DIY: Budget Expert

How to use words like ‘fiduciary receipts’, ‘fiscal discipline’ even without knowing what the heck they are

Chennai, Feb 1: By the time you read this, the Finance Minister may have finished presenting his Budget, and already the experts, with their freshly-trimmed French beards and thick-set glasses aglint with their erudition, would have been out of their attics and opinionating with authoritative gusto using terms like ‘fiscal improvidence’ and ‘countervailing duty’.

That these persons can pull these off barely minutes after the Finance Minister had finished reading the Budget underlines what it takes to be an ace budget analyst: Exactly. You have to just make things up on the fly. Even though in reality you fell into a deep sleep even before the FM came to the third paragraph on rural electrification. (The third paragraph is always on rural electrification or irrigation).

The thing about economics is that involves a lot of statistics, which of course means it involves a lot of numbers. When an average person sees numbers, his or her mind mostly freezes. After that you can just about say anything and get away.

Also, the real point is real persons don’t read or watch anything about the Budget. He or she is out there trying to make a real living.  I mean, take the demonetisation effort: A set of people say that it has caused enormous damage to the nation’s economy and have come up with a set of numbers. Meanwhile, another group says demonetisation has a favourable long-term impact and to bolster their case, they too have presented a set of numbers. Meanwhile, you and I have no time for any of this as we are just about making our way back home from the ATM queues.

Though economics expertise is all about, to use a strict technical word, bull-shitting, you need to be careful that PETA doesn’t ban you (for intruding into the rights of bulls). Okay, that was just a joke.

The thing is you yourself can sound like the experts with this simple three-point formula:

1. “Worrisome fiscal deficit”

Budget is basically like your body. There will be plenty of things inside that are anything but healthy at any given point.  And fiscal deficit is particularly like cholesterol. It is almost always never under control no matter what you do. And Finance Ministers, starting from R K Shamukham Chetty down to Jaitley (and including N D Tiwari, yes, this is a glorious nation that allowed N D Tiwari to present an Union Budget as the Finance Minister) have always said that their primary target while making the Budget was to reign in fiscal deficit. Thanks to which, fiscal deficits have always remained beyond acceptable limits.

So whoever is presenting the Budget, you can safely gambit, “the numbers from the FM is impressive, yet if you read the fine print, the elephant in the room will be visible” (Economists joyfully mix metaphors). “The fiscal deficit is worrisome and it is unclear from the Budget as to where the money is going to come from. The fiduciary receipts also need closer inspection”. (Pro tip: Any sentence that includes the word ‘fiduciary’ can be safely ignored. They don’t make any sense).

2.  Political Budget

India is always in one of these two modes: 1. Election-over. 2. Election-ready

The point is some State in the country is always poll-bound in the next 6 or 8 months. And political analysts (who, let the record show, are even more clueless than budget analysts) would have you believe that the result of that poll is “crucial for the government at the Centre and will also impact the next general elections”.

This is an absolute given, and you can safely say, “Prannoy,” (unless otherwise you are talking to Rajdeep, in which case you have to say, “at least allow me to get a word edgewise”), “if you do some number crunching, you will understand that this budget is a clever exercise in politics as opposed to economics”. You have to pause here for some effect, and continue, “make no mistakes here, the Finance Minister is a politician first and the budget numbers make it unequivocally clear that they have been set with an eye on the polls in <insert the name of the poll-bound State>.”

And before anyone challenge or counter you, you should quickly move in for the kill. “There are enough signals that the Budget is traversing on a political roadmap. For example, the Rs.23,000 crore that the Finance Minister has allocated for NABARD’s Awazanjin Irrigation Scheme is populist but is sure to help the rural voters that <insert the name of the poll-bound State> abounds in.” It wouldn’t matter whether the FM has allocated that much, and whether there is anything called NABARD at all, no one will dare challenge your point because “NABARD” is essentially a trump word in the Budget game. You win hands down after that.

3. Yes and No

But even as you bluff your way through, you must realise that as a budget analyst, you are bound to come across some pointed questions on hardcore economics. “Do the MNREGA numbers stack up with the reality of joblessness and rising inflation?”, “Is the defence budget allocation enough when Beijing and Islamabad acting lovey-dovey with each other”. These questions in themselves are cursory, but Budget itself is, so you just have to play the game.

And whatever question is posed to you, you just look on intently as if you are seriously listening to it, and then at the first instance of some silence which is the indication that the questioner has stopped, you just begin confidently, “the answer to your question is both yes and no…”, this will immediately convey the idea that you are nuanced and are ready to carefully weigh your opinions without taking sides one way or the other.

Practical example: “The answer to your question is both yes and no, Prannoy, you can spell demonetisation with a ‘z’ and also ‘s’.

This should see you through for most parts. But just to play safe, you can also think of changing your name via deed poll to: T N Ninan.