Falling crude prices helps government control fiscal deficit
The finance ministry is increasingly optimistic that it can meet a tough fiscal deficit target, helped by a 12 percent decline in global crude oil prices since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took charge in May. Lower crude prices mean less government outlay for India, which imports 80 percent of its oil needs — at a cost of $168 billion last year — and subsidizes oil products such as diesel and fertilizer. "If crude prices remain below $100 a barrel compared with budgeted estimate of $105-$110 a barrel, total oil and fertilizer subsidies would be substantially lower," said a senior finance ministry official, with the direct knowledge of the matter. Moody's last week lowered the price assumptions it uses for rating purposes on Brent crude oil to $90 per barrel through 2015, which represents a $5 drop from its previous assumptions for 2015. Finance ministry and Reserve Bank of India officials are due to meet on Friday to decide how much the government will need to borrow from the markets in the second half of the 2014-15. The government borrowed 160 billion rupees less than it budgeted in the first half of the financial year, triggering market speculation that the fiscal deficit could end up even lower than the target of 4.1 percent of GDP. "As of now, the deficit target remains 4.1 percent," said a finance ministry official, who declined to be named since he was not authorized to speak to the media. While the situation is definitely improving, most officials in the North Block are taking a position of cautious optimism.
The Forecasts and Riders Attached to Fiscal Deficit
The country's top finance ministry official, Arvind Mayaram, suggested at the weekend that the deficit target could be met without the harsh expenditure cuts that have kept the deficit in check in the past two financial years. "You cannot have three years of continuous expenditure cuts," Mayaram told the media in Cairns, Australia, where he attended the G20 meeting. Many economists say the cuts have slowed economic growth. He said if GDP growth keeps to the pace of the first quarter and remains at 5.6 percent to 5.7 percent in the second half, government borrowing could be lower than budgeted, but said it was too early to take such a decision. A sustained rally in India's stock markets — the Nifty has risen more than 25 percent this year — is adding to optimism in the finance ministry that revenue from the partial privatization of state-run companies such as ONGC and Coal India will beat the budget. RBI governor Raghuram Rajan delivered more good news in the form of a cash dividend of 520 billion rupees from foreign exchange trading operations, about 50 billion rupees higher than expected.
A Word of Caution Though For the Ex-Chequer
But not all is well. Tax collections have been lower than targeted so far this year — thanks to a muted economic recovery and a drought in some parts of the country that has hurt corporate earnings. Revenues from indirect taxes - mainly comprising customs, service and factory gate taxes — rose just 4.6 percent during April-August period, far lower than annual target of 20 percent.