File photo of Nirmala Sitharaman in New Delhi on 24 October
File photo of Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman | ANI Photo
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New Delhi: India’s annual budget on Saturday is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second opportunity in seven months to refresh policy priorities to support an economy on a downward spiral.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman is set to outline fiscal steps that may include higher spending in rural areas and possible tax cuts when she delivers her second budget speech in New Delhi. The government is expected to widen its budget deficit target for the year through March to 3.8% of gross domestic product from a planned 3.3%.

Sitharaman has had to contend with weaker tax revenue as the economy slowed, and lower-than-expected income from assets sales. She may be forced to borrow more and tap the Reserve Bank of India for more dividends to help finance the budget.

Here are the key things to watch for in the budget to be presented in India’s Parliament at 11 a.m.:

Fiscal Deficit

The government is set to miss its fiscal deficit target for a third straight year. Economists in a Bloomberg survey predict Sitharaman will also widen next year’s target to 3.5% of GDP, even though a law on fiscal discipline mandates the government must narrow the shortfall to 3% by then.

Sitharaman may use a so-called ‘escape clause’ provided in the rules to widen the current year’s goal by half a percentage point, and also amend the law to push the 3% goal back by five years.

To invoke the escape clause, the government will need to cite exceptional circumstances, such as a war, a collapse in farm output, or when the economy is undergoing structural reforms with unanticipated fiscal implications. A. Prasanna, an economist at ICICI Securities Primary Dealership Ltd., said last year’s corporate tax cut, entailing a $20 billion giveaway, may qualify as sufficient reason.

Borrowings

The government will probably boost borrowing to fund the wider fiscal deficit, with a Bloomberg News poll estimating likely bond sales of 7.8 trillion rupees ($109 billion) for the year starting April. That would be higher than 7.1 trillion rupees budgeted for the current year.

What Bloomberg’s Economists Say:

Fiscal hawks are warning against an expansion in spending they fear would push up yields and crowd out private investment. In our view, it is this sort of conservatism that is largely to blame for weak growth.

— Abhishek Gupta, India economist

Investors are also speculating about rules that make it easier for companies to borrow overseas, amid a prolonged cash squeeze in the domestic market. The measures may include freeing up firms to borrow at higher rates and offering tax breaks to global funds.

Revenue

The slowdown in the economy and the resultant tax concessions for companies to boost investments mean the government will probably miss the current year’s 16.5-trillion rupee tax revenue target. ICICI Bank Ltd. estimates a shortfall of 2.1 trillion rupees in income from taxes.

The government may pencil in higher income from the sale of state-owned companies next year, having fallen short of the current year’s goal of 1.05 trillion rupees.

It may also have to turn to the central bank for additional revenue. The RBI pays dividends to the government every year. It allocated 1.76 trillion rupees last year, including 526.4 billion rupees from its surplus capital, and IDFC First Bank estimates it may pay around 1 trillion rupees in the year starting April.


Also read: These are the top 5 officials working behind the scenes on Modi govt’s budget


Expenditure

Spending cuts on account of a revenue crunch was one way the government tried to keep the fiscal deficit from ballooning. Sitharaman may make up for it by increasing public expenditure next fiscal year. Nomura Holdings Inc. expects increased spending in the rural sector, particularly around programs on jobs guarantees, affordable housing, health, education, and farm income.

Also under consideration is subsidized loans for mobile-phone manufacturers, as the government seeks to attract the suppliers to Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co.

The budget may prioritize investment over short-term consumption demand, said Sonal Varma, an economist with Nomura in Singapore. “We expect the budget to be largely neutral for both growth and inflation.”

Tax Measures

Some analysts are predicting tax changes to help support businesses and consumers. Here are some possible changes:

  • Tax rebates on home purchases: an increase in this measure would have a large multiplier effect for both employment as well as consumption, according to Edelweiss Securities Ltd.
  • Cuts to personal income taxes, long-term capital gains, tax on share buybacks: Bank of America said this would help spur demand.
  • Tax relief for individuals, minus exemptions as proposed by the Direct Taxes Code, would result in a net gain for the government, according to ICICI Securities.- Bloomberg

Also read: Truth be told, Modi’s budget won’t solve India’s economic crisis


 

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