the traditional “quantity theory” as being a specific theory of the demand for money.

 

Friedman’s main descriptive work lay in the monumental Monetary History of the United States he co-authored with Anna J. Schwartz, which suggested drastic contractions of the money supply had contributed to the Great Depression in America. Friedman made innumerable smaller contributions too, the most prominent and foresighted of which had to do with advocating larger parental choice in the public finance of their children’s school education via the use of “vouchers”. The modern Friedman Foundation has that as its main focus of philanthropy. The emphasis on greater individual choice in school education exemplified Friedman’s commitments both to individual freedom and the notion of investment in human capital.

 

Friedman had significant influences upon several non-Western countries too, most prominently India and China, besides a grossly misreported episode in Chile. As described in his autobiography with his wife Rose, Two Lucky People (Chicago 1998), Friedman spent six months in India in 1955 at the Government of India’s invitation during the formulation of the Second Five Year Plan. His work done for the Government of India came to be suppressed for the next 34 years. Peter Bauer had told me during my doctoral work at Cambridge in the late 1970s of the existence of a Friedman memorandum, and N. Georgescu-Roegen told me the same in America in 1980, adding that Friedman had been almost insulted publicly by VKRV Rao at the time after giving a lecture to students on his analysis of India’s problems.

 

When Friedman and I met in 1984, I asked him for the memorandum and he sent me two documents. The main one dated November 1955 I published in Hawaii on 21 May 1989 during a project on a proposed Indian “perestroika” (which contributed to the origins of the 1991 reform through Rajiv Gandhi), and was later published in Delhi in Foundations of India’s Political Economy: Towards an Agenda for the 1990s, edited by myself and WE James.

 

The other document on Mahalanobis is published in The Statesman today for the first time, though there has been an Internet copy floating around for a few years. The Friedmans’ autobiography quoted what I said in 1989 about the 1955 memorandum and may be repeated: “The aims of economic policy (in India) were to create conditions for rapid increase in levels of income and consumption for the mass of the people, and these aims were shared by everyone from PC Mahalanobis to Milton Friedman. The means recommended were different. Mahalanobis advocated a leading role for the state and an emphasis on the growth of physical capital. Friedman advocated a necessary but clearly limited role for the state, and placed on the agenda large-scale investment in the stock of human capital, encouragement of domestic competition, steady and predictable monetary growth, and a flexible exchange rate for the rupee as a convertible hard currency, which would have entailed also an open competitive position in the world economy… If such an alternative had been more thoroughly discussed at the time, the optimal role of the state in India today, as well as the optimum complementarity between human capital and physical capital, may have been more easily determined.”

 

A few months before attending my Hawaii conference on India, Friedman had been in China, and his memorandum to Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang and two-hour dialogue of 19 September 1988 with him are now classics republished in the 1998 autobiography. Also republished there are all documents relating to Friedman’s six-day academic visit to Chile in March 1975 and his correspondence with General Pinochet, which speak for themselves and make clear Friedman had nothing to do with that regime other than offer his opinion when asked about how to reduce Chile’s hyperinflation at the time.

 

My association with Milton has been the zenith of my engagement with academic economics, with e-mails exchanged as recently as September. I was a doctoral student of his bitter enemy yet for over two decades he not only treated me with unfailing courtesy and affection, he supported me in lonely righteous battles: doing for me what he said he had never done before, which was to stand as an expert witness in a United States Federal Court. I will miss him much though I know that he, as a man of reason, would not have wished me to.

Subroto Roy

On a Liberal Party for India

NON-EXISTENT LIBERALS

By SUBROTO ROY

First published in The Sunday Statesman October 22 2006, Editorial Page Special Article


Communists, socialists and fascists exist in the Left, Congress and BJP-RSS ~ but there is a conservative/”classical liberal” party missing in Indian democracy today

We in India have sorely needed for many years a serious “classical liberal” or “conservative” political party. Major democratic countries used to have such parties which paid lip-service at least to “classical liberal” principles. But the 2003 attack on Iraq caused Bush/McCain-Republicans to merge with Hilary-Democrats, and Blair-Labour with Tory neocons, all united in a cause of collective mendacity, self-delusion and jingoism over the so-called “war on terror”. The “classical liberal” or “libertarian” elements among the Republicans and Tories find themselves isolated today, just as do pacifist communitarian elements among the Democrats and Labour. There are no obvious international models that a new Indian Liberal Party could look at ~ any models that exist would be very hard to find, perhaps in New Zealand or somewhere in Canada or North Eastern Europe like Estonia. There have been notable individual Indian Liberals though whom it may be still possible to look to for some insight: Gokhale, Sapru, Rajagopalachari and Masani among politicians, Shenoy among economists, as well as many jurists in years and decades gone by.

What domestic political principles would a “classical liberal” or conservative party believe in and want to implement in India today? First of all, the “Rule of Law” and an “Efficient Judiciary”. Secondly, “Family Values” and “Freedom of Religious Belief”. Thirdly, “Limited Government” and a “Responsible Citizenry”. Fourthly, “Sound Money” and “Free Competitive Markets”. Fifthly, “Compassion” and a “Safety Net”. Sixthly, “Education and Health for All”. Seventhly, “Science, not Superstition”. There may be many more items but this in itself would be quite a full agenda for a new Liberal Party to define for India’s electorate of more than a half billion voters, and then win enough of a Parliamentary majority to govern with at the Union-level, besides our more than two dozen States.

The practical policies entailed by these sorts of political slogans would involve first and foremost cleaning up the budgets and accounts of every single governmental entity in the country, namely, the Union, every State, every district and municipality, every publicly funded entity or organisation. Secondly, improving public decision-making capacity so that once budgets and accounts recover from having been gravely sick for decades, there are functioning institutions for their proper future management. Thirdly, resolving J&K in the most lawful and just manner as well as military problems with Pakistan in as practical and efficacious a way as possible today. This is necessary if military budgets are ever going to be drawn down to peacetime levels from levels they have been at ever since the Second World War. How to resolve J&K justly and lawfully has been described in these pages before (The Statesman, “Solving Kashmir” 1-3 December 2005, “Law, Justice and J&K”, 2-3 July 2006).

Cleaning up public budgets and accounts would pari passu stop corruption in its tracks, as well as release resources for valuable public goods and services. A beginning may be made by, for example, tripling the resources every year for three years that are allocated to the Judiciary, School Education and Basic Health, subject to tight systems of performance-audit. Institutions for improved political and administrative decision-making are necessary throughout the country if public preferences with respect to raising and allocating common resources are to be elicited and then translated into actual delivery of public goods and services.

This means inter alia that our often dysfunctional Parliament and State Legislatures have to be inspired by political statesmen (if any such may be found to be encouraged or engendered) to do at least a little of what they have been supposed to be doing. If the Legislative Branch and the Executive it elects are to lead this country, performance-audit will have to begin with them.

The result of healthy public budgets and accounts, and an economy with functioning public goods and services, would be a macroeconomic condition for the paper-rupee to once more become a money that is as good as gold, namely, a convertible world currency again after having suffered sixty years of abuse via endless deficit finance at the hands of first the British and then numerous Governments of free India that have followed.

It may be noticed the domestic aspects of such an agenda oppose almost everything the present Sonia-Manmohan Congress and Jyoti Basu “Left” stand for — whose “politically correct” thoughts and deeds have ruined India’s money and public budgets, bloated India’s Government especially the bureaucracy and the military, starved the Judiciary and damaged the Rule of Law, and gone about overturning Family Values. While there has been endless talk from them about being “pro-poor”, the actual results of their politicization of India’s economy are available to be seen with the naked eye everywhere.

One hundred years from now if our souls returned to visit the areas known today as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh etc, we may well find 500+ million inhabitants still below the same poverty-line despite all the gaseous prime ministerial or governmental rhetoric today and projections about alleged growth-rates.

If the Congress and “Left” must oppose any real “classical liberal” or conservative agenda, we may ask if the BJP-RSS could be conceivably for it. The answer is clearly not. The BJP-RSS may pontificate much about being patriotic to the motherland and about past real or imagined glories of Indian culture and religion, but that hardly ever has translated concretely into anything besides anti-Muslim or anti-Christian rhetoric, or breeding superstitions like astrology even at supposedly top technological institutes in the country. (Why all astrology is humbug, and a pre-Copernican Western import at that, is because all horoscopes assume the Sun rotates around the Earth in a geocentric solar system; the modern West’s scientific outlook arose only after astrology had declined there thanks to Copernicus and Galileo establishing the solar system as heliocentric.)

As for a “classical liberal” economic agenda, the BJP in Government transpired to be as bad if not worse than their adversaries in fiscal and monetary profligacy, except they flattered and were flattered by the organised capital of the big business lobbies whereas their adversaries flatter and are flattered by the organised power of the big labour unions (covering a tiny privileged class among India’s massive workforce). Neither has had the slightest interest in the anonymous powerless individual Indian citizen or household. The BJP in Opposition, instead of seeking to train and educate a new modern principled conservative leadership, appear to wish to regress even further back towards their very own brand of coarse fascism. “Family Values” are why Indian school-children have become the envy of the world in their keen discipline and anxiety to learn – yet even there the BJP had nothing to say on Sonia Gandhi’s pet bill on women’s property rights, whose inevitable result will be further conflict between daughters and daughters-in-law of normal Indian families.

At the root of the malaise of our political parties may be the fact we have never had any kind of grassroots “orange” revolution. There has been also an underlying national anxiety of disintegration and disorder from which the idea of a “strong Centre” follows, which has effectively meant a Delhi bloated with power and swimming in self-delusion. The BJP and Left are prisoners of their geriatric leaderships and rather unpleasant ideologies and interest-groups, while the Congress has failed to invent or adopt any ideology besides sycophancy. Let it be remembered Sonia Gandhi had been genuinely disdainful of the idea of leading that party at Rajiv’s death; today she has allowed herself to become its necessary glue. The most salubrious thing she could do for the party (and hence for India) is to do a Michael Howard: namely, preside over a genuine leadership contest between a half-dozen ambitious people, and then withdraw with her family permanently from India’s politics, focusing instead on the legacy of her late husband. Without that happening, the Congress cannot be made a healthy political entity, and hence the other parties have no role-model to imitate. Meanwhile, a liberal political party, which necessarily would be non-geriatric and non-sycophantic, is still missing in India.

Indian Money and Banking

ON MONEY & BANKING

 

The deficit-finance of all public institutions flow like rivulets into the swamp that is our Public Debt, managed by the RBI

 

by

 

SUBROTO ROY

 

First published in The Sunday Statesman, Editorial Page, Special Article

April 23 2006

 

THE Reserve Bank of India, like all other public institutions, belongs to all of India’s people. There has been a tendency with every national institution, whether the ONGC or nationalised banks like SBI, or the IITs and IIMs or Air India and Indian Airlines or the Railways, Army, Navy, Air Force, IAS, IFS, Central Secretariat etc, even Parliament and State legislatures, to think that its assets, both tangible and intangible, are to serve the interests mainly of its employees, whether of Class 1, 2, 3, or 4. In fact, the assets of all such national institutions belong to all Indians: all one thousand million of us, from nameless street children and rural mendicants onwards. The body of our whole Indian citizenry own any and all such public institutions, and their employees are merely our “agents”, literally “public servants” who get paid salaries and perquisites out of public revenues. The task of managing and controlling these vast cohorts of public servants is a stupendous one of democratic politics and public administration. As a country we have never been very adept at it, indeed we often have been hopelessly incompetent. Without proper control and management, employees of national institutions have naturally tended to take over control of these assets, shifting liabilities onto the shoulders and budgets of the anonymous diffused body of citizenry who are supposed to be their masters. The public’s servants have tended to become the masters of the public’s assets and resources.

 

The RBI, as the nation’s Central Bank, has a unique position because its principal task is to establish and maintain the integrity of our money and banking system. The deficit-finance of all public institutions flow like rivulets into the swamp that is our Public Debt, managed by the RBI.

 

Money as such has no “intrinsic” worth. All the paper rupees, dollars, pounds, euros, yen in the world have less “intrinsic” usefulness than a hairpin or a button or a pair of shoelaces. Hairpins, buttons and shoelaces at least keep your hair, your shirt or your shoes together ~ the paper of paper money can be at best used to roll cigarettes perhaps. Yet paper money comes to be needed and is valued by everyone in every country ~ from street children upwards to Mr Premji, Mr Gates and Mr Mittal. Everyone accepts paper money as wages in exchange for his/her work, and then plans to use that same paper to buy food, shelter, clothing and other necessities with. I.e., we accept paper money for a short time believing we can use it to acquire useful things with. It has no intrinsic worth yet it is universally valued because everyone believes it will be accepted by everyone else in exchange for real goods and services which are in fact useful and conducive to life. The use of paper money depends on a fine and invisible web of collective trust permeating throughout the economy.

 

Banks arose due to the increasing complexity of modern economies in the last six hundred years. Paper currency was then supplemented in commerce by “deposits”, so that a transaction between two persons need not involve turnover of cash but can come to be accomplished by adjustment in their respective deposits with their banks. This vastly increased the quantum of trust ordinary people placed in the system of normal transactions, since they had to now believe not just in the exchangeability of paper money but also in the viability of the banks where they had placed their deposits. Currency plus Bank Deposits constitute what is called the “Money Supply”, and its controller is the RBI.

 

Our collective trust in money and banking is in and of itself something with economic value, which commercial banks are in a unique position to exploit. Banks can usually bet that all their customers will not demand their deposits at the same time, and so they are able to lend out as loans a very large fraction of what they have received as deposits from the public. Making such loans in turn causes the recipients of the loans to make new deposits (of what they have borrowed) in yet other banks, and this in turn acts as a signal to the receiving banks to make even more loans. Hence a process of “redeposit” or “deposit multiplication” occurs in any banking system where only a fraction of deposits is legally required to be kept as reserves by the bank. A Central Bank like the RBI then has the duty to see none of this gets out of hand: that while individual banks are acting to make profitable investments on the capital risked by a bank’s owners, they are, as a collective body, creating enough but not excessive credit to meet the needs of business.

 

In India, most banks came to be nationalised decades ago by Indira Gandhi on advice of P. N. Haksar, the mentor of Dr Manmohan Singh in his career as an economic bureaucrat. Whatever original capital they have had also arises from the public exchequer, and all their employees are effectively “public servants” under the Ministry of Finance. We have not been hearing from the RBI anything about the deleterious effects of this continuing state of affairs.

 

The RBI’s functions include managing the “Public Debt”, which stands today at perhaps Rs. 30 trillion (1 trillion= 1 lakh crore), on which interest of perhaps Rs 2-3 trillion must be paid by the Union and State Governments every year to those holding the debt (mostly the nationalised banking system under duress from the RBI). Why the stock-market has been doing so “well” is because it has been like an athlete on steroids. A stock market is supposed to be risky while a debt market is supposed to be safe. Our Government’s fiscal and monetary behaviour over decades has caused the formal debt market to yield negative returns, and so the stock-market has become relatively lucrative despite its risky nature.

 

It is also the RBI’s task to manage the country’s foreign exchange “reserves”, i.e. the residual balance left after all forex outgoings from purchases of imports (like petroleum or weapons) and payments of interest on or repayment of foreign loans have been subtracted from flows of incoming forex arising from export revenues, emigrants’ remittances, and new foreign loans and investments. These “reserves” do not belong to the Government or the nation in the same way tax-revenues belong to the Consolidated Fund of India. It was a shocking conceptual error of the Manmohan Singh Government’s most prominent economic bureaucrat to fail to see this and to suggest forex reserves could be used for “infrastructure” development. For the business press to get excited about forex reserves being at this or that level is also misleading, since high reserves may or may not indicate a better financial position just as a heavily indebted man may or may not be in a bad position depending on what kind of use he has made of his debts.

 

We have not been hearing of any of these matters from the RBI under Dr Y. V. Reddy. Instead, the one definite number we have received last week is that the RBI, under behest of its master, the Ministry of Finance, has been causing the Money Supply to grow at something like 15%. The Government’s apologists would like us to believe that this gets distributed between real economic growth in the region of 10% and inflation in the region of 5%. But for all that anybody really knows, it may be that real growth is at 5% and inflation is at 10%! Ask yourself if what you bought last year for Rs 1000 costs Rs 1050 or Rs. 1100 this year. Your guess may be as good as the Government’s.

The Dream Team: A Critique

The Dream Team: A Critique

by Subroto Roy

First published in The Statesman and The Sunday Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article, January 6,7,8, 2006

(Author’s Note: Within a few weeks of this article appearing, the Dream Team’s leaders appointed the so-called Tarapore 2 committee to look into convertibility — which ended up recommending what I have since called the “false convertibility” the RBI is presently engaged in. This article may be most profitably read along with other work republished here: “Rajiv Gandhi and the Origins of India’s 1991 Economic Reform”, “Three Memoranda to Rajiv Gandhi”, “”Indian Money & Banking”, “Indian Money & Credit” , “India’s Macroeconomics”, “Fiscal Instability”, “Fallacious Finance”, “India’s Trade and Payments”, “Our Policy Process”, “Against Quackery”, “Indian Inflation”, etc)

1. New Delhi’s Consensus: Manmohantekidambaromics

Dr Manmohan Singh has spoken of how pleasantly surprised he was to be made Finance Minister in July 1991 by PV Narasimha Rao. Dr Singh was an academic before becoming a government economic official in the late 1960s, rising to the high office of Reserve Bank Governor in the 1980s. Mr Montek Singh Ahluwalia now refers to him as “my boss” and had been his Finance Secretary earlier. Mr Ahluwalia was a notable official in the MacNamara World Bank before being inducted a senior government official in 1984. Mr P Chidambaram was PVNR’s Commerce Minister, and later became Finance Minister in the Deve Gowda and Gujral Governments. Mr Chidamabaram is a Supreme Court advocate with an MBA from Harvard’s Business School. During 1998-2004, Dr Singh and Mr Chidambaram were in Opposition but Mr Ahluwalia was Member-Secretary of the Vajpayee Planning Commission. Since coming together again in Sonia Gandhi’s United Progressive Alliance, they have been flatteringly named the “Dream Team” by India’s pink business newspapers, a term originally referring to some top American basketball players.

Based on pronouncements, publications and positions held, other members or associates of the “Dream Team” include Reserve Bank Governor Dr YV Reddy; his predecessor Dr Bimal Jalan; former PMO official Mr NK Singh, IAS; Chief Economic Advisers Dr Shankar Acharya and Dr Ashok Lahiri; RBI Deputy Governor Dr Rakesh Mohan; and others like Dr Arvind Virmani, Dr Isher Ahluwalia, Dr Parthasarathi Shome, Dr Vijay Khelkar, Dr Ashok Desai, Dr Suman Bery, Dr Surjit Bhalla, Dr Amaresh Bagchi, Dr Govind Rao. Honorary members include Mr Jaswant Singh, Mr Yashwant Sinha, Mr KC Pant and Dr Arun Shourie, all economic ministers during the Vajpayee premiership. Institutional members include industry chambers like CII and FICCI representing “Big Business”, and unionised “Big Labour” represented by the CPI, CPI(M) and prominent academics of JNU. Mr Mani Shankar Aiyar joins the Dream Team with his opinion that a gas pipeline is “necessary for the eradication of poverty in India”. Mr Jairam Ramesh explicitly claimed authoring the 1991 reform with Mr Pranab Mukherjee and both must be members (indeed the latter as Finance Minister once had been Dr Singh’s boss). Dr Arjun Sengupta has claimed Indira Gandhi started the reforms, and he may be a member too. External members include Dr Jagdish Bhagwati, Dr. TN Srinivasan, Dr Meghnad Desai, Dr Vijay Joshi, Mr Ian Little, Dr Anne O. Krueger, Dr John Williamson, IMF Head Dr R Rato, and many foreign bank analysts who deal in Bombay’s markets. Harvard’s Dr Larry Summers joins with his statement while US Treasury Secretary in January 2000 that a 10% economic growth rate for India was feasible. His Harvard colleague Dr Amartya Sen — through disciples like Dr Jean Dreze (adviser to Sonia Gandhi on rural employment) — must be an ex officio member; as an old friend, the Prime Minister launched Dr Sen’s recent book while the latter has marked Dr Singh at 80% as PM. Media associates of the Dream Team include editors like Mr Aroon Purie, Mr Vinod Mehta, Dr Prannoy Roy, Mr TN Ninan, Mr Vir Sanghvi and Mr Shekhar Gupta, as well as the giddy young anchors of what passes for news and financial analysis on cable TV.

This illustrious set of politicians, government officials, economists, journalists and many others have come to define what may be called the “New Delhi Consensus” on contemporary India’s economic policy. While it is unnecessary everyone agree to the same extent on every aspect — indeed on economic policy the differences between the Sonia UPA and Vajpayee NDA have had to do with emphasis on different aspects, each side urging “consensus” upon the other — the main factual and evaluative claims and policy-prescriptions of the New Delhi Consensus may be summarised as follows:

A: “The Narasimha Rao Government in July 1991 found India facing a grave balance of payments crisis with foreign exchange reserves being very low.”

B: “A major cause was the 1990-1991 Gulf War, in its impact as an exogenous shock on Indian migrant workers and oil prices.”

C: “The Dream Team averted a macroeconomic crisis through “structural adjustment” carried out with help of the IMF and World Bank; hence too, India was unaffected by the 1997 ‘Asian crisis'”.

D: “The PVNR, Deve Gowda, Gujral and Vajpayee Governments removed the notorious license-quota-permit Raj.”

E: “India’s measurable real economic growth per capita has been raised from 3% or lower to 7% or more.”

F: “Foreign direct investment has been, relative to earlier times, flooding into India, attracted by lower wages and rents, especially in new industries using information technology.”

G: “Foreign financial investment has been flooding into India too, attracted by India’s increasingly liberalised capital markets, especially a liberalised current account of the balance of payments.”

H: “The apparent boom in Bombay’s stock market and relatively large foreign exchange reserves bear witness to the confidence foreign and domestic investors place in India’s prospects.”

I: “The critical constraint to India’s future prosperity is its “infrastructure” which is far below what foreign investors are used to in other countries elsewhere in Asia.”

J: “It follows that massive, indeed gargantuan, investments in highways, ports, airports, aircraft, city-flyovers, housing-estates, power-projects, energy exploration, gas pipelines, etc, out of government and private resources, domestic and foreign, is necessary to remove remaining “bottlenecks” to further prosperity for India’s masses, and these physical constructions will cause India’s economy to finally ‘take off’.”

K: “India’s savings rate (like China’s) is exceptionally high as is observable from vast expansion of bank-deposits, and these high (presumed) savings, along with foreign savings, will absorb the gargantuan investment in “infrastructure” without inflation.”

L: “Before the gargantuan macroeconomic investments bear the fruits of prosperity, equally large direct transfer payments also must be made from the Government to prevent mass hunger and/or raise nominal incomes across rural India, while existing input or other subsidies to producers, especially farmers, also must continue.”

M: “While private sector participants may increasingly compete via imports or as new entrants in industries where the public sector has been dominant, no bankruptcy or privatisation must be allowed to occur or be seen to occur which does not provide public sector workers and officials with golden parachutes.”

Overall, the New Delhi Consensus paints a picture of India’s economy on an immensely productive trajectory as led by Government partnered by Big Business and Big Labour, with the English-speaking intellectuals of the Dream Team in the vanguard as they fly between exotic conferences and international commercial deals. An endless flow of foreign businessmen and politicians streaming through Bangalore, Hyderabad, five-star hotels or photo-opportunities with the PM, followed by official visits abroad to sign big-ticket purchases like arms or aircraft, reinforce an impression that all is fine economically, and modern India is on the move. Previously rare foreign products have become commonplace in India’s markets, streets and television-channels, and a new materialist spirit, supposedly of capitalism, is captured by the smug slogan yeh dil mange more (this heart craves more) as well as the more plaintive cry pardesi jana nahin, mujhe chhorke (foreigner, please don’t leave me).

2. Money, Convertibility, Inflationary Deficit Financing

India’s Rupee became inconvertible in 1942 when the British imposed exchange controls over the Sterling-Area. After 1947 independent India and Pakistan, in name of “planned” economic development, greatly widened this war-time regime – despite the fact they were at war now only with one another over Jammu & Kashmir and, oddly enough, formed an economic union until 1951 with their currencies remaining freely convertible with each other.

On May 29 1984, the present author’s Pricing, Planning and Politics: A Study of Economic Distortions in India proposed in London that the Indian Rupee become a convertible hard currency again — the first time liberal economics had been suggested for India since BR Shenoy’s critique of the Second Five Year Plan (a fact attracting an editorial of The Times). The simple litmus test whether believers in the New Delhi Consensus have or have not the courage of their stated convictions – i.e., whether what they have been saying is, in its empirical fundamentals, more signal or noise, more reality or rhetorical propaganda – would be to carry through that proposal made 21 years ago. The Dream Team have had more than enough political power to undertake this, and it remains the one measure necessary for them to demonstrate to India’s people and the world that the exuberant confidence they have been promoting in their model of India’s economy and its prospects is not spurious.

What does convertibility entail?  For a decade now, India has had limited ease of availability of foreign exchange for traders, students and tourists. Indeed some senior Government monetary economists believe there is convertibility already except forex dealers are being allowed “one-way” and not “two-way” quotes! That is wrong. The Government since 1942 has requisitioned at the border all foreign exchange earned by exporters or received as loans or investment — allocating these first to pay interest and amortisation on the country’s foreign debt, then to make its own weapons and other purchases abroad, then to release by ration what remains to private traders, students, tourists et al. Current account liberalisation has meant the last of these categories has been relaxed, especially by removal of some import quotas. What a convertible Rupee would mean is far more profound. It would allow any citizen to hold and save an Indian money that was exchangeable freely (i.e. without Government hindrance) into moneys of other countries. Full convertibility would mean all the paper money, bank deposits and rupee-denominated nominal assets held by ordinary people in India becomes, overnight, exchangeable without hindrance into dollars, yens, pounds or euros held anywhere (although not of course at the “one-way” rates quoted today).

Now money is a most peculiar human institution. Paper money is intrinsically worthless but all of India’s 1,000 million people (from street children onwards) have need to hold it temporarily to expedite their individual transactions of buying and selling real goods and services. Money also acts as a repository of value over time and unit of account or measure of economic value. While demand to hold such intrinsically worthless paper is universal, its supply is a Government monopoly. Because Government accepts obligations owed to it in terms of the fiat money it has itself issued, the otherwise worthless paper comes to possess value in exchange. Because Government controls its supply, money also can be abused easily enough as a technique of invisible taxation via inflation.

With convertibility in India, the quantity of currency and other paper assets like public debt instruments representing fiscal decisions of India’s Union and State Governments, will have to start to compete with those produced by other governments. Just as India’s long-jumpers and tennis-players must compete with the world’s best if they are to establish and sustain their athletic reputations, so India’s fiscal and monetary decisions (i.e. about government spending and revenues, interest-rates and money supply growth) will have to start competing in the world’s financial markets with those of the EU, USA, Japan, Switzerland, ASEAN etc.

The average family in rural Madhya Pradesh who may wish, for whatever personal reason, to liquidate rupee-denominated assets and buy instead Canadian, Swiss or Japanese Government debt, or mutual fund shares in New York, Frankfurt or Singapore, would not be hindered by India’s Government from doing so. They would become as free as the swankiest NRI jet-setters have been for years (like many members of the New Delhi Consensus and their grown children abroad).  Scores of millions of ordinary Indians unconnected with Big Business or Big Labour, neither among the 18 million people in government nor the 12 million in the organised private sector, would become free to hold any portfolio of assets they chose in global markets (small as any given individual portfolio may be in value). Like all those glamorous NRIs, every Indian would be able to hold dollar or Swiss Franc deposit accounts at the local neighbourhood bank. Hawala operators worldwide would become redundant. Ordinary citizens could choose to hold foreign shares, real-estate or travellers’ cheques as assets just as they now choose jewellery before a wedding. The Indian Rupee, after more than 65 years, would once again become as good as all the proverbial gold in Fort Knox.

When added up, the new demand of India’s anonymous masses to hold foreign rather than Rupee-denominated assets will certainly make the Rupee decline in price in world markets. But — if the implicit model of India’s economy promoted by the Dream Team is based on correctly ascertained empirical facts — foreign and domestic investor confidence should suffice for countervailing tendencies to keep India’s financial and banking system stable under convertibility. Not only would India’s people be able to use and save a currency of integrity, the allocation of real resources would also improve in efficiency as distortions would be reduced in the signalling function of domestic relative prices compared to world relative prices. An honest Rupee freely priced in world markets at, say, 90 per dollar, would cause very different real microeconomic decisions of Government and private producers and consumers (e.g., with respect to weapons’ purchases or domestic transportation, given petroleum and jet fuel imports) than a semi-artificial Rupee at 45 per dollar which forcibly an inconvertible asset in global markets. A fully convertible Rupee will cause economic and political decisions in the country more consistent with word realities.

Why the Rupee is not going to be made convertible in the foreseeable future – or why, in India’s present fiscal circumstances if it was, it would be imprudent to do so – is because, contrary to the immense optimism promoted by the Dream Team about their own deeds since 1991, they have in fact been causing India’s monetary economy to skate on the thinnest of thin ice. Put another way, a house of cards has been constructed whose cornerstone constitutes that most unscientific anti-economic of assumptions, the “free lunch”: that something can be had for nothing, that real growth in average consumption levels of the masses of ordinary households of rural and urban India can meaningfully come about by nominal paper-money creation accompanied by verbal exhortation, hocus-pocus or abracadabra from policy-makers and their friends in Big Business, Big Labour and the media. (Lest half-remembered inanities about “orthodox economics” come to be mouthed, Maynard Keynes’s 1936 book was about specific circumstances in Western economies during the Depression and it is unwise to extend its presumptions to unintended situations.)

3. Rajiv Gandhi and Perestroika Project

On 25 May 2002, India’s newspapers reported “PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh lost their place in Congress history as architects of economic reforms as the Congress High Command sponsored an amendment to a resolution that had laid credit at the duo’s door. The motion was moved by…. Digvijay Singh asserting that the reforms were a brainchild of the late Rajiv Gandhi and that the Rao-Singh combine had simply nudged the process forward.”

Now Rajiv Gandhi was an airline-pilot and knew no economics. But the origins of the 1991 reform did come about because of an encounter he had, as Opposition Leader and Congress President from September 1990 onwards, with a “perestroika” project for India’s political economy occurring at an American university since 1986 (viz., The Statesman Editorial Page July 31-August 2 1991, now republished here; Freedom First October 2001). In being less than candid in acknowledging the origins of the reform, the Dream Team may have failed to describe accurately the main symptoms of illness that afflicted India before 1991, and have consequently failed to diagnose and prescribe for it correctly ever since.

The Government of India, like many others, has been sorely tempted to finance its extravagant expenditures by abusing its monopoly over paper-money creation. The British taught us how to do this, and in 1941-43 caused the highest inflation rates ever seen in India as a result. Fig. 1 shows this, and also that real growth in India follows as expected the trend-rate of technological progress (having little to do with government policy). Independent India has continually financed budget- deficits by money creation in a process similar to what the British and Americans did in wartime. This became most conspicuous after Indira Gandhi’s bank and insurance nationalisations of 1969-1970. Indeed, among current policy-makers, Pranab Mukherjee, Manmohan Singh, Arjun Sengupta, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Bimal Jalan, NK Singh, Amaresh Bagchi and Shankar Acharya, were among those governing such macroeconomic processes before 1991 — albeit in absence of the equations that illustrate their nature. Why the Rupee cannot be made an honest, internationally convertible, stable money held with confidence by all Indians today, is because the Dream Team have continued with the same macroeconomics ever since. The personal and political ambitions of the tiniest super-elite that the New Delhi Consensus represent (both personal and political) have depended precisely on gargantuan unending deficit-financing backed by unlimited printing of paper-money, and hence the continuing destruction of the integrity of India’s banking system. A convertible Rupee would allow India’s ordinary people to choose to hold other stores of value available in the world today, like gold or monies issued by foreign governments, and thus force an end to such processes.

Two recent articles in The Statesman (Perspective Page 30 October 2005, Front Page 29 November 2005) outlined India’s financial repression and negative real interest rates (which suffice to explain the present stock market boom the way athletes perform better on steroids), and also how deficits get financed by money creation accompanied by wishful projections of economic growth in an upside down imitation of how macroeconomic policy gets done in the West.

“Narrow Money” consists mostly of hand-to-hand currency. “Broad Money” consists of Narrow Money plus bank-deposits. Modern banking is built on “fractional reserves”, i.e. a system of trust where your bank does not literally hold onto deposits you place there but lends these out again – which causes further deposit expansion because no individual banker can tell whether a new deposit received by it is being caused by the depositor having himself borrowed. As a general rule, bank lending causes further deposit expansion. Why India’s (and China’s) bank deposits have been expanding is not because Indians (or Chinese) are superhuman savers of financial assets in banks but because the Government of India (and China) has for decades compelled (the mostly nationalised) banks to hold vast sums of Government debt on the asset side of their balance-sheets. Thus there has been humongous lending by the banking system to pay for Government expenditures. The Dream Team’s macroeconomics relies entirely on this kind of unending recourse to deficit finance and money creation, causing dry rot to set into banks’ balance sheets (Figs. 2,3, 4).   If the Rupee became convertible, those vast holdings of Government debt by banks would become valued at world prices. The crucial question would be how heavily New York, London and Hong Kong financial markets discounted Indian sovereign debt. If upon convertibility, the asset sides of domestic Indian banks get discounted very heavily by world financial markets, their insolvency upon being valued at international prices could trigger catastrophic repercussions throughout India’s economy. Hence the Rupee cannot be made convertible — and all our present inefficiencies and inequities will continue for ever with New Delhi’s rhetorical propaganda alongside. The capital flight of 10 out of 1000 million Indians will continue, leaving everyone else with the internal and foreign public debts to pay.

4. A Different Strategy had Rajiv Not Been Assassinated

Had Rajiv Gandhi not been assassinated and the perestroika project allowed to take its course, a different strategy would have been chosen. Honest money first demands honest Government and political leadership. It would at the outset have been recognised by Government (and through Government by all India’s people) that the asset-liability, income-expenditure and cash-flow positions of every public entity in the country without exception — of the Union Government, every State and local Government, every public undertaking and project – is abysmal.  Due to entanglement with government financial loans, labour regulations, subsidies, price controls, protection and favouritism, the same holds for the financial positions of vast numbers of firms in the organised private sector. Superimpose on this dismal scene, the bleak situation of the Rule of Law in the country today – where Courts of Justice from highest to lowest suffer terrible abuse receiving pitiable amounts of public resources despite constituting a third and independent branch of India’s Government (while police forces, despite massive expenditure, remain incompetent, high-handed and brutal). What India has needed ever since 1991 is the Rule of Law, total transparency of public information, and the fiercest enforcement of rigorous accounting and audit standards in every government entity and public institution. It is only when budgets and financial positions become sound that ambitious goals can be achieved.

The Dream Team have instead made a fetish of physical construction of “infrastructure”, in some grandiose make-believe dreamworld which says the people of India wish the country to be a superpower. The Dream Team have failed to properly redefine for India’s masses the appropriate fiscal and monetary relationship between State and citizen – i.e. to demarcate public from private domains, and so enhance citizens’ sense of individual responsibility for their own futures, as well as explain and define what government and public institutions can and cannot do to help people’s lives. Grotesque corruption and inefficiency have thus continued to corrode practically all organs, institutions and undertakings of government. Corruption is the transmutation of publicly owned things into private property, while its mirror image, pollution, is the disposal of private wastes into the public domain. Both become vastly more prevalent where property rights between private and public domains remain ill demarcated. What belongs to the individual citizen and what to sovereign India –their rights and obligations to one another – remains fuzzy. Hence corruption and pollution run amuck. The irrational obsession with “infrastructure” is based on bad economics, and has led to profoundly wrong political and financial directions. The Rupee cannot be made an honest stable money because India’s fiscal and monetary situation remains not merely out of control but beyond New Delhi’s proper comprehension and grasp. If and when the Dream Team choose to wake up to India’s macroeconomic realities, a great deal of serious work will need to be done.

 

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Waffle but No Models of Monetary Policy: The RBI and Financial Repression

Waffle but No Models of Monetary Policy:

The RBI and Financial Repression (A Stock Market on Steroids)

by

Subroto Roy
First published in The Statesman, Perspective Page, October 27 2005

If the average Indian citizen feels flummoxed at hearing all the fancy words from official spokesmen and the talking heads on TV and the expensive pink business newspapers — words like “credit offtake”, “liquidity”, “reverse repo rate” “medium term”, “inflation mandate” etc — there is help at hand. It is as likely as not that the purveyors are as flummoxed themselves even while they bandy these terms about in what has been passing for monetary policy in India in recent years. No one has any reliable economic models backed by time-series data to support all the waffle.

Here is an example.

The Government (and specifically the department of the Finance Ministry known as the RBI) will have us believe that the decline in the value of money that has been occurring in India has been at less than 5% per annum.  According to official figures, the average Indian’s purchase of consumable goods and services (food, housing, clothing, transport etc) has been costing more every year by merely 5% at the very most. “What you can buy for Rs. 1000 in one year, you have to pay just Rs 1050 to buy the next year” is what the Government will have us believe. But is anyone’s personal experience of the diminishing value of the domestic currency in India consonant with what official spokesmen say inflation happens to be?

You may well reply that you cannot quite recall what Rs. 1000 bought for you last year. Precisely so. Nor really can anyone else — and that mutual collective loss of memory on the part of the public is something that India’s Government (like many other governments across time and space) has been literally banking on!

Consider a few very simple calculations. Suppose a citizen earns an annual income of Rs. 100,000, and an honest Government told him/her to pay total taxes (from both income and expenditure) of 10%. Clearly Rs. 90,000 would be left for the citizen to spend on his/her various choices of consumption or saving afterwards. If the citizen could assume the value of money was constant (inflation was 0%) then this Rs. 90,000 in one year would buy the same amount of goods and services the next year. But instead we may be living in a political system where the Government officially taxes very lightly, and then dishonestly taxes very heavily by reducing the value of money invisibly, i.e. by inflation. The Government may make the official tax-rate 8% and the actual inflation-rate 15%. The citizen who has Rs. 100,000 will then pay Rs. 8,000 in nominal taxes, but the Rs. 92,000 that is nominally left over for his own consumption and savings, will be made to decline by a further 15% every year.

I.e., a further value of Rs.13,800 (15% of Rs. 92,000) would effectively disappear as an invisible tax from the household budget due to the decline in the value of money, without the household being any wiser. In real terms, the household would have only Rs. 78,200 left.

Where would that extra value disappear to? Clearly, the beneficiary of this invisible extraction of real resources from household budgets would be the only entity that is able to compel the decline in the value of money, namely, the Government, which holds monopoly power to print the pieces of paper (at zero cost) that we call “money” and which we are forced by circumstances to use to expedite our real transactions of goods and services. Roughly speaking, that is how the Government’s own budget deficit gets financed in India.

I.e., the Government of India has its own (massive) expenditures — not merely on things like roads and bridges and military tanks and submarines, but also on ministers and bureaucrats’ wages etc., besides enormous interest payments on past debts incurred by the Government. If the expenditures exceed the visible revenues raised from taxation, as they have done by perhaps 40-50% or more every year for several decades, then the difference gets bridged by printing more paper money over which the Government has had a monopoly.

In India, a total of perhaps 18 million people work in all branches of government and a total of perhaps 12 million people work in the entire organised private sector. That makes 30 million people — with 4 dependants each, that accounts for perhaps 150 million people in the country. That leaves another 850 million people in our population of 1,000 million. Everyone, whether in the 150 million or the 850 million, rich and named or poor and anonymous, has had to use for his/her real transactions of goods and services the paper that the Government produces as money. By causing a decline in the value of this paper every year by x%, everyone who holds this paper, as well as assets denominated in this paper, suffers an invisible taxation of x% without quite realising it. The real revenue the Government of India extracts in this way is what has allowed it to balance its own books.

Furthermore, in the Indian case, what is said to be the inflation-rate and the actual inflation-rate experienced by ordinary people, may well be two different things. The wage-bill of those 18 million people employed by government agencies are linked directly to what official spokesmen say the inflation-rate is, so if the actual rate being experienced was higher and was announced as such, so would have to be that wage-bill and public expenditure! Official spokesmen may tell us the decline in the value of money has been merely 5% or less a year, so what cost Rs. 1000 last year costs Rs. 1050 this year, but as a matter of plain fact, the average citizen’s experience (and memory) may well tell him/her something different – e.g. that what cost Rs. 1000 last year, is in fact costing Rs. 1100 or Rs 1150 or Rs 1200 this year.

So much for the value of money. Now turn to interest-rates.

Here too, the average citizen need not be a rocket-scientist to know that relative to the Western countries, India is labour abundant and is capital scarce. Roughly speaking, that means we have relatively more people and fewer high-rise concrete buildings than the West does. Where then would you expect wages (the price of labour) to be higher, in the West or in India? Clearly in the place where labour is more scarce, namely, the West. And where would you expect interest-rates (the price of capital) to be higher? Clearly, where capital is relatively more scarce, namely India. Such was clearly the case between 1864 and 1926 (Fig. 1). Calcutta bank interest-rates were uniformly higher by about 2-3% than London bank interest-rates (in an era of zero inflation). But something wholly different occurred in the pseudo-socialist India after Independence. E.g., for the years 1975-1992 official Indian interest-rates (adjusted for inflation) were uniformly lower than those in world capital markets represented by the USA (Fig. 2). That remains true today. Not only have the higher wages of the West been attractive to Indians, so seems to be the higher real rates of return on capital! Hence everyone who could fled India – exporting their adult children and their savings abroad , leaving future generations of the anonymous masses with larger public debts to pay the bills in due course. There has been a flight of skilled labour and as well as capital flight from India — are foreigners going to come when they can see the Indian “elite” has fled? Official real interest-rates in India today may well be negative if inflation is  properly measured, which would explain the Bombay stock-market boom the same way an athlete can perform better when on steroids.

Of course in the unorganised capital markets, actual real rates of return have always been higher in India than in the West and remain so. Just ask anyone in the unorganised capital markets how much he has to pay to rent machinery on a daily basis e.g. in the building or construction trade in an Indian city or small town or village. He will quote you rates of 2% or 5% or 10% — per day. Hence there is a massive distortion between what is happening in the unorganised capital markets all over the country and the official money markets the RBI believes itself to be presiding over in Bombay. Until the RBI starts to tell us frankly about this phenomenon, which is known to economists as “financial repression” and which has been caused by runaway Government spending programmes in India for decades, the average citizen may discount all the talk about a few basis points changing here and there on this or that nominal rate, in our pale imitation of what we think the US Fed or the European or British central banks do as policy. The truth is the RBI has never been allowed to model itself after those institutions. Instead, India has had nationalised commercial banking whose pampered inefficient management and staff have allowed the holding of massive amounts of government debt as assets in their balance-sheets, all denominated in an inconvertible controlled currency, and all presided over by a “one-tier” central bank patterned on the old Gosbank of the former Soviet Union, completely subservient to the dictates of the runaway spending that this or that particular set of politicians in power may demand. If there are dreams to be dreamt by honest economists in India, it would be for all that to be made to change.