There were few happy faces in India after the Budget speech got over, except for the senior citizens. Since we don’t have representatives of Bharat in the TV studios or as talking heads, their reaction does not get captured. Budget 2018 has given a big push to Bharat and tightened India a bit more. Bharat has got targeted spends on a whole range of items, from electrification to a massive health insurance programme—probably the biggest in the world.
Senior citizens should be happy. The morning laughing club should be laughing harder. They have reason to because they are possibly the only middle India cohort that gets to take home more money. Interest income for them will be exempt from tax up to Rs50,000, up from Rs10,000. This means that if a 60-plus person had an income of, say, Rs10 lakh as interest, she will now be taxed on Rs9.5 lakh, other exemptions and deductions remaining the same. The deduction on premiums on health insurance is up from Rs30,000 to Rs50,000. This is good because privately bought health covers for senior citizens are very expensive. The Pradhan Mantri Vaya Vandana Yojana has been extended till March 2020, and the Rs7.5 lakh-limit is doubled. A 60-plus person can now get an assured 8.3% annual return on Rs15 lakh of investment. A couple that has invested Rs30 lakh, can earn an interest of Rs2.49 lakh a year from it. These are important changes for a generation that is sitting on pension corpuses that were earned on pre-liberalization salaries, and which is finding today’s costs prohibitive.
If the Union Budget looks ahead at the year and makes forecasts on how the government will gather revenue and spend it, the Economic Survey looks back to take stock of what happened and then lays out the big-picture goals, challenges and scenarios for the Indian economy. It is more of a vision statement than a to-do list. Just as the Budget document has the signature flavour of the finance minister, the Survey carries the DNA print of the chief economic advisor. The key message of Arvind Subramanian’s Economic Survey for 2017-18 can be summed up in one phrase: revival and risk, and he shows this in one chart on the behaviour of bond prices and stock prices. (See table)
The rise and rise of the stock market points to the revival in the economy and the rise in bond yields points to worries on deficit, inflation and oil prices going up. Why are the stock markets rising? The Survey finds that the revival part of the story is “robust and broad based”. With the shock of demonetization and the Goods and Services Tax behind us, gross domestic product (GDP) growth for the current year is estimated to be 6.75% and for the next year between 7 and 7.5 %, making India the fastest growing major economy in the world. The reason for the robustness is the implementation of several deep reform initiatives. GST reform has added another 3.4 million indirect tax payers and GST collections are on an upward trajectory. In fact, the overall trend for widening the tax net is positive. The Survey finds that post-demonetisation, there has been a 0.8% monthly increase in new direct tax filers—an annual growth of 10% or about 1.8 million new taxpayers.
The auditorium was packed. Girls were sitting on the floor in the aisles. I was visiting Banasthali University, 75 km south of Jaipur, to speak to the postgraduate management and journalism students. About 250 curious pairs of eyes were bright with anticipation and I was hoping that I don’t let them down.
For those who don’t know, a quick update on this unique university. The journey of how this university came to be is quite a story. In 1927, the Jaipur state secretary in the home and foreign department, Pandit Hiralal Shastri, left his powerful job to relocate to a remote village (then) called Banthali to work on rural reconstruction. His friends said he’d gone half mad to do this. Who gives up power, prestige and money like this? But he moved himself and his family to the village. One day he found his 11-year-old daughter, Shanta, teaching the village kids under a tree. Sometime later she asked him for a room so that she could teach them without fear of storms or wild animals. He told her—you build the bricks and I will build the room. He forgot about the story thinking that the child will move on to other things. Three months later she showed him 300 handmade bricks she and the village kids had made. I saw one of the bricks that the institution has preserved. To touch the brick made by a determined young lady almost a 100 years ago was surreal. Shastri built that room and decided to give his daughter the best education he could manage. Music and martial art classes were organized. There is a painting of young Shanta in a sari, wielding a lathi and practising in one of the preserved rooms. When you remember that this was in rural Rajasthan in the 1920s when girls were married off as soon as they could be, the image of the lathi-wielding girls just adds to the amazement.
Are Indian stocks in bubble territory? An interview given by Uday Kotak to The Indian Express (you can read it here) asks this question. Kotak is making valid points when he says that there is a wall of money coming at the market which does not have enough stocks to absorb the cash. A strong institutional flow is bringing Indian household money to the stock market through mutual funds, unit-linked insurance plans (Ulips), National Pension System (NPS) and the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO). This money is going into a few hundred stocks because the Indian market lacks depth. The market cap of the top stock is Rs6 trillion and that of the 100th stock is just Rs32,000 crore. The market looks overvalued on metrics of the current price-to-earnings (PE) ratio, which is much higher than the 10-year average. Valuations can go back down in two ways—markets can crash, bringing prices down or the earnings can grow; both bring the PE down. The wait for earnings has kept the market buoyant in the past few years and the wait is still on. Which will come first, the market crash or the earnings bump? As retail investors, we have no option but to give our money an equity exposure; see Table 1. But we will never have the relevant insight to time the market. We also know that markets go up and down, get overvalued, crash and then recover. See Table 2. So, is there a way in which we can ride out the bubble, if indeed there is one?
Regulations in the financial sector need to keep evolving as the market grows in depth, breadth and complexity. Think of this as the need for road rules and a traffic management system in a large metro—what worked 30 years ago cannot work today. It was possible to travel 5 km in Delhi without running into traffic lights or traffic cops 30 years ago as road traffic was thin. A malfunctioning traffic light today causes hours of traffic jams. As the traffic volume rises, cities resort to one-way traffic rules, higher parking fees and other measures to curb traffic in the city centre. Financial markets are similar; regulations need to keep moving to keep pace with the changing face of the market. Has the market changed? Yes, the size of the assets under management by the three large parts of the retail financial market—mutual funds (only retail), life insurance and the National Pension System (NPS)—crossed Rs34 trillion in FY 2017, up from Rs22 trillion just 3 years ago. Both the volume of money and the number of people on-boarding these products has risen sharply over the past few years. The share of household savings in financial products has been rising and now more than one-third of household savings find their way into financial products. In addition to the urban users of these products, a new category of investors are getting added through the Jan Dhan accounts. These are people who will be first-time users of many financial products as they move from cash, gold and real estate.