Tag Archives: Government Policy

Understanding the impact of RBI’s Repo and Reverse Repo Rate Cut

It has happened as expected. RBI has announced a 25 basis point cut in the Repo and Reverse Repo rates. For the less exposed, this means that the Repo Rate has fallen from 7.75% to 7.5% while Reverse Repo Rate has fallen from 6.75% to 6.5%. What does this mean to different people? The segments we cover in this article are Banks, Industry, ordinary people and the broader economy.

Impact on Banks

To understand the impact of a cut in Repo and Reverse Repo Rates on banks, it is important to understand the role they play in banking. Repo and Reverse Repo are basically instruments used by the RBI to influence the total monetary base of banks.

To get a grip on this, it is important to understand how banks work and what the term monetary base means. Banks engage in a practice called Fractional Reserve Banking (FRB). As explained in the linked article, under FRB, a bank lends many multiples of the actual cash in hand. This cash they have is what I mean by monetary base. Clearly, any addition to the monetary base adds to the bank’s ability to make loans by creating money from nothing (as explained in the linked article).

In India, banks’ monetary base takes 2 forms – CRR (Cash Reserve Ratio) and SLR (Statutory Liquidity Ratio). CRR is the amount of actual cash that banks need to hold with the RBI. SLR refers to the amount (by value) of approved securities (government bonds, gold and approved, privately issued financial instruments) that banks are mandated to hold. Currently, CRR is 4% and SLR is 23%. Together, they constitute the monetary base of the Indian banking system.

However, what CRR and SLR do not cover is the extent to which the RBI can lend to banks. That is covered under the Repo and Reverse Repo. In a Repo or a repurchase agreement, the Repo seller (the bank) sells an approved security to the RBI with the understanding that at a certain date in the future, the bank will buy the security back from the RBI. The bank gets cash and the RBI the security.

One would expect that this would not influence the monetary base because while the bank gets cash and adds to its CRR base, it loses possession of the security and falls behind on its SLR base and can therefore not lend more. The interesting part is that this problem in the way of expanding bank lending is eliminated by the way the Repo system works.

Very interestingly, during the term of the Repo, the bank is allowed to count the security thus sold to the RBI as part of its investments to fulfil the SLR requirement. So, the net effect of a Repo transaction is an addition to the bank’s cash reserves without falling behind on SLR requirements. With this, the bank can now engage in much more lending.

At the end of the term of a Repo, the bank buys the security back from the RBI at a price higher than the original sale price. The difference expressed as a percentage of the original sale price is the Repo Rate. Thus, Repo Rate is used to calculate the price at which the security is bought back by the bank. It is the equivalent of an interest paid by the bank to RBI.

It might seem that at the time the bank buys the security back, its cash reserve falls. However, the bank can then enter into a fresh Repo transaction and sell the security back to the RBI, bringing the cash reserve back to the higher level. In this manner, Repo becomes a means for the RBI to maintain a steady level of lending to banks.

But all this additional lending would mean more purchases of securities to meet SLR requirements. This would mean the need to deploy cash for the same. That cash would go outside the system of lending and reduce the system’s lending potential. This problem is solved by what is called the Reverse Repo.

In a Reverse Repo, the RBI sells an approved security to the bank with the understanding that it will buy it back at a future date at a higher price. The difference between the 2 prices expressed as a percentage of the original selling price (per annum) is called the Reverse Repo Rate. The Reverse Repo Rate thus becomes the interest rate received by the bank for lending cash to the RBI.

The important point for us to note is that a bank may show securities bought from the RBI through the Reverse Repo window as part of its SLR commitments. Further, as in the case of the Repo, at the end of the term of the Reverse Repo, the bank can enter into a fresh Reverse Repo with the RBI.

Summarising the understanding

Bank XYZ hits its lending limit based on its CRR and SLR. It sees potential for more lending. It offers RBI a portion of the securities it holds as part of a Repo transaction and gets cash. It deploys 23% of this new cash to obtain securities under the Reverse Repo window from the RBI, thus keeping the cash within the system. The bank now gets to create new money amounting to 1/(CRR+SLR) times the money borrowed under the Repo window and lend it out at interest. The Repo window thus becomes a cheap source of borrowing for banks.

The impact of a cut in Repo and Reverse Repo Rates

A cut in Repo and Reverse Repo rates basically reduces the bank’s cost of borrowing from the RBI to add to its reserves. It enables banks to either increase the interest rate spread on loans made by the bank or offer borrowers lower rates of interest without eating into its own interest rate spread. Thus, a cut in Repo and Reverse Repo Rates increases the banking system’s potential by expanding more loans in a profitable manner.

Impact on Industry

With lower repo and reverse repo rates, industry gets to borrow more and even gets to pay lower interest rates on its borrowing. Therefore, those businesses that are in a position to secure additional lending from the banking system will benefit from lower repo and reverse repo rates.

Impact on ordinary people

The impact on ordinary people can be felt in 2 ways. In the nearer term, greater lending to businesses will lead to more business investment and employment opportunities. In the medium and longer term, however, the dominant factor influencing ordinary people will be the increased money supply (inflation), which will send prices of consumers’ goods soaring, resulting in future pressure to raise interest rates thus forcing the pricking of the inflationary bubble and the onset of the depression.

Impact on the broader economy

In the long-run, reducing Repo and Reverse Repo rates is harmful for the economy as it is just a means to lend reserves to banks, enabling them to engage in far bigger inflation to undertake much more credit expansion through FRB. While this lending will have some short-term positive effects, in the long-run, it creates and worsens the inflationary boom of the familiar boom-bust cycle. It also sets the conditions for the inevitable raising of interest rates thus pricking the inflationary bubble and triggering the depression.

Conclusion

Thus we see that the policy of reducing Repo and Reverse Repo rates is essentially bad for the economy in the long-run because it greatly aids the creation of the business cycle. It also hurts ordinary people by sending prices soaring. Industry and the banking system, however, benefit in the short run. This explains why a policy of lowering repo and reverse repo rates finds fairly broad-based support from the banking industry and general industry as well.

Is MNREGS a significant cause of rapidly rising prices?

The Financial Express reports thus – ‘Rural wage hike pushing inflation, posing challenge for RBI’. It goes on to quote an Assocham spokesperson thus.

“Near 20 per cent annual increase in the wage inflation in rural areas is building up price pressures on food articles like cereals, rice and wheat, and is posing a big challenge for the Reserve Bank which is being called upon to cut the policy interest rates on Tuesday,” industry body Assocham said.

So what sense are we to make of this? Why would rural wages shoot through the roof in this manner? As far as I understand, there are two possible reasons. The first is that agriculture has seen such a tremendous productivity increase that marginal value product of a unit of labour has really gone up 20%. Alternately, as I explained out here, a steady rise in prices is possible only if inflationary policies greatly and steadily increase money supply.

And over the last couple of years, the Government of India, through various State governments, has really been flooding the rural markets with money through the MNREGS. So should we be surprised that rural wages have increased as much and as rapidly as they have? If we are, then it is time to revise our economics fundamentals. That such an outcome is inevitable could have been known right at the time of conceiving of a scheme like MNREGS. Why then are such policies being pushed? These and many other such tough questions are what we should be asking policy makers, but only an economically literate population can do so.

How many regulations is too many?

This article quoting the economist Raghuram Rajan (now tipped by some to be the next RBI Governor) brings up an important issue – that of regulation. Unlike Mr. Raghuram Rajan, I would argue in much simpler terms. The number of regulations is too many if their number exceeds zero. In simpler terms, every regulation is one too many.

What is regulation

The word regulation is one of these new-age words that had crept into our vocabulary in a rather insidious fashion. Today, most people look upon regulation as something necessary without which unbridled greed will result in undesirable outcomes. “Some regulation is necessary”, argue most people.

But what IS regulation? Very simply, it is a set of mandates or restrictions imposed by government on particular sets of citizens. Depending on the particular regulation, the set could become large enough to encompass all citizens. However, the important point to note that every regulation is an act of coercing one or more citizens with the aim of making them follow particular courses of action or preventing them from following particular courses of action.

So, regulation is coercion. Economically speaking, it is a form of violent exchange. From the perspective of economics, violent exchange lowers overall well-being. The victim of the violent exchange is forced to give up a more valued good for a less valued good or nothing at all. The recipient of the violent exchange clearly benefits, but the impossibility of comparing value across people leaves us with only one certainty. There is loss of utility and well-being to the person being coerced. The rest of it is plain wishful thinking.

Regulation and the labour market

This is especially true in the labour market where capitalists can only offer any factor of production its discounted marginal value product, i.e., the present value of its future marginal contribution to revenue. If capitalists are forced to pay more, they will employ less of the factor until the factor price equals its DMVP once again. The result of regulations in the labour market is, therefore, chronic unemployment.

All forms of labour regulation – minimum wages, mandatory contributions, gratuity, firing restrictions, child labour laws, etc. – raise the costs of employment. Therefore, they are all retrogressive. So, the only real solution is to repeal ALL these retrogressive regulations in the labour market. The only hurdle is the political one. The rest is just playing with words.

An economic depression is not a bad thing

Most people I speak to think that an economic depression is a problem that needs to be solved. Take a look at this article, for instance. This notion is far from correct. An economic depression is a period of necessary correction. An economic depression is necessarily and always preceded by an inflationary boom.

The real problem is the inflationary boom for which the bust is the cure

During the boom, policies targeted at interest rate depression allow the banking system to expand credit way beyond the available pool of real savings. This results in massive investments into projects that never would have been invested in on the free market. At the very least, new investments would need to be accompanied by
1. additional net saving by consumers
2. movement of capital from lines of production of other less preferred goods
These prevent the possibility of an inflationary boom. These conditions are a logical necessity for the new investment to happen.

However, an inflationary boom creates malinvestments. The process of creating the inflationary boom necessarily also includes the pins required to prick the bubble at some unexpected point in time. When this happens, the market reassesses all the investments made and sorts them into good and bad investments. This is done through the profit/loss mechanism and made explicit through the phenomenon of business bankruptcy. While this process involves pain, without it, the market cannot realign investments to be in line with consumer preferences, especially across time periods.

Economists would say that the boom causes intertemporal discoordination while the bust corrects those errors and brings about the highly necessary intertemporal coordination once again.

The free market is capable of keeping the inflationary boom in check

Even if the banking industry or a segment of it were to engage in fractional reserve banking by emitting far more paper, plastic and electronic forms of money than the real money commodity that they have on hand, the free market has a built-in mechanism to keep this under check. This is called bank failures.

Let us take, for instance, a region that uses dollars defined as a 1 ounce coin made of sterling silver as the unit of money. If a bank with $1 million in real dollars issues $10 million in paper dollars, the over-supply of paper dollars can easily be identified by the market. Further, the fact that on this market, every bank’s notes would be clearly identified with the bank (they would be printed as XYZ bank notes) and the market would easily be able to establish different rates of discounts for notes issued by different banks.

A more inflationary bank’s notes would be more deeply discounted than the notes of a less inflationary bank. Prices of goods might be quoted in dollars but one would have to fork out more $1 notes of an inflationary bank than the quoted dollar price. For instance, if an inflationary bank’s notes faced a discount of 50% on the market, a customer wishing to buy a good priced at $50 by paying in notes of the inflationary bank will need to fork out notes of $100 face value. If the discount were 75% because the bank is perceived as highly inflationary, he will need to fork out notes of $200 face value. Thus, the greater the inflationary condition that the market sees in a bank, the less valuable would be the money substitutes emitted by the bank.

Further, the more inflationary a bank is assessed to be, the more likely it is to be brought down by note and deposit holders walking into the bank’s branches and asking for real money in exchange. While this could be due to a loss of trust in the bank, it could also be because a trusting customer has issued a cheque to the customer of another bank that is asking the inflationary bank to pay in real dollars (which it does not have).

Such failures of fractional reserve banks would lead to a more cautious public wary of inflationary fractional reserve banks. Fractional reserve banks would then have to incentivise people to place money in their accounts, which in turn would raise the cost of their funds available for loans. In addition, being rated as a non-inflationary bank would make a bank more attractive to a public seeking greater safety of their money. In this process, the very service of getting rated on inflationary practices would become a valuable service that could be offered by rating agencies. Thus, we see that on the free-market, there exist many possibilities of mechanisms to keep fractional reserve banking in check.

If fractional reserve banking is in check, so is the inflationary boom. Thus, we see that an inflationary boom of the kind that we see today is impossible on the free market and that it is only fractional reserve banking with no market controls that causes the inflationary boom.

When we will encounter massive inflationary booms

Massive inflationary booms necessarily require massive interventions that prevent the functioning of market mechanisms. These typically take the form of government action aimed at protecting the inflationary segments of the banking industry. Today, these take the following forms
1. Central Banking with a monopoly on money issue and bank licensing
2. Central Banking as a source of lending of last resort to failing banks
3. Deposit insurance that is politically motivated and priced
4. Legal tender laws that force acceptance of inflated money substitutes at par
5. Capital gains taxes on alternate forms of money
In the absence of these forms of protection, it is impossible for a fractional reserve banking system to become as prevalent as it has become today.

The conclusion

We need to stop fearing or hating the economic depression. What we really need to be wary of is the inflationary boom that forces the pain of the bust on people at large. We also need to fear all the interventions that make the inflationary boom possible and the periodic pain of the depression a “necessary” feature of our lives.

Fixing Inflation

This article raises an issue very relevant to the times we live in – fixing inflation. Summarising what Mr. Subbarao says, inflation is a supply side problem. That means that according to him, inability of the system of production to keep up with the ever-rising demand for goods and services is responsible for steadily rising prices. This inability, he implies, is due to fiscal policy failures and a slow pace of reform dragging economic growth down. The responsibility for fixing the problem, as per Mr. Subbarao, lies with the government. In his opinion, there is precious little that the RBI can do to stimulate growth without stoking the fires of inflation.

Mr. Chidambaram, on the other hand, believes that he has done what he could and was expected to do, i.e., keep fiscal deficit under control, to keep inflation under control, and that the ball is now in the RBI’s court. He believes it is time for the RBI to cut interest rates and tinker with other parameters in its control (like CRR and SLR) to boost growth.

What do we, as ordinary people, make of this debate happening in rarefied environs? Let me make a beginning by focusing, in this article, on inflation.

What is inflation?

The commonly accepted definition of inflation is the steady rise in prices, which is measured through price indices like WPI and CPI. The Classical (Original) definition of inflation, however, is the increase in money supply. This might come as a surprise to many of you because all you may have heard is the commonly accepted definition given above. So here, here, here and here are some links that confirm what I am saying.

Which of these is meaningful and useful?

Only the Classical definition of inflation is meaningful and helps us understand real world phenomena like ever-rising prices while the commonly accepted definition is utterly useless.

Why is the Classical definition meaningful and useful?

Money is a commodity like any other. It has a price too. That price is determined, like it is for all other commodities, by the forces of supply and demand. When money supply increases, the price of money falls. When the price of money falls, the prices of goods and services denominated in that money rise. A steady rise in the supply of money causes a steady rise in prices. Thus, the Classical definition of inflation helps us understand the real world phenomenon of rising prices from fundamentals and is therefore meaningful.

Why is the commonly accepted definition of inflation useless?

Defining inflation as the steady rise in prices tells us nothing about what caused prices to rise in the first place. Explanations like the demand-pull and cost-push theories, and structural/built-in inflation are based on elementary economic fallacies and errors. For instance, if we say that prices are rising because demand is rising, what caused the demand to rise in the first place? If we say prices rise because costs rise, aren’t costs prices themselves? Are we then not bound to explain what caused THOSE prices to rise first? If we do not, would we not be guilty of engaging in circular reasoning by saying that rising prices cause prices to rise? And is saying that some price rise is “built-in” not a negation of economic theory itself, especially price theory, which seeks to explain prices from fundamentals?

A small point of caution while using the Classical definition of Inflation

It often happens that productivity improvements send supply of goods and services up so rapidly that we do not see rising prices but stable or even mildly falling prices. In such cases, it is important to bear in mind that in the absence of inflation, prices of these goods and services would have been much lower than they currently are. So, merely observing stable, slowly rising or mildly falling prices in the face of increase in money supply does not negate the Classical definition of inflation.

What causes money supply to increase steadily?

As explained in my previous post, the banking system that we live with is the fundamental and most proximate cause of inflation. Fractional Reserve Banking is based on creating money many multiples of the monetary base we start with. A banking system with a 10% reserve ratio can multiply every Re. 1 into Rs. 10. The Rs. 9 is addition of money supply by the banking system.

Central Banks (like RBI) make matters worse. They have reserve ratios of their own based on which they lend reserves to banks. The US Fed, for instance, has a reserve ratio of 35%. This means that the Fed multiplies the banking system’s monetary base by 1/0.35 or 2.9 times. Combined with the banking system’s reserve ratio, every $1 can be multiplied into $29. The inflationary potential of the banking system is thus magnified by Central Banks.

Government spending draws resources from the private sector through taxation and borrowing. All this leads to a pressure to keep increasing money supply.

It is these 3 factors – the Banking System, Central Banks and Government – that are responsible for causing inflation (as per the Classical definition).

What does this help us do?

At the very least, it helps us pin the blame for the phenomenon of ever-rising prices. At a deeper level, it gives a solution to the problem. All it takes to solve the problem of inflation is for the triumvirate identified above to stop engaging in inflation (as per the Classical definition).

The question is, would they? And if they would not, why is it so? These are important questions that we will find answers to in subsequent posts.

The humble idli, politics and economics

The Indian politician has never been the symbol of economic wisdom. I am truly privileged (/sarcasm) to live in a part of India where politicians never cease to be funny and do hilariously stupid things. The latest in the line of economic foolishness is this

http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2013-03-02/news/37389936_1_idli-subsidised-canteens-dmk-government

No matter what economic theory says, politicians will play politics and this is just one more example.

First, prices of goods are determined by the forces of demand and supply. Demand and supply, in turn, are determined by the subjective preferences of all the individuals who constitute the market. No one’s whim can supplant the will of the market as a whole.

Second, every unit of every factor employed in the production of a good will be paid its Marginal Value Product. In simple terms, if an additional unit of a factor earns a firm Rs. 5000 per month, Rs. 5000 per month (or a suitably discounted amount to account for the time difference) is what will be paid to the factor. Employers do not whimsically decide what they wish to pay any factor, be it land or labour. In the long run, those who decide on whim will either be put out of business or be taught a lesson by the market.

Third, in the long run, there is no such thing as profit except for the entrepreneur’s act of wisdom in identifying underpricing of factors in the market. Even such profits are short-lived because they attract capital into that line of production leading to falling price spreads and the eventual elimination of profit. All that capitalists earn, in the long run, is the interest income for waiting to consume.

Finally, the real cause of steadily rising prices is government and the politicians themselves. It is government that is responsible for steadily increasing money supply sending prices of all goods and services perpetually upward except for occasional blips. If a politician really wants to address the burning issue of rising prices making essential commodities unaffordable to the poor, he needs to make difficult political decisions and bring government expenditure to the bare minimum, if not to zero. All subsidies and other forms of welfare have to be stopped. Government should, at the worst, limit itself to policing, national defence and judicial services (Frankly, there is no argument for government having a monopoly on these as well, but let me rest that argument for another day).

If idlis currently cost Rs. 3 apiece even at the road-side eateries, that means that no one can afford to sell them at a price below that and hope to stay in business for long. Government may think it is beyond the laws of scarcity, supply and demand but in reality, it is not. Someone will have to bear the cost of these cheap idlis and who better than the tax payer. As the government creates a deep hole in its pockets, what else will it do but dig deep into the pockets of ordinary, hard-working, honestly earning citizens. More taxes are on the way!

And taxes mean that we all pay the price in more ways than one. First, we consume less today than we would if we weren’t taxed. Second, we save and invest less. Therefore, production in the private sector suffers in the long-run. So through a relative shrinking of the production structure resulting in lower supply of goods and services and lowered employment of factors, we all suffer a lower standard of living.

If governments do not explicitly tax citizens to make up the additional deficit, they will have to implicitly tax them by inflating money supply. The consequence of this is the very price rise that politicians seek to contain by subsidising idlis.

The simple lesson that we have to learn and throw at our politicians is this – Prices are a market phenomenon that no politician can hope to control. Rather than engage in futile attempts to control prices, politicians should work towards shrinking government to the point where its existence does not impoverish ordinary people to enrich those in and connected to government.

Union Budget 2013-14 – A repeat of the annual farce

It just happened. Mr. P Chidambaram just laid out the Union Budget for the Fiscal Year 2013-14. As usual, it was accompanied by the usual hoopla including portraying P Chidambaram dancing Gangnam Style and interviewing his granddaughter who has just turned 12 (Bless the child!) and was apparently very excited at being allowed to be in Parliament for the occasion. Newspapers and television channels allotted prime space/time for discussion of budget expectations (pre-Budget) and budget analysis (post-budget).

But how relevant is the Union Budget to our lives really? If at all it is, in what way is it relevant? These are important questions for everyone of us to understand.

What is the Union Budget?

It is basically a declaration of the government’s plans to spend money and its corresponding plans to fund these expenditures. Government incurs a wide variety of expenditures, every one of which needs to be paid for. The Union Budget lays out the sources of funding for government’s expenditures. This is usually in the form of proposals related to taxation of different forms. Announcements are made regarding tax structure and levels of taxation. As part of the Budget, government also makes certain policy announcements. These too, incidentally, take the form of government’s approach to taxing individuals and corporations.

As the expenditures of the government typically exceed its tax revenues, the government usually also indicates its borrowing plan. This is usually indicated by the Fiscal Deficit. The larger the fiscal deficit, the more the government will need to create new money or borrow from the markets.

An important supporting document usually released just before the Budget is the annual Economic Survey. This document is put together by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation through the different statistical bodies working under it. The Economic Survey presents the state of the economy in terms of the total output of goods and services in the just-concluding fiscal year. The MSPI also comes up with projections on various macroeconomic indicators, the one most watched out for is the GDP growth estimate for the coming fiscal year, i.e., the year for which the Union Budget is being presented.

The perceived relevance of the Union Budget

Ordinary people look to the budget to know how much tax they are going to bear in the year ahead. Business houses look out for policies that would particularly impact the businesses they are into or plan to enter, specifically through proposals related to taxation. Economists study the Budget in terms of the macroeconomic consequences of its implementation. That means looking out for the impact of policy initiatives on key economic indicators such as growth, inflation, unemployment, etc.

Is the budget relevant to the common man?

Of course it is. It tells people how much of their income they get to keep and how much will be taken away by government. The common assessment of the budget is largely in terms of who will be benefited by it and who harmed, and by how much. A broader assessment of the Budget is in terms of the macroeconomic effects of Budget proposals. Typical analysis looks at which sectors and industries would be benefited by the budget proposals and which ones adversely affected, in what way and to what extent. Even broader analysis looks at GDP growth estimates, the impact on the economic climate and key economic variables like money supply.

How to judge a Budget?

Every affected party typically evaluates the budget in terms of the impact on him. Those who carry a relatively larger burden typically deride the budget while those who are relatively less burdened or benefited praise it. Economists judge it is terms of the extent to which it addresses what they see as the key macroeconomic issues of the day. An economist who sees slow growth as the problem would judge it according to the extent to which it will accelerate growth.

How do we judge Budget 2013-14?

In simple terms, it is a bad budget. Frankly, any budget that does not show zero expenditures and hence zero revenues is a bad budget. The best that one can say about this and any budget is if it indicates an intention to slowly roll back government expenditure to the point where it eventually just does not exist and therefore government has no need to identify sources of revenue.

Why do I say this?

Government spending money is nothing more than a form of intervention in the otherwise free market. Any government intervention in the economy is economically detrimental. Since the Budget is essentially a statement on government’s plans to spend money, and tax and borrow to fund it, thus intervening in the economy at many levels, it is fundamentally bad.

Is this an extreme view?

Of course it is. But then one needs to decide whether an extreme view is necessarily an unsound view. For instance, none of you would argue that I am presenting an unjustifiably extreme view point if I say that a person who wants to stay alive and maintain good health should consistently eat healthy foods and not regularly consume a mixture of healthy foods, unhealthy foods and poison. So, do not be in a hurry to judge what I say as unsound just because it is extreme.

What is the justification for this extreme view?

The free market is the complex of voluntary exchanges engaged in by all individuals. The very fact that every exchange is voluntary means that every individual is ex-ante subjectively better off as a result of every exchange he decides to enter into. Since every exchange leaves every person better off, the sum total of all exchanges leaves every individual at the point of greatest possible well being given his circumstances.

Government intervention in the form of taxation followed by spending, on the other hand, is a form of violent exchange. One individual is coerced into parting with his resources so that government may pass it on to other individuals. While the recipients benefit, the individual who is coerced to part with his resources is clearly worse off. The very fact that the individual is coerced tells us that whatever he may get in exchange for the resources he is forced to give up is valued less by him than what he gives up. Therefore, he is clearly worse off. It is impossible for the economist to square this off with the benefits accruing to the beneficiaries because (the economic concept of) value is a subjective quantity that is not amenable to interpersonal comparison of any kind. So any attempts at cost-benefit analysis of tax and spend policies are essentially economically unsound. The only thing that is certain is that some people are worse off as a result of the intervention. This is in keeping with the fundamental nature of violent exchange as can be seen in the simple case of robbery.

Government intervention through tax and spend policies also diverts resources from private preferences for consumption and investment into consumption according to the political preferences of those in government. It draws society’s scarce resources away from the market where they are applied to the satisfaction of the ends most valued by all individuals. These resources are no more available for consumption and investment by individuals and the economy is consequently adversely affected.

Yes! Government does build roads and bridges and other things that we call infrastructure. It does run schools and hospitals. It does engage in a wide range of welfare activities. But the important point to note is that none of these was voluntarily preferred by the people who constitute the market. If they had, there would have been no need for government to fund them by coercively taking away private resources. Anyone who wants to argue based on the positive effects of government spending would be well reminded of Frederic Bastiat’s point about the seen vs the unseen.

While it is tempting to look at the roads and bridges built, the schools and hospitals run and the poor fed and clothed by government’s spending, it is also important to look at what the individuals whose resources were coercively taken away would have done with these resources had they not been taken away. All the spending and the consequent production in those lines, the spending and production that never happened but would have happened, is the unseen that we should take note of.

As Bastiat notes in the example of the baker whose shop window is broken by a stone throwing vandal, society is a net loser in such cases because while the breaking of the window results in income and employment in the glass making and allied industries, some other industry where the baker would have spent the money he spends to mend the window loses income and employment. The baker now has only a shop window. Had the window not been broken, he would have had the window AND whatever else he would have spent on, say a suit. From an economic perspective, we can clearly see that society is a suit less as a result of the broken window.

Anyone claiming that the government’s spending and the subsequent spending of the income by the recipients of the government’s largesse has beneficial effects would essentially be engaging in a modern instance of the Broken Window Fallacy.

Further, it is important to note that all government expenditure is fundamentally consumption. The mere building of structures and implements does not constitute investment from an economic perspective. If I build a pathway to beautify my garden, it would constitute consumption and not investment, unless of course I plan to capitalise it when I sell the house subsequently. Similarly, for the government functionary, the dam or the road is an end in itself and not a means to another economic end (though it is indeed a means to a political end – more public support and a longer stint in power).

Conclusion

Like every government budget presented thus far, Budget 2013-14 too is an exercise in interventionism. The Budget is fundamentally a political and not an economic document. It is just a refined way of adding gloss to the Broken Window Fallacy and justifying unsound economic policies. It only lays out whom the government plans to enrich at someone else’s expense. It is a sophisticated cover for the government’s essentially violent actions aimed at redistributing wealth according to the preferences of those in power. The sooner finance ministers get down to the job of reducing government expenditures systematically, preferably with the aim of bringing them down to zero, the sooner we will be on the path of greater well-being for all.