The finance minister, a few days ago, indicated that he is planning to cut the public spending target for fiscal 2013-14 by up to 10% from this year’s original target, in what would be the most austere Budget unveiled in recent history as he tries to avert a sovereign credit downgrade. The finance minister has already slashed actual public expenditure in the current fiscal year by some 9% from the original target. So, the plan for 2013-14, at least on paper, seems to be to put a lid on spending.
The ministry has, in the past, not been able to achieve the austerity targets it set for itself. For instance, it missed its 2011-12 fiscal deficit target of 4.6% of gross domestic product by 1.2%, prompting threats of a downgrade from ratings agencies S&P and Fitch. India has a BBB minus rating with a negative outlook from both S&P and Fitch, the lowest investment grade rating possible. A cut would take our credit rating to junk status.
The finance minister, last Thursday, argued that a lower fiscal deficit will not only avert a rating downgrade threat but also bolster economic growth prospects as borrowing costs for private investors will fall, helping lift capital investment growth from a five-year low. The first reason about averting a rating downgrade is fine but I am not sure about the “crowding out” of private investment aspect. At least recent evidence doesn’t seem to suggest so.
Back in the 1990s, we knew why we feared deficits. They raised interest rates and crowded out private borrowing. This wasn’t an abstract concern. In 1991, the short-term interest rate was above 12%. The gross fiscal deficit of the government (Centre and states) had risen to 12.7% in 1990-91. Since these deficits had to be met by borrowings, the internal debt of the government accumulated rapidly, rising from 35% of GDP at the end of 1980-81 to 53% of GDP at the end of 1990-91. With higher borrowing, the borrowing cost increased for the government. This meant that the interest rate for private borrowing was, for the most part, much higher, choking off investment and economic growth.
Enter Manmohanomics. The postulate was simple: Bring down deficits, and you’d bring down interest rates. Bring down interest rates, and you’d make it easier for the private sector to invest and grow. Make it easier for the private sector to invest and grow, and the economy