Monday, December 25, 2017

Poverty based on MPI or income: Which one to look at in the case of Nepal?

National Planning Commission, in collaboration with Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, recently published multidimensional poverty index (MPI), which will be used in measuring progress in SDGs and for policy focus in the provinces. MPI based poverty estimates are different from the traditional cost of basic needs based estimates (the one we usually hear: national poverty line or the latest $1.90 a day (2011 PPP $) poverty line that takes into account the minimum income needed to consume minimum level of calorie requirement, and non-food goods and services). Here is an old blog post based on previous MPI methodology and here is a post on the other measures of poverty. 

The MPI assesses a range of critical factors or “deprivations” at the household level: from education to health outcomes to assets and services.  The index ranges from zero to one, with low value meaning low MPI. It ranks countries based on MPI. The MPI value reflects both the incidence (percentage of people who are poor) and intensity (the average number of depravations each household faces) of poverty. A person who is deprived in 70% of the indicators is clearly worse off than someone who is deprived in 40% of the indicators. Note that MPI is computed as poverty rate (the headcount ratio) times intensity of people’s depravation (average depravation score among poor people)

Education, health and living standard are the three main dimensions. Education is composed of two sub-indicators: years of schooling and school attendance. Health is composed of two sub-indicators: child mortality and nutrition. Living standard is composed of six sub-indicators: electricity, improved sanitation, safe drinking water, flooring and roofing, cooking fuel, and assets ownership. Each sub-indicator in health and education dimensions account for one-sixth weight in MPI and each sub-indicators in living standard dimension has one-eighteenth weight. The poverty cutoff is 33.3%, i.e. anyone deprived in a one-third or more of the weighted indicators is considered multidimensionally poor. 

Here are few key points:
  • MPI poverty headcount: 28.6% of population is multidimensionally poor, largely accounted for by under-nutrition and households with no member who has completed five years of schooling
  • MPI poverty has fallen drastically (similar is the scenario in the case of other measures of poverty): 0.313 in 2006; 0.186 in 2011; 0.127 in 2014
  • Poverty intensity: Each poor person suffers deprivations in 44.2% of dimensions
  • Rural-urban divide: 7% of urban population and 33% of rural population are MPI poor
  • Deprivations are highest in cooking fuel, flooring and roofing and sanitation
  • Water and school attendance have the lowest deprivations
  • Province 6 has the highest MPI poverty rate (51.2%), followed by province 2 (47.9%). Meanwhile, province 3 has the lowest MPI poverty rate (12.2%), followed by province 4 (14.2%)
  • In terms of total number of MPI poor, 35% are in province 2, followed by 20% in province 5. 

It is important not to get confused with MPI based poverty estimates and cherry-pick poverty headcount numbers to suit an argument. We need to be careful of the fact that the usual poverty estimates we have been hearing about (the ones published by CBS and WB are based on NLSS data) and uses a cost of basic needs approach in general. The WB aggregated it for a bunch of least developed countries and came up with the global poverty threshold ($1.90 a day at 2011 PPP US$). Meanwhile, the CBS considers any one earning below NRs19,261 (both food and non-food) to be poor. The latest MPI based poverty estimates uses Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) 2014.  The earlier MPI estimates were based on DHS 2006 and DHS 2011 data. So, caution much be exercised while comparing one with the other!

The overall message is that poverty is falling rapidly no matter which estimate we look at. Policy intervention message is more clearer in the case of MPI as it disaggregates what contributes more (indicators related to education, health or living standard) to high or low poverty levels in provinces.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Uneconomical and populist recurrent spending commitments need to be scaled down

This interview was published on The Himalayan Times, 11 December 2017, p.11

The country has fully embarked towards a federal structure of governance, along with the completion of the elections for the three layers of government — parliamentary, provincial and local levels — as per the provisions of the new constitution. After the elections a new government with a new political mandate will be formed and it is expected to set up and implement long-term plans to take the country towards economic prosperity, as announced by the political parties in their election manifestos. However, the country still faces a lot of challenges associated with generation of resources to bridge the fiscal gap, along with increased need of recurrent and development expenditure in the changed context. Pushpa Raj Acharya of The Himalayan Times spoke to Chandan Sapkota, a young economist, on the prospects and challenges of federal Nepal. Excerpts:

The country just concluded elections in three layers of administration-- parliamentary, provincial and local assembly. There are critical to implement the new constitution and some believe that it will bring stability and stimulate growth and development. What is your view on this and what are the push factors for development? 

The local elections after two decades and the historic federal and provincial elections close one chapter of the prolonged and tumultuous transition period after 2006. Although the economic performance during this period was slightly better than during the decade-long Maoist insurgency, it was still below public’s expectation and economic potential. For instance, average economic growth during the Maoist insurgency was 4.1 percent, but during the transition period it was 4.4 percent and the economy is dependent on remittances more than ever. The core growth boosters, especially industrial sector, continues to be affected by a lack of adequate supply of infrastructure (electricity and transport), unfavorable industrial relations, political instability, and policy implementation paralysis. Consequently, not only private investment but also public budget execution capacity and public service delivery are dismal.

The recently concluded elections have elected people’s representatives at the three layers of government, which will help to decentralize decision-making and development planning. These will ideally remove the obstacles to project planning and execution, ensure better utilization of taxpayers’ money and institutionalize sound governance of public assets. Furthermore, the constitutional provision on at least two years of government stability is different from the transitional period, which was beset by frequent change of government and alliances. These are improvements compared to the past political system and may be a harbinger of some level of political stability, which should then lead to policy certainty, increase in private investment and enhanced budget execution. However, major downside risks are the deficient capacity of provincial and local bodies to manage human resources, coherent regional and local development planning, public finances and relation among the three tiers of government especially with regard to revenue sharing and control of resources.

Although we have three layers of administration, capacity constraint in handling development projects is a perennial problem. How we can cope with this problem? 

Technically, the three layers of government would mean delegation of development planning, revenue mobilization authority and expenditure priorities. Local ownership and accountability of development projects will be much better than before. However, it does not solve the core issues leading to under-execution of capital budget. There are structural weaknesses in project preparation, resulting in allocative inefficiencies during the inclusion of projects and programs in budget; low project readiness; bureaucratic hassles during project and budget approvals; high fiduciary risks in suburban and rural areas where there is limited human resources and administrative capacity; weak project management including lengthy procurement processes and subpar capacity of contractors; and political interference at planning and operational levels. Tackling these issues requires capacity building as well as rules-based fiscal prudence at all tiers of government. Ministry of Finance and National Planning Commission have important roles to play in this regard.

During the parliamentary and provincial polls political parties competed elections under the umbrella of leftist versus democratic alliance. Will this create ground for competitive politics? 

It all depends on how the political parties align their constituents and their priorities. Large electoral alliances would ideally lead to stable government as coalition parties have less incentive to defect and topple the government— a glaring feature of the political ecosystem in the past. However, we need to note that there are different factions within each party and their conduct with respect to government’s and alliance’s policies will matter as well. Given the past record, leftist government tends to be fiscally imprudent as they tend to favor incoherent, populist and piecemeal projects, leading to recurrent spending growth overshooting tax revenue growth. Hopefully, the alliances will result in renewed focus on inclusive economic development and prosperity instead of protection of party’s political and commercial interests. 

Political parties have raised aspiration of people that the country will move towards rapid economic development. What is your expectation regarding rapid economic development as mentioned by political parties in their election manifestos?

It depends on how they choose to govern and implement policies and programs. If their intention is to hold on to power and protect political and commercial interests, then we should not expect much in terms of growth-enhancing, employment-generating policy and governance regime. However, if they are determined to achieve the grand promises committed in their manifestos then they need to change the way they govern their parties, key institutions and bureaucracy. The priority should be to reverse the trend of deindustrialization and raise productivity across all sectors by focusing on hydroelectricity, transportation network, light manufacturing goods, high value agricultural products, tourism, and information technology development. Growing domestic and regional markets as well as a competitive federal system will likely create sustained demand for us to tap into.

Leaders and policy makers have not paid much attention to fiscal federalism. Political parties have committed to raise grant to lower level of administration to over 50 per cent of total budget. Is it feasible? How can the country address widening vertical and horizontal fiscal gaps?

Revenue-expenditure asymmetry at federal, provincial and local levels is going to be a major issue in the coming days. Fiscal transfer and grants to local bodies constitutes about 50 percent of planned recurrent spending, which already is so high that even tax revenue is insufficient to cover it. Natural Resource and Fiscal Commission, which is yet to be formed, will decide on the distribution of revenue and royalties among the three layers of government. However, these fiscal transfers and revenue distribution will not cover expenditure needs. All tiers of government must be fiscally prudent and stick to feasible medium term budget framework. Uneconomical and populist recurrent spending commitments need to be scaled down and revenue administration strengthened. That said, recurrent spending in the first few years will be high due to the need to cover initial adjustment related infrastructure and administrative costs. 

It seems that the country will have to be more reliant in foreign aid for development work as we have limited space to increase revenue and domestic debt. What prospects do you see regarding mobilisation of foreign aid?

Yes, foreign grants and loans will be a key factor in bridging fiscal gap owing to the insufficiency of revenue and domestic borrowing. However, major donors anchor their lending in budget execution, especially project implementation and subsequent disbursement. So the level of foreign aid will depend on expenditure absorption capacity, which is low and receding. For instance, actual capital spending in the last six years averaged just 72 percent of planned capital spending. Additionally, note that major multilateral donors will provide concessional loans only given that debt sustainability is deemed to be less risky. Similar is the case with major bilateral donors, who will increasingly provide project-based line of credit. It will increase outstanding public debt and dependency on foreign aid. Overall, the better the absorptive capacity, and governance and accountability regimes, the higher will be foreign aid. Meanwhile, large domestic borrowing to finance deficit will crowd out private sector as it tends to increase interest rates and worsen liquidity shortages.

Mobilisation of natural resources is another critical issue, mainly water resources for developing hydropower projects and river diversion based irrigation projects. Do you think local disputes will create disturbances in development activities? What can be done to prevent such an undesirable local hassle?

Ownership of projects and revenue based on natural resources will be a major contentious issue among all tiers of government in the next few years. This will be more so between local and provincial authorities as this institutional arrangement remains untested so far. Each tier of government will try to claim a fair share of project and benefit based on their perception of fairness. The constitutionally mandated commissions on natural resources and revenue sharing will have to work out details that are acceptable to a majority of stakeholders. Given that spending needs during the first few years will be high amidst limited revenue sources, including conditional and unconditional transfers, vigorous debate on benefit sharing is likely. This may also lead to disruption or delay in project finalization and implementation. 

To avoid any confusion on fiscal prudence and benefit sharing, local government operation guidelines, fiscal management principles, inter-governmental transfer modality, and natural resource and fiscal commission’s decision need to be timely, broad-based and transparent. Intensive knowledge sharing and training on fiscal management at local and provincial levels should be an urgent priority because next fiscal year’s budget is going to be messy and demanding. Local and provincial assemblies will have to align their budgets with federal budget, but they don’t have experience in this regard. Furthermore, there should be clarity on tax revenue mobilization authority between local and provincial bodies as the constitution allows for both tiers of government to collect taxes under similar headings. 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Does Q2 FY2018 6.1% GVA growth mean Indian economy is rebounding?

Preliminary estimates by MOSPI show that the Indian economy grew (y-o-y) by 6.1% in Q2 (July to September, when consumption is traditionally high due to festival season) FY2018 (2017/18) following five consecutive quarters of gross value added (GVA) slump reaching 5.7% in Q1 FY2018. Compared to GVA growth of 6.8% in Q2 FY2017, 6.1% GVA growth in Q2 FY2018 is still low but compared to the last quarter it is slightly higher. It shows that the lingering effects of demonetization is tapering off (but hasn’t gone off completely) and the uncertainty before the roll out of GST is gradually fading away, leading to marginal recovery of industrial activities (but again still not at the rate achieved in Q2 FY2017). Services activities have cooled off compared to last quarter as well as the consecutive quarter in FY2017.

On the supply-side, agriculture, industry and services contributed 0.2, 1.8 and 4.1 percentage points to the GVA growth (at basic prices) of 6.1%. On the expenditure side, while consumption and gross capital formation contributed 4 and 2.9 percentage points, respectively, net exports and statistical discrepancy contributed -3.4 and 1.2 percentage points, respectively, to overall GDP growth (at market prices) of 6.3%.

Specifically, agricultural output grew by 1.7%, which is higher than 2.3% in Q1 FY2018 but lower than 4.1% in Q2 FY2017. Production of Kharif crops (monsoon crops such as rice, millet, maize, sugarcane, soyabean, etc) was lower than expected as deficient and uneven pattern of south-west monsoon dented its growth to 2.8% compared to 10.7% growth in Q2 FY2017. Similarly, output related to livestock products, forestry and fisheries grew by a modest 3.8%.

Industrial output rebounded with 5.8% growth, significantly up from 1.6% in Q1 FY2018 but marginally lower than 5.9% in Q2 FY2017. Mining and quarrying activities accelerated by 5.5%, up from a decline of 1.3% in the corresponding period in FY2017, thanks to increase in production of coal, crude oil and mining. Meanwhile, manufacturing activities grew by 7% compared to a 7.7% growth in Q2 FY2017. Output growth of electricity, gas and water supply was 7.6%, up from 5.1% in the corresponding quarter in FY2017. Electricity output rebounded significantly. Construction activities grew by 2.6% compared to 4.3% growth in Q2 FY2017 as production of steel cement and consumption of finished steel slowed down when compared to the growth rate in Q2 FY2017. This shows that while the industrial sector is rebounding following the dent created by demonetization and uncertainty surrounding the roll out of GST, it still has not fully recovered to pre-shock rates

Services output growth moderated to 7.1% compared to 7.8% in Q2 FY2017 and 8.7% in Q1 FY2018. Activities comprising of trade, hotels, transport and communication grew by 9.9% compared to 7.7% in Q2 FY2017 as trading activities are recovering after the uncertainty caused before the rollout of GST in July. Financial, insurance and real estate activities declined to 5.7% compared to 7% growth in Q2 FY2017. Real estate activities are slowing down but bank transactions are increasing. Similarly, activities related to public administration and defense slowed down to 6% from 9.5% in the corresponding period in FY2017.  

Overall, it’s a story related to industrial rebound— particularly mining and quarrying and electricity and utilities. However, overall industrial output growth is still lower than in Q2 FY2017 as manufacturing and construction activities have not rebounded to pre-shock rates. Investment seems to be on an upward trajectory. 

If you look at the QGDP figures from expenditure side, then you will see a strong rebound in fixed capital formation. Consumption grew by 6%, lower than Q1 FY2018 as well as Q2 FY2017, as both government and private consumption slowed down. Gross capital formation grew by 8.6%, higher than in Q2 FY2017 and in the last quarter. GFCF, change in stocks and valuables accumulation increased at a rate higher than in previous quarter and the corresponding quarter in FY2017. Net exports improved. Overall, GDP at market prices grew by 6.3% compared to 7.5% in Q2 FY2017 and 5.7% in Q1 FY2018.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

लगानी नै गर्न नपाइ वितरण गर्न तिर लाग्दा त भएको स्रोत रित्तिएपछि कहाँबाट ल्याएर बाँड्नु?

This interview was published on Bizmandu on 27 November 2017.

सार्बजनिक वित्त र विकास अर्थतन्त्रमा चासो राख्ने युवा अर्थशास्त्री चन्दन सापकोटा एसियाली विकास बैंक (एडीबी) नेपाल कार्यालयमा अर्थशास्त्रीको रुपमा काम गरिसेका छन्। साउथ एसिया वाच एण्ड ट्रेड इकोनोमिक्स एण्ड इन्भायोरेमेन्ट (साउती) मा अनुसन्धानकर्ताको रुपमा काम गरिसकेका उनले विभिन्न विदेशी संस्थासहित वाणिज्य तथा आपूर्ति मन्त्रालयको कन्सल्ट्यान्टको रुपमा समेत काम गरिसकेका छन्। नेपाल र दक्षिण एसियाको अर्थतन्त्रका बारेमा अनुसन्धानमा रुची राख्ने सापकोटा खुला र उदार अर्थतन्त्रका हिमायती हुन्। युवा अवस्थामै अन्तर्राष्ट्रिय एक्सपोजर पाएका सापकोटासँग मुलुकमा भइरहेको प्रतिनिधी र प्रदेशसभा निर्वाचन र दलले लिएका आर्थिक एजेण्डाका बारेमा बिजमाण्डूका प्रभात भट्टरार्इले सोधे- कांग्रेस आयो भने धनी र गरिबबीचको खाड्ल बढ्छ?

मुलुकले २०४७ सालपछि जुन आर्थिक नीति लियो त्यो गलत वा सही भन्नेमा बहस जारी छ। ज-जसले उदारीकरणलाई अहिले गलत भन्दैछन् उनीहरु आफु सत्ता रहँदा पनि त्यही नीतिलाई निरन्तरता दिए। अब निर्वाचनपछि पनि यही नीतिले निरन्तरता पाउला?

हामीले सन् १९९२ मा उदारीकरणको नीति अवलम्बन गर्नुका पछाडि हाम्रो आन्तरिक कारणले मात्र काम गरेको थिएन। छिमेकी भारत ठूलो शोधनान्तर घाटामा परेपछि लण्डनसम्म जहाजमा सुन पुर्याएर बिदेशी मुद्रा भित्र्यायो। भारत समस्यामा परेसँगै हाम्रो पनि शोधनान्तर अवस्था घाटामा गयो। यसले हामी पनि निजी एवं विदेशी लगानी प्रवर्द्धन गर्ने गरि उदारीकरणको नीति अवलम्बन गर्न एक किसिमले बाध्य नै भयौँ। त्यसबेला संयोगले नेपाली कांग्रेस सत्तामा थियो। कांग्रेसमा रहेका व्यक्तिहरुले त्यो अवस्थालाई बुझे र त्यही अनुरुपको नीति लिए। किनभने कांग्रेसमा जेएनयु स्कुलिङका व्यक्तिहरु खासै थिएनन्। युरोप अमेरिकामा पढेका र त्यहाँको मोडल बुझेकै व्यक्तिहरु थिए। त्यसैले उनीहरुलाई उदारीकरणका सिद्धान्त अवलम्बन गर्न कठिन पनि भएन।  तर, त्यसबेला लिइएको आर्थिक नीति विशुद्ध नेपाली चाहना र योजना अनुसार थियो भन्ने चाहिँ होइन।

सैद्धान्तिक रुपले यो नीति विल्कुल गलत होइन। तर, यसको व्यवस्थापन पाटोमा कमजोरी भयो। त्यसबेला सरकारको राजश्व अत्यन्त न्यून थियो। आवश्यकता धेरै थिए। सामाजिक सुरक्षाका बिभिन्न स्किमको दबाव त्यसबेला पनि थियो। त्यसैले आफ्ना संस्थानहरु जति सक्दो चाँडो बेचेर खर्च जुटाउनु पर्ने अवस्थामा सरकार थियो। हतारमा बिक्री गर्दा व्यवस्थापन फितलो हुन पुग्यो। कसैले पनि व्यवस्थापनमा समस्या आउला भनेर सोचेनन् पनि। अहिलेको जस्तो बोलकवोल गरेर दिने चलन पनि थिएन। यसले गर्न सक्छ होला भन्ने आँकलनका आधारमा उद्योग जिम्मा लगाइयो। हाम्रा लागि यो नीति नौलो थियो। त्यसैले यसलाई सही ढंगले 'ह्यान्डल' गर्ने व्युरोक्रेटिक क्षमता पनि थिएन।

समग्रमा निजीकरण गलत थिएन। तात्कालिन समयलाई हेर्दा त झन् हाम्रो लागि यो एक बाध्यकारी नीति नै थियो। तर, यसको विरोध गर्नु कतिपयका लागि त रोजिरोटी नै बन्यो। कतिसम्म भयो भने उदारीकरण सम्बद्ध काममा कन्सल्टेन्सी खोज्दै जाने र नपाएको खण्डमा त्यही नीतिको विरोध गर्दै हिँडेको समेत देखियो।

अहिले जुन जुन संस्थान सरकारसँग छन् तीनले पनि नतिजा त दिन सक्या छैनन्?

त्यहीकारणले निजीकरण सैद्धान्तिक रुपले गलत होइन। जुत्ता, इँटा बनाएर बस्ने राज्यको काम पनि होइन। यसमा नीजि क्षेत्रलाई पनि प्रतिश्पर्धाको वातावरण निर्माण गरिदिनु पर्छ। अझै पनि सरकारसँग ३६/३७ वटा संस्थान छन्। नेपाल टेलिकमका कारण समग्रमा संस्थानहरु नाफा देखिन्छन्। तर, वास्तवमै नाफा कमाउने २/४ बढि छैनन्। सरकारका लागि सेतो हात्ती भइसकेको आयल निगम अहिले अन्तर्राष्ट्रिय बजारमा तेलको मूल्य घटेको कारण नाफामा छ। तर यसको नाफामा पनि कुनै निश्चिन्तता छैन। कुनै प्रतिफल नदिने र खर्च मात्र गराउने संस्थान पालेर बस्नुको तुक छैन।

त्यो कुरा बामपन्थी दलले पनि राम्रोसँग बुझेका छन्। त्यसैले उनीहरुले सार्वजनिक खपतका लागि निजीकरणको विरोध गरे पनि आफु सरकारमा हुँदा कुनै फरक गरेनन्। कुनै पनि देश सामाजिक दृष्टिकोणबाट मात्र त सफल हुँदैन। त्यसैले यो राजनीति गर्ने एजेण्डा मात्र हो। भेनेजुएला हेरौँ, ल्याटिन अमेरिकाको अत्यधिक संभावना भएको देश हो तर जनतालाई ब्रेड किन्नसमेत बोलिभियाको सीमा पार गरेर जानु पर्ने अवस्था छ। जिम्बाबेले पनि राष्ट्रियकरण नै गरेको हो। तर, देशको आर्थिक अवस्था जर्जर भयो। त्यसैले निजीकरण गलत होइन तर यसको व्यवस्थापन मात्र बलियो हुन नसकेको हो। जुन अधिकृतहरुले १९९२ मा निजीकरणको टिप्पणी उठाउँथे अहिले उनीहरुनै सचिव, सह-सचिव भएर मन्त्रालयहरुमा काम गरिरहेका छन्। निजीकरणमा पनि उनीहरुनै, माओबादी द्वन्द्वताका बजेट योजनामा पनि उनीहरु नै र अहिले पनि उनीहरु नै। के नयाँ भयो र? त्यसैले हाम्रो मूल समस्या भनेकै व्यवस्थापन हो।

निजीकरण त्यस बेलाको बाध्यता थियो भन्ने त भइहाल्यो। तर, अहिले पनि एउटा नारा लगाइन्छ, यदि हरिसिद्धि बाँचिरहेको भए हामीले त्यसकै इँटाले घर बनाउन पाउँथ्यौँ या बाँसबारीकै जुत्ता लगाउन पाउँथ्यौँ भन्ने गरिन्छ, त्यो कति यथार्थपरक छ त?

त्यसलाई हामी एउटा 'काउन्टर फ्याक्चुअल' भन्छौँ। हामी त्यो बेला ग्याटमा थियौँ, राज्यका उद्योग कल कारखानाले संरक्षण पाएका थिए। त्यसैले त्यसबेला यी उद्योगको अवस्था यस्तो थियो भनेर मात्र हुँदैन। जब हामी डब्लुटिओको सदस्य भयौँ, हामीले सबै क्षेत्रमा उदारीकरण भित्र्यायौँ। त्यस्तो बेला बाहिरका उत्पादनसँग हाम्रो जस्तो प्रविधिका उद्योगले कसरी प्रतिश्पर्धा गर्ने थिए होलान् भन्ने त आफैँ आँकलन गर्न सकि हालिन्छ नि। अहिलेकै सन्दर्भमा हेर्दा खादाको उदाहरण हेरौँ। चीनबाट आउने खादा नेपाली ढाकाको भन्दा आधा नै सस्तो छ। त्यसैले चाइनिज खादा नै धेरै बिक्छ। कुनै समय स्टिलको उद्योग पनि हाम्रो राम्रो थियो। त्यो विस्तारै कोल्याप्स हुँदै थियो। पछि फेरि हामीले स्टिल आयात गर्ने र त्यसलाई प्रशोधनपछि भारतलाई नै बिक्री गर्ने रणनीति बनायौँ। त्यसैले आज स्टिल आयात र निर्यात दुबै थोक धेरै हुने उत्पादनमा पर्छ। अझ यी त सरकारी नभइ निजी क्षेत्रका उद्योग भए। सरकारी उद्योग थिए भने हालत झन् कमजोर हुन्थ्यो। त्यसैले सरकारले निजीकरण गरेर गलत गरेको थिएन। फेरि इँटा, जुत्ता बनाएर बस्ने सरकारको काम पनि होइन।

आज बाँचेका संस्थानहरु जस्तो नेशनल ट्रेडिङले जग्गा बेचेर कर्मचारीलाई बिदा गर्यो। साथै नेपाल टेलिकम लगायतका केहीले नाफा पनि दिएका छन्। हामीले हिजो निजीकरण गरेका उद्योग चाहिँ राखि राखेको भए अहिले कुन अवस्थामा हुन्थे होला?

ठ्याक्कै यहि भन्न त गार्ह्रो छ। तर, नेपाल टेलिकमकै उदाहरण हेरौँ न। अहिले टेलिकमकले नाफा दियो भन्छौँ हामी, तर यसको मोनोपोली बजार थियो। त्यही बेला यो क्षेत्रलाई 'लिबरलाइज' गरिदिएको भए हामी सूचना प्रविधिमा आज भारतकै अवस्थामा पनि पुग्थ्यौँ होला। यो कम्पनीले आज पनि किन यति धेरै नाफा गरिरहेको छ त भन्दा मोनोपोली हुँदा नै धेरै संख्यामा ग्राहक तयार गर्यो साथै मान्छेहरुले 'स्विच' गर्न पनि चाहेनन्। त्यसैले आज पनि यसको ब्यापार उत्साहजनक छ। तर, त्यस्तै कुनै समय मोनोपोली बजार जनकपुर चुरोट आफैँ सकियो। त्यसैले हरिसिद्धि र बाँसबारीलाई पनि यही बिन्दुमा राखेर हेर्नु पर्छ। फलानो उद्योग बाँचेको भए यस्तो हुन्थ्यो, त्यो बाँचेको भए उस्तो हुन्थ्यो भनेर कल्पना गर्नु क्षणिक बौद्धिक आनन्द मात्र हो।

सरकारले निजीकरणताका संस्थानहरुकको मूल्यांकन चाहिँ तुलनात्मक सस्तो गर्यो भन्ने भनाइ पनि छ। भनेपछि निजीकरण सैद्धान्तिक रुपले गलत होइन, यसको कार्यान्वयन पक्ष फितलो भयो?

व्यवस्थापकीय र सञ्चालन कमजोरी नै हो। किनभने सरकारले यी उद्योग निजी क्षेत्रलाई जिम्मा लगाउनुको तात्पर्य यिनीहरुको सञ्चालन अझ राम्रो बनोस् भन्ने थियो। तर, त्यसरी दिने र किन्ने क्रममा बेइमानी भयो। जसले किन्छु भनेर लियो उसले आफुले चलाएन। एजेन्ट जस्तो बीचमा बसेर फेरि अर्कोलाई बिक्री गर्ने काम गर्यो। त्यही चाहिँ राम्रो भएन।

तर, यसले निजी क्षेत्रलाई ओद्योगीकरणको जग हाल्ने काम पनि त गर्यो नि?

सरकारले संस्थानहरु बेचेकै कारण मात्र औद्योगिकरणको जग बस्यो भन्न त अलि मिल्दैन। त्यस बेला उद्योग व्यवसाय ऐन, श्रम ऐन लगायत २१ वटा निजी क्षेत्र प्रवर्द्धन गर्ने ऐन आएका थिए। कतिपय वस्तु भारतबाटै आयात गर्दा समेत डलरमा किन्न दिइयो ताकि मूल्य धेरै नबढोस्। त्यसैले औद्योगिक वातावरणको जग बसाउन एउटा मात्र नीति या निर्णयले काम गरेको छैन। सरकारले आफु बिजनेशबाट पर बसेर संस्थानहरु निजीकरण गर्नुले पनि अवश्य निजी क्षेत्रको हौसला बढाउने काम भने गरेको छ।

साथै समग्र निजीकरण र उदारीकरणलाई नै गाली गर्ने जुन राजनीति छ, त्यो चाहिँ बिल्कुल गलत हो। आफ्नै उदाहरण हेरौँ न, हामीले सुरुमा मोवाइलको सिमकार्ड लिन लाइन बस्नु पर्थ्यो। जब एनसेल आयो नेपाल टेलिकमले ठाउँ ठाउँमा स्टल राखेर सिमकार्ड बिक्री गर्न थाल्यो। त्यसैले उदारीकरणको बिरोध त बिशुद्ध राजनीति मात्र हो। बिशेषगरि कम्युनिष्टहरु सरकारमा आउँदा आफ्नो 'आइडिया ए, सेल गर्न आइडिया बी' लाई गाली गर्छन्। सामाजिक भत्ताहरु बढाउन उदारीकरणले देश बिगार्यो, जनतामा आउने पैसा मिलाएर खाइदिए जस्ता भाषण गर्छन्। त्यसैले निजी क्षेत्रलाई कर बढाउनु पर्छ भन्ने तर्क उनीहरुको हुने गर्छ। तर, साँच्चिकै कर बढाउन पनि सक्दैनन्। आयातमा केही चार्ज थप्ने बाहेक अरु गरेको देखिँदैन।

हिजो जो सत्तामा पुगे पनि उनीहरुले त मुखले गाली गरे पनि उदारीकरणबाट पछाडि फर्कन सकेनन्। अहिले चाहिँ बाम गठबन्धनले घोषणापत्रमै 'राज्य पूँजीबाद' को लाइन लिएको छ। अबको परिदृश्य कस्तो होला त ?

मलाई खास गरि कम्युनिष्ट नेतृत्वको सरकार बन्दा डर लाग्ने भनेको बजेट व्यवस्थापन प्रति हो। पछिल्लो एक दशकमा पाँच पटक चालु खर्चको बृद्धि राजश्वको बृद्धिदरभन्दा धेरै भएको छ। ती पाँच पटकमध्ये चार पटक कम्युनिष्ट अर्थमन्त्री थिए। राजश्वले चालु खर्च धान्नु पर्छ भन्ने सिद्धान्त नै हो। भारतको बजेटमा 'प्लान र ननप्लान एक्सपेन्डिचर' भन्ने हुन्छ। त्यो प्लान एक्सपेन्डिचर साधारण खर्च हो र राजश्वबाट धानिने हो। पूँजीगत खर्च ऋण लिएर गर्दा पनि हुन्छ। किनभने त्यसले निश्चित बर्षमा प्रतिफल दिन थाल्छ। हाम्रो घरमा पनि यही सिद्धान्त लागु हुने हो। खाना कपडा किन्न नियमित आयले धान्नु पर्छ तर फ्रिज ऋण लिएर किन्न मिल्छ भनिन्छ। हामीले चालु खर्च नै ऋणबाट गर्न थाल्यौँ, विदेशीलाई मागेर कर्मचारीलाई तलव खुवाउनु पर्यो भने त्यसले ध्वस्त गर्छ। त्यही कारणले हामीले उदारीकरण भित्र्याउनु परेको हो। राज्यले आफ्नो आयले धान्न नसक्ने अवस्था भएपछि संस्थान बेचेर भए पनि खर्च चलाउने निर्णय लिएको थियो। त्यही सन्दर्भमा भ्याट लागु भयो।

कम्युनिष्टहरु सत्तामा आउँदा म किन डराएको हो भने उनीहरुले आउँदा चालु खर्चमा धावा बोल्न नडराउने देखिएको छ। साथै पूँजीगत बजेट पनि खुत्रुके परियोजनामा हालेर नियमित दोहनको बाटो बनाएको समेत देखिन्छ। साथै लोकप्रियताका लागि बढाइने सामाजिक सुरक्षा कहाँबाट धान्ने? त्यसैले वित्तीय अनुशासनको वातावरणप्रति चाहिँ मेरो डर हो।

विकास निर्माणको कुरा पनि त गरेका छन् नि त उनीहरुले?

विकास निर्माणको कुरा त सबैले गरेका छन्। त्यस्ता मिठा कुरा सुनाउन त कांग्रेस, कम्युनिष्ट दुबै दल कहाँ कम छन् र? रेलकै कुरा पनि कांग्रेस एमाले दुबैले ३० बर्ष अघि नै उठाएका थिए। खोइ सञ्चालन? अहिले ३० बर्षमा यो गर्छु र १५ बर्षमा त्यो गर्छु भनिएको छ। तर पाँच बर्षमा के गर्छु भन्ने चाहिँ छैन। अस्ति भर्खरै ल्याइएको स्थानीय तह निर्वाचन घोषणापत्र र अहिलेको घोषणापत्र कसैको मेल खाँदैन।

लोकप्रियताका लागि दुबैको समान प्रतिश्पर्धा छ भने कांग्रेसबाट भन्दा कम्युनिष्टको सरकारप्रति बजेट सन्तुलनमा यहाँ किन डराउनु भयो?

अहिलेसम्मको उदाहरण हेर्दा कांग्रेसले धान्न नसक्ने गरि खर्च बढाउन चाहिँ जोड गरेको देखिँदैन। उनीहरुले बढाए पनि राजश्वसँग तालमेल मिलाएका छन्। तर, यसपालीको घोषणापत्रमा कांग्रेस पनि राम्रैसँग बहकिएको चाहिँ हो। सामाजिक सुरक्षालगायत भत्ता बढाउने लोभ देखाएर भोट तान्न खोजेको छ। तर, जब सरकार संचालन गरेर बजेट निर्माणमा यिनीहरु जान्छन् त्यो बेला चाहिँ अहिलेसम्मको उदाहरणमा कम्युनिष्टभन्दा कांग्रेस नै अनुशासित देखिएका छन्।
तर, संसदबाट पास भएको बजेट बाहिरबाट खर्च माग गर्ने र दिने दुबै प्रवृत्तिमा कांग्रेस पनि अगाडि छ ?

हो यस्तामा दुबै पक्षको कमजोरी छ। तर, मैले चाहिँ कहाँ फरक देखेको छु। स्रोत नभइकन कांग्रेसको सरकार हुँदा जबरजस्ती कार्यक्रम हालेको चाहिँ छैन। स्रोत छ भने त गर्दा भइहाल्यो नि। कम्युनिष्टहरुले चाहिँ स्रोत बिना पनि कार्यक्रम हालिदिने र बजेट व्यवस्थापनमै दूरगामी असर पर्ने अवस्थालाई पनि मतलव नगरेको देखिन्छ। कम्युनिष्टहरुको राजनीति नै 'ग्रज' बाट सुरु हुने हो। उनीहरुमा यो दबिएको छ यसलाई पैसा बाँड्नु पर्छ भन्ने मान्यता हुन्छ तर स्रोत कताबाट आउला भन्ने मतलव हुँदैन। तर, 'प्रोग्रेसिभ' हरुको भने पहिला लगानी गरौँ, स्रोत तयार गरौँ त्यसपछि मात्र वितरण गरौँ भन्ने मान्यता हुन्छ। यसको अर्थ मैले कांग्रेसको निरपेक्ष समर्थन गरेको होइन। अहिलेसम्मको व्यवहार विश्लेषण गरेको हो। कम्युनिष्ट अर्थमन्त्रीलाई स्रोतको सुनिश्चितता बिना खर्च नबढाउनुहोस् भनेर सुझाव दियो भने उहाँहरु मान्न तयार हुनु हुन्न। ३० बर्षदेखि यो दबिएको छ त्यसैले वाँड्नै पर्छ भन्ने तर्क गर्नु हुन्छ। उहाँहरुको आँखा 'प्रोडक्टिभ भन्दा पपुलिष्ट' कार्यक्रममै बढि परेका देखिन्छ। फेरि पनि भन्छु यसको मतलव कांग्रेस सबैमा ठिक छ भन्ने होइन। विगतका यस्ता व्यवहार छोडेर यो चुनावको घोषणापत्रका आधारमा दुई दललाई विश्लेषरण गर्ने हो भने चाहिँ खास फरक देखिएको छैन।

कांग्रेस आए धनी र गरिबबीचको खाडल झन् बढ्ने जोखिम भयो नि?

त्यो कसरी? हाम्रो अर्थतन्त्र अमेरिकी शैलीमा त चलेको होइन। त्यहाँ जस्तो कर्पोरेटलाई धेरै कर छुट दिने र मध्यमवर्गबाट बढि असुल्ने प्रवृत्ति त हुँदै होइन हाम्रो। हाम्रो असमानताको सीमा नै धेरै सानो छ। नेपालमा बैंकिङ र अर्को कुनै औपचारिक क्षेत्रमा काम गर्नेको तलव बीच खास फरक छैन। हाम्रो असमानताको कारक भनेको त वर्तमान अर्थतन्त्र होइन पुर्ख्यौली सम्पत्ति हो। जसले धेरै जग्गा जमिन अंशमा पाएको छ समाजमा उही धनी कहलिन्छ। त्यसैले नेपालको सन्दर्भमा राज्यले असमानता बढायो भन्ने होइन। केही कुरामा सरकारको नजिक भएका 'सुडो प्राविधिक एवं टेक्नोक्र्याट्स' अतिरिक्त फाइदा लिएका हुन्। तर, समग्रमा राज्यको नीतिकै कारणले कसैलाई धनी र कसैलाई गरिब बनाउने अवस्था छैन।

कांग्रेसको सरकारले उदारीकरण, पूँजीगत लगानी, उत्पादकत्व अभिबृद्धि लगायतका काममा जोड दिएर हुने खाने वर्गलाई नै फाइदा पुर्याउँछ। कम्युनिष्टहरु त वितरणमुखी हुन्छन्, उनीहरुले त तल्लो वर्गका जनतालाई प्रत्यक्ष फाइदा पुर्याउँछन् नि?

यो सैद्धान्तिक कुरा मात्र हो। निजीकरण या पूँजीगत लगानीले माथि माथिलाई फाइदा हुने तल्लो बर्गलाई छुँदै नछुने भन्ने हाम्रो देशमा कहाँ देखिन्छ? यो चाहिँ अमेरिका, युरोपमा हुने हो। हामीले त्यही पढ्यौँ र त्यहिँ भन्यौँ। तर, हामीकहाँ त्यस्तो सिष्टम नै छैन। जस्तो अहिले हाम्रो सन्दर्भमा हेरौँ त आय र उपभोगमा सबैभन्दा ठूलो बृद्धिदर सबैभन्दा न्यून वर्गमा छ। जबकी युरोप र अमेरिकामा चाहिँ यो ठीक उल्टो हुन्छ। त्यही कारणले हाम्रो असमानता घटेको हो। निजी क्षेत्रले जब लगानी गर्छ त्यो बेलामा त रोजगारी पाउने त तल्लो बर्गले नै हो। त्यसैले हामीकहाँ एउटा बर्ग कमाएको कमायै गर्ने र अर्को चाहिँ गरिबको गरिब रहने वातावरण छँदै छैन। जब लगानी हुन्छ, प्रतिफल आउँछ त्यसको वितरण चाहिँ समान होस् भन्नेमा राज्य चनाखो हुनै पर्छ। लगानी नै गर्न नपाइ वितरण गर्न तिर लाग्दा त भएको स्रोत रित्तिएपछि कहाँबाट ल्याएर बाँड्नु?

हाम्रो सन्दर्भमा मालिक र मजदुर मिलेर काम गर्ने हो। प्रतिफल मालिकलाई मात्र नजाओस् भनेर श्रम ऐन ल्याएका छौँ। सामाजिक सुरक्षामा मजदुर र मालिक दुबैको योगदान सुनिश्चित गरिएको छ। त्यसैले यहाँ लोकप्रियताका लागि भाषण गरेजस्तो असमानता बढेको म चाहिँ देख्दिन्। 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Doing Business 2018: Nepal ranked 105 and India 100

Doing Business 2018 report ranks Nepal 105 out of 190 economies in terms of ease of doing business. In South Asia, Nepal ranked third, after Bhutan (75) and India (100). Nepal’s distance to frontier, which is the relative distance between Nepal’s score and the best preforming economy in a given indicator, score (59.95) is higher than the average for South Asia (53.64).

Due to change in methodology the rankings are not comparable by year, but the distance to frontier (DTF) score can be compared. DTF ranges from 0 to 100 and a score close to 100 is better. Bhutan improved its DTF score in 2014 and has continued to maintain it at the highest level in South Asia. Similarly, the recent push to ease business regulations in India (GST and construction reforms are not reflected in DB2018) paid off as well.

In South Asia, Bhutan has the best overall environment for doing business. India got a big boost in rankings as its distance to frontier score increased from 56.05 to 60.76. All the countries’, except for Afghanistan, had an improvement of DTF score in DB2018.

The DTF score for India in starting a business is the lowest in South Asia. Starting a business requires 11.5 documents, 29.8 men days and 14.8% of income per capita. In Nepal’s case, it is 7 documents, 16.5 men days and 24.9% of income per capita.

In dealing with construction permits, India ranked 181 out of 190 economies (with a DTF score of 38.8). This indicator tracks the procedures, time and cost to build a warehouse, including obtaining necessary licenses and permits. In Nepal, to open a standardized warehouse, it requires 12 procedures, 117 days and 16.6% of warehouse value. Nepal’s DTF score is 55.74 and rank 157. In India, to open a standardized warehouse, it requires 30.1 procedures, 143.9 days and 23.2% of warehouse value.

In getting electricity, India has made a remarkable progress. This indicator measures the procedures, time and cost required to obtain a permanent electricity connection for a newly constructed warehouse. In India, it requires 5 procedures, 45.9 days and 96.7% of income per capita. Reliability of electricity supply and transparency of tariff are also considered, in which Nepal’s performance is miserable. In Nepal it requires 5 procedures, 70 days and 993.7% of income per capita to obtain an electricity connection. This places Nepal in 133 rank among 190 economies.  

To register property, an entrepreneur in Nepal is required to fulfill 4 procedures, takes 6 days and costs 4.8% of value of the property. It places Nepal 84th among 190 economies (with DTF score of 64.82). In India, it takes 8 procedures, 53 days and 8.4% of value of the property. With a DTF score of 47.08, India is ranked 154. 

In the ease of getting credit (measures the strength of credit reporting system and the effectiveness of collateral and bankruptcy laws in facilitating lending), Nepal scored a DTF score of 50 (rank 90) and India 75 with rank 29. India has improved a lot since 2014 and currently it has the most favorable conditions for getting credit.

In protecting minority investors (measures the strength of minority shareholder protections against misuse of corporate assets by directors, governance standards and corporate transparency), Npeal ranked 62nd with a DTF score of 58.33. Meanwhile, India ranked 4th with a DTF score of  80. Again, India has the best system for protecting minority investors in the region.

In South Asia, paying taxes is easiest in Bhutan. Paying taxes indicator measures taxes and mandatory contributions that a company must pay or withhold in a given year and the administrative burden complying with the regulations. In Nepal, there are 34 payments per year, takes 339 hours per year and companies pay about 29.6% of profit for tax and contributions. It places Nepal at 146th position out of 190 economies (with a DTF score of 58.01). India is ranked 119th with a DTF score of 66.06. In India there are 13 payments per year, takes 214 hours per year, and tax and contribution rate stands at 55.3% of profit. India’s rank is improving in this category as well.

In trading across borders, which records time and cost associated with the logistical process of exporting and importing goods, Nepal ranks 76th with a DTF score of 77.17. India is ranked 146th with a STF score of 58.56. In Nepal, it takes 56 hours to comply with export regulations at the border, costs $288 and takes 43 hours to comply with documentary requirements (at a cost of $110). For import, these numbers are 61, $190, and 48 ($80), respectively. In India, it takes 106.1 hours to comply with export regulations, costs $382.4 and takes 38.4 hours to comply with documentary requirements (at a cost of $91.9). For import, these numbers are 264.5, $543.2, and 61.3 ($134.8), respectively.

The other two indicators are enforcing contracts and resolving insolvency. Nepal has fairly better standing than India on these but India is catching up. 

The data for DB2018 are as of 01 June 2017. The ranking includes ten indicators: starting a business, dealing with construction permits, getting electricity, registering property, getting credit, protecting minority investors, paying taxes, trading across borders, enforcing contracts and resolving insolvency. The data also includes labor market regulations but it is not included in the ranking. 

This a transit post (waiting in Delhi airport transit after 9 hours long flight). So, please ignore the typos! :-)

Friday, November 3, 2017

Communists and fiscal imprudence in Nepal

It was published in The Kathmandu Post, 01 November 2017.

There is a danger of fiscal mismanagement by the Left alliance in case they secure a majority to form govt

The decision to forge a Left alliance for the upcoming provincial and federal elections by two major communist parties on October 3 baffled all the other political parties. The commitment to merge the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) (UML) and Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) immediately after the elections has rattled ‘democratic’ parties and international powers that hobnob with Nepali politicians and try to influence their decisions.

While some hailed the leftist alliance as a harbinger of political stability given the fickle coalition politics, others have raised concern over the intention of the alliance, seeing it as a means to hold on to power and tilt politics and the economy towards socialism characterised by flamboyant jingoism and redistributive experiments. Beyond these partisan arguments lies a real danger of fiscal mismanagement by the communist alliance in case they secure a majority to form a government in the upcoming elections.

Extractive politics

At the core of it, the alliance smacks of a desire to hold on to power and protect political and commercial interests—the antithesis of economic prosperity and political stability in the current political ecosystem. UML and Maoist Centre will try to reconstruct political and economic institutions such as private property, labour regulations, competitive practices, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, security of returns to investment and sound macroeconomic management to serve party interests and politicians. As seen in the past, communist governments have proactively supported unruly labour unions and strikes; debt-ridden public enterprises; cartels in sectors ranging from agriculture and construction to education, energy and healthcare; uneconomical redistributive pet programs; and land capture. These have resulted in the inefficient use of taxpayers’ money, substandard delivery of public services, and low growth potential.

For instance, UML and Maoist Centre jointly opposed licensing restrictions for new medical colleges and progressive reforms in the healthcare industry that are supported by a large section of the population and healthcare professionals. These two political parties are set against meeting any demands of Dr Govinda KC, a noted orthopaedic surgeon and philanthropic activist who just recently completed his 13th hunger strike protesting against the political parties’ attempt to pass a regressive medical education bill which prioritises politicians’ commercial interests but does little to ensure quality healthcare and access for common Nepali citizens. Similarly, bankers-cum-politicians from these parties lobbied to amend the Bank and Financial Institution Act to protect their commercial interests at the cost of sound corporate governance and banking practices.

Another example is the frequent transfer of professional staff that have been appointed for fixed terms in specialised offices. When UML came to power in the past, it did not waste time in placing yes-men in key positions. Three of these important specialised agencies are the Investment Board of Nepal, the National Reconstruction Authority and the Millennium Challenge Corporation Nepal. Appointing henchmen to key posts and awarding public contracts to quasi-political organisations faithful to these political parties have been hallmarks of their tenure in government.

These practices will not lead to political stability and economic prosperity. Instead, they will further erode effectiveness of progressive political and economic institutions. Note that this does not mean that the other political parties are clean of these malpractices. The difference is that some parties are less tainted than others.

Budgetary concerns

Leftist parties have traditionally favoured big increases to the fiscal budget, primarily due to their penchant for redistributive programs and pet projects irrespective of fiscal and macroeconomic soundness. Finance ministers from communist parties have lobbied for inconsequential hand-outs in the form of social allowance and the inclusion of multiple, small and incoherent pet projects to benefit their voter base and local contractors. Furthermore, they have discontinued or neglected previous reform initiatives, fostered moral hazards through blanket debt relief and self-employment programs, and have tried to bring in a supplementary budget despite recommendations from senior bureaucrats advising them against such a budget. Their budgets were bloated, wastefully redistributed and fiscally irresponsible. Recurrent spending growth outstripped revenue growth in five of the last 10 fiscal years—four times of which occurred when communists were leading the finance ministry.

As the then finance minister, Baburam Bhattarai increased the budget by almost 47 percent in 2008/09 and waived off farmers’ loans with a hope of lowering their debt burden and eventually encouraging more farmers to produce more goods. Instead of increasing agricultural productivity, the blanket loan waiver (a good move if well targeted and implemented efficiently) fostered a moral hazard, as these farmers are now just as indebted as before. The emphasis on cooperatives and attempts to tame the private sector also backfired. The mushrooming of cooperatives—of which over 50 percent were saving and credit cooperatives that directly competed with commercial banks in the absence of a strong cooperatives regulator—and their reckless conduct aggravated the financial sector crisis in 2011. Recently, lawmakers from these communist parties also actively lobbied to ensure that the amended cooperatives bill had less governance standards and regulatory oversight than suggested by experts.

The first fiscal budget by the Maoist government set the stage for an ever-increasing budget envelope as it was hard to discontinue populist recurrent programs in subsequent budgets. Additionally, championing unionism in public service was another detrimental policy that resulted in factionalism within the government service, encouraged frequent staff transfers, and eroded the effectiveness of public service delivery.

When UML’s Bharat Mohan Adhikari was finance minister in 2011, he tried to bring a supplementary budget barely three months before the end of fiscal year, completely ignoring the full year budget presented by former finance minister Surendra Pandey from his own party. Adhikari’s conduct was so irrational that the then finance secretary Rameshore Prasad Khanal resigned citing differences over the supplementary budget, handling of the fake value added tax bills scam, and the transfer of officials in the ministry. Furthermore, the budget for 2011/12 was leaked before Adhikari presented it to Parliament.

UML’s Bishnu Prasad Poudel introduced another fiscally irresponsible, bloated budget when he was finance minister in 2016. He increased the budget outlay by 74.5 percent by modestly increasing spending allocation for post-earthquake reconstruction and by aggressively diverting resources to multiple small pet programs and projects that had budgetary and macroeconomic consequences in the following year as well. Furthermore, during his tenure, key leadership in specialised agencies were unceremoniously replaced. 

Overall, communist governments have a history of being fiscally imprudent and protective of their political and commercial interests at the cost of sound economic and social reforms. In terms of progressive economic policies and inclusive institutions, we should not expect too much from the latest communist alliance.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Indian economy gets an implicit stimulus

After much criticism of the government over the deceleration of economic activities following demonetization and the rollout of GST (FY2018 Q1 growth slumped to 5.7%), the government has announced two major plans:

1. Recapitalization of state-owned banks: IRs2.11 trillion (IRs2 lakh 11 thousand crores) recapitalization package consisting of IRs1.35 trillion from sale of ‘recapitalization bonds’ and IRs76,000 crore from budgetary support and ‘market-raising’. Initially, the government had planned IRs20,000 crore bank recapitalization strategy for FY2018 and FY2019. This is a major step to ‘unfreeze’ the credit market where by banks are saddled with high non-performing assets (around IRs7.7 trillion) and major corporates high on debt already are not able to borrow with restructuring their loans. One question that looms large is that how is this not going to add to the fiscal deficit target of 3.2% of GDP for FY2018 (except for IRs18,000 already committed under Indradanush Recapitalization Scheme over the next two years)? Isn't recapitalization a form of net lending by the government (okay, you don't pay interest on it immediately after issuance but in subsequent years both interest and principal payments will need to be factored in)? CEA Arvind Subramanian says that recapitalization bonds do not impact fiscal deficit as per IMF accounting rules but will increase government liability/debt.

2. Approval of IRs6.92 trillion worth of highway projects: The plan is to construct 80,677 km of highways over the next five years. It aims to crate 14.2 crore man-days of jobs and would ensure substantial delegation of authority to enable accelerated implementation. This includes BharatMala projects (34,500 km of roads with an investment of IRs5.35 trillion) consisting of economic corridors, inter-corridor and feeder route, border roads and international connectivity, and coastal roads and port connectivity, among others.

One unanswered question is that will these implicit stimulus measures turn around the slumping economic activities, especially in FY2018? Both the reforms outlined above are medium-term measures and their effectiveness would depend on how fast and effectively they are implemented (coupled with administrative and operational reforms at PSBs and execution of capital projects).

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Growth from above: Impact of trade disruptions was larger than impact of earthquakes

It is adapted from South Asia Economic Focus, Fall 2017. An earlier blog post on the same issue here (update figures here). 

With two major earthquakes in April and May, and a severe disruption of trade with India from August onwards, the year 2015 was no doubt Nepal’s most turbulent since the end of its armed conflict. The two earthquakes killed about 9,000 people, injured at least twice as many, and destroyed uncountable houses and buildings. Later in the year, dissatisfaction among the Madhesi minority about their representation under the new federal arrangements triggered protests that culminated in the complete shutdown of international trade with India. Official statistics put GDP growth for FY2015 (which starts in October 2014) at 1.6 percent, and for FY2016 at 0.8 percent. This represents a drop of roughly 4 percentage points relative to previous years.

Based on monthly nightlight data, the economic impact of the 2015 shocks was smaller than official statistics suggest. The earthquakes affected most severely rural areas that were characterized by low nightlight intensity even in good times. The fact that these areas were mostly in the dark suggests that even if local impacts were large in relative terms, they may not have made a major difference at the aggregate level. The impact of the trade disruption, on the other hand, was massive. Based on the elasticity approach, from June to October 2015 the GDP growth rate of Nepal declined by 4 percentage points. But economic activity bounced back strongly in November, and over the full year the GDP growth rate might have declined by less than 2 percentage points.

The shocks had a more substantial impact at the local level. This can be seen by using the spatial approach to estimate GDP by district, and then comparing the performance of districts directly affected by the shocks to that of unaffected districts. However, instead of spatially distributing the official annual GDP, the methodology is applied to the monthly GDP estimated using the elasticity approach. This way of proceeding allows to assess local economic activity on a monthly basis.

In comparing growth rates at the district level, it is important to keep in mind that the locations most affected by the earthquakes, or most affected by the trade disruptions, could be systematically different from other locations. As a result, they could grow at a different pace even in normal times. To address this possible bias, a “differences-in-differences” approach can be used.

The first difference is between the annual growth rate of local GDP in the two months following the shock and the annual growth rate in the same two months of the previous year. The two months considered are April and May in the case of the earthquakes, and September and October for the trade disruptions. Growth rates are computed relative to the same two months one year earlier. This first difference can be called a growth shock, for brevity. The second difference is between the growth shocks experienced by affected and unaffected districts. The median growth shock across districts in each group is used for the comparison.

Based on this exercise, in April and May 2015 districts affected by the earthquakes experienced a decline in their local GDP by 1.8 percentage points, while unaffected districts grew slightly faster than before. And in September and October 2015, districts in the Terai region closer to India contracted by 9.0 percentage points, whereas the rest of the country saw GDP growth decline by a more modest 1.4 percentage points. These results confirm, once again, that the impact of the trade disruption was much more severe than that of the earthquakes.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Communist alliance in Nepal; RBI lowers growth forecast in India

Communist parties form alliance for upcoming polls

Two major leftist forces-CPN-UML and CPN (Maoist Centre), along with the Babu Ram Bhattarai-led Naya Shakti Party-Nepalformed a broad electoral alliance ahead of the upcoming provincial and federal elections. They also agreed to form an eight-member panel that would work for a formal merger of the three parties at the earliest.

Meanwhile, Nepali Congress, which was taken by surprise by the latest political development, is considering a democratic alliance including Terai-based parties.

RBI keeps policy rate unchanged but lowers growth forecast

Anticipating upside risks to retail inflation, Reserve Bank of India (RBI)  kept interest rates unchanged at 6% on October 4. It sees upside risks to inflation coming from farm loan waivers, tates’ implementation of pay commission allowances, and price revisions following GST and rising international crude prices. The RBI expects inflation to rise from its current level and range between 4.2-4.6 per cent in the second half of FY2018 (ends March 2018). In August, the RBI slashed the repo rate by 25 basis points (bps). The central bank's medium-term target for CPI inflation is 4% (+/- 2%).

Gross value added (GVA) growth forecast is lowered to 6.7% from 7.3% owing to the adverse impact of GST implementation particularly on manufacturing activity; investment squeeze due to stressed balance sheets of banks and corporates; lower than expected kharif foodgrains output (deficient and uneven pattern of south-west monsoon);  

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Schooling is not enough, learning is important too

Just attending school itself is not enough. Learning is equally important in primary and secondary schools to boost wages and opportunities later in life, according to World Development Report 2018. It dubs the current state of educaiton a “learning crisis”.
  • In rural India, nearly three-quarters of students in grade 3 could not solve a two-digit subtraction such as 46–17, and by grade 5 half could still not do it. 
  • In urban Pakistan in 2015, only three-fifths of grade 3 students could correctly perform a subtraction such as 54–25, and in rural areas only just over two-fifths could.
  • In Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, when grade 3 students were asked to read a simple sentence like “The name of the dog is Puppy,” three-quarters did not understand what it said.
  • In Uruguay, poor children in grade 6 are assessed as “not competent” in math at five times the rate of wealthy children.
  • By the end of primary school, only 5 percent of girls in Cameroon from the poorest quintile of households have learned enough to continue school, compared with 76 percent of girls from the richest quintile.
Teaching-learning relationships breakdown due to: 

(i) Malnutrition, illness, low parental investments, and harsh environment associated with poverty would mean that children come to school unprepared to learn

(ii) Teachers lacking the skills or motivation to teach effectively 

  • Across 14 Sub-Saharan countries, the average grade 6 teacher performs no better on reading tests than the highest-performing grade 6 students;  
  • In seven Sub-Saharan countries, one in five teachers was absent from school during recent unannounced visits by survey teams, with another fifth of teachers at school but absent from the classroom
(iii) Educational inputs fail to reach classrooms or to affect learning (textbooks don’t reach schools or even when they reach the students don’t get it on time)

(iv) Poor management and governance undermine schooling quality (ineffective school leadership; no set goals that prioritize learning; lack of autonomy for schools; ineffective community engagement)

It recommends countries to:
  • Design student assessments to gauge their learning
  • Create conducive environment for learning, including addressing stunting and promoting brain development through early nutrition and stimulation, using technologies, strengthening school management
  • Increase accountability by mobilizing all stakeholders and create political will for education reform

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Nepal's medium-term macroeconomic challenges

It was published in Nefport#30 (pp.58-62), Nepal Economic Forum 

Except for a few episodes of growth spurts, economic growth has largely been low yet volatile in Nepal, mostly stagnating below 5 percent. Similarly, inflation has been stubbornly high, mostly settling in between 6 percent and 12 percent. Public expenditure absorption capacity is receding but revenue mobilization is robust on the back of taxes on remittance-financed imports and domestic consumption. Outstanding public debt is only about a quarter of gross domestic product (GDP). External sector is largely stable, but is vulnerable to fluctuation of remittance inflows. Financial sector is relatively stable, but remains exposed to asset-liability mismatches arising from recurring sources, including reckless lending growth amid slowdown in deposit growth, ever-greening of troubled assets and mismanagement. Meanwhile, unemployment remains high. 

This scenario does not portray an economy that is macroeconomically sound with robust fundamentals to support high and sustainable inclusive economic growth. Instead, it resembles an economy that is susceptible to macroeconomic imbalance triggered by a few exogenous factors, including fluctuation of remittance income, monsoon rains, trade and supplies disruptions, and political instability. These challenges need to be properly diagnosed and addressed (to exploit low hanging fruits) as the country marches towards its overarching goal to become a middle-income country by 2030. Specifically, medium-term macroeconomic challenges emerge from low capital formation, fiscal mismanagement, stubbornly high inflation, and financial and external sectors vulnerabilities.

Base effect blessing

Some analysts quickly point to the impressive growth and inflation numbers in FY2017 and argue that the economy may have reached an inflection point from where the trajectory will be upward and stable. GDP growth (at basic prices) increased to an estimated 6.9 percent and inflation moderated to 4.5 percent in FY2017. These largely reflect a ‘base effect’ blessing and to some extent the government’s efforts to improve electricity supply and accelerate reconstruction works. In FY2018, the base effect will quickly dissipate. Hence, it will be difficult to attain FY2018 growth and inflation targets of 7.2 percent and 7.5 percent, respectively, unless the factors supporting growth and inflation are much stronger than in FY2017. This is unlikely to be the case.

Figure 1: Contributions to GDP growth (percentage points)
Source: Central Bureau of Statistics

Overall, the economy has not reached an inflection point and the performance of key macroeconomic variables will continue to be underpinned by the same exogenous factors such as monsoon and remittances. The gradual deindustrialization beginning FY1997 (i.e., coinciding with the Maoist insurgency) hasn’t stopped as this sector barely constitutes 14 percent of GDP now, down from a high of 22.3 percent of GDP in FY1996 (the outcome of liberalization and structural reforms initiated in the early 1990s). 

Macroeconomic challenges

The current state of macroeconomics will not support a rapid structural transformation, whereby the pace and pattern of economic growth and development are supported by a vibrant industrial sector, higher absorption of unemployed workforce in productive sectors, and production of high-valued, high-productivity goods and services across all sectors. Five key macroeconomic challenges will dictate the nature of structural transformation Nepalese economy will be undergoing during the medium term. 

First, sources of growth have to be reliable, i.e. less reliance on monsoon rains for agricultural output growth and on remittances-backed demand for services output growth. A substantial proportion of the variability of GDP growth is caused by volatility of agricultural output growth, which is dictated largely by monsoon rains as irrigation network is too limited to substitute for water shortfall during weak monsoon. For a more dependable source of growth, capital formation must increase so that the most binding constraint to economic growth— inadequate supply of infrastructure, mainly energy, transport, and irrigation— is addressed head-on. Hence, a major macroeconomic challenge in the medium-term would be to enhance quantity as well as quality of public and private investment. 

Public gross fixed capital formation averaged just 5.8 percent of GDP in the last five years. This needs to increase to about 8-12 percent of GDP annually. The public sector has to lead the way by accelerating capital spending, which has been affected by structural weaknesses in project preparation and implementation; low project readiness; bureaucratic hassle in project approval and sanctioning of spending authority; weak project and contract management; and political interference at planning, management and operational stages. Public capital spending averaged just 4.8 percent of GDP in the last five years. Furthermore, almost 60 percent of the actual capital spending happened in the last quarter and 41.2 percent in the last month, raising doubts over the quality of spending. Low quality of capital investment tends to increase operation and maintenance budget, which is a part of recurrent spending, for the next few years. 

Figure 2: Monthly share of actual annual spending (percent)
Source: Financial Comptroller General Office (FCGO)

Furthermore, private gross fixed investment, which averaged 21.6 percent of GDP in the last five years, also needs to increase so that total gross fixed investment is at least above 30 percent of GDP. Currently, total gross fixed investment is below the average for low-income countries. In addition to enhancing capital spending absorption capacity, private sector investment needs to be facilitated by implementing laws, policies and regulations that are already in place and by amending those that are deemed deficient. The current state of policy implementation paralysis is deterring both domestic as well as foreign investment. Net FDI inflows are barely one percent of GDP.

Second, while there a need to enhance quality and quantity of capital spending, there is also a need to contain growth of recurrent spending, which is almost equivalent to tax revenue. This calls for a bit of fiscal discipline although public debt is only a quarter of GDP. Just because there is ample fiscal space does not mean that recurrent spending can be indefinitely increased to satisfy politician’s voter base and supporters (including local contractors) by doling out incoherent pet projects and cash handouts. Better fiscal management is especially important in the federal setup. Additionally, revenue leakages (through under-invoicing of imported goods and tax waivers) need to be plugged in and tax sources diversified in order to mobilize enough revenue to cover rising recurrent spending and to maintain sound fiscal balance.

Figure 3: Expenditure and revenue overview (share of GDP)
Source: Budget speech, Ministry of Finance

Third, stubbornly high inflation has to be lowered by primarily addressing supply-side constraints as monetary policy does not have much traction to contain it due to pegged exchange rate between Nepalese and Indian currency and the fact that almost 60 percent of imports, including fuel and cooking gas, are sourced from India. Average annual inflation of around 8.7 percent in the last ten years is too high, and discourages investment and saving. Supply-side issues such as shortage of electricity and fuel, high transport and wage costs, low productivity, and excessive labor unionizing for political reasons are threats to lowering inflation and accelerating industrialization. Ideally, inflation in Nepal should not deviate much from that prevalent in India. The central bank and the government need to pay special attention to transitory and structural factors driving inflation.

Figure 4: Contributions to inflation (percentage points)
Note: For Nepal, FY2015 (mid-July to mid-July) = 100; for India, FY2012=100 (April-March) 
Source: Nepal Rastra Bank; Reserve Bank of India

Fourth, financial sector stability is another macroeconomic challenge over the medium-term. Financial sector troubles are recurring, typically caused by accumulation of unbalanced portfolio, lax monitoring and supervision, and asset-liability mismatch. As experienced in the past, a sudden credit squeeze arising from such factors leads to erosion of confidence on and efficacy of the regulator. The central bank needs to enhance its capacity to enforce monetary rules and regulations, and intensify monitoring and evaluation of banks and financial institutions. Consolidation of financial sector; better quality and diversification of portfolio; and expansion of traditional as well as new financial services throughout the country are some of the unfinished tasks for the central bank. Furthermore, the central bank needs to think beyond buying and selling of government bills and bonds as a core monetary policy instrument. As such, back-loading of budgetary spending in the last month of fiscal year drastically increases liquidity in the first quarter of next fiscal year and then it begins to get tighter in the next two quarters, heightening interest rate volatility. 

Fifth, the gap between demand for and supply of materials needed for post-earthquake reconstruction and the inelastic nature of import demand would mean that import growth will likely remain high in the next few years. Meanwhile, without much improvement in supply-side constraints and implementation of investment-friendly laws and policies, export growth may be at most moderate. Given forecast of low fuel prices globally due to supplies glut as well as subdued demand, investment will likely continue to slowdown in the major fuel and commodity exporting countries, some of which employ a large number of Nepalese migrant workers. This would mean either continued deceleration or tepid growth of remittance inflows, potentially resulting in current account deficit. The widening trade deficit coupled with decelerating remittances resulted in a current account deficit of 0.4 percent of GDP in FY2017, the first deficit since FY2011. Note that Nepal’s low per capita income, limited production base, and the need to import materials for reconstruction necessitate tolerance to moderate level of current account deficit in the medium term. However, the government and the central bank need to keep an eye on the level of balance of payments and foreign exchange reserves so that it is enough to sustain at least 7 months of import of goods and services. 

Figure 5: External sector (share of GDP)
Source: Nepal Rastra Bank