Why PM Modi should push economic liberalisation now

The best use of his store of political capital is to undertake big ticket economic reforms.

When a small Takshashila team walked around Bangalore’s wholesale markets, Dobbspet town and a few tiny village in the latter’s vicinity as part of our #FootNote initiative, we noticed many people reporting that they were not only inconvenienced but suffered monetary losses, yet supported Narendra Modi’s currency reform (‘demonetisation’) initiative. This is counter-intuitive, except perhaps in the context of religious faith.

To better understand this phenomenon, I conducted a twitter poll earlier this week that sought to investigate to what extent have people conflated their opinion of Prime Minister Modi and his currency reform initiative.

The results, after just over 1800 responses, were as follows:

Obviously, there is no claim that this poll is representative of the entire population of India. It is more likely representative of the forty thousand or so people who follow my twitter handle. Even so, the responses are interesting, and support what we noticed on the #FootNote tour.

Modi-Demonetisation-Poll

What does this mean? As Karthik Shashidhar, our resident quant, remarked, in 87% of the respondents there is an overlap between their opinion of Mr Modi and his policy. In other words, people’s attitude towards him overshadows their opinion of his policy. My colleague Nidhi Gupta, who recently reviewed Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels’ Democracy for Realists (Princeton University Press), that exposes the flaws of democratic systems, noted that in this case too, the notion that people vote on issues does not seem to hold up.

We’ll repeat the poll again in January to see how much the responses change.

In any event, the upshot is that the demonetisation episode shows that Mr Modi enjoys tremendous political capital that he can use to implement the type of structural reforms that would be extremely difficult for other leaders to pull off.

He should not lose the opportunity.

Postscript: Mr Modi’s team conducted their own poll using his smartphone app. Both the framing of the questions and the type of sample suggest that the poll is essentially a device to rally his supporters rather than obtain an objective estimate of public opinion. It would be wrong to assume it reflects what Indians think, just as it would be wrong to use my twitter poll for the same purpose.

New currency notes for old

A one-off reduction of unaccounted money must be followed by long-pending structural economic reforms.

Some of the most insightful arguments on the demonetising of high-value currency notes have come from Takshashila associates.

Ajit Ranade has long been a proponent of getting rid of the high-denomination bank notes, pointing out that this will make a big dent in holdings of unaccounted money.

Karthik Shashidhar, on the other hand, has calculated that the exercise will be very costly. In other conversations with some colleagues last night, we noted that the real costs will be even higher, given the higher transaction costs, friction and so on.

[Update] Anupam Manur has a thorough analysis of the demonetisation.

Deepak Shenoy, one of India’s shrewdest analysts of capital markets, has more recent analysis that argues that the Modi government’s move will have short-term negatives but long-term positives. You should read the articles I’ve linked to above.

The Modi government’s move (even if it rightfully ought to be the RBI governor’s move) to demonetize Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes and replace them after some time with new Rs 500 and Rs 2000 notes will act as a move to massively reduce the existing stock of unaccounted money and counterfeit currency. [Update: There will be new Rs 1000 notes too!] This will generally hurt the people who are sitting on large amounts of cash holdings (mostly for evading tax) and also, temporarily, those who are holding on to some cash, but have no bank accounts. This is significant.

A senior colleague argued that this was an extremely courageous move by Prime Minister Modi, not least because it hurts business communities that have long supported him and the BJP. However, given that this is one of the few moves that makes honest citizens feel good, it is likely to strengthen Mr Modi’s personal popularity. Effects on electoral outcomes have probably been calculated by those whose business it is to do so, and are probably as good as the best (or the worst) guess. There are just too many factors at play when it comes to how people will vote.

Now, if the government (or the RBI) had merely demonetized the big notes, the effect would have been to put permanent brakes on tax evasion and a faster move towards ubiquitous electronic banking. However, since the big notes will be back, the effect will be one-time. In fact, as another colleague pointed out last night, the same mattress will hold twice as much cash if filled with Rs 2000 notes. Also, many cash holders will convert their current holdings into gold, foreign currency or some other assets until they can change it back to cash again. There are limits to how much money they can hide this way, but many middlemen will make healthy commissions by providing such “services”.

Bank accounts will see a lot more transactions as latent account holders begin to transact through banks. This effect too will not be complete, as some might just decide to wait until the new notes arrive, and then lapse back to old habits. Behaviour is very hard to change easily. Until mindsets towards banks, taxes and scruples change, people will continue in the old pattern. It’s a good time to refresh the case for structural reforms: deregulation, getting rid of the license raj (no, it didn’t go away in 1992), tax reform and liberalisation. This will require even more courage on the part of this government (or any government, for that matter).

Will the move hurt confidence in the Indian Rupee? A sober Anupam Manur, Takshashila’s macroeconomics analyst, noted that denominations don’t impact the value of the currency. He doesn’t think the rupee will be hurt. On the other hand, another colleague likened this to Mr Modi’s Tughlaq moment — more politically, perhaps than economically.

The war against corruption and unaccounted money can only be won when economic incentives change, and in turn, change behaviour patterns (and ‘culture’). Disclosure schemes and demonetization of high-denomination currency notes have a salutary, but temporary effect. There is, however, no alternative to Reforms 2.0.

Cash transfers will work, if…

…there are economic reforms, astute targeting and restructuring of government

Cash transfers are here. Okay, some cash transfers will be here in some districts for some people early next year, after which the programme will be implemented across the country. No one is in any doubt that this is a pre-election move by the Congress party—it was announced in the party headquarters and not a government office (See Soma Banerjee’s article in Economic Times). It is an election sop. However, unlike loan waivers and the national rural employment guarantee scheme, it is not a bad one. It can even be a good one provided certain important conditions are met.

But first, cash transfers are based on sound economic rationale. They are generally less inefficient than subsidies for goods and services. Also, because they put cash in the hands of the recipients, they are more respectful of individual freedoms and choices. Whether they are also effective in alleviating poverty is another question. Even so, to the extent that they are an improvement over the status quo—by reducing bureaucratic processes, lowering corruption and shortening delays—we should cautiously welcome the introduction of the cash transfer scheme.

There is some debate on why cash transfers work. In the case of conditional cash transfers—where the cash is allocated for specific purposes like education, food, fuel etc—there is debate as to whether it is the conditions that work or the cash. Abhijeet Banerjee and Esther Duflo, economists whose work this blogger respects, believe in the latter: that it’s the cash that makes the impact. (More at TechSangam)

It might sound heretical, but the best scheme might involve ending all subsidies in kind, closing down as many “welfare” ministries and departments, and using the funds to give unconditional cash transfers to the needy. Give the needy cash, respect their individual freedom and just let them spend it as they wish. (See this post for why the old, corrupt political economy of poverty alleviation resists this.)

We are, of course, far from this goal. Only “the benefits of 29 welfare schemes of the government would now be directly transferred to beneficiaries in 51 districts starting January in a pilot programme and then will be extended to 18 states from April.” A total of 42 schemes have been identified for the cash transfer programme. These exclude the big ticket ones—food and fertiliser subsidies—but might include some fuel subsidies. Whether this is intentional, compulsion or both, the impact will be limited. Despite the hoopla in the headlines, it’s not a game-changer. But it can be one, if accompanied by other policy changes.

First, as warned and subsequently noticed in the case of rural employment guarantee, merely putting more cash into the hands of people without doing anything to make the supply competitive will cause prices to rise. Inflation can eat into the higher incomes, especially if they are in the form of cash, undermining the effectiveness of cash transfers. So how does one make supply competitive? By liberalising land, labour and capital regulations. By completing roads, railways, airports. By breaking barriers to inter-state and intra-state commerce. By liberalising education and agriculture. In other words, we need Reforms 2.0 before we can expect cash transfers to have the desired effect. The UPA government’s commitment to the reform agenda is much weaker than its enthusiasm for entitlements and transfers.

Second, it is necessary to target the transfers correctly. In a diverse society where communities are sensitive to relative gains, this is particularly hard. Exercises to identify the recipients, include those who qualify and exclude those who don’t, and to keep this list updated are very expensive, riddled with inefficiencies and fraught with political controversy. With a degree of flippancy, we could argue that making the scheme universal might save a lot of these headaches. Let everyone from Mukeshbhai to the poorest person in the country receive the same cash amount from the government. Let the “inconvenience factor”—for instance, a requirement to physically queue up at a government office every three months to revalidate the cash transfer account—determine who avails of the facility. The Aadhaar UID could then be used as a tracking mechanism rather than a filtering one. We are far from this, and as Bibek Debroy points out on his ET blog, targeting will be a significant problem.

Third, and perhaps the most difficult one, is that the efficiencies realised through a programme like cash transfers must register in terms of lower government expenditure and, all else remaining the same, to lower taxes. This calls for a radical review of subsidies and transfer almost all of them into the cash transfer programme. It calls for the pruning of ministries and departments that currently administer subsidies. Few governments have the stomach for this kind of overhauling of government—the UPA government certainly doesn’t—but to not do this would be to abandon the real payoffs.

Finally, every spending programme must come with a sunset clause. Cash transfers must be reviewed every few years to assess whether they are still required, and automatically lapse if not renewed. Not doing so presumes that policymakers cannot conceive of a time when a substantial number of Indians will no longer be poor. This is defeatism.

So, for cash transfers to work in the national interest, they must be accompanied by broad economic reforms, astute targeting and restructuring the government. From what has been announced by the UPA government, there is little evidence that the scheme only aims for anything more than limited efficiency gains in welfare disbursements. The Congress party evidently believes that this is sufficient to attain its electoral objectives.

Tailpiece: The final examination of Takshashila’s GCPP programme‘s January 2012 term asked students to design a programme “to support the country’s needy” (more details in the question paper). A few students proposed cash transfer programmes. You’ll find summaries of two of the responses on Logos, Takshashila’s public policy network blog.

Everyone loves a good outrage

The reform agenda must be defended from Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s attackers

As far as op-eds go, this one marks a new low from P Sainath. It is not uncommon for him to frame grave issues in a divisive manner by conflating them with unrelated matters—like, for instance, agrarian crises and beauty pageants. This technique seeks to arbitrage outrage, as if decent people cannot be anguished at a tragedy without having to contrast it with an unrelated celebration. But when Mr Sainath links the poverty line, expenses incurred by the Planning Commission chief while traveling on official business overseas, the lavishness with which some tycoons spend their private funds and dubious dealings of crony capitalism, it can’t merely be his usual, unfortunate and misguided conflation.

Make no mistake: Mr Sainath’s hatchet job on Montek Singh Ahluwalia is part of an internal campaign against reform-minded individuals within the UPA government. This week’s manufactured controversy over renovation expenses of toilets in the Planning Commission’s headquarters is another manifestation of the same campaign.

Let us examine Mr Sainath’s cleverly framed allegations. His case is that at Mr Ahluwalia’s travel expenses are exorbitant, at an average of $4000 per day abroad. You would think he would give you some comparable data to prove Mr Ahluwalia has been unusually proliferate in spending public funds. Say, for instance, the average daily expenditure when cabinet-ranked Indian officials travel abroad on official business. Or for instance, the average daily expenditure incurred by Mr Ahluwalia’s counterparts from other countries. These would be like-for-like comparisons. Mr Sainath, however, does not do that. He compares these to a income of a person on India’s poverty line. All this proves is that $4000 is much higher than Rs 28. It does not even come close to proving that public funds were misspent, nor does it show that Mr Ahluwalia was unusually liberal with his expense budget. The onus of doing this research is on Mr Sainath, the person making the argument.

How Mukesh Ambani spends his personal wealth is irrelevant to the argument—he is free to spend his money as he pleases, even if it does not suit our tastes—, so is a discussion on cronyism and corruption in IPL. You don’t need to read the Planning Commission’s response to conclude that Mr Sainath’s allegations are sensationalistic nonsense.

But why choose Mr Ahluwalia at all? Mr Sainath’s arguments against profligacy would have been worthy of respect if he had compared the travel expenses of the top officials of government—from President Patil to the lowest ranking minister of state. How much, for instance, does Sonia Gandhi, as chairperson of the National Advisory Council, spend on her foreign trips? Whatever her political role, she’s an official of equivalent rank. How much do the members of the National Advisory Council spend on their foreign and domestic trips? Unless we have some numbers to compare with, we can’t say anything about Mr Ahluwalia’s trips.

What we do know is that Mr Ahluwalia is among the few people known to be advocating economic reforms in the UPA government. Singling him out with a view to making him the lightning rod for public outrage has all the signs of a political hatchet job. The objective is to discredit the reformist agenda by associating it with imaginary wrongdoing. After running the Indian economy to the ground, the socialists that haunt the UPA government’s policymaking are now trying to bury the narrative of reform, liberalisation and markets through subterfuge and intellectual dishonesty.

It’s no different with the renovation expenses of public toilets in Yojana Bhavan, the Planning Commission’s headquarters. One of the earliest reports on this, in the Times of India, again compared toilet renovation expenses with the the poverty line. Few in the mainstream or social media bothered to ascertain the scope of the renovations and compare it with similar renovations conducted in New Delhi’s public and private buildings. The purpose of the revelations was to insinuate wrongdoing on the part of Mr Ahluwalia, rather than to establish whether there was any wrongdoing at all.

Mr Ahluwalia is guilty: of not throwing his credibility on the line to compel the UPA government to launch the second-generation reforms, and to prevent it from engaging in monumental fiscal irresponsibility that has put India’s future at risk. Like his mentor Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, he becomes complicit in the UPA’s misgovernance. He will have to answer these charges both to the nation and to history. This does not mean he’s lavishing public funds on unnecessary foreign excursions, building gold-plated toilets or taking a cut from the renovation contractor.

It is fair for the Opposition parties to politically exploit the situation to their advantage. However, it is in the national interest not to allow a campaign of unfair personal calumny to discredit the reform agenda—or indeed, to prevent Mr Ahluwalia from a chance to redeem his reformist record—to succeed. The Acorn completely agrees with Mint’s editorial defence of Montek Singh Ahluwalia. Mr Ahluwalia has “done far more for the poor than the busybodies and peddlers of poverty porn who are now attacking him.”