BREAKINGVIEWS - Govt misses opportunity in Budget 2011

Tue Mar 1, 2011 3:27pm IST

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee waves as he leaves his office to present the budget in New Delhi February 28, 2011. REUTERS/Vijay Mathur

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee waves as he leaves his office to present the budget in New Delhi February 28, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Vijay Mathur

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-- The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own --

By Martin Hutchinson

WASHINGTON (Reuters Breakingviews) - India missed a trick or two with its latest fiscal budget. Projections from Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee of a moderately declining deficit make sense only by ignoring the funny accounting and assuming the economy keeps rocketing ahead. With state spending, inflation and commodity prices all increasing, India looks like it's choosing a role model more Gordon Brown than Deng Xiaoping.

Mukherjee's budget showed the fiscal deficit for the year to March 2011 at 5.1 percent of GDP compared to a budgeted 5.5 percent, while the budgeted fiscal 2012 deficit declined further to 4.6 percent of GDP. However, the declining deficit-to-GDP ratios made use of a fudge. It included revenue of $23 billion (1.3 percent of GDP) from selling telecom spectrum. Meanwhile, the numbers were aided by rocketing 2010-11 growth of over 20 percent in nominal GDP.

Some of Mukherjee's additional spending is difficult to quarrel with -- a new program of food handouts for the poorest makes sense while prices are soaring, although its managers risk distorting the domestic food market and damaging agricultural output. However the new program should have been funded by reducing fuel subsidies, which are politically popular but hugely expensive and mainly benefit the middle class.

India's overall budget arithmetic is askew. With rapid growth persisting for several years, a responsible budget would see a balance or even surplus, taking advantage of the revenue surge to improve India's debt position rather than indulging in additional spending. With inflation once again approaching double digits, real interest rates negative, and commodity prices (and therefore subsidies) increasing, the chances for a worsening in India's budget position increase. The most important economic duty of India's government is to avoid killing the private sector goose that lays the growth golden eggs. This budget at best maltreats the beast.

India's refusal to reduce deficits after several years of boom is reminiscent of the budget policies of Britain's ahead of the financial crisis, rather than of the successful austerity practiced by major generators of economic growth such as China. The result may be similarly unpleasant.

CONTEXT NEWS

-- The budget for the year to March 2012 presented by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee showed "plan" spending up 18.3 percent and a projected fiscal deficit for the national government of 4.6 percent of GDP in 2011-12. The fiscal deficit in the year to March 2011 is expected to be 5.1 percent of GDP compared to a projected 5.5 percent of GDP, thanks to $23 billion of windfall gains from telecom spectrum auctions and an expected nominal GDP increase of 20.3 percent in the year to March 2011.

-- Consumer price inflation ran at 11 percent in April-December 2010. Ten-year Indian government bonds currently yield 8.25 percent, and the Reserve Bank's repurchase agreement rate is 6.5 percent, having been raised by 1.75 percent during the fiscal year.

-- The real GDP in the fourth quarter of 2010 was 8.2 percent above the previous year.

(Editing by Rob Cox and David Evans)

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