Both bond and stock markets were waiting with bated breath for RBI Governor Shantikanta Das to indicate if inflation was going to be more important or growth on the morning on December 4. While nobody expected policy rates to be reversed, the market was watching every word that could indicate the central bank was turning hawkish – an experience of past pain when earlier RBI governors pulled back just when the economy needed some more continued oxygen of liquidity.
Monetary policy is charged with keeping the flow of the gas of money to the economy at a ‘just right’ reading. Too high a flame will cause irrational exuberance that results in inflation. Too low makes the economy sluggish with growth suffering. Remember, money is the gas that the economy needs to fuel working capital, project finance, retail loans and also government spending and it is the job of the central bank to get this right.
Ask any average middle class person what they want from the Budget and the answer is lower prices and less tax. In a way these are contradictory goals because lower tax rates could mean a revenue shortfall. A tax revenue shortfall can cause a government to borrow more, causing the deficit to increase and that could cause a price rise. Didn’t make the link? Let me try and unpack this. The annual budget presentation is a financial statement of the central government where the collection of revenues and its spending is laid out. The government gets most of its revenue from taxes (both direct and indirect) and about one-fifth from non-tax sources. Direct taxes are paid by companies and individuals under various heads (income tax, tax on house property, tax on profits and so on). Of the total revenue, income tax on non corporates (that means us) is about one-fifth of the total revenue for the year. Corporations pay a bit more than we pay. Almost half of the revenue comes from indirect taxes—it used to be excise and sales tax, but now this revenue comes through goods and services tax (GST). The shortfall in revenue over what has to be spent is called a “deficit”. This deficit gets funded largely through the money the government borrows.
The year 2017 was marked by four distinct money events. One, it was the year in which systematic investment plans (SIPs) in mutual funds became a household name, leading to a fat pipeline of over Rs5,000 crore a month (that’s Rs60,000 crore a year) flowing from households to equity funds. Two, 2017 was the year in which investors finally gave up waiting for real estate to recover. Despite the bravado of the builder, broker and banker on the future of real estate, the math just did not add up to support prices that are still very high. Why would you invest in something that yields less than a bank deposit after taxes? Renting clearly was the winner over buying. Three, gold and bank deposits lost their sheen as prices dipped and rates fell. Four, risk-averse investors, who feared mutual funds because of their risk, went all out on crypto-money—not just bitcoin, other cryptocurrencies were also on the investment radar, as were non-regulated initial coin offerings (ICOs). What lies ahead in 2018 for your money? The answer in one line is: a continuation of the 2017 trends.
Why do the world’s most value-for-money people choose a pre-tax 4% return on the money that they leave in their savings deposits? It is the twin advantage of safety and liquidity that makes people love their savings deposits. But an aggressive mutual fund industry is using new products and processes to offer alternatives to these deposits, and is taking the battle for the share of the household savings right to the door of banks. Remember that mutual funds have product categories that can look after most of your money management needs—from liquid money to building and milking retirement funds. Last week, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi) announced a series of rule changes that make it safer and easier for investors to shift from a bank savings deposit to a liquid fund and allow people to use their e-wallets to invest in funds.
This year will be remembered for the contradictions of the post-war world order manifesting in many ways. If 2008 was when the crack became visible, 2016 was when the fissure became too big to ignore. A series of global events point to the rising voice of those left hurting by rising inequality in the world economic order, where the benefits of globalization have gone to capital rather than labour. Labour as one of the factors of production—land and capital being the other two—has suffered. Real wages have been stagnant in the developed world and restrictive labour mobility rules have hurt labour in the emerging world. The rules set by the owners of capital make for a world without borders for capital, but not for labour.