From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :
Prelims level : Fiscal deficit and its relation with inflation, CAD etc.
Mains level : Paper 3- Should India consider a package to ease the sufferings inflicted by the covid-19 even at the cost of large fiscal deficit?
The Centre can afford to step up its COVID-19 assistance to a higher scale; fiscal deficit is no worry.
Comparison with the US
- Unemployment benefit in the US: In the United States, for instance, where the lockdown has raised the number of persons filing unemployment claims from 2.8 lakh to 6.6 million in a matter of days, those affected can fall back on unemployment benefit.
- Comparison of packages: The US government has approved a package of ameliorative steps costing roughly 10% of that country’s GDP to cope with the crisis.
- In India by contrast, the Finance Minister’s package comes to less than 1% of its GDP; and much of it is just a repackaging of already existing schemes.
- New expenditure comes to just a little over half of the ₹1.7-lakh crore earmarked for the package.
- Migrant workers are not the beneficiary: Besides, none of the steps will help the migrant workers; not even the larger foodgrain ration which in principle could, because most of them would have ration cards back home rather than in the places where they stay.
What can be done?
Consider the cash transfer
- Many economists and civil society activists had suggested a cash transfer of ₹7,000 per month for a two-month period to the bottom 80% of households to tide over the crisis, in addition to enhanced rations of foodgrains and the inclusion of certain other essential commodities within the ration basket.
- The cost of their proposed cash transfers alone would come to ₹3.66-lakh crore, which is more than 10 times the cash transfers provided in the Finance Minister’s package.
- Providing assistance on the scale proposed by civil society organisations is necessary; it will no doubt pose logistical problems, but not financial problems.
- Two possible effects of cash transfer: Even if all of it is financed through a fiscal deficit for the time being, the economic implications of such an enlarged deficit would not be forbidding.
- These implications can manifest themselves in two ways: one is through inflation, and the other by precipitating a balance of payments problem. Let us consider each of these.
Effect of cash transfer on inflation
- As long as supplies of essential commodities are plentiful and these are made available through the Public Distribution System to the vast majority of the people so that they are insulated against the effects of inflation, any inflation per se should not be a matter of great concern. This is the case in India at present.
- Foodgrain stocks with the FCI: The supply of the most essential of goods, food grains, is plentiful. Currently, there are 58 million tonnes of foodgrain stocks with the government, of which no more than about 21 million tonnes are required as buffer-cum-operational stocks.
- This leaves a surplus of 37 million tonnes which can be used for distribution as enhanced ration, or for providing a cushion against inflation.
- The rabi crop is supposed to be good; as long as it is safely harvested, this would further boost the government’s food stocks.
- Rise in demand of other commodities: Likewise, the supplies of other essential commodities which consist of manufactured goods and where output has been demand-constrained all along will get boosted in response to higher demand; and in special cases, imports may have to be resorted to.
- There is in short no reason to think that inflation of a worrisome magnitude will follow if the fiscal deficit is increased.
- What about the multiplier effect? There is an additional factor here. The increase in total demand caused by an initial increase in demand, which is financed by a fiscal deficit, is a multiple of the latter.
- Now in a situation like the present, when even if the lockdown is lifted social distancing and restrictions on social activities will continue, the value of the multiplier will be lower than usual.
- People, in short, would hold on to purchasing power to a much greater extent than usual because of the continuing restrictions on demand, which would act as an automatic anti-inflationary factor.
- Of course, there will be shortages of some less essential commodities and also hoarding on account of such shortages. But since these shortages will be expected to be temporary, a result of the pandemic unlikely to last long, there will be a damper on hoarding.
Effect of cash transfer on deficit
- The price rise of non-rationed commodities: If inflationary expectations are strong and persistent, then the prices of non-rationed commodities may rise sharply for speculative reasons.
- How the government can prevent the price rise? But the government can prevent such expectations, by adopting measures such as bringing down petro-product prices, taking advantage of the collapse of world oil prices.
- A larger fiscal deficit, therefore, need not cause disquiet on account of inflation.
- Balance of payment issue: On the balance of payments front, the worry associated with a larger fiscal deficit is financial flight caused by frightened investors.
- Some financial flight is already happening, with the rupee taking a fall.
- Rush to dollar: This flight is not because of our fiscal deficit but because, whenever there is panic in financial markets, the tendency is to rush to dollars, even though the cause of the panic may lie in the United States itself.
- Using foreign exchange reserves: India has close to half a trillion dollars of foreign exchange reserves. These can be used, up to a point, to check the flight from the rupee to the dollar.
- Restriction on capital outflow: If the flight nonetheless persists, then India will have a legitimate reason for putting restrictions on capital outflows in the context of the pandemic.
- The Centre must not worry about its fiscal deficit; and since the State governments will bear a substantial expenditure burden on account of the pandemic.
- The Centre must make more resources available to the states.
- The centre should raise their borrowing limits, perhaps double their current limits as a general rule, apart from negotiating the magnitude of fiscal transfers it should make towards them.
If the hardships of the people are not ameliorated through larger government expenditure, because of the fear that the larger fiscal deficit required for it would frighten finance into fleeing, then the privileging of finance over people would have reached its acme.