Mumbai: A poor monsoon threatens to worsen India’s already steep fiscal deficit as it spends on food imports and relief for farmers, although the government is seen tapping the bond market only as a last resort to fund any further shortfall.
With investors already forced to absorb a record Rs4.51 trillion in borrowing this year, New Delhi is expected to look elsewhere for funds to plug the growing budget gap, including the sale of 3G or third-generation mobile spectrum and stakes in state-owned companies.
The government could also cut spending. “Probably they need to borrow more but there is no appetite. So it is kind of a deadlock situation,” said J. Moses Harding, head of the global markets group at IndusInd Bank Ltd in Mumbai.
Drought relief could push up India’s fiscal deficit by as much as $4 billion (Rs19,400 crore), or 0.5 percentage points, economists say. Already, the government expects a fiscal deficit of 6.8% of gross domestic product (GDP) for the year ending in March—its highest in 16 years.
Bleak outlook: A farmer in his field in Palwal, Haryana. Food subsidies could top Rs60,000 crore this year. Rajkumar / Mint
Worries about looming inflation have curbed demand for longer-dated bonds, forcing the government this month to unveil a shorter-term notes programme to manage liquidity. “It is very clear the demand side market is saturated,” said Arvind Sampath, head of interest rates trading at Standard Chartered Bank in Mumbai. “They will find other sources such as 3G to finance those but not stretch the bond market any more.”
Including state-level shortfalls, India’s total fiscal deficit may hit double digits as a percentage of GDP this year. On Thursday, the Union government gave states permission to borrow an additional $4.3 billion in the current year.
Rainfall was 26% below normal in the June-September monsoon season through 19 August, threatening crops including rice and sugar and sending food prices higher, even as overall inflation remains muted given last year’s high base effect on record oil prices.
Food subsidies, meanwhile, are rising. Agriculture minister Sharad Pawar said they would top Rs60,000 crore this year, about 15% higher than was estimated last month.
In 2002-03, the last major drought year, the Union government’s fiscal deficit came in at 5.9 % of GDP, higher than the budget estimate of 5.3%. Agriculture’s share of the overall economy, however, has decreased to around 17% from 21%.
Benchmark 10-year government bond yields are already at nine-month highs on worries about heavy supplies after a poorly received auction last week. But traders are not yet worried that drought relief measures will translate to increased issuance.
Finance secretary Ashok Chawla said last week that there was no need to borrow beyond the amount already targeted, and said adjustments to spending would be made from the existing budget.
If rain this season is so poor that the winter sowing season is also threatened, however, pressure could build for the government to step up spending on measures such as subsidized imports and rural welfare programmes.
Elections later this year in a handful of states raise the stakes for the ruling Congress-led coalition to deliver for its key rural constituency.
“I think there will be a modest deterioration and it will probably be thanks to expenditure spillover, particularly food subsidy,” said Atsi Sheth, chief economist at Reliance Equities.
Economists say a drought could curb growth by as much as 2 percentage points. The central bank and finance ministry expect growth of 6% or more, compared with 6.7% last year after three years averaging 9.4%.
India’s fiscal deficit, meanwhile, appears poised to remain stubbornly high. Abheek Barua, chief economist at HDFC Bank Ltd in New Delhi, said he expects the weak monsoon to drive the fiscal deficit to 7.1-7.3% of GDP this year, with a possible spillover into the following year. “I think what we are getting sort of trapped in is a situation of persistently high deficits,” he said.