Authors: Krishna Raghav Chaturvedi & Vikas
Economics is a strange subject. There are many ways to define economics. The father of Economics Adam Smith characterized Economics as “An inquiry into the nature and cause of wealth of nations”. However, there is no concrete definition as no single definition is globally accepted.
So it’s prudent to have an idea about what Economics is rather than looking for a definition. The stretch of economics is vast. It may talk about some rare yet valuable source like diamond and also vastly abundant resources like air. By virtue of its scarcity, a diamond is priced high and as air is abundant so it has no price. But while we can live without diamonds, can we live without air? No doubt, this is why air is priceless and people are yet to put a price on air. Adam Smith’s studies showed that “the things which have greater value in exchange has almost negligible value in use and vice versa”. Another example water, it has great value for us. We can’t live without it, but hardly can we buy anything by bartering it. But as the human tendency is to care for scarce more so Economics and by extension, economists talk about scarcity more often than not. This is where sometimes, even a learned Economist falters in his quest to understand “real economics” and finds the need to go back to his books. At other times, even a less literate chai-walla comes up with the most ingenious of the solutions to the most typical of challenges. This may be because we tend to see “Economics” as a subject, like Physics, Chemistry or Biology with some rigid laws and theorems. However, even the laws of Physics seem to change in certain cases. Economics, on the other hand, can and should never be seen in isolation. There is caste economics, political economics, regional economics, behavioral economics, national economics, sub-divisional economics and much more. This is where many economists fail and this is where some from the real grass roots really shine.
There has been a lot of buzz about the recent slowdown in the Indian GDP growth. While the GDP growth slowdown can certainly be linked to the twin shocks of Demonetization and the implementation of the Goods & Services tax (GST), critics of the present dispensation are presenting it as an Armageddon. Yes, Economy is Economics at play in a certain region, the certain region here in question being India. Demonetization was a behavioral change and the GST, a structural change. Such radical and far reaching changes are going to have an impact on the economy and yes, they have had their pound of the flesh. But to decry the entire process and denounce the present ruling dispensation as inept requires a special kind of narrow mindedness and selective criticism, a behavioral trait that is common with the critics of the ruling political party of India, the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) and its leader, Shri Narendra Modi.
True, as the critics claim, the economic growth has slowed. True, jobs are been created at an abysmal rate. True, present government measure’s aimed at boosting manufacturing (Make in India) and promoting job creation (Start-up India, MUDRA etc.) have failed, some quite spectacularly. True, these signs do not bode well for the Indian economy, nor in the short term and certainly never will in the long run. Yes, the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is at fault here. But not for making a mess of the economy, for which their predecessor, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) deserves full credit but for failing to bring out a white paper on the state of the economy when they took the reins of the Indian Government in 2014. For failing to show the public the true grim picture of which the UPA government left us in and the hell hole we had dug for ourselves with continuous tax evasion, black marketing and numerous scams which had dominated the public discourse (2G, Coalgate etc.) before 2014. And this is why, their defense of this lag in growth is being questioned and this is why, the present ruling dispensation and the prime minister, Shri Narendra Modi and his finance Minister, Shri Arun Jaitley must provide answers.
While this article can be far from a white paper on the state of the Indian economy in 2014 at time of the transition from the UPA to the NDA, it will no doubt portray the truth of the times and endeavor to expose the fallacies of both for the time period 2010-2017.
While GDP growth has often and more often, wrongly, cited as the criteria for growth of a country, such a calculation is far from perfect and there is a pertinent need to align growth with human parameters like living Indexes, Education, Distribution of Wealth rather than only the gross domestic value of all products and services in a country. Recently, a quarterly GDP “Growth rate” of 5.7% is cited as a slowdown (true, it a slowdown but only temporary) or a “crash landing” recession (though I doubt the critics claiming this even know the meaning of a recession). Such irrational and biased thinking is uncalled for and while, there is truth that the GDP growth has slowed, it is nowhere near the Armageddon being projected by the critics, prominent among which is the former Prime Minister of India and a very noted economist, Dr. Manmohan Singh-ji. He claimed and quoted that the GDP will suffer a contraction by atleast 2% points in wake of the Demonetization exercise. The Demonetization, an exercise in which the current Indian Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi-ji effectively made approx. 85% of the Indian currency redundant in a bid to attack black money hoarders, formalize the economy, cripple naxalism & terrorism, promote a cash-less economy, a digital economy and send out a strong message to the common people of India that the present ruling dispensation is serious in its bid to curb corruption.
While complete picture of the after-effects of the exercise is yet to be revealed, one thing is clear. Dr Manmohan Singh-ji was wrong. NO, the economy did not decline. No, it is neither prudent nor good economics to declare Demonetization a failure. But yes, as per the IT returns data, more taxpayers are now part of the formal economy. Certain news (unverified) emerged that poor people hired as mules to convert ill-gotten cash of some corrupt folk defrauded them of their wealth. Some mules completely decamped with the money of the corrupt. In my hometown, the state capital of India’s most populous sub-division, for the entire 50 day duration of cash exchange, not a single laborer was found in want of work. All had been hired to exchange cash from multiple banks in lieu of a daily wage. Shri Arun Shourie-ji, a noted economist and a past supporter of PM Modi has called the demonetization as the world’s biggest money-laundering scheme, I have no qualms in saying that it is indeed the world’s biggest public redistribution of wealth. While there is no reliable parameter to gauge corruption, one thing is for certain, the wrong doers will now have to think twice before thinking about stashing away their ill-gotten cash.
Inflation is an important parameter in a country’s economic growth. While the word may ring some negative connotations in our mind when heard of, it is not all bad. Like everything, too much of inflation is bad. It retards growth as buyers defer or cancel purchases as the products are too expensive, strangling the manufacturing and slowing the economy. Too little of inflation or negative inflation (Deflation) is also bad, as purchasers for various goods and services are hit by complacency, postponing purchases in hopes of more fall in prices, further constraining the demand and causing more fall in prices. Lower-than-expected inflation furthers the actual burden of debts. The lenders may benefit. However as they are more likely to save than borrowers, demand is overall reduced. It also increases rigidity in the human resources market. Workers are resistant to wage cuts in their wages, but inflation lets firms cut real wages by freezing pay in nominal terms. Deflation, by contrast, makes this problem worse (The Economist, Jan 2015). Hence, there is a need to hit the sweet spot, the right value of inflation that will ensure not only growth but also, cost less of the citizens of the state.
It is evident here from the presented data that the inflation under the UPA government was high (at least twice and possible more in the double digits). This is a cause of concern. Here this is why it is cause of concern. Suppose you earn a hundred rupee per month (GDP). Your expenses are also a hundred rupees. Now, if in the next your wage registers a growth of 8% (GDP Growth) i.e. it becomes a 108 rupees, is it a cause of jubilation? Certainly yes but then you realize that your expenses have risen by 10% (inflation). Simply said, nominal growth reduced to the base year is the real growth. This is where the current critics, especially, the former Finance Minister, Shri P. Chidambaram are wrong. In his time under UPA, the growth rate of April-June quarter of 2014 (the transition from UPA to NDA), the existent gap between real and nominal GDP was as high (by some calculations, as high as 6.5% (Jagannathan, Jun 2015, Firstpost)). Simply put, half the growth under UPA was pure inflation. This gap started to narrow every quarter after the NDA took charge, falling to 5.2 percent in Q2, 1.5 percent in Q3 and finally to a minuscule 0.2 percent in Q4 of 2015. This Narrowing of the gap between the real and the nominal growth rates tells us exactly two stories – a positive one about the NDA’s and Modi’s big success in killing inflation even when the monsoons were weak and a comparatively less positive one on the industry’s inability to raise prices – which is good for consumers, but bad for profitability, investment and market wealth creation.
Share markets are a virtual representation of growth of the top companies of the country. Seen here is a growth of the Indian Bombay Stock Exchange for the period of 2012-2017. It must be noted that fluctuations in the stock market can have a profound economic impact on the country’s economy and everyday lives of people. A collapse in the share prices has the potential to cause widespread economic disruption. Most famous of this all is the stock market crash of 1929 which triggered the great depression of the 1930s. In everyday terms, the stock market directly impacts the people’s wealth creation, pension funds, investor confidence and further critical investment. The Indian stock market has bloomed and touched new heights under the present ruling dispensation. The critics have been quick to point out that such a growth is meaningless until it is evident on the ground. Yes, exports have reduced. But unlike what the critics portray, exports have not been hit as hard by the twin shocks and while data for 2017 is yet to come, it is a general feeling that growth will observed as already, the numbers are too low to fall any further. There are reports that Indian exports have risen for the 12th straight month, touching just over USD 21 billion in the month of September (partially propelled by the phenomenal growth of Petroleum products and Chemical products export). Pessimists, however, in their bid to defame the ruling government would also like to point that our imports are increasing too. True, our imports have reached a near high of approx. USD 33 Billion (again a major chunk of the import is crude oil and gold). But on the bright side, our foreign exchange reserves have reached an all-time of USD 400 billion.
Such a huge cash pile is enough to cover for all imports for over 10 months and possibly more. Also, while it is true that the current account deficit has widened in the past four months, it is nowhere near as severe as the royal mess we were in the past. Even in the recent months, the CAD anomaly is mainly due to a sharp uptick in Gold imports (thank you Indian Aunties, who allegedly own more gold than most sovereign nations).
Pessimists are also pointing towards a lack of private spending and need for investment from alternative sources. Private investment in the country is hampered by the twin balance sheet problem (courtesy the past regime) and ever worsening NPA crisis, which restricts a financial institution’s lending ability (again, Thank you UPA). Yes, merchandise exports have fallen a bit and lending has taken a minor hit but this is reaction of the system adjusting to the changes, nothing more.
As stated earlier, GST was a structural change, revamping and overhauling the entire Indian indirect tax system. Modi deserves full points for his efforts to get a country as politically and culturally diverse as India on a single table and pass a radical bill like GST. While he was a chief minister in Gujarat, he found the UPA proposed form of GST indigestible for his state, a major manufacturing powerhouse. As the Prime Minister, he has ensured that even after the implementation of GST, the states losing revenue will be compensated for a short-period to accrue additional sources of revenue. His critics call him a hypocrite but all he has shown is a true maturity. He took a radical idea, ironed out the rough edges. He made it practical for implementation and went out of his way to get his rivals onboard for the passing of the GST bill. The implementation, like all things rest, is full of glitches but the official mechanism is tackling the problem both reactively and proactively. The situation will only improve in the coming future. It’s hilarious how the critics of Modi and an army of online trolls venerate any and every source that speaks against the ruling dispensation but even calls a venerable organization like the World Bank “biased” because of its favorable outlook of the GST. Furthermore, the sales of two wheelers, certain cars has already been recorded higher than before and collections under GST are improving and meeting their targets. Yes, GST is working.
The Demonetization was a necessary exercise. One can argue that the Indian economy was weak, or dead or hale & hearty but the timing was so perfect. With anyone even catching wind of his intentions and holding fast even when all seemed lost, in one stroke and by mere words, Modi had put the fear of law back into the corrupt. People were encouraged to come forward, report their ill-gotten cash, pay a stiff penalty and let bygones be bygones. Some did take this easy way out. This was a carrot. Now, it times for the stick. Shell corporations are identified. Action has already been taken against the directors of multiple shell companies established only to launder money. Any disproportionality of income and deposits if established, leads to a notice from the income tax department notice and further inquiry. It is painful. The Indian Income tax department like all its counterparts across the globe is despised and for good reason, it is a broadsword, not a scalpel. But we need a broadsword, now that corruption and tax evasion has become an everyday part in an Indian lives.
To conclude, while the Indian economy is slowed by the twin shocks, it is resilient and in capable hands. The pessimists may have their trends but things were bad, even worse before (in the UPA as evident by the data presented here) and now that things are finally starting to smoothen, we are bound to regain our top spot as the world’s fastest growing nation. The Indian economy is a jig-saw, complex pieces dominated by regions, cultures and festivals. It is a folly to see one in isolation or use the data of a 1-2 quarters and portend grim warnings. Diwali, the Indian festival of light is fast approaching. Let this occasion be the mark of a new India, an era of economic growth and prosperity for all. The UPA government, it too had its moments of glory and yes they were aplenty, had made a grand mess of the economy and its effects persist till this date. The lack of investment in roads and railways is costing us today in terms of time, lives and growth. Their numerous scams had bankrupted the country and virtually emptied our coffers. Modi is lucky. He only has to outperform a three legged donkey. It is up to him whether he will turn the Indian Economy into a prancing pony or a galloping steed. By the looks of it, we already are a prancing pony. But can he make us the galloping steed. Unfortunately, only time will answer this, with any certainty.
The author is neither an economist nor claims to be one.
Vikas is pursuing his PhD from the Department of Management Studies, Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Petroleum Technology, Jais
The views expressed by the authors above are personal. The authors declare that all sources used in the above article are freely accessible on the internet. The images are snapshots of existing accessible data, sources of which have been acknowledged beneath every image. The authors declare no competing financial interest.
‘America First’ vs. Global Financial Stability
The recently concluded annual meeting of the IMF and World Bank group, held in Indonesia last weekend, has highlighted a series of concerning trends with regard to the global economy. It has subsequently left many considering the impacts of a possible global recession that may be looming ahead in the next of couple of years to come. These fears were evident in the worldwide sell-off in global equities last Thursday that has been widely attributed to the IMF revising down its global growth forecast in its World Economic Outlook (WEO) report. The report highlighted growth in a number of developed economies as having plateaued, with rising trade tensions and policy uncertainty greatly contributing to the slow-down. This includes the ongoing trade war between the US and China, as well as the numerous uncertainties pervading within the Euro-Zone.
All of this has had a significant knock-on effect on emerging markets, including Pakistan which has already been struggling with massive fiscal and current account deficits amid rampant inflationary pressures. With tensions between the United States and China still on the rise, Pakistan presents a notable example of how deteriorating global macro-economic conditions have been exacerbated by rising geo-political tensions between these two global powers.
For instance, it took Imran Khan’s fledgling government months to accept the reality of another IMF bailout (Pakistan’s 13th in the last 30 years) despite its $68 billion investment commitment with China. This is because the US, being the largest contributor of funds to the IMF has increasingly politicized this bailout in light of its own deteriorating relations with China. In fact, the US has directly blamed China for Pakistan’s recent debt woes referring to what has been come to known as China’s ‘Debt Trap Diplomacy’. The argument being that the massive loans being doled out by China to developing countries under its Belt & Road Initiative are leading to unsustainable debt levels, eroding their sovereignty while expanding China’s hold over them. Pakistan’s loan obligations to China as part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor are presented as a case in point.
Despite both Pakistan’s and China’s protests to the contrary, it is widely expected that some of the IMF’s conditions attached to Pakistan’s requested bailout are thus likely to include greater scrutiny and revisions regarding the CPEC initiative. This is likely to form part of the US’s overall objective of limiting and constraining China’s influence over Pakistan and the wider region. The impact this would have on Pakistan however is likely to prove critical considering its precarious economic as well as geo-political position. Not only would the IMF’s conditions limit the new government’s ability to maneuver its economy around an increasingly unstable world financial system; it would also delay the much needed infrastructure projects being planned and implemented under CPEC with Chinese assistance. Therefore, the very purpose of the IMF bailout which is to provide some semblance of stability to Pakistan’s ailing economy, would embroil it deeper in uncertainty as a direct result of the US’s unilateral push against China.
It is worth noting here that during its annual meeting, the IMF clearly voiced its concerns regarding escalating trade tensions between the US and China. While calling for increased dialogue and a careful examination of debt induced risks across the world, the IMF seems to be warning both sides over the fragility of prevailing global economic conditions. At the same meeting, China too echoed these concerns and called for increased dialogue with the US to promote open trade and growth. As a country that has for the last few decades championed globalization, China’s vision of shared global growth and win-win partnerships in emerging markets such as Pakistan, have however been directly challenged by the US. A US, that is in contrast aggressively willing to defend the prevailing status quo, as part of President Trump’s mantra of ‘America First’. Hence it was no surprise that US representatives, in response to these concerns brought up by the IMF and China, have continued to downplay the risks of their policies on global economic stability.
With respect to China and numerous emerging markets such as Pakistan, the fact still remains that the world financial system is currently replete with risks and uncertainty as a direct result of US policy. All of this is occurring while the US President continues to boast about surging US equities and record employment figures as a direct outcome of these policies. While the US economy has experienced sustained growth since the 2008 financial crisis, markets and business cycles have a way of correcting themselves, especially when world leaders themselves point to overbought and overextended conditions.
If the US economy truly is on the cusp of a potential downturn, then present geo-political tensions are more than likely to exacerbate the impacts of an impending global recession. For Pakistan, with its precariously low foreign currency reserves and an unsustainable debt to GDP ratio, such a recession is likely to bring on even bigger problems than any of the potential cuts the IMF may propose on CPEC. Thus, while the US may limit China’s rise as an economic power in the short-term, it does so at the expense of emerging markets and global economic stability in the long-run. This lack of foresight is likely to hurt the US more as it realizes how economies cannot exist within a vacuum in an increasingly interdependent world.
How to finance Asia’s infrastructure gap
Asia’s countries famously need to invest trillions of dollars a year to provide infrastructure required to keep traffic flowing, ports trading, and factories humming. Yet most countries in the region consistently fall short.
The 2017 Asian Development Bank (ADB) report “Meeting Asia’s Infrastructure Needs” puts the infrastructure tab for 45 developing Asian countries at more than US$1.7 trillion per year. Developing Asia now invests only about $881 billion a year, or slightly more than 50 percent of that. This is the infrastructure gap.
Less well known, however, is that the investment shortfall is frequently not for a lack of funds or technology. The money may be available, particularly in the private sector, but not enough of it is going where Asia needs it. And this is because many developing countries lack the knowledge and capacity to design and implement bankable infrastructure projects that integrate new technologies.
To encourage private sector investment in infrastructure, high-quality bankable projects must adopt current levels of proven technology as well as be “future-proofed” to further advances in technology.
Delegates from across the development spectrum — from government through the private sector — will gather on Oct.13 in Bali for the Global Infrastructure Forum 2018 to discuss several trillion-dollar questions. How can governments and the private sector help fill the infrastructure gap? How can authorities’ better pair the world’s big investors with the many inclusive, resilient, sustainable, and technology-driven infrastructure projects this region needs to advance economic progress? And how can multilateral development banks best help?
To be sure, strong infrastructure projects are going up all over Asia. Take Indonesia, the Forum host; the country has made enormous strides under its ongoing and ambitious infrastructure program.
The country has seen progress: from the trans-Papua road project in one of the country’s most remote and underdeveloped regions to better information and communications technology under the Palapa Ring (satellite) Project. Indonesia has also launched innovative and clean energy projects such as the 72-megawatt Tolo wind-farm in South Sulawesi and massive urban infrastructure to boost Jakarta’s livability and competitiveness. This latter project includes a new modern airport terminal, rail link, and the first phase of the mass rapid transit expected to open in 2019.
Knowledge is crucial to get such projects off the ground, and this is where the multilateral development banks, including ADB, can assist.
The development banks are providing governments financial and technical support to enhance knowledge in numerous areas.
ADB is also helping strengthen government and private sector project development and governance capacity, for instance, for preparing high-quality projects able to support private finance. It also established the Asia Pacific Project Preparation Facility, a $73 million multi-donor trust fund to support project preparation, monitoring, and project restructuring, as well as capacity building and policy-reform initiatives linked to specific projects.
In addition, the organization is promoting public-private partnerships, catalyzing regulatory reforms to make infrastructure more attractive to private investors, and encourage more bankable projects. Potential is vast, in that pension funds alone, which hold $7.8 trillion in assets, are estimated to invest only about 1 percent of funds under management in infrastructure.
A recent ADB report, “Closing the Financing Gap in Asian Infrastructure,” notes that the richer Asian economies, such as Japan — where savings rates top 30 percent — can clearly play a stronger role if it only could. Yet, the country still invests almost $4 trillion in portfolio assets outside Asia.
Likewise, ADB is developing alternative financing structures and is backing green finance to encourage a bankable green finance project pipeline that can access funds from commercial and institutional investors. Many major investors are now strictly subject to environmental, social, and governance requirements in their investment decisions.
Finally, as technology rapidly evolves, particularly digital, it is creating substantial opportunity. Land acquisition, for example, significantly delays infrastructure projects across the region. Digital technologies are therefore being tested in several countries and watched closely for an ability to improve land titling. Likewise, ADB is involved in Spatial Data Analysis Explorer to help in decision-making relevant to climate hazards and resilience across urban systems.
Multilateral development banks can play multiple roles, from assisting and advising on the creation of appropriate legal and regulatory frameworks, developing bankable projects, direct financing or providing credit enhancement tools to finance projects, to structuring innovative “blended finance” solutions in circumstances where the underlying project is incapable of supporting a financing structure priced at commercial funding rates. In all of this, multilateral development banks and other development partners can assist developing countries gain the knowledge to better develop sustainable, accessible, resilient, and quality infrastructure.
Prema Gopalan Honoured as India Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2018
The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, in partnership with the Jubilant Bhartia Foundation, announced Prema Gopalan of Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP) as India Social Entrepreneur of the Year (SEOY) 2018. The award honours her exceptional contribution in revitalizing rural economies by empowering women to succeed in remote and ailing markets. The SSP model comprises four ventures: a federated network of 5,000 self-help groups; a resilience fund for women-led businesses; a rural school of entrepreneurship and leadership for women; and a market aggregator that provides warehousing, branding, marketing and distribution services to last-mile business women. In addition, it has catalysed the government, investors, financial institutions and Indian and global corporations to partner directly with grassroots women business leaders.
Over two decades, this has had a domino effect in 2,000 climate-threatened villages across six states of India. Over 97,000 women in drought and flood-affected villages have set up enterprises in clean energy, sanitation, basic health services, nutrition and safe agriculture. They have transitioned from self-employment to diversify their ventures, aggregate into value chains and mentor thousands of others to get on the path of entrepreneurship – 900 women are recognized locally as climate resilience leaders and 500 are playing a role in local governance. SSP’s grassroots women entrepreneurs are taking their communities forward as part of their business success. As SSP partners with the government to scale its model, it is demonstrating that investing in rural women entrepreneurs can be a solid strategy for transforming India.
Smita Ram and Ramakrishna NK of Rang De were also selected as finalists for their work on unlocking unusual channels of capital for India’s poorest, building bridges between India’s credit-starved communities and ordinary citizens who contribute to meet the education, health and enterprise needs of resource-poor populations. Working on the premise of “micro-investment for micro-loans”, this peer-to-peer lending platform has to date disbursed INR 70 crore from 14,000 social investors and philanthropists to benefit 60,000 families.
“The World Economic Forum has long championed gender equality on the global agenda,” said Hilde Schwab, Chairperson and Co-Founder of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. “The 2018 winner, Prema Gopalan of Swayam Shikshan Prayog, has demonstrated that investing in rural women is a good investment. Female entrepreneurs are critical actors to help bring about the transformation that India seeks!”
Congratulating the winner, Shyam S. Bhartia, Founder and Chairman, Jubilant Bhartia Group, and Founder Director of Jubilant Bhartia Foundation, said: “We are entering the tenth year of partnership with the Schwab Foundation. In the last nine years, we received more than 1,400 applications for this award. The response is indeed overwhelming and the quality of the applications very competitive. We are glad to see how the SEOY India Award is able to identify and bring to the forefront the enterprises who are achieving social impact at a larger scale. We hope that this year’s SEOY India Award winner will serve as an inspiration to future generations of social innovators.”
The SEOY India Award brings some of the country’s most remarkable change-makers on to a common platform. These social entrepreneurs are promising self-starters, with a strong inclination towards addressing the most pertinent needs of marginalized communities in scalable and sustainable ways. Their endeavours encapsulate alleviating poverty, hunger, gender inequality, promoting women empowerment and education. These social entrepreneurs are torch-bearers who have taken the onus of working towards managing micro-finance needs and finding solutions to daunting challenges like climate change. The tenets of this year’s finalists are aligned with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.
The winner will be invited to join the Schwab Foundation’s global community of over 350 social innovators. Social Entrepreneurs are driven by their mission to create substantial social change and promote inclusive growth, developing new products and service models that benefit underserved communities.
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