The problem of the Indian budget exercise has been to somehow get the reluctant individual to pay income tax. Step back and see that a government needs tax revenue to run the government itself, pay for government institutions (health, education and defence, to name just a few), spend on infrastructure, pay interest on borrowings and so on. A prudent government’s capacity to spend depends on its capacity to raise revenue through taxes—both direct and indirect. A profligate government will simply borrow recklessly and kick the problem down the road for future governments to handle.
A key problem that faces the Indian budget is that too few people pay income tax, with just 32.3 million people filing ITR-1 (the return for salaried individuals) on a population base of 1.37 billion. Successive governments have attempted to get the reluctant Indian to pay income tax and failed. Therefore, they have used a tax on incomes and profits on investment to try and get those who should pay, to pay. But successive governments have then gone on increasing the burden and the complexity of this taxation so that today two taxes are in a total mess: the dividend distribution tax (DDT) and the capital gains tax.
Every time people who have defined benefit retirement plans make rules for the market, their lack of understanding comes across clearly. Take people in the Ministry of Finance for instance, and then look at what subsequent Budgets have put in place. Not only is there arbitrage between asset classes on the definition of long term, there is arbitrage within an asset class too on the basis of which product you choose to buy. If tax policy is used to nudge behaviour, there is some serious malfunction in the Indian policy that is nudging in all the wrong directions and all the wrong products.
In India we answer the question, ‘How many years does it take for an asset to become long-term?’ in different ways depending on the asset. You have to hold equity for 1 year, real estate for 2 years and debt for 3 years for the profit made to become ‘long term’. This classification of assets is against Finance 101, since both equity and real estate are asset classes that cook slowly over time. They give their best performance over a long period of time. How long is long? Data analysis done by my colleague Kayezad E. Adajania (read it here) shows that it takes about a 7-year holding period to iron out volatility in equity. The thumb rule for real estate puts the cycle at about 10 years. Market-linked debt (as opposed to relatively fixed-return debt products such as bank deposits) as an asset class for retail investors is mostly used for short-term purposes for emergency funds, for near-term cash needs and for income generation. It would be more logical to make debt go long term at 1 year and keep a 5-year threshold for long term for both equity and real estate. At the very least, policymakers need to equalize the definition of long term across asset classes.