Economist warns India about mounting debt as IMF presents worst-case scenario

Noted economist Ajit Ranade has warned India about its high debt, echoing concerns projected by the International Monetary Fund recently, where the body said that the debt could exceed 100 percent of the national GDP in the next four years.

Here’s what the Vice Chancellor of Gokhale Institute Of Politics & Economics Pune said, as published on The Free Press Journal.

The International Monetary Fund recently in its report raised a concern about India’s sovereign debt, i.e. the total debt burden on the Union plus State governments. The IMF said that in the next four years this debt could exceed 100 percent of the national GDP. This is a worst-case scenario according to IMF projections.

The government has firmly rebuffed this warning, saying that India’s debt ratio has actually declined from 88 percent to 81 percent in the past two years. And the Union government is determined to bring the fiscal deficit down to 4.5 percent in the next two years. When we have high deficits, it forces the government to borrow, to bridge the gap. That extra borrowing every year, adds to the already high debt mountain.

When debt is high, the annual interest payment is also high. This is called the debt servicing ratio. Just to keep servicing the debt, i.e. paying interest only, is costing the Union government nearly Rs 10 trillion. One trillion is one lakh crore. This is much higher than the amount collected as individual income tax or corporate income tax (roughly Rs 7 trillion each). Interest payments went up by a whopping 38 percent in the past two years.

The interest payment alone is the single largest component of the government’s expenditure, consuming one-fifth i.e. 20 percent of all its obligations. Since the interest burden is high, that causes the deficit to go up, which in turn causes the debt to go up, which causes the interest burden to keep increasing. This can lead to what is called the debt trap. It is like borrowing just to keep paying interest.

When is the government going to decrease the mountain of debt? That can happen only when the tax revenues rise faster than expenditures. Indeed, this has been happening lately, both in income tax as well as indirect taxes (goods and services tax, chiefly). This has happened partly because the tax laws have plugged many loopholes in the past few years. For instance, long term capital gains tax was zero. Capital gains i.e. profit made by selling stocks or real estate are not completely tax exempt as they used to be.

The Mauritius tax treaty had a loophole which was plugged a few years ago. But much work is needed to increase India’s tax collection to GDP ratio which is currently around 17 percent of the GDP. This is at least 3 to 4 percentage points lower than the median for all emerging market economies. So, India is undertaxed as far as direct taxes are concerned, a fact that was mentioned in the Economic Survey published by the Union Finance Ministry. However, the indirect tax burden is increasing, given that the median rate of GST is still very high at 18 percent.

But let us go back to the issue of India’s debt sustainability. One of the counter points raised by the government in response to the IMF report is that other countries like USA and UK have much higher debt to GDP ratios. What this fails to mention is that most rich country debts (including all of the fifteen OECD economies) have high debt to GDP ratios because of their very high social security obligations. In all these countries, all elderly citizens get a pension, and all of them are entitled to free healthcare.

These government obligations are met with payroll taxes on the working people. But since these rich countries are ageing, and the average age is much higher than India, the payroll taxes are insufficient to meet social security obligations. In a country like Germany, the dependency ratio is one is to three, ie there are only three working people for every one retired person. Hence, the rising debt of rich countries is predominantly because of rising (and perhaps unsustainable) social security obligations.

In the case of India, there is hardly any social security payment. Those covered currently are under the Old Pension Scheme. It is unfunded. And comes from current revenues. It is restricted to pensions paid to people who retired from government service or the military. That OPS pension is quite generous; however, that goes to only 3 percent of the workforce.

The pension plus salaries of government servants will soon be nearly 27 percent of revenues, as per the projections of a report of the government of Andhra Pradesh. So, it is unfair to defend India’s 80-90 percent debt ratio with comparisons to the USA or UK’s 140-150 percent, because the latter is based on social security payments and their ageing societies.

What is in India’s favour are two points. Firstly, much of the debt is in domestic currency, so no foreign dollar obligations arise on the government. Secondly, India’s workforce is young and the dependency ratio will be favourable for at least three decades. We have more than five working persons for every one retired person. But our per capita income of workers is low. And we will find it difficult to impose higher payroll taxes. Hence, the New Pension Scheme (NPS) in place since 2005 takes away the burden from the government.

Despite the two factors in India’s favour, we have to be seriously worried about the sustainability of our debt. The interest payment as a proportion of the annual expenditure is too high. We have a large stock of capital under government ownership, which is not giving any significant returns. That must be passed on to the private ownership wherever possible. We have to examine the effectiveness of expenditure, and remove waste and duplication.

At the same time, India has to spend considerably more public funds on enhancing human capital, i.e. on primary healthcare and primary education. Also, there is a need to fund research and innovation via public universities. So, while GDP growth is good, we must focus on how to make the debt situation more sustainable, by narrowing the gap between expenditure (28 percent) and tax revenues (17 percent) as well as increasing the efficacy of our expenditures, and increasing revenues.

(The article is published under a mutual content partnership arrangement between The Free Press Journal and Connected to India)