Startup wish list for Budget 2017: Leave us Alone!

Another Budget by NDA govt is in the offing and air is again thick with expectations. Like all years, every industry group is busy preparing wish list which generally boils down to a single point agenda of reducing tax rates and talk of level playing field and how this single reform i.e. tax rate cut will catapult their industry to leading position in the world, generate so many jobs, add so many basis points to the GDP etc etc. At the same time, mandarins at North and south block, silently whisper in the ear of finance ministry about worsening position of fiscal deficit, poor tax GDP ratio and need to collect more taxes in order to provide for poor and why Govt needs to be now ready for 8th Pay commission as it has come out that Indian bureaucrats are very lowly paid in comparison to bureaucrats at Singapore and USA in dollar terms. Indeed a very tough scenario for the finance minister to keep both sides happy.

However for a change, Startups / Investment sector rather than joining the usual annual chorus would like to strut solo guitar and like to chant “We need no tax breaks, we need no exemptions, hey FM, please leave us alone.

India seems to be on the cusp of startup revolution or rather was on the cusp of revolution. The present state of startup euphoria started in 2006 and saw the building of iconic companies like Flipkart, Paytm, Redbus, Citrus Pay and 1000s more with billions of USD getting pumped in this startups till the Govt took notice. Last year, we saw the launch of big “Startup India conclave” and single-minded focus of Govt in improving ease of business and create a conducive environment for startups. What is the end result? No of startups/funding in a startup is down by some 67% in last year alone. The number of tax notices issued to startups/funds issued in the last ½ years exceeds all the notices issued in the last 10 odd years. Earlier there was a tax only if a company used to post a profit, now startups are even taxed on investment raised (the only country in the world to do that). So much so for the benevolent attention of the Govt.

Overall it seems that Startups have got in the same league as farmers have been or to put in management jargon are the new “farmers” for the great Indian super Govt. In India, for the last 60 odd years, every Govt and its budget have one singular focus that is to work for farmers and improve their conditions. Billions have been spending on doing that with schemes, loans, policies and what not. What is the end result? Everyone connected with farmers be it experts, professors at agriculture universities, ministers, agencies, bankers have flourished except farmers! Farmers have continued to suffer and battle perpetual poverty and commit suicide while Govt focuses on farmers in terms of money and time just keep on increasing. Likewise, Govt focus on startups has brought a windfall on all stakeholders be it consultants, bureaucrats, bankers, event managers and all tertiary people except startups/funds. The consultants have been impaneled, lobby groups have been formed, nodal agencies have been constituted, huge budget allocations have been done with crores being spent in ad campaigns, while startup founders and fund managers are busy justifying valuation to tax authorities and being made to feel as hawala operators!

The reason for such state of affair is simple that Govt is looking at startups and doing that quite efficiently. The result is that there are now rules, then representations, then modifications and addendum and then more notifications with every organ of Govt at central and state level trying their best to add value and contribute their set of rules to already muddled water of startups. Probably only thing pending from Govt is a levy of startup cess on all investors and startups.

All this high involvement has only created a high level of uncertainty and confusion with rules changing every quarter and more and more coming every year. In decision theory, there is an interesting term “The Ellsberg Paradox “ which demonstrates that its the uncertainty, not the risk which makes people activity-averse and any investor or entrepreneur can provide for risk but not for uncertainty. Unfortunately, last many years of hyperactivity by govt in terms of ever-changing regulations / new and innovative form of taxes has created immense uncertainty in mind of entrepreneurs/investors alike and one is getting scared rather than encouraged to be investor/entrepreneur.

PM Modi in his address to NASSCOM in 2015 famously remarked that success of IT sector in India is not because of Govt but in spite of Govt as the government had no clue of IT sector and by the time it figured out the sector, it has grown in size multifold and became too big to be disturbed. Likewise, Startups were on a growth path till Govt took notice of it.

Hence it is high time that powers in finance ministry take notice of sentiments expressed by PM and rather than preparing to levy startup cess, listen to Pink Floyd and leave us – entrepreneurs/investors alone!

The End

The article was published in The Economic Times.

Union Budget 2015: Ordinary Ahoy!

First, let me give a disclaimer before I get into the nitty-gritty of budget analysis. Overall, this has been quite a good budget, and in normal routine times, it might have got 8.5/10 or so. But then these are extraordinary times with extraordinary ambitions, and so, we all need an extraordinary budget and not routine, as routine brilliance is nothing but mediocre in such times!!!

There seems to be quite a euphoria related to the formation of MUDRA Bank as well as the allocation of INR 1,000 Cr to start-ups. But before we all start celebrating, we need to pause and ask about what happened to the INR 10,000 Cr which was allocated last year to start-ups! Last year, the Railways Minister in Modi Government’s maiden railway budget said that every budget makes lots of promises but only a few get implemented and the rest remain on paper. Hence, it is high time the Govt provided implementation records and performance reviews of all the announcements made in previous years’ budgets.

In order to put the nation on a high growth trajectory and to create happiness all around, the Govt needs to foster an environment which enables entrepreneurship, the creation of jobs, a fair level playing field, and a sense of fairness & stability in the legal system. Unfortunately, the budget this year falls short in all parameters.

The Indian tax regime has remained as complicated as ever, and by postponing GAAR, the Finance Minister has just chosen to ignore the elephant in the room. Furthermore, a lot of provisions against black money have been brought in, but how the legal part of it will be solved remains unclear. Given the backlogs in nation’s courts and overall sad state of legal affairs, it’s high time the Govt takes another look at the budgets allocated to the judiciary and work on creating capacities in the system. Unfortunately, the Budget 2015 has chosen to remain silent in this area.

Besides the unstable legal environment, another major issue affecting entrepreneurship and creation of new business is red tape and the amount of paper-work involved, and in this budget, there is now a proposal to appoint an expert committee to oversee all that!!! So now yet another expert committee to view and analyze, which most probably means things will remain as they are. This budget has really fallen short on the expectations regarding making things simple, done no more than offer some words, and it seems words are all we have.

It’s high time we see some real action on cutting of the red tape rather than going back and forth on the same issues. In 2010, the then Govt made a bold move of bringing Direct Taxes Code (DTC) and to do away with all exemptions and thus plug all leakages as well as corruptions. DTC faced stiff resistance from existing power centers then also, and in this budget, got a quick burial.

The announcement related to MUDRA Bank is quite welcome, but again, rather than being a provider of capital, the Govt needs to create an environment where private capital shall flow in an efficient manner and create opportunities for all stakeholders. If Govt provides capital, it will lead to crony capitalism, and in long-term, will distort the system instead of reforming it, as we all have seen in the case of PSU banks in terms of high NPA/high real estate prices. Given the fact that SMEs in India suffer very high-interest costs (18% or above) and have continued to face challenges in terms of slowing demand and high-interest costs as well as real estate costs, it will be better if the interest rate for SMEs are lowered in the way it is done for the housing sector. Here again, this budget missed the chance to kick-start the economy in a major way and has chosen a rather timid option of creating another institution.

The Indian economy, notwithstanding the performance of SENSEX, is witnessing one of the toughest period post-2008/09 with falling corporate earnings as well as a reduction in overall capital formation. Large corporate, as well as small business, are facing serious challenges since overall consumption is falling due to drop in available discretionary income at the individual level on account of the very high cost of housing (EMI/Rentals), inflation and almost flat growth in income. Given the fact that 40% to 50% of individual income in young families, which are the basic blocks of the economy, goes towards housing in the form of rental/EMI, it is high time Govt increases affordability of the first house, and at the same time needs to discourage crowding out by investors. Unfortunately, this budget has remained totally silent on this aspect.

Overall, I agree that though the main aim of a national budget is to present checks & balances of annual revenue along with expenditure and provide an outlook of the overall economic health of the country, the annual budget for all practical purposes needs to go a little beyond that. It needs to shape-up the long-term behavior of the public at large by way of taxation, policies, etc., and therefore, by continuing to focus on exemptions, allocations, and tax limits, it seems that this year the Finance Minister has chosen to grant/allocate more medical leaves right when the economy needed lifestyle changes to jump-start to the next level.

However, it is still a great peace-time budget and would have done well for the economy. But as I said, we are in the middle of extraordinary times and this war-like situation, to which this budget fails to give direction, hope & vision and settles for ordinary. Hence, it shall be rated as 4/10. 

Wish List for Budget: Unleash the Entrepreneurial Spirit

The maiden budget of Narendra Modi Govt. is about to be presented in coming days, and as usual, there is loud chatter and demand around raising tax limits, allowing greater tax exemptions, as well as various other tax sops demanded by industry bodies. It is not that these demands are made for the first time; but being Shri Modi’s first budget, the expectations are much higher than ever before. While the aim of a national budget is to present checks & balances of annual revenue along with expenditure and provide an overview of the overall economic health of the country, the annual budget for all practical purposes should go a little beyond that. Since it shapes up the long-term behavior of the public at large by way of taxation, policies, etc., solely focusing on increasing tax limits, etc., is akin to demand allocation of medical leave while what one needs is a lifestyle change to get on their feet!

Hence, rather than doing short-term adjustments related to taxation, etc., Modi govt has a great opportunity to use the budget for changing the fundamental way the Indian Inc. behaves and operates. Following are the fundamental changes needed to transform India from being an emerging market to a super economy on steroids. These key three basic ingredients are:

Focus on Building and Creating Trust

India is a trust deficit society where not a single paper can move without getting notarized by some nondescript shop in some corner of some court.

This basic approach of “trust no one” has resulted in a regime which has loads of laws designed to plug any hole and has ended up doing more harm than good. For example, the new Companies Law 2013 has just added to the woes where it has now become impossible to start a company without spending a fortune on accountants and company secretaries.

Somehow in India, the lawmakers and bureaucrats work with the fundamental belief that every private enterprise has been started with the core aim of committing fraud, launder capital, evade taxes, and commit financial crimes until and unless proven otherwise, and it may come as a great shock and surprise to our giant army of babus that private companies/business – big or small – do add to the wealth of the nation and contribute in their own way in building the nation. The aim and objective of any government are to keep its citizens happy and to help them achieve this goal rather than doubting every motive and treating every enterprise as a den of crime. Hence, the government needs to behave in a more mature way and adopt a more adult approach when it comes to the treatment of companies, instead of having a parental attitude towards everyone.

Foster Entrepreneurship / Encourage Failure

A society/nation is carried forward by the tribe of risk-takers and not by the army of clerks and babus. In not so distant a past, England, being a tiny island, ruled over the world on account of its tribe of risk-takers, and today, USA dominates the world on account of new companies/technologies.

Unfortunately, in India, we reward mediocrity and continuity, and punish risk-takers, as the cost of failure is very high. Try to close a company after a failed business!!! One will end up spending more money and time closing a company than in starting a company. Compliance and taxation liabilities further sink down a struggling company. Moreover, there is hardly any incentive for starting companies. The budget should reward entrepreneurship and allow failures to happen. Taxation rules for enterprises doing up to 5 Cr top-line should be simple, as they are not in a position to manage compliance cost, unlike bigger companies. Opening & Closing of companies should be simplified and made cost-effective. There shall be less tax-filing hassles for companies which have paid up capital of INR 5 Cr or less and are of less than 5 years of operational life.

Bring Accountability / Transparency

India is the land of regulators. For everything to work right, there is a regulator, and every year there is demand for more regulators, and just like it happens for every person in power, regulators’ demand for power just increases year after year, and Yes, all power without any accountability / answering to the public.

Hence, while increased regulation has increased the burden on companies/individuals multi-fold in terms of costs / increased paperwork, there is hardly any empirical evidence of regulators being effective or not being misused by vested interests, since there is zero accountability.

Its high time the new govt makes regulators accountable for actions taken and shall be responsible for all power being demanded by them, as lack of accountability breeds corruption and creates an unbalanced power structure. Until and unless accountability is brought into the picture, frauds like NSEL / Satyam, etc., keep on happening and regulators, rather than being conscience-keepers of the nation, would keep on behaving more in the line of SS/Gestapo and focus on harassing entrepreneurs/companies.

Till these steps are taken, budget in India will remain just an annual accounting exercise without unleashing the untamed spirit of the country.

This article was reproduced and was published in Economic Times.