India Seeks to Curb Deficit as Spending on Poor Climbs

India’s government raised spending on the poor to court support before elections, relying on higher taxes, asset sales and subsidy cuts to trim the widest fiscal deficit in major emerging nations as economic growth slows.

The country targets a shortfall of 4.8 percent of gross domestic product in the 12 months starting April 1, and achieved 5.2 percent in 2012-2013, Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said in his budget speech in New Delhi yesterday. Bonds fell the most in seven months as he unveiled record borrowing to finance the excess of expenditure over revenue.

“The Indian economy is challenged,” said Chidambaram, whose 2014 deficit goal is a six-year low as he strives to avert a credit-rating downgrade. “We will get out of the trough and get on to the high growth path. Fiscal consolidation cannot be effected only by cutting expenditure. Wherever possible, revenues must also be augmented.”

Government spending has contributed to inflation of almost 7 percent, which has limited the extent of interest-rate cuts by the central bank in an economy that expanded last quarter at the weakest pace since 2009. Chidambaram allocated 330 billion rupees ($6.1 billion) for the ruling coalition’s flagship rural jobs program and 100 billion rupees for a plan to give the poor cheap food grains, ahead of a general election due by 2014.

Budget Credibility

The yield on the 8.15 percent note due June 2022 climbed to 7.87 percent yesterday from 7.80 percent on Feb. 27. It rose to 7.89 percent as of 2:14 p.m. in Mumbai, while the benchmark Sensitive Index of stocks rose 0.5 percent and the rupee weakened 0.3 percent to 54.50 per dollar.

“The budget is disappointing as, even though it is trying to achieve fiscal consolidation, expenditure is still very high,” said Sonal Varma, an economist at Nomura Holdings Inc. in Mumbai. “The crucial thing would be to see how credibly the government delivers on deficit cuts amid the growth slowdown and in the run up to the elections.”

A report yesterday showed GDP rose 4.5 percent in the three months to Dec. 31 from a year earlier, the weakest pace in almost four years. Cooling investment, a drop in exports and government spending restraint this fiscal year sapped expansion.

HSBC Holdings Plc and Markit Economics eased some of the growth gloom today as their purchasing managers’ index showed a faster expansion in manufacturing in February. The gauge rose to 54.2 from 53.2 in January.

Record Borrowing

Chidambaram defended the budget as credible in a briefing yesterday after his speech. The main thrust was to signal prudence, and the 4.8 percent aim for 2014 is a “red line” that won’t be crossed, he said.

Total expenditure will climb to 16.7 trillion rupees in 2013-2014 from an estimated 14.3 trillion rupees this financial year, budget documents showed. Gross market borrowing was set at a record 6.29 trillion rupees for 2013-2014, an increase of almost 13 percent. Net borrowing will be 4.84 trillion rupees.

Gross borrowing excluding a planned bond switch is 5.79 trillion rupees, Rajat Bhargava, joint budget secretary in the Ministry of Finance, said today. The government intends to issue 15-year securities under the switch to retire notes maturing in 2014-2015 and the two subsequent fiscal years, he said.

Chidambaram imposed a one-year 10 percent tax surcharge on annual personal incomes above 10 million rupees and increased customs duties on yachts, high-end motorcycles and luxury cars. He raised the surcharge on some companies to 10 percent.

Subsidies Cut

Projected spending on a subsidy program ranging from diesel to food and fertilizers will decline about 11 percent to 2.2 trillion rupees in 2013-2014. Oil subsidies will decline 33 percent to 650 billion rupees.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s administration partially freed diesel prices from state control in January to allow gradual increases. Singh is trying to reduce the cost of compensating refiners for below-cost sales.

The funds for grains were earmarked for the pending National Food Security Bill.

The legislation will provide cheap rice, wheat and millet to more than 60 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people after approval by parliament. About two-thirds of the population live on less than $2 per day, based on World Bank data.

“It was a very politically astute budget,” said Satish Misra, an analyst at the Observer Research Foundation, a policy group based in New Delhi. “There was something for everyone.”

Policy Reforms

Singh appointed Chidambaram as finance minister in July to help spearhead economic reforms, after Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings warned they may cut India’s credit rating to junk status on risks from the fiscal deficit, a current-account shortfall and an earlier paralysis in policy making.

Chidambaram in 2012 revised the budget-deficit goal for this financial year to 5.3 percent from 5.1 percent of GDP. He set a target of narrowing it to 3 percent by 2017. The shortfall, which was 5.8 percent in 2011-2012, is the widest in the BRIC group, which also includes Brazil, Russia and China.

The budget targeted 400 billion rupees from sales of shares in state companies in 2013-2014, and 158 billion rupees from the disposal of other holdings. It seeks 408 billion rupees from telecom spectrum and license sales.

Reserve Bank Governor Duvvuri Subbarao said Feb. 16 he will weigh the quality of the government’s fiscal adjustment, adding “there is room for monetary easing, but that room is limited.”

The net borrowing program is “manageable,” Deputy Governor Urjit Patel told reporters in Mumbai yesterday, adding the budget “will go a long way” in lowering fiscal risks.

Wholesale-price inflation slowed to a 38-month low of 6.62 percent in January, while consumer-price growth accelerated to 10.79 percent, one of the highest levels in major economies. The Reserve Bank reduced its repurchase rate to 7.75 percent from 8 percent on Jan. 29, the first cut since April 2012.

Singh’s recent policy steps include opening the retail and aviation industries to more foreign investment, easing caps on capital inflows and speeding up infrastructure projects.

Chidambaram’s advisers have said growth will recover, with GDP climbing as much as 6.7 percent next fiscal year. That would be below the past decade’s average of about 8 percent.

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