Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Taming Inflation

India's inflation numbers last week stood at 11.05% and will most likely go up when next week's numbers are out ( Base effect + The effect of the oil price hike flowing through the system ). The government is reaching out into its 1950s & 1970s idea cupboard for solutions to fight the inflation.

The government would do well instead to think of solutions that are more appropriate for India in 2008. The two big difference between 1970 & now is
1) The public sector no longer is the dominant force in the industrial land scape.
2) The middle class has grown in size. It has a rosier outlook to the future & has mortgaged parts of future earnings to improve its current life style.

A 1970s response of price caps & increased interest rates is just going to result in shortages on one hand & an angry middle class on the other hand. A better response would be to cut the exorbitant indirect taxes that the government charges. The steps that the government should take are

1) Slash Cenvat rates for excise to 12% from the current rates of 14%/
2) Slash service tax to 12% from the current 12.5%
3) Remove the cess on excise & service taxes
4) Move petrol & diesel to "declared goods" list , and let the oil companies price it at market driven prices

With these measures the inflation worry will disappear and will be replaced by the "Where will we find the money for all our pet schemes" worry. The excise cut impact will most likely be offset by rising production and the already risen prices ( i.e these measures will stop the further rise of prices, but are unlikely to roll them back, so excise duty would any way be higher than what the government had budgeted).
For the tax losses to the state government on petrol & diesel, the central government could hand over the oil bonds that it has been paying the oil companies.

Will the centre follow this approach ? From the RBI action yesterday ( raising CRR & Repo rates by 0.5%) it looks like the Government continues to live in the past. Will RBI at least be sensible this time by letting the Rupee appreciate against the Dollar( or better still force the rupee appreciation by dumping the enormous quantities of fast depreciating US Dollars that it owns ?) . We will have to wait and see.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Will things change?

Pratap Bhanu Mehta has written a wonderful column today in Indian Express. Touching stuff.The worst part is that this could have been written 20 years ago, and it would still have reflected the reality then ( except the hopeful part, where he expects the expanding economy to provide opportunities, something no one could have told us when we were younger.)

With the cut-off marks for admissions rising, it is hard to know what genuine consolation to give to thousands of disappointed students. We can say to them: don’t interpret your inability to get into a college of your choice as your personal failure. It is our collective failure. Obdurate politicians, control-freak bureaucracies, insecure academics, ideas of social justice conceived in bad faith, the poverty of our imaginations, and our preference for control over freedom, levelling over distinction, have all conspired to ensure that you get very few choices. Consequently, that half an extra mark seems life-defining.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Call their bluff

The Government has finally bitten the bullet & hiked fuel prices. As expected those that enjoy power without responsibility & those that think they have no responsibility are yelling for a roll back. The Government is finally now in a position to call their bluff.

The Government should wait for the agitation against the fuel price hike to reach a crescendo (which I expect it will in another couple of days) and then go ahead and declare diesel & petrol as "declared goods". This would mean that the exorbitant sales tax that state governments charge will be capped at 4%. This should bring down the fuel cost to below what prevailed before the hike.

For example in Hyderabad
Petrol price per litre before hike: Rs 51.1
Petrol price per litre after hike: Rs 56.65
Petrol price per litre if petrol is taxed at 4%: Rs 44.30

This allows the government the leeway to even let the oil companies set the price based on global prices, thus removing a huge headache for the government.

This move would lead to shortfall in the money available to the state governments. but that should not worry the Congress too much. The Congress does not have too many state governments, while those that are shedding crocodile tears on the behalf of the common man have a number of states under their belt. The opposition would find it difficult to protest this move as their wish to protect the common man would have been conceded (It is just that their governments will have to foot the bill instead of the centre!). Also the states having lower money to spend would increase Congress' chance of making a come back in these states.