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Chaos theory and minimum alternate tax

A V Rajwade asks if the tax demands on foreign portfolio investors could turn out to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back

A V Rajwade 

A V Rajwade
A V Rajwade

Chaos theory in mathematics studies the behaviour of dynamic, deterministic systems, and is used in many physical and social sciences. The standard example quoted in literature is how the flying of a butterfly from one plant to another in, say, Fiji, could trigger a series of events leading to a tornado somewhere else – or an earthquake in Nepal -- six months later! Over the last 50 years, it has become customary to use mathematical models in macro- and financial economics, based on “rational” expectations of all economic agents. Unfortunately, financial markets are not deterministic – since humans are not always rational; have feelings; and their actions often depend on what others do. (As physics Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman once said: "Imagine how much more complex physics would be if electrons had sentiments!")

The reason for these thoughts is the recent demands on foreign portfolio investors (FPIs) for payment of minimum alternate tax (MAT) on their capital gains since 2007-08. On first principles, levying capital gains taxes on foreign portfolio investors is more equitable than on direct investors who, in any case, pay direct and indirect taxes, and create output and jobs in our country: FPIs do neither. In theory, if their investments help increase a company’s equity price, the latter’s cost of capital is reduced and this can be useful if it is planning to make a follow-on public issue (FPO) taking advantage of the current share price.

At one time, it was thought that “unearned” income should carry a higher rate of tax than “earned” income. Over the last few decades, however, this has changed dramatically: as Warren Buffett, one of the world’s richest individuals, once famously remarked, he pays a lower rate of tax (income is capital gains) than the marginal rate paid by his salaried secretary! But such issues apart, the question is whether the tax demands on FPIs could turn out to be the proverbial butterfly in chaos theory, or the straw that broke the camel’s back?


As it is, there are enough “Fault Lines” (the title of one of Dr Raghuram Rajan’s books) in our imbalance of payments. Some of the more important ones include:
  1. Thanks to the persistent deficits on current account year after year, our net international investment position has deteriorated from negative $50 bn at the end of March 2008 to negative $350 bn now, 17% of GDP, one of the world’s highest ratios -- despite “record” reserves. The outstanding portfolio investment was $210 bn at the end of December 2014.

  2. Most funds are over-weight on India; recent corporate results have been disappointing to negative; market seems fully priced; and there often is a herd instinct amongst portfolio investors. While foreign direct investors, having come in, cannot go out quickly; portfolio investors can do so by pressing a few keys on the computer.

  3. The real effective exchange rate index suggests overvaluation of the currency by 25%! I am aware that our Governor does not consider the REER index to be a good measure of the equilibrium value of the currency: see Abheek Barua’s column What is the right value of rupee, Mr Rajan? But empirical evidence suggesting an overvalued rupee is strong: despite a sharp fall in the price of oil, our largest single item of import, the merchandise trade deficit remains around $140 bn, and information technology services growth is decelerating. And, we would likely report a deficit on current account over 2014-15, despite a huge subsidy of $80 bn in the form of remittances, which, surely, are not our “earnings”. It is also debatable whether the oil price could flare up again partly because of the Sunni-Shia (read Saudi Arabia-Iran) tensions in West Asia.

  4. Umpteen tax disputes with both direct and portfolio investors are hardly conducive to creating an image of India as an attractive place to invest in.
One worries whether the finance minister’s anxiety not to cross the Laxman Rekha of fiscal deficit could lead to an “earthquake” in another segment of the economy!

Email: avrajwade@gmail.com

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First Published: Tue, April 28 2015. 11:17 IST
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