As multiple analysts have pointed out several times, India’s corporate sector was faced with a heavy and skewed burden of taxes. While the headline tax rate of 30 percent does not sound very high, after accounting for the various cess and surcharge and the tax on dividends, effective tax rate came to almost 50 percent for large companies. Even for smaller companies where the headline tax rate was 25 percent, the effective tax rate was north of 40 percent. This, when most other comparable Asian countries have a corporate tax rate of less than 25 percent. In a highly globalised environment of today, this reduced the competitiveness both of India’s corporate sector as well as that of India as an investment destination.
But even ignoring the relative comparisons, a very high absolute tax rate disincentivised the corporate form of doing business and in a sense encouraged subscale businesses. Not surprisingly, less than 2 percent of the non-agricultural businesses in India are under the corporate structure. Given this context, the government’s announcement yesterday to reduce the headline corporate tax rate to 22 percent from 30 percent for all companies is certainly a positive step. For the larger companies, this reduces the effective marginal rate of tax by almost 10 ppt which is a material delta. Assuming 100 percent payout as dividend and the entire dividend subject to tax in the hands of the recipient, the effective tax rate on corporate profit falls by around 7ppt – still a material delta.
The most obvious question that arises is whether this reduction, by itself, is enough to revive the economy. And the answer is a circumspect ‘No’. Yes, the lower tax rate will boost corporate profits and corporate profits are an important determinant of corporate investments. But the lower corporate tax will only be a one-time boost to corporate profit growth. For businesses to invest, there should be an ex-ante expectation that the investment would earn a reasonable rate of return and tax rate is a relatively small factor in this. Factors such as underlying demand and/or competitive forces are far bigger factors in this dynamic.
Project viability matters
A lower tax rate only marginally tilts the scale in case of unviable projects by increasing the post-tax RoE but it cannot materially alter the viability of a project. This is not to say that tax rate is irrelevant, just that other factors can overwhelm it, especially in the short-term.
The other way the lower taxes could work themselves through the economy is if companies pass on the benefit of lower taxes to their consumers through lower prices and this stimulates demand. This is plausible, but if this was the government’s intention, it was better achieved through lower indirect taxes since there is a much stronger correlation between lower taxes and lower prices in the case of indirect taxes than it is in the case of direct taxes. That said, the fact that this measure by itself may not revive investments or demand in the economy does not, by itself, take away from the merits of this decision.
As discussed above, the corporate tax rate in India was high and the government has attempted to correct it. It, at the margin, encourages the corporate form of doing business and thus formalisation and it also makes India a more attractive destination for investment by overseas companies than before. At the margin it also tilts the balance in case of some projects that otherwise would not have happened. That is welcome. The recent announcements should thus be looked upon as ‘necessary but not sufficient’.
Progressiveness of corporate tax
The other question that arises is whether the course of action the government has chosen to reduce the tax rate was the best possible method. The most obvious point is that the biggest distortion in corporate tax structure was the triple taxation of dividends (which is a way of returning excess profits back to owners) and the way to reduce this distortion was through elimination or reduction of dividend distribution tax rather than headline corporate tax. A lower burden of tax coupled with reduced or elimination of distortion is preferable to just a reduced burden of the tax.
The second issue is that the reduction of tax rate disproportionately favours large corporates and reduces the progressiveness of corporate tax (headline corporate tax rate for smaller companies was already at 25 percent). It would have been better to maintain the progressiveness of corporate tax by reducing the tax rate for smaller companies even more or reducing the quantum of tax reduction for the bigger companies. It is the smaller businesses that have a larger propensity to invest and employ relative to bigger companies.
A related issue is a perverse incentive that the lower tax rate (17 percent from the current 28.6 percent, before surcharges and cess) for new manufacturing companies creates. It incentivises shifting of newer manufacturing capacity of even existing companies into dedicated SPVs – whereas the intention of the lower tax rate is to attract brand new investment that otherwise would not have happened or at least tip the balance in case of some fence-sitter investments. This in a sense is the collateral, but inevitable, fiscal cost of this change.
The final issue for me is the cost of this ‘reform’. As per the government’s calculations, this tax reduction will cost around $20 billion which is around 0.7 percent of GDP – 0.4 percent of GDP to the central government and 0.3 percent of GDP to the state governments. What was left unsaid yesterday was how would this gap be filled given that the government is already staring at lower tax revenues even adjusting for the higher dividend from the RBI. Would the government cut back on expenditure in a major way to meet the deficit target or has the government given up on the fiscal deficit target? If the government must cut back sharply on expenditure then it would be negative for growth, relative to the expectation prior to yesterday, at least in the short run. And if the government were to abandon the fiscal deficit target altogether, it raises the prospects of higher inflation and interest rates and crowding out. And while many will argue that fiscal deficit is an abstract concept, lest we forget, we are an emerging market economy highly dependent on capital flows. And capital flows are fickle. For what it’s worth, the domestic bond markets have already sounded an alarm bell yesterday.
Avoid past mistakes
Lastly, policy makers should try and avoid the policy mistake of 2008-09. The policy mistake of 2008-09 was an outsized fiscal and monetary stimulus (and its delayed withdrawal) to the economy in response to a slowdown. The context today is, of course, different, but with the government having taken the fiscal route to boost the economy, it is time for monetary policy to become cautious. It is time for MPC members to have a hard discussion with the government over its fiscal strategy before taking a call on policy rate a couple of weeks down the line. The impact of any stimulus, fiscal or monetary, will be visible only after a lag. And so, caution needs to be exercised before continuing down the path of more stimulus. As our own experience shows, there can be something called ‘excessive stimulus’ with real costs.
To conclude, there is no doubt that a lowering of corporate taxes in India was long overdue. The only question is over the manner and timing. As they say, there is no ‘easy’ reform. For if there were one, it wouldn’t have taken this long for that reform to be done. Markets are currently focussing on the positive aspect of the reform. But there is a flipside also with respect to the government finances and its impact on other macro variables including growth itself. There will be a time markets will need to focus on that too…
Ashutosh Datar is the Founder of IndiaDataHub.com, an online platform that brings together all the public data (economic, social, financial) concerning India in an user-friendly analytical app. Before founding IndiaDataHub, he was with IIFL Institutional Equities for over a decade as their Strategist and Economist. Read Ashutosh Datar's columns