In COVID times, high fiscal deficit can be growth mantra

The quality of fiscal consolidation suffers if the path to fiscal consolidation is thr­ough expenditure compression rather than increased tax buoyancy.

Published: 02nd February 2022 11:24 AM  |   Last Updated: 02nd February 2022 11:25 AM   |  A+A-

Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman

Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman (Photo| ANI)

In the budget, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has announced a fiscal deficit of 6.9 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in revised estimates 201-22, against the pegged deficit of 6.8 per cent in budget estimates of 2020–21.

Simultaneously, she has not deviated from the medium term fiscal consolidation path to bring down the high fiscal deficit to 4.5 per cent of the GDP by FY 2025-26.

The Minister has presented a very high fiscal deficit of 9.2 per cent of GDP last year in 2021-22 from a position of strength, substantiating that it is for strengthening public investment, which in turn can "crowd-in" private investment.

High fiscal deficit is perceived as growth-enhancing in the times of pandemic. Against the backdrop of pandemic, there is a refreshing perspective about the "fiscal rules" - whether to adhere to numeric threshold ratios of deficit.  

The quality of fiscal consolidation suffers if the path to fiscal consolidation is thr­ough expenditure compression rather than increased tax buoyancy. In 2022-23, the fiscal deficit-GDP ratio is brought to 6.9 per cent primarily through tax buoyancy, though expenditure cuts in a few schemes - including the food security and employment guarantee schemes-  cannot be denied.

This also gives insights into how we have reduced the revenue deficit from 7.3 per cent of GDP in 2020-21 (RE) to 4.7 per cent in 2021-22 (RE). Though there was no "formal announcement on normalization", such expenditure compression measures give sufficient cues on governments' intention to curb revenue deficits.

If the underlying assumption that "revenue expenditure is bad", it can be detrimental in the time of pandemic as social infrastructure related policies especially in health, education, food security and employment guarantee need budgetary support.

The reduction in budgetary allocations including MNREGA and food subsidies is a matter of concern. High capital expenditure is welcome as it can support sustained growth recovery. The outlay for capital expenditure in 2022-23 has been increased sharply by 35.4 per cent in the Union Budget 2022-23.  

It is a no brainer that high public debt has no fiscal costs if real rate of interest is not greater than the real rate of growth of economy. This narrative is very close to the dynamics of public finance in the State of Kerala.

The State has explored innovative sources of financing the public infrastructure projects. The sources of financing the fiscal deficit in the Union Budget 2022-23 show that gross market borrowing is the dominant financing mode.

If the cut off yield rate of long term government securities go high, it will increase the cost of borrowing of government. However, the volatility in global financial markets and the impending taper tantrums give pressures to RBI to increase the policy rates, to avoid a capital flight.   

The Economic Survey FY 2021-22 tabled in the Parliament on Monday highlighted that Government supported the pandemic ridden economy through simultaneous short term (safety nets) and long term (structural) for a sustained recovery - termed as "Bayesian". But, there is conspicuous absence of announcements in budget 2022-23 for small business firms and poor income households who are suffering from pandemic and fighting for survival.  

Indeed, RBI has done heavy lifting through massive liquidity infusion programmes. However, the uneven recovery in India tells us that the multiplier effects from credit-related economic stimulus are limited.  The uneven recovery in India is a matter of urgent concern and I hope economic stimulus packages will be announced to address that, outside the purview of budget.

Another interesting aspect is that even against the backdrop of elections, the government has not announced any political packages for the States which are going for elections - like a few capital infrastructure projects announced in last year's budget for Kerala and Bengal - to incentivize the “calculus of (voting) consent” of people.  

The term "State" was in the Budget 2022-23 approximately 20 times, which clearly shows the intent of the Minister towards co-operative federalism.  

(The author is a Professor at National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, New Delhi; and Member of Governing Board of Management of International Institute of Public Finance, Munich)


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