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Rediff.com  » Business » Economist close to Modi lists 3 reforms for the new govt

Economist close to Modi lists 3 reforms for the new govt

May 26, 2014 13:03 IST

Economist close to Modi lists 3 reforms for the new govt

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India-born economist Arvind Panagariya wants the incoming Narendra Modi government’s first Budget to boost capital spending even at the risk of a higher fiscal deficit.

Panagariya, 61, whose market-friendly, pro-growth economics has helped shape Modi’s outlook, told Reuters in an interview that higher spending is critical to India’s economic revival.

“In an economy where you are trying to push up the growth rate, a fiscal deficit of 4.5 per cent of GDP (gross domestic product) is fine,” said Panagariya, a professor at Columbia University and a former chief economist of the Asian Development Bank.

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Image: Tax and fiscal reforms must be top priorities for Modi-led government.
Photographs: Reuters

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That number is 4 basis points higher than the 4.1 per cent budgeted by the outgoing government for the financial year that began in April, which Panagariya called an “unrealistic”  target. Modi is due to be sworned-in as prime minister on Monday.

Panagariya’s suggestion is at odds with a proposal being worked on by bureaucrats at the finance ministry who want the new government to reduce the deficit even further than the current target to as low as 3.8 per cent of GDP.

Panagariya asked the incoming administration not to be unduly worried about a small fiscal slippage and suggested it use the room to boost infrastructure spending. “I would say raise capital expenditure from 1.76 per cent (of GDP) to two per cent,” he said.

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Image: The new government should not be worried about a small fiscal slippage.
Photographs: Reuters

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Economist close to Modi lists 3 reforms for the new govt

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His prescription is in line with election promises of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to ramp up spending on infrastructure to support growth.

However, a higher deficit could increase the risk of a sovereign credit downgrade. Since April 2012, India has been facing a downgrade threat from Standard & Poor’s.

Insiders close to Modi have suggested that Panagariya could be appointed the prime minister’s chief economist. Panagariya refused to comment on a possible new role but last month said he would join the government if asked.

He said tax and fiscal reforms were top priorities for the new government, adding that the next finance minister should amend the country's retrospective tax law and commit to ending diesel subsidies in the upcoming Budget.

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Image: A higher deficit could increase the risk of a sovereign credit downgrade
Photographs: Reuters
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India amended its tax code retrospectively in 2012 to reopen a tax dispute worth more than $2 billion with Vodafone after the country's Supreme Court had ruled in favour of the British mobile operator.

Analysts see that move as an unwelcome defining moment in India's relationship with multinationals, which gave it a reputation as a nation unfriendly to investors and slowed foreign inflows.

"I would like the government to sort out the retrospective taxation issue," Panagariya said. "Basically, take out the retrospective part of the legislation and simply make it prospective."

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Image: Vodafone's ongoing tax case gives an impression that India is unfriendly towards foreign investment.
Photographs: Reuters

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Economist close to Modi lists 3 reforms for the new govt

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The BJP lambasted the outgoing Congress government for the retrospective tax law, promising to repeal it if voted to power.

Panagariya advised the new administration to implement a proposed direct tax code beginning April 1, 2015 and a nationwide goods and services tax (GST) from April 1, 2016.

While both the measures are expected to boost government revenues by improving tax compliance, they have been pending for years for want of a political consensus.

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Image: The new administration must implement a proposed direct tax code.
Photographs: Reuters

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Economist close to Modi lists 3 reforms for the new govt

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Panagariya said the upcoming budget needs to push banking reforms to address the issue of rising bad loans at Indian banks, which have stifled credit flows to corporates.

Stressed loans in India — those categorised as bad and restructured — total $100 billion, or about 10 percent of all loans. Fitch Ratings expects stressed assets to reach 14 percent of loans by March 2015.

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Image: The upcoming budget needs to push banking reforms to address the issue of rising bad loans.
Photographs: Rediff

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The Columbia University professor said the government can tackle the issue by reducing its stake in state-run banks and merging weak banks with stronger banks.

"You can recapitalise the banks, but the government currently doesn't have unlimited amount of revenues," he said. "Some part of the solution has to be reducing the central government's stake in the banks."

A Reserve Bank of India-appointed panel earlier this month suggested the government cut its stakes in state-controlled banks to below 50 per cent.

 


Image: The RBI-appointed panel has suggested the government cut its stakes in state-controlled banks.
Photographs: Reuters

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