Indian officials shape plan to cut spending, budget deficit

New Delhi: India's finance ministry is working on a proposal for the new government to cut welfare spending and rein in the deficit in its first budget, to allay fears of fiscal slippage that would increase the risk of a sovereign credit downgrade.

Two senior ministry officials told Reuters the plan would make it possible for Narendra Modi's incoming government to reduce the current year's fiscal deficit and save Rs250 billion (Dh15.7 billion) in borrowing.

The proposal could create room to narrow the deficit by as much as 0.3 percentage points from the 4.1 per cent of gross domestic product now budgeted. It would be put forward for the next finance's minister's consideration, and the government would decide whether to follow its recommendations.

Investors and ratings agencies have given Modi's pro-growth agenda a vote of confidence, but have expressed concern that a sluggish economy could cause the previous government's fiscal arithmetic to unravel.

However, permanent staff at the finance ministry believe there is scope to trim the deficit rather than see it widen in a way that puts India's investment-grade sovereign rating at risk.

'the fiscal deficit can surely be brought down to at least 3.8 or 3.9 per cent as there is enough scope to cut down wasteful expenditure, one senior official helping draft the budget told Reuters.

Bond prices, rupee rises

Investors bought Indian bonds and the rupee on the news of the plan, with yields on benchmark 10-year government bonds falling by 5 basis points to 8.72 per cent, and the rupee pushing to 58.43 to the dollar from 58.51 previously.

Modi, who will be sworn in on Monday, led his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to a landslide general election victory. He is widely expected to name close ally Arun Jaitely as finance minister.

The revised budget is due to be presented to parliament in early July. BJP sources say the new government may scrap or revise the deficit target set in former finance minister P. Chidambaram's interim budget.

The new government's first budget will be a key indicator of Modi's priorities and legislative agenda, Fitch Ratings said in a note this week.

Wasteful spending

Savings could come from state subsidies and an employment guarantee scheme for the rural poor, the finance ministry officials said. Both are signature policies of the ousted Congress-led government that have been criticised for waste.

Lowering the deficit even by 0.2 percentage points could reduce government borrowings in the fiscal year that began April 1 by about Rs250 billion from an earlier estimate of Rs5.97 trillion.

'the government can easily save Rs130-140 billion on the rural jobs programme, said another senior official, adding about 75 per cent of spending on it was wasted, causing inflation in food prices and burdening taxpayers.

He said the Modi wave in financial markets that has propelled benchmark Indian stock indexes to record highs could also make it easier for the new government to sell more shares in state-run companies.

The rupee's appreciation against the dollar should also help the Modi government to keep tabs on oil and fertiliser subsidies a major drag on India's budget.

India imports 80 per cent of its crude oil needs. The government covered about half of the $24 billion in losses that state-owned fuel retailers incurred last fiscal year because of price controls. The remainder was compensated through discounts from state-run upstream oil companies.

Can bottlenecks be removed?

The rupee has appreciated more than 7.5 per cent against the dollar since January's low of 63.22 to a dollar.

Chidambaram cut $13 billion in capital spending and deferred nearly $16 billion in subsidies to lower the fiscal deficit to about 4.5 per cent of GDP.

Industry and rating agencies hope that Modi will pursue supply-side reforms to unblock bottlenecks in the economy and reduce inflationary pressures. Success could give the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) room to ease interest rates.

But BJP officials said the first budget would offer a limited opportunity for major policy shifts because of the inherited financial burden, though it could reform expenditures.

'there are several central schemes which are either overlapping or... lying under-utilised, said Nirmala Sitharaman, a senior BJP spokeswoman. It is one of the issues on which immediate attention would be paid.


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