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.