India Inc awaits fiscal push from Centre to keep afloat

The government has hinted at a fiscal package – but is yet to announce one – and 11 days into the three-week lockdown to stop the spread of the pandemic, everyone is beginning to get just a little restive.

As businesses around the country reel under the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown it has necessitated, business owners, executives and experts are looking to the government to do enough to keep companies afloat and healthy and, more importantly, to ensure that they do not engage in mass retrenchments.

The government has hinted at a fiscal package – but is yet to announce one – and 11 days into the three-week lockdown to stop the spread of the pandemic, everyone is beginning to get just a little restive. “The US has announced a package that is 10% of its GDP; the UK 15%; what have we done?” asked a senior executive at a large Mumbai based fund who asked not to be named. Sure, the US package also includes cheques to individuals, but it does have payments to businesses, especially the worst affected by the pandemic.

Officials in the finance ministry said on condition of anonymity that the ministry is monitoring the economy and will respond to any need, but declined to comment on a relief package.

There is broad agreement that the Indian economy will expand at its slowest pace in years in 2020-21. Fitch Ratings expect it to grow by 2%, the slowest in 30 years. The minority view is that it could actually contract. Nomura Global Market Research expects it to, by 0.5% for the calendar year 2020.

And unless there’s a strong incentive for employers to not lay off people, they will, a human resources consultant said on condition of anonymity. France, for instance, started off by deferring tax payments and payroll charges companies pay the government for the month of March. It is said to be mulling a larger bailout for firms.

“At the top, support needs to be provided for the employers — they need liquidity support. This can be facilitated through deferral of tax liabilities, exploring guarantee modalities for credit enhancement in working capital loans allowing higher limits of borrowing, direct benefit transfer by way of 25% salaries to registered enterprises with employees registered under EPF for companies with a specified turnover limit for a period of two to three months. This will limit layoffs or provide succour where layoffs are there,” said Ranen Banerjee, leader-Economic Advisory Services, PwC India.

India has announced a relief package for the most vulnerable – food and cash payments totaling 1.7 lakh crore – and relaxed some statutory requirements for companies. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has also strongly addressed the liquidity needs of the financial system (by effectively releasing Rs 3.74 lakh crore of liquidity), and ensured its stability.

But India has not offered the kind of direct relief to companies, especially large employers, that some other countries have announced. Nor has it announced relief for the salaried class – in the absence of any relief to companies, the HR consultant said companies could cut workforce “to the bone”.

Deepak Sood, the secretary general of industry body the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry said an immediate stimulus package of “$100 billion to $120 billion will help revive all sectors in the country”.

The consensus among most people HT spoke to is that more than sector-specific relief, generic relief – deferred tax, even tax holidays, and other such – is what is needed now. “Businesses should not be allowed to become bankrupt during this period of crisis. The government should defer tax payments of Q1 — both direct and indirect tax payments – by a quarter,” said Chandrajit Banerjee, director general of industry body Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). The industry body has also suggested that the government could provide a waiver for all provident fund and gratuity payments by employers for one year if the employer does not retrench or remove more than 10% of its workforce.

Even that may not be enough. CII released s snap poll of member-CEOs on Saturday that showed most companies expect revenues to fall more than 10% and profits to decline more than 5% in Q4, FY20 and in Q1, FY21. And one in four CEOs anticipate job losses, with 47% seeing cuts of up to 15% and another 32%, 15-30%, CII added. “We are looking for a larger package of at least 2-3% of GDP,” Banerjee added.

“The time has come for government to consider direct infusion or investments – on the lines of Troubled Assets Relief Programme (TARP, which the US announced after the 2008 crisis) — targeted at specific sectors, which are majorly impacted,” said Manish Aggarwal, partner and head, Infrastructure M&A and Special Situations Group, KPMG in India. He added that many countries have already announced several rounds of economic packages to aid businesses, workers and health care systems.

The government will need money for this and that can come from sale of “tax free bonds, revising fiscal deficit targets and fast-tracking monetization of operating assets” in infrastructure.

There’s even been some talk of “helicopter money” in some countries, including the US – a reference to the central bank or the government directing a huge amount of money to individuals and companies. The US central bank has pretty much signaled this with its chair, Jerome Powell saying that the US central bank will “not run out ammunition” to revive the economy. RBI governor Shaktikanta Das, too, said last week that the Indian central bank would do whatever it takes to combat the crisis.

Experts are convinced that this should broadly cover two areas. Banerjee of PwC said: “At the bottom (of the pyramid), cash doles and food distribution will have to continue for at least three to six months and be gradually phased out.”

DK Srivastava, chief policy advisor of EY India, added: “A major stimulus package is expected early in the new financial year. It will be needed as soon as the economic lock down ends and normal economic activities resumes. At that time demand will have to be supported through fiscal measures and these measures would supplement the already announced substantial monetary measures. The extent of fiscal stimulus in the first instance could be at least three times the magnitude of the relief package of INR 1.7 lakh crore which amounted to nearly 0.9% of GDP.”


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