A capital cost of capacity

March 3, 2008

Demand is growing faster than anticipated. And there is such dearth of infrastructure that new capacities will be absorbed promptly

Last month, the showpiece urban transportation project, the 28km Delhi-Gurgaon expressway was inaugurated. Another big-ticket project, Bangalore International Airport Ltd, is set to begin operations in March. In the case of the expressway, traffic on the first day was what was projected for 2013. In Bangalore, the passenger traffic will cross 11.3 million—a number initially projected for 2015—by the end of the year. In both cases, capacities for the first year are inadquate.

Clearly, the project planners in both instances got their projections quite wrong. But, if one steps back, a more complex picture emerges. The most obvious fact is that demand is growing faster than anticipated. And there is such dearth of infrastructure that new capacities will be absorbed promptly. In contrast, China seems to be a case of excess capacities.

Another factor being debated is that this is not a simple case of an owner-operator failing to anticipate traffic. Any entrepreneur would see the obvious and plan for it. Instead, it is argued, given the cost of capital, one shouldn’t expect anything different. Our real interest rate—corrected for inflation—is about 7%, probably among the highest in the world. Hence, the entrepreneur’s action would be an error of commission—to minimise project risk.

The other side of the coin is that the pricing of public services is subsidized, largely to ensure that the less well off can avail the benefits. In other words, far more people can afford to consume these services than otherwise. While not making a case for leaving out these segments, there is need to strike a correction.

The reason is simple.

Subsidized consumption, like other political largesse, comes at a fiscal cost. Not only does this push up the cost of capital, it also—since government borrowings inevitably expand money supply—stokes inflationary pressures, hurting the very people that the government set about protecting. In China it is the opposite, where fiscal profligacy subsidizes investment.

Both extremes are unsustainable. Given India’s mixed socio-economic demography, there is a case for revisiting subsidized consumption. A good beginning would be if the political parties arrive at a consensus that ensures bad economics will no longer be passed off as sensitive politics.

A precedent exists. Gujarat, in the early 1990s, had come out with a document detailing an all-party commitment to structural reforms in the state. That no doubt underlines the economic success of the state over the past decade.

Source: livemint.com

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