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Government readies next round of measures to boost economy

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The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and top officials of the finance ministry are working on administrative measures and incentive packages to boost the sluggish economy as the government is “deeply” concerned about the steep fall in key economic parameters besides dwindling revenue collections, three officials aware of the developments have said.

The PMO and the North Block have been conducting a series of meetings with central and state government officials to boost revenue generation, which is a necessary condition for prospective stimulus packages to create demand and induce consumption to boost the economy, they said.

One of the officials said that liquidity is no longer a major concern and the government has addressed investors’ sentiments by announcing unprecedented cuts in corporate tax rates by sacrificing Rs1.45 lakh crore. The government could now shift its focus to fuelling demand and stoking consumption, he said on condition of anonymity.

On the demand side, discussions are centred around reducing income tax rates sans exemptions, prodding banks to offer attractive EMIs for auto and housing loans, rejigging real estate laws and tax structure and reducing compliance cost for builders on the condition that the same could be passed on to consumers, the official said.

The government is also exploring some incentive to perk up automobile sales, the official added. It is, however, finding it difficult to cut Goods and Services Tax (GST) on automobiles because states are unwilling to take about Rs 60,000-crore revenue hit, he said. Other proposals being discussed include raising public investments in infrastructure, particularly in rural areas, and asking state-run firms to front-load their budgeted expenditure, he added.

The government is expecting demand to pick up because of some recent decisions. The cabinet on October 9 raised dearness allowance (DA) of five million central government employees and 6.5 million retired employees by 5 percentage points, hoping that the Rs 10,600 crore-package will boost consumption in the ongoing festive season. “More such measures are expected, depending on the availability of funds,” another official said, asking not to be named.

According to a third official, intensive meetings on these issues took place at the PMO on Saturday and some of the meetings were also attended by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman. The PMO met senior officials of various states on Friday, prodding them to share the responsibility of Goods and Services Tax (GST) collection, which dropped alarmingly in September, they said. The GST collection in September was Rs 91,916 crore, lowest in 19 months and below Rs1 lakh crore consecutively for the second month.

The officials said the decline in GST collections also indicates a slowdown in the demand of goods and services, which has a direct bearing on the economic growth. India’s annual GDP growth in the quarter ending June 2019 was 5%, the lowest in 25 quarters. It also marked the fifth consecutive quarter of slowing growth in the Indian economy.

The government is concerned about the declining GDP growth, particularly after the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) cut the country’s growth projection by 80 basis points (one hundredth of a percentage point) to 6.1% for 2019-20 on October 4. As per the latest official data, India’s factory output contracted 1.1% in August, the worst performance in about seven years, signalling a deepening economic downturn. The auto sector, a weathervane of economic sentiment and also industrial health, has been hit hard, with passenger car sales in September falling 24% compared to a year ago. It was the eleventh straight month of decline in the segment.

On the issue of resource generation, the government is relying on efficiency in public expenditure, augmenting tax collection and maximising disinvestment proceeds. The government may also deviate marginally from the fiscal deficit roadmap and borrow resources to boost the economy and make up for it in subsequent financial years, the officials said.

In an interview with Karan Thapar for The Wire on Thursday, Bibek Debroy, the chairperson of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, said that the government could miss the fiscal deficit target of 3.3% of GDP set in the budget.

“The government needs resources to offer more stimulus as it is committed to bring the economy again at the higher growth trajectory. A series of announcements in this regard is expected,” the first official said.

The finance minister has already announced five rounds of fiscal, administrative and policy measures to stimulate the economy since August 23 and the biggest one was on September 20, when corporate tax rates were slashed.

“More stimulus means more money, hence the government is making efforts to augment revenue collections,” the second official said, adding that the government may also reduce personal income tax rate to boost consumption. But the move will depend on its implication on the overall revenue, the official added. Hindustan Times had on October 1 reported about the possible move.

In the interview, Debroy said “it (a personal tax rate cut) is inevitable” with elimination of exemptions. “When it will happen, it is for the finance minister to announce,” he said. A similar view was expressed by NITI Aayog vice-chairman Rajiv Kumar, as reported by NDTV on October 4. “I have heard that there are demands of personal income tax rate cuts and I am fully confident that the government is holding consultations and discussions on this matter,” NDTV quoted Kumar as saying.

The Prime Minister’s Office is constantly monitoring the country’s growth revival efforts and, on Friday, it cautioned states to share the responsibility of GST administration failing which they might face troubles after the compensation period is over in 2022, the third official said. It expressed concerns over falling GST revenue at a meeting with senior officials of states on Friday.

“It is also essential that GST revenues stabilise to ensure not only that states do not face fiscal stress when the compensation period is over in 2022, but also provide adequate revenues to finance development expenditure of states and centres,” an office memorandum of the GST Council Secretariat, issued on Thursday, said. Concerned about the fall in GST collection, the government on Thursday appointed a committee of central and state government officials to ascertain the reasons for the decline.

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Very critical situation for Vodafone in India, says CEO Nick Read

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Vodafone said its future in India could be in doubt unless the government stopped hitting operators with higher taxes and charges, after a court judgment over licence fees resulted in a €1.9 billion group loss in its first half. Chief executive officer (CEO) Nick Read said India, where Vodafone formed a joint venture with Idea Cellular in 2018, had been “a very challenging situation for a long time”, but Vodafone Idea still had 300 million customers, equating to a 30% share of the sizable market.

“Financially there’s been a heavy burden through unsupportive regulation, excessive taxes and on top of that we got the negative Supreme Court decision,” he said on Tuesday.

Vodafone had asked the government for a relief package comprising a two-year moratorium on spectrum payments, lower licence fees and taxes and the waiving of interest and penalties on the Supreme Court case, which centred on regulatory fees.

Asked if it made sense for Vodafone to remain in India without such a relief package, he said: “It’s fair to say it’s a very critical situation.”

India’s top court upheld a demand from the country’s telecoms department for $13 billion in overdue levies and interest last month, hitting the shares of both Vodafone Idea and rival Bharti Airtel.

Vodafone has clashed with Indian authorities over tax and regulatory issues ever since it entered the country with a $11 billion deal to buy 67% of Hutchison Essar in 2007.

The arrival of new entrant Reliance Jio Infocomm in 2016 added to Vodafone’s problems by sparking a brutal price war.

It responded by combining its operations with Idea Cellular, a deal that closed in 2018.

Read said Vodafone was not committing any more equity to India and the country effectively contributed zero value to the company’s share price. As a result of the ruling, it has written down the value of its stake in the joint venture to zero.

It also owns a stake in Indian tower operator Indus Towers, along with Bharti Airtel.

Vodafone’s shares were up 1.7% at 163 pence at 1040 GMT as investors focused on an upgrade to its earnings forecast rather than India.

UPGRADED FORECAST

The world’s second largest mobile operator reported improving organic revenue growth with signs of improvement in Spain and Italy and as it integrates a German cable acquisition.

It said organic service revenue rose 0.3% in the first half, as it returned to growth in the second quarter, while organic core earnings rose 1.4%.

It increased its forecast for adjusted core earnings to €14.8-15 billion from its previous forecast of €13.8-14.2 billion, but said India and lower cash flows following the sale of assets in New Zealand meant free cash flow would be “around” €5.4 billion, rather than the “at least” €5.4 billion previously forecast.

Apart from India, Read said he was pleased with progress.

“This is reflected in our return to top-line growth in the second quarter, which we expect to build upon in the second half of the year in both Europe and Africa,” he said.

Read cut Vodafone’s dividend for the first time in May after tough market conditions and a need to invest in its networks and airwaves caused him to backtrack on his pledge not to reduce the payout.

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Rupee slips below 72-mark against USD

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The Indian rupee dropped below the 72-level against the US dollar in intra-day trade on Wednesday amid growing concerns over country’s poor economic indicators. The Indian currency was trading 57 paise lower at 72.04 against the US dollar at 1548 hours.

On Monday, the local unit had closed at 71.47 against the US dollar.

Forex market was closed on Tuesday for “Guru Nanak Jayanti”.

Forex traders attribute the weakness in the forex market to weak factory output numbers and weak global cues.

Showing signs of sluggishness in the economy, industrial production shrank by 4.3 per cent in September, registering the weakest performance in seven years due to output decline in manufacturing, mining and electricity sectors, as per official data released on Monday.

According to the Central Statistics Office data, 4.3 per cent contraction is the lowest in 2011-12 series of Index of Industrial Production (IIP), which was unveiled in May 2017. The IIP had declined by 0.7 per cent in April, 2012.

Factory output, measured in terms of IIP, had expanded by 4.6 per cent in September 2018.

On the global front, investors remained concerned over uncertainty in US-China trade deal.

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Saudi Aramco takes another step toward first public offering

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Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil giant Aramco revealed it will sell up to 0.5% of its shares to individual investors, but in a lengthy document published late Saturday it did not disclose how much of the company will be floated when it goes public on the country’s domestic exchange.

Still, the highly-anticipated sale of even just a sliver of the company is expected to make this the world’s biggest initial public offering. Saudi Aramco is the most profitable company globally, producing more than 10 million barrels of crude oil a day, or some 10% of global demand.

Despite questions over Aramco’s valuation and how much of the company will ultimately be for sale on Saudi Arabia’s Tadawul stock exchange, the company’s size and profitability has made it undeniably attractive to potential investors. Trading could begin as soon as Dec. 11, according to state-linked media.

The oil and gas company had profits of $111 billion last year, more than Apple, Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil combined.

In a roughly 650-page preliminary prospectus, Aramco said the offering period for investors will begin Nov. 17. It will close for individual investors on Nov. 28 and for institutional investors on Dec. 4. Aramco will price its shares on Dec. 5, according to the document.

The company stated its plans to pay out an annual dividend of at least $75 billion starting in 2020, but questions linger over how much Aramco is worth.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has said the company is worth some $2 trillion, but analysts estimate the value is closer to $1.5 trillion.

The kingdom’s plan to sell a small percentage of the company is part of an ambitious economic overhaul spearheaded by the crown prince to raise new streams of revenue for the oil-dependent country, particularly as oil prices struggle to reach the $75 to $80 price range per barrel analysts say is needed to balance Saudi Arabia’s budget. Brent crude closed Friday at around $62 a barrel.

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