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Monday, November 23, 2020

The problems of public procurement and payment delays: A review of the recent literature

by Sourish Das and Rabia Khatun.


'Public procurement'- the purchase of goods and services by the state from private enterprise -- tends to be a large part of economic activity in any country. The World Bank estimated that globally, public procurement in 2018 amounted to USD 11 trillion or 12 percent of global GDP(Bosio and Djankov, 2020). In India, these estimates are higher at 30 percent (Khan, 2017) and recent budget announcements suggest that these estimates are likely to increase.

Such magnitudes have a large multiplier effect on economic activity and economic growth. But the multiplier effect is dampened by the 'marginal cost of public funds' or MCPF which is the cost incurred by a rupee of public spending (Kelkar and Shah, 2019). In an ideal world, public procurement works well, and goods/services that are available in the private market for Rs.1 are purchased for Rs.1 by the government. In the real world, public procurement processes introduce an additional friction, an inefficiency, where the government pays Rs.A when purchasing something worth Rs.1. Every deficiency of public procurement procedures drives up the A.

There is a friction in taxation (the MCPF which Kelkar and Shah (2019) refer to as a cost of Rs.3 upon the economy when the government obtains Rs.1 as taxes). Similarly, there is a friction in contracting-out (the government pays A when obtaining services worth 1). These two come together in shaping the overall effectiveness of government action. A government that wishes to purchase (or contract-out)goods/services worth Rs.1 ends up with a true total cost for society of 3A. On the taxation side, this motivates research on understanding and reducing the MCPF. On the expenditure side, this motivates research on understanding and improving public procurement so as to obtain a reduced value for A.

The conventional processes of government do not produce information about these two elements of inefficiency. Researchers have to create mechanisms through which these estimates can be obtained. For example, there is a widely held perception that delays of payments are a persistent problem in public procurement. Such delays in payment translate into higher costs of doing business by the private enterprises that render services or deliver products to government or public sector enterprises, and raises the MCPF of public procurement. As has been happening elsewhere, the perception of the higher cost of doing business with the public sector is increasingly occupying the public discourse in India as a critical element of what is driving stress in the financial health of the corporate sector. At present, we have informal estimates about the difficulties faced in public procurement in India. As an example, Sahu (2020) recently estimated the size of the delayed payments from the Union government as totalling Rs.9.5 lakh crore, an estimate that was culled from public sources. The data presented included pending dues to road projects at NHAI, from power generating companies and power grid, in the sugar and fuel ecosystem, food distribution at FCI and to the micro, small and medium enterprises. But beyond such broad, aggregate estimates, there is little that is understood about the mechanics that drive this quantum of delay. What needs to be set right to solve the problem is not well understood.

In the present literature, two key features emerge. One is the issue of late payments by the state. This has become increasingly recognised as a major problem after the Financial crisis of 2008 and after the European debt crisis of 2009. Perhaps as a consequence, almost all of the studies are based on data from countries of the EU. A second central concern appears to be the effect of such late payment by governments on the financial health of firms, particularly Small and Medium Enterprises or SMEs. SMEs have been in the policy headlights over the last decade as a critical base of employment growth. Any factor influencing their financial health has also been highlighted as an important area of reform. SMEs are particularly affected by any adverse impact of payment delays.

In this article, we survey the literature on delays in payments by government and their consequences. We find it useful to classify this literature into two lines of thought about delayed payments in public procurement: (1) these hurt the profit of the private sector and increases the probability of bankruptcy, particularly for smaller businesses; and together (2) such delays have a significant negative impact on economic growth. Additionally, this literature shows pathways for setting up measurement systems that can then be used to regularly monitor the impact of public procurement processes on economic agents and the economy. Four papers appear to be the basis of understanding, which are Connell (2014), Checherita et al. (2016), Obeng (2016), and Conti et al. (2020).

Much of the work uses two components to measure late payments: payment delays and the duration of payment delays. Payment delay is calculated over agreed contractual period and it is the ratio of absolute delay (in days) to the agreed contractual period. Payment duration refers to agreed contractual period plus the absolute delay in days over agreed contractual period and is the sum of agreed contractual period plus payment delay. The data for payment delay and payment duration is obtained from Intrum Justitia, a private credit management firm which conducts an annual written survey among several thousand firms in 29 European countries. The survey results are published as the annual European Payment Index Report. Among other statistics, the survey reports the average annual payment duration and the average annual contractual payment period, both of which are further disaggregated into consumer, business-to-business, and public sector debtors terms.

The impact of delayed payments in public procurement on the health of firms

Connell (2014) attempts to estimate the economic effects of late payments that firms face in some European countries (Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain) regarding delays in payments in Business to Business (B2B) and Government to Business (G2B) transactions with two questions:

  1. How can the cost to firms associated with government late payments be approximated? This cost is estimated as the short-term financial cost of firms associated with late payments. In order to calculate this, they use the volume of claims against the public administration, the average annual interest rate for loans to non-financial corporations and the average government payment delays expressed as a fraction of a year.
  2. Do liquidity constraints associated with payment delays put the firms out of business? A panel regression is run between payment delays and the firm's exit rate. This was done for B2B and G2B transactions separately. The exit rate is defined as the ratio of death firms to the total number of active firms. The regression controls for size of the firms involved, country fixed effects to control for national time-invariant characteristics, and business cycles variables to control for changes in financial conditions.

The paper finds that payment delay is statistically significant and negative across all the countries studied, with higher payment delays being seen with higher exit rates. The estimated financial cost as a percentage of GDP in 2012 ranges from 0.19 percent in Greece to 0.005 percent in Finland. A one point reduction in the payment delay ratio would reduce exit rates by about 2.8 or 3.4 percentage points in a B2B transactions. As expected, these effects are exacerbated with business cycle effects. The results also show that bigger firms, with a larger number of employees, are more likely to survive the deleterious effects of payment delays. In G2B transactions, a one point reduction in the delay ratio leads to a decrease in exit rates of about 1.7 to 2 percentage points. The effect is lower than payment delays in B2B transactions which is suggested as being due to the different representations of SMEs in these different types of transactions. The overall findings of this study suggest that payment delays in commercial transactions by the public administration and private entities have detrimental effects on the health of a firm, and exacerbate the burden of already financially constrained firms which ultimately push them out of business.

Delayed payments in public procurement and its impact on the economy

Checherita et al. (2016) analyze the impact of government payment delays on private firms and on economic growth. They argue that increased delays in public payments can affect private sector liquidity and profits and hence ultimately economic growth. This study defined payment delays by including various measures of the accounts payable data from government accounts (as defined in ESA 1995 code AF.7) along with the other measures of payment duration defined earlier. In addition to the short-term impact of payment delays from government on real GDP growth, the study also analyses profit growth measured by economy wide gross operating surplus, and bankruptcy measured by the probability of default (using Moody's measure of distance to default) over the period spanning 1993 to 2012.

Using a panel regression analysis, they find a negative relation between delayed payments and growth. The results show that a one standard deviation change in delayed payments reduces the growth rate by 0.8-1.5 percent, and a one percent increase in arrears reduces growth by 0.6-0.9 percent. The paper finds a statistically significant impact of delayed payments on the growth rate of operating surplus of firms. A one standard deviation increase in delayed payments reduces profit growth by 1.5-3.4 percent. Finally, their results suggest that delayed payments reduce the distance to default. In similar work, Fiordelisi et, al. (2012) show that economic growth in Italy would have been an additional 0.38 per cent if the government paid its trade loans within 30 days.

Obeng (2016) investigates the impact of payment delays caused by a liquidity crisis in the European Union, using changes in the pattern of late payments among EU companies between 2005 and 2014. The paper finds the following features about payments delays during the financial crisis: payment delays increased across the board; delays had a higher negative impact on SMEs, low profitability firms, and low liquidity firms; significant variation in how delays increased depending upon the sector that the firm operated in. The paper analyses the variability of firm late payments under different macroeconomic conditions using data for 54,277 EU firms over the period 2005 to 2014 from the AMADEUS database, a commercial European firm database. A fixed effects regression model to estimate the impact of selected macroeconomic shocks on payment delays finds that the financial crisis has a significant negative impact on payment delays of accounts receivable, even after controlling for firm characteristics such as profitability, liquidity, size, sector, country, credit collections, and credit period.

This literature establish that impact of delayed payments by the government on firms and economy is negative and significant. The next strand of the literature asks what can be done to reduce the economic cost of delayed payments, and to improve the MCPF of public procurement.

Conti et al. (2020) analyze the regulatory framework of the EU (called the Directive on Late Payments or DLP) concerning delayed payments by government. This paper focuses on G2B commercial relationships, starting by investigating the impact of the DLP on firm survival, employment and investment. They use sector level data for a sample of 23 EU countries (and Norway) from 2008-2015, using 38 two-digit sectors from the Structural Business Statistics(SBS) database (an Eurostat firm database which provides information on European firms). The authors construct the exit rate of firms for a given sector in a country as the ratio between the number of enterprises that cease activity and the stock of active enterprises in a given year and for a given country-sector unit. A difference-in-differences analysis finds that after the introduction of the Directive, the exit rate of firms decreased in sectors that sell a larger fraction of their output to the government. They also find that there is an increase in employment in those sectors more connected with the government, and conclude that more discipline in government payment terms can have considerable positive effects on economic activity.


The results of the above studies present the first empirical estimates of the quantum of the negative impact on the economy when the government delays payments for procurement transactions.Some indicative estimates of the economic impact include:

  1. One standard deviation worsening in delayed payments reduce firm profit growth by 1.5-3.4 percent.
  2. One point reduction in delayed payments reduce firm exit rates by 1.7-2.0 percent.
  3. One standard deviation worsening in delay of payments reduce economic growth rate by 0.8-1.5 percent.
  4. Paying trade loans in 30 days imply an additional 0.33 percent economic growth.

Even with the caveat that these are values estimated for countries and firms operating in the countries in the EU, where contract performance and enforcement tend to be some of the best in the world, these are useful benchmarks to frame the impact of problems of public procurement for us in India. Such an exercise is particularly pertinent for the current times, where the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a severe reduction in GDP growth and there is a large scale loss of jobs. One estimate puts the reduction in the Indian economy at 23.9 per cent in the April to June quarter of 2020 (Choudhury, 2020).

India has followed the global response to such a systemic shock, with the state becoming the saviour of last resort and rolling out economic interventions in the form of income support schemes and various public expenditure programs. However, the present situation of the Indian fiscal conditions place constraints on the credibility and sustainability of new spending. What the above literature suggests, in addition to these recent interventions, is that India would do well to find ways and means to clear her dues to direct and indirect suppliers, particularly given that a large fraction of Indian enterprises are micro, small and medium enterprises. Sahu (2020) reports that INR 5 lakh crore out of the reported INR 9.5 lakh crore of dues from the government was due to MSMEs. If reducing the delays in payments can reduce the distress related bankruptcy of such firms by even one percent, it can have a material impact on the health of these firms and continued availability of avenues for employment. More importantly, such an action will improve the confidence of small traders and vendors across the country in participating in G2B transactions. If payments can be made on time, it will reduce the MCPF and strengthen the channels through which the state can deliver a positive impact on economic growth at the time when it is most required, and to those who need the support the most.

One path suggested in international literature is to put in place a regulatory framework on public procurement. However, there is no clear evidence that indicates that this can be successful in reversing payment delays. For example, Banerjee et al. (2020) show that e-governance reforms of the MNREGA system does deliver a positive impact on reduced leakage in social benefit programs but fails to reduce payment delays. Further, Roy and Uday (2020) analyse the link between the presence of a legal framework and the corruption and they find no correlation between the two.


What the existing studies show is the importance of establishing systems through which the impact of the public procurement processes can be understood. Unlike in the various EU countries where these studies have been carried out, there are no systematic empirical studies that have been done in India to quantify the economic cost of delayed payments on firms and the economy. A first step towards solving the problem of delayed payments and the overall processes of public procurement would be to facilitate opportunities to gather information of the impact of these process on the operational health of firms. Such information needs to developed for India and made largely available to the research community to get a sound empirical understanding of the process of public procurement and how to improve the cost of doing business with the Indian State.


Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, Clement Imbert, Santhosh Mathew and Rohini Pande (2020), 'E-governance, accountability and leakage in public programs: Experimental evidence from financial management reform in India', American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 12(4).

Cristina Checherita-Westphal, Alexander Klemm, and Paul Viefers (2016), 'Governments payment discipline: The macroeconomic impact of public payment delays and arrears'. Journal of Macroeconomics, 47: 147-165.

Erica Bosio and Simeon Djankov (2020), 'How large is public procurement?', World Bank Blogs, 5 February.

Franco Fiordelisi, Davide Mare, Nemanja Radic, Ornella Ricci, Philip Molyneux, and Thomas Weyman Jones (2012). 'Government late payment: the effect on the Italian economy', Doctoral Dissertation, School of Economics and Business, Loughborough University, UK.

Gaurav Choudhury (2020), 'India's GDP contracts 23.9 per cent in Q1FY21 as lockdowns, restrictions bludgeon economy', 1 September.

Isaac Kwame Essien Obeng (2017), 'Delaying payments after the financial crisis: evidence from EU companies', Acta Universitatis Agriculturae et Silviculturae Mendelianae Brunensis, 65(2): 447-463.

Maurizio Conti, Leandro Elia, Antonella Rita Ferrara and Massimiliano Ferraresi (2020), 'Government late payments and firms survival: evidence from the EU', Technical report, Societia Italiana di economica pubblica, Working paper No. 753.

M. H. Khan (2017), 'Public procurement issues with government of India', Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA).

Prashant Sahu (2020), 'Forget stimulus, clear your dues: Rs 7 lakh crore unpaid dues to industry by central govt depts and PSUs', in Financial Express, 8 September.

Shubho Roy and Diya Uday (2020), 'Does India need a procurement law?', The LEAP Journal blog, 19 August.

Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah (2019), 'In service of the Republic: the art and science of public policy', Penguin Allen Lane.

William Connell (2014), 'Economic impact of late payments', Technical report, Directorate General Economic and Financial Affairs (DG ECFIN), European Commission.

Rabia Khatun is an independent researcher and Sourish Das is associate professor at the Chennai Mathematics Institute. The authors would like to thank Susan Thomas for comments and suggestions on the article.

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