Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Pre-Budget Ruminations: 2004-5

The new government took over in mid-May and will barely have time to settle in before presenting a budget. This is, however, not a serious constraint for an experienced and adept Finance Minister like Mr Chidambaram and a highly knowledgeable Prime Minister like Dr Singh. Though the CMP and the President’s speech have outlined the economic philosophy of the new government, the budget will be the first opportunity to send a clear signal of what it actually intends to do. This article outlines what we can realistically expect from the budget given the economic situation and the approach outlined so far.
Research done at ICRIER shows that the Indian economy has been on a downward growth trend during the past 5 to 7 years. Our research has also shown that this downtrend is the result of a down trend in all three tradable goods sectors, namely agriculture, manufacturing and mining (see presentations & papers on web site). This trend needs to be reversed. There are also signs that the industrial production and domestic investment are emerging from the cyclical down turn that took place in 2002-3. The momentum of recovery needs to be maintained. We also have to put our textile industry in a position to exploit the vast opportunity that is opening in April 2005 with the abolition of Textile quotas. The following reforms are needed to accomplish these objectives:
(a) Continue the tariff reduction process initiated in 1992, by bringing the “peak rate” down to 15% (from 20%) and begin the process of bringing down the dozen or so, mainly agricultural tariffs that exceed the ‘peak rate’. ICRIER research has demonstrated the positive effect of tariff reduction on manufacturing growth and exports (ICRIER WP #135), and this process should be continued till a peak rate of 5% is reached (WP 4/2002-PC, April 2002).
(b) Complete the conversion of the MODVAT (which started in 1986) into a genuine & comprehensive CENVAT that encompasses all goods and services coming within the constitutional ambit of the Central government (MOF 1998 & 1999; ET March 2000; EPW, March 2001). This entails elimination of a number of remaining exemptions while retaining only three (all food products, medicine & medical equipment and tiny units(Rs. 10-20 lacs)).
(c) Phase out SSI reservations over the next 12 months and strengthen technological upgrade and innovations (e.g. credit bureau, credit scoring) to improve access to credit.
(d) Privatise (some) loss-making public sector units and continue the process of dis-investment of profit making ones (i.e. let the “public” hold shares in the “public sector”).
(e) Increase FDI limits in sectors where they are currently constraining growth, such as in Insurance and Telecom.
(f) Initiate the process of comprehensive reform of policies relating to agricultural and agro-processing (Planning Commission WP PC5/2002, December 2001).

Some of these reforms could be stretched out to the next budget in March 2005.

The importance of income tax reform has been emphasised by the Kelkar committee. There are three fundamental issues in income tax reform (Virmani, Public Finance 1988):
(1) The double taxation of corporate income. In theory the shareholders of a company are taxed twice once in the form of corporate tax and then on the dividends and capital gains that they receive. In practice many corporations pay low taxes because of a plethora of exemptions. The first best solution is to abolish these exemptions (along with the MAT) and reduce the tax rate to 30%. Even if this is done, however, high growth companies will not pay much corporate tax. Thus the best way to eliminate double taxation is to give a tax credit to shareholders for all corporate taxes paid (CIT) by the company (on a pro rata basis (n CIT)/N). In this case dividends and real capital gains would be treated as any other income in the hands of the receiver, who can subtract the tax credit from the taxes due and pay the rest. The tax code already allows an adjustment for inflation in calculating real capital gains ( = S – P (1+infl)t , where S is the sale price, P is the original purchase price, infl is the inflation rate and t is the number of years the share was held; t=0 if the share is held for less than one year and no inflation adjustment is made).
(2) The Taxation of Saving: Income is defined as an increase in real wealth. It represents an increase in the command over resources (purchasing power) and forms the basis of the traditional income tax. Modern growth theory, however, shows that taxation of the return on savings puts the economy on a lower growth path and thus reduces the purchasing power of all citizens. Thus it is argued that the return on savings/assts should be completely exempt from income taxation. Note however, that even in this type of tax, investment in assets is not tax deductible, only the returns from such assets (interest, dividend, capital gains, profits on investment) are tax exempt. These efficiency aspects have, however to be balanced against equity concerns. Further the inefficiency arising from high marginal tax rates can be worse. We therefore favour a traditional income tax with all saving exemptions abolished (80L etc) coupled with moderate marginal tax rates. This means that both the 20% rate and the 30% rate should apply at much higher levels of income than currently and there should be no surcharge or cess on the tax. The benchmark should be arithmetic tax neutrality.
(3) Social Exemptions: In a society in which the government provides free health services and is obligated to care for the disabled and old, tax incentives should be provided to encourage health and disability insurance and retirement annuities, so that the burden does not fall on the State. Tax deductions for purchase/premiums on insurance and retirement saving (no withdrawal except health emergency) should remain. Any insurance money received as compensation for destruction of assets or health (and part of life insurance receipts by survivor) merely compensates for a loss and is not taxable income.
The standard deduction should also be simplified to a constant share, as it used to be earlier. All other exemptions should be abolished. If this is accompanied by procedural simplification, tax compliance will increase leading to further rise in income tax-GDP ratio.

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