Authors: Dr Neha Arora& Rishika Nayyar*
The COVID-19 crisis is a challenge never witnessed before and many economies are bound to shrink as a result of demand and supply shocks. It is expected that COVID-19 crisis could have a far more devastating impact on the world economy than the global financial crisis of 2008-09.Like any other crisis, the present one has exposed the vulnerabilities of existing structures and practices, forced the change in status-quo and, at the same time, opened new window of opportunities.
The Medium, Small and Micro Enterprises (MSME) sector is the most vibrant and crucial industrial sector for the Indian economy. The sector provides employment to over 130 million people and contributes to nearly 30% of GDP. The MSMEs contribute nearly 45% to manufacturing, forming the backbone of the Indian manufacturing economy. MSMEs have contributed significantly towards domestic employment generation, increased revenues and have boosted international trade. Over the years, MSMEs in India have transitioned from manufacturing low-tech labour-intensive goods to medium-tech capital-intensive products and have also entered the services sector in recent past.
The significant contribution of MSMEs to the Indian economy on one hand, and the hard blow that the sector has received from the present crisis on the other, have called for a renewed and carefully thought-out focus on the situation of MSME units. In this background, the present article highlights the pertinent role that a vibrant and dynamic MSME sector can play in helping India capitalize on the opportunities thrown open by the pandemic and aid the process of economic recovery. It also suggests a three-pointer action plan that focuses on technology adoption, rural cluster development programme and strategic partnership development programme to bolster the MSME sector.
Opportunities for India
Supply chain restructuring: An opportunity to be the next global production hub
The COVID-19 crisis has caused widespread and significant disruptions and exposed vulnerabilities in the global supply chain, especially for countries who were excessively dependent on China for sourcing of raw materials, intermediate and finished goods. Over the past two decades, China has played a dominant role as the ‘factory of the world’ for industries such as electronics, automotives, apparel and plastics. However, escalated trade tensions in 2019 between China and the US, in addition to rising labour cost and declining productivity, dimmed the country’s significance as a global production hub. While the relocation of production facilities was already setting in, the current pandemic fueled this fire. Many countries around the world, including the USA, UK, Japan and South Korea, have been incentivizing their companies to move production facilities out of China with a view to reconfigure their supply chains and reduce reliance on China. This initiative to reduce dependence on China has become a matter of national priority for some countries, like the UK.
The reconfiguration of global supply chains has opened up a window of opportunity for India to present itself as a business-friendly nation and an attractive, alternative investment destination for companies looking to relocate their production facilities. According to the Reshoring Index released by consulting firm Kearney, because of the COVID-19 crisis,“companies will be compelled to go much further in rethinking their sourcing strategies—indeed, their entire supply chain.” It is this compulsion and urgency that India needs to act upon. If exploited at the right time, this opportunity could provide the much needed boost to Indian Government’s flagship program -Make in India- which has now culminated into the aspiration of making in India for the world.
In a bid to attract foreign companies, the Indian government has rolled out various plans such as developing a land pool of 461,589 hectares (twice the size of Luxembourg) to supplement easier availability of land, improve hard infrastructure through huge investment in national infrastructure pipeline project, and soft infrastructure (i.e. institutions) through implementing business reforms. The Government has also handpicked ten sectors – electrical, pharmaceuticals, electronics, heavy engineering, solar equipment, food processing, chemicals and textiles – as spotlight areas for promoting manufacturing suggesting a much focused approach than earlier.
The MSME sector can be used as an catalyst to exploit the opportunity and realize the dream of making India a global production hub in three ways. First, MSMEs act as complimentary entities by providing intermediate goods to large businesses (both domestic and foreign) in India. They also help them achieve economies of scale by facilitating outsourcing of functions, specifically in labour-intensive activities. Second, they also play a pivotal role in promoting resilience to sector-specific shocks and fluctuations in international markets by diversifying the industrial sector. Lastly, MSMEs are the harbinger of entrepreneurship and innovation which are important pillars for lifting the nation’s capacity in shifting towards the manufacture and exports of sophisticated high tech products, and help move up the global value chains. Thus, to build and sustain competitive manufacturing enterprises, both large and small, and realize the vision of Make in India for the world, MSMEs need to be strengthened and supported.
Self Reliant India- A shift from excessive dependence to embracing self sufficiency
For the last three decades, Indian economy, like any other open economy, has embraced the benefits of globalisation. Forces of globalisation, including production and trade, based on national comparative advantages have given rise to geographically-spread value chains. In normal situations, the global value chains work as a well-oiled machinery leading manufacturers and nations to be oblivious to the extent of dependency on other nations. A recent article published in Harvard Business Review provides evidence that most of the companies are not as up to speed about the structure of their supply chain. Covid-19 has given a blow to these companies as they struggle to keep a track of which site, parts, products, and suppliers are located in affected areas, leading to a complete halt of production. Automobile industry is a perfect example of this blowout.
Another, and in fact, more appropriate account of globalisation-driven dependence can be seen in the case of India’s Pharmaceutical Industry. Third largest in the world (in terms of volume), Indian pharmaceutical industry imports 90 percent of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) or bulk drugs, with two-thirds of total coming from only one source- China. Despite being alarmed about the overdependence on China as a national security threat in 2014, only half-hearted measures were taken by the policymakers to make industry as self-reliant as it was in the 1990s when it actually exported APIs and was ahead of China. The stricter regulatory requirements on Indian firms manufacturing APIs, coupled with strong state support given by China’s government to their indigenous manufacturers, resulted in widening of the gap between the cost competitiveness of Indian and Chinese companies- a cause of increased dependence.
While several other examples of products other than APIs, such as computers, mobile phones, medical devices, toys can be given here, the one that boldly underlines India’s dependence in the manufacturing sector is the fact that it struggled to be self-sufficient in the production of something as simple as plastic dispensers for hand sanitizers. The current pandemic has given a wake-up call not only to corporations but also to governments across developed and developing economies.
From the agenda of reducing dependence on foreign imports, including those from China for APIs and other supplies, to the initial steps in ramping up the production of essential gear like personal protective equipment (PPE) kits, masks, testing kits, alcohol based sanitizers, dispensers, Indian Government’s vision of making India self reliant is echoed in the five pillars of its Aatma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan- Economy, Infrastructure, System, Demography and Demand. The initiatives (present and planned) under each of the five pillars are aimed at getting the economy back on its feet. Needless to mention, focus on strengthening the manufacturing sector is and has to be the centerpiece of any course of action directed to make India self-reliant.
In realizing the vision of self-reliant India, two things will play a determining role. First is the identification of sectors and/or areas, products, in which the Indian industry is capable of replacing foreign imports and can quickly scale up production, such as textile components and basic medical devices. One sector that is recently identified by the Government is the toy industry. A renewed focus on such sectors implies a renewed focus on MSME units that have the capability to scale up effectively and efficiently. The second and a related requirement is creating a supportive ecosystem, of which MSMEs are not only viewed as an important part (in the capacity of a partner to big businesses) but also, more importantly, as beneficiaries. So, for instance, while toy MSMEs are going to play a direct and quintessential role in reducing India’s unduly excessive reliance on imports as well as making her self reliant, it is unachievable without a supportive ecosystem that protects innovative and creative works, and streamlines the procedure of obtaining quality certification.
Reverse Migration- An opportunity to boost rural entrepreneurship
The covid-19 situation has worsened the situation of unemployment in India. The stalling of economic activity has forced businesses to lay off workers.. According to the Center of Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), the rate of unemployment in India has risen to over 23 percent as of April 2020 (25 percent in urban areas and 22 percent in rural) up from 7 percent (10 percent in urban areas and 6 percent in rural) in the beginning of the year (January 2020). Even as lockdown restrictions continue to ease, businesses in both formal and informal sectors, including construction, manufacturing, restaurants, travel and housekeeping are facing severe shortages of workforce due to reverse migration from urban to rural areas. According to an estimate by the Confederation of All India Traders traders’, the capital city has already witnessed an exodus of over 60 to 70 percent of its labor force. A similar situation has been reported from other major states for migrant workers such as Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. The extent of reverse migration is estimated to be at least 23 million migrants moving back to rural India. The consequences of such an extent of reverse migration are being clearly highlighted and voiced by businesses across urban areas as they grapple with shortages of workforce. However, more concerning aspects of this situation will be faced sooner than we realize as a significant proportion of migrants would be reluctant to return back to cities due to fear of the coronavirus, which is expected to haunt mankind for at least a year, uncertainties and related economic and emotional distress. As migrant workers seek safe haven back in their villages, the already widespread unemployment in rural areas is bound to skyrocket. While some of them would rely on agriculture as a means of livelihood, the sector is not without challenges – low productivity and small size of land holdings – to name a few. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) is another alternative but the guaranteed days of work is restricted to just 100 in a financial year and the wages are meager. Perhaps, employment under MGNREGA is generally viewed as a work avenue in the off or lean agriculture season rather than a primary source of employment. Such a scenario, however, is an opportune moment to direct efforts towards rural industrialization through promotion of rural MSMEs. The process of rural industrialization through rural MSMEs will act as a catalyst to spur the generation of employment and income in the rural areas. A plethora of opportunities can be tapped by MSMEs not only in the agriculture and allied sector, but also in food processing, other traditional sectors such as khadi and village industries, handloom, handicraft and coir. In fact, the present crisis offers enormous potential for rural MSMEs to revive India’s artisan traditions and handicrafts which is in line with the Government’s latest “Vocal for Local” initiative. Setting up such units and making them operational might take some time and require coordinated support and policy initiatives by private enterprises as well as the Government at center and state level. However, promoting rural industrialization through MSMEs is the most viable option for sustained employment and income generation in rural areas that are home to 66 percent of India’s total population (as of 2018) to foster balanced regional growth, and keep a check on future migration to urban areas thereby decongesting and alleviating pressure on cities.
Three pillars of action to support, strengthen and scale MSMEs
It is unarguable that MSMEs are going to play an increasingly important role in enabling India to exploit the opportunities thrown open by the pandemic at both national and international level, and to put her on the path of economic recovery. However, it cannot also be refuted that MSMEs are the worst hit by the pandemic, with many of them struggling to survive, and would probably die down by the time things normalize – partly owing to the absence of any direct support for them in the Government’s 20 trillion stimulus package. For units that will survive the pandemic, a coordinated action plan consisting of support from Government (centre and state), industry associations, as well as strategic agility of units themselves, would be pertinent. Therefore, we suggest three action plans that could help reap the potential of MSMEs by making them more productive, efficient, and competitive.
- Technology Adoption
- Rural Cluster Development Programme
- Strategic Partnership Development Programme
As the world embraces the fourth industrial revolution, automation and digitization of business processes has become an absolute necessity for businesses’ survival and growth. According to a recent survey by SME body- India SME Forum -only 7% of MSMEs surveyed (1,29,537 MSME respondents) reported the adoption of technology beyond the use of digital tools to communicate with key stakeholders such as customers, employees, and suppliers. The adoption of technology could play a non-trivial role in overcoming numerous challenges and issues that plague the productivity, competitiveness and profitability of MSME units in India. The potential benefits from adoption are expected to be realized across the value chain and/or network – from procurement of resources, to automation and use of robotics in manufacturing processes, customer engagement, supply chain management, sales force management, integration of business processes etc.
An action plan to increase the rate of technology adoption amongst MSMEs must keep into consideration two important factors- perceived usefulness and perceived ease of use (Davis, 1989). The intention to use (adopt in this case) the new technology depends on the users’ attitude towards it which is influenced by, in addition to the external forces, the belief that the use of it would result in the improvement of performance and is free from effort. A Government initiative along with industry body CII, in the form of CII TechSaksham, is a step that underlines the belief about usefulness of technology in improving MSMEs performance (profitability and global competitiveness) and, in turn, their contribution to the Indian Economy. The three-year long comprehensive project is also aimed at addressing the issues revolving around the “perceived ease of use”. The “perceived ease of use” is reported to be a major blockade in MSMEs attempt at technology adoption.
A staggering 70 percent of MSMEs that were surveyed by India SME forum cited lack of knowledge, guidance, skilled manpower, and cost of investment, as impediments to technology adoption. While initiatives like CII TechSaksham can provide a platform to overcome the knowledge barriers, real beneficiaries would be those MSMEs that move swiftly in formulating an effective strategic plan for technology adoption that furthers three As necessary for promoting the “perceived ease of use”- awareness, agility, and adaptability. It is essential to give strategic priority to technology adoption and carry out the implementation in a phased manner. For units facing cost issues and manpower crunch, a viable and cost effective solution is to avail of technology as a service. These services provided by third parties include “Software as a Service (SaaS)”, “Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)” and “Platform as a Service”, and can go a long way in overcoming the challenges associated with technology adoption by MSMEs.
Rural Cluster Development Programme
India has a rich history of rural entrepreneurship and, to support the growth and build-capacity of Rural MSMEs, the Government should focus on developing industrial clusters specifically designed for MSMEs in and/or around rural areas. By virtue of its support to industrial activity in rural areas, rural industrial clusters can promote employment generation, which is the need of the hour now since the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in reverse migration of labourers (not just labourers, other blue collar workers as well). According to a recent report, livelihoods of a large percentage of around 40 million internal workers has been severely affected by Covid-19.
In order to combat the impact of Covid-19 pandemic on livelihoods of millions of migrant workers, a model similar to Special Economic Zones (SEZ) could be replicated in rural areas and districts to enhance the industrial capacity of MSMEs by providing them credit, technical know-how and market support. Additionally, following a cluster development approach towards industrialization efforts in rural areas can help tackle several challenges faced by MSMEs in terms of production, quality control, testing and marketing. For instance, in Indonesia, the government has adopted MSME clustering approach as an important aspect of Rural economy development as the success rate for development of manufacturing SMEs lies in strong inter-firms linkages in clusters and competent external networks and not direct government support. Thus, this could be an ideal time to give support and shape to these rural clusters and come with a workable action plan to encourage formation of clusters in villages.
Strategic Vendor Development Programme
The need for building strategic vendor development programmes stems from the complementarities that multinational corporations (MNCs) and MSMEs can derive from each other. MSMEs constitute an important part of the supply chain as providers of low value-added products, intermediates and components to be used in final production. It is in the interest of foreign MNCs to invest in the upgradation of the capabilities of their supply chain partners in order to ensure the quality of the final product. In order to facilitate that, MNCs often impart training on modern production techniques to the employees of MSMEs and engage in transfer of technological and managerial know-how.
Looking ahead, MSMEs must consolidate and extend relationships with MNCs to leverage their existing capabilities such as superior knowledge, technical know-how and established processes. One way to achieve such competencies is through formation of Vendor Development Programme wherein MNCs can provide training and guidance to MSMEs on how to meet quality standards, reduce costs, deliver on time and thus become reliable vendors for them. A successful example of such a vendor development programme is the Ethiopian flower cut industry. Strategic relationships between local vendors (flower growers) and Dutch foreign investors (Dutch Development cooperation) played an important role in the development and growth of the sector.
However, Indian MSMEs face challenges and obstacles in developing strategic tie-ups with large MNCs for at least two reasons. First, there are many Government-regulated performance parameters such as mandatory sharing of critical technologies and stringent rules for local content requirements that discourage foreign MNCs from entering into contractual relationships. Second, the absence of domestic intermediaries that could act as links between foreign MNCs and local MSMEs hinder the capabilities of the former to select the right vendor or partner and exploit the complementarities.
In order to overcome these constraints, there is a need to reduce regulatory bottlenecks and establish organizations that act as intermediaries (brokers) or connecting links between foreign MNCs and local MSMEs. The presence of such intermediaries will play a vital role in overcoming the information voids that characterize emerging markets like India, reduce the cost, effort and time involved in searching for the right vendor and/or partner (in the form of MSMEs) and facilitate the formation of mutually beneficial relationships. The formation of linkages or strategic tie-ups with multinationals from developed countries would go a long way in uplifting the competitiveness and capabilities of Indian MSMEs to serve both domestic and global markets.
To make the best of the opportunities arising from the biggest challenge of this century, Indian economy needs a thriving MSME sector. The substantial contribution that the sector has made to the economy has got it to be acknowledged as the “backbone”. It is also true that this backbone has been hit severely by the COVID19 pandemic and as the economy tries to stand up on its feet, strengthening of the backbone assumes an imperative task ahead for the Indian government.
The article has listed out the three essential pillars of an action plan that involves coordinated efforts from industry associations, policymakers and the MSME units themselves. While infusion of liquidity could help the distressed MSMEs recoup the losses in the short term, in order to really hit the ground running and help the economy realize its potential, strategies and policy actions with a long term vision in mind need to be enacted urgently. The focus has to be widened from the survival in the short-run to building up a productive and competent MSME sector for the future.
*Dr.Rishika Nayyar is an Assistant Professor (International Business) at FORE School of Management.
Finding Fulcrum to Move the World Economics
Where hidden is the fulcrum to bring about new global-age thinking and escape current mysterious economic models that primarily support super elitism, super-richness, super tax-free heavens and super crypto nirvanas; global populace only drifts today as disconnected wanderers at the bottom carrying flags of ‘hate-media’ only creating tribal herds slowly pushed towards populism. Suppose, if we accept the current indices already labeled as success as the best of show of hands, the game is already lost where winners already left the table. Finding a new fulcrum to move the world economies on a better trajectory where human productivity measured for grassroots prosperity is a critically important but a deeply silent global challenge. Here are some bold suggestions
ONE- Global Measurement: World connectivity is invisible, grossly misunderstood, miscalculated and underestimated of its hidden powers; spreading silently like an invisible net, a “new math” becomes the possible fulcrum for the new business world economy; behold the ocean of emerging global talents from new economies, mobilizing new levels of productivity, performance and forcing global shifts of economic powers. Observe the future of borderless skills, boundary less commerce and trans-global public opinion, triangulation of such will simply crush old thinking.
Archimedes yelled, “…give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world…”
After all, half of the world during the last decade, missed the entrepreneurial mindset, understoodonly as underdog players of the economy, the founders, job-creators and risk-taker entrepreneurs of small medium businesses of the world, pushed aside while kneeling to big business staged as institutionalized ritual. Although big businesses are always very big, nevertheless, small businesses and now globally accepted, as many times larger. Study deeply, why suddenly now the small medium business economy, during the last budgetary cycles across the world, has now become the lone solution to save dwindling economies. Big business as usual will take care of itself, but national economies already on brink left alone now need small business bases and hard-core raw entrepreneurialism as post-pandemic recovery agendas.
TWO – Ground Realities: National leadership is now economic leadership, understanding, creating and managing, super-hyper-digital-platform-economies a new political art and mobilization of small midsize business a new science: The prerequisites to understand the “new math” is the study of “population-rich-nations and knowledge rich nations” on Google and figure out how and why can a national economy apply such new math.
Today a USD $1000 investment in technology buys digital solutions, which were million dollars, a decade ago.Today,a $1000 investment buys on global-age upskilling on export expansion that were million dollars a decade ago. Today, a $1000 investment on virtual-events buys what took a year and cost a million dollars a decade ago. Today, any micro-small-medium-enterprise capable of remote working models can save 80% of office and bureaucratic costs and suddenly operate like a mini-multi-national with little or no additional costs.
Apply this math to population rich nations and their current creation of some 500 million new entrepreneurial businesses across Asia will bring chills across the world to the thousands of government departments, chambers of commerce and trade associations as they compare their own progress. Now relate this to the economic positioning of ‘knowledge rich nations’ and explore how they not only crushed their own SME bases, destroyed the middle class but also their expensive business education system only produced armies of resumes promoting job-seekers but not the mighty job-creators. Study why entrepreneurialism is neither academic-born nor academic centric, it is after all most successful legendary founders that created earth shattering organizations were only dropouts. Now shaking all these ingredients well in the economic test tube wait and let all this ferment to see what really happens.
Now picking up any nation, selecting any region and any high potential vertical market; searching any meaningful economic development agenda and status of special skills required to serve such challenges, paint new challenges. Interconnect the dots on skills, limits on national/global exposure and required expertise on vertical sectors, digitization and global-age market reach. Measuring the time and cost to bring them at par, measuring the opportunity loss over decades for any neglect. Combining all to squeeze out a positive transformative dialogue and assemble all vested parties under one umbrella.
Not to be confused with academic courses on fixing Paper-Mache economies and broken paper work trails, chambers primarily focused on conflict resolutions, compliance regulations, and trade groups on policy matters. Mobilization of small medium business economy is a tactical battlefield of advancements of an enterprise, as meritocracy is the nightmarish challenges for over 100 plus nations where majority high potential sectors are at standstill on such affairs. Surprisingly, such advancements are mostly not new funding hungry but mobilization starved. Economic leadership teams of today, unless skilled on intertwining super-hyper-digital-platform-economic agendas with local midsize businesses and creating innovative excellence to stand up to global competitiveness becomes only a burden to growth.
The magnifying glass of mind will find the fulcrum: High potential vertical sectors and special regions are primarily wide-open lands full of resources and full of talented peoples; mobilization of such combinations offering extraordinary power play, now catapulted due to technologies. However, to enter such arenas calls for regimented exploring of the limits of digitization, as Digital-Divides are Mental Divides, only deeper understanding and skills on how to boost entrepreneurialism and attract hidden talents of local citizenry will add power. Of course, knowing in advance, what has already failed so many times before will only avoid using a rubber hose as a lever, again.
The new world economic order: There is no such thing as big and small as it is only strong and weak, there is no such thing as rich and poor it is only smart and stupid. There is no such thing as past and future is only what is in front now and what is there to act but if and or when. How do you translate this in a post pandemic recovery mode? Observe how strong, smart moving now are advancing and leaving weak, stupid dreaming of if and when in the dust behind.
The conclusion: At the risk of never getting a Nobel Prize on Economics, here is this stark claim; any economy not driven solely based on measuring “real value creation” but primarily based on “real value manipulation” is nothing but a public fraud. This mathematically proven, possibly a new Fulcrum to move the world economy, in need of truth
The rest is easy
Evergrande Crisis and the Global Economy
China’s crackdown on the tech giants was not much of a surprise. Sure, the communist regime allowed the colossus entities like Alibaba Group to innovate and prosper for years. Yet, the government control over the markets was never concealed. In fact, China’s active intervention in the forex market to deliberately devalue Yuan was frequently contested around the world. Ironically, now the world awaits government intervention as a global liquidity crisis seems impending. The Evergrande Group, China’s largest property developer, is on the brink of collapse. Mounding debt, unfinished properties, and subsequent public pressure eventually pushed the group to openly admit its financial turmoil last week. Subsequently, Evergrande’s shares plunged as much as 19% to more than 11-year lows. While many anticipate a thorough financial restructuring in the forthcoming months, the global debt markets face a broader financial contagion – as long as China deliberates on its plan of action.
The financial trouble of the conglomerate became apparent when President Xi Jinping stressed upon controlled corporate debt levels in his ongoing drive to reign China’s corporate behemoths. It is estimated that the Evergrande Group currently owes $305 billion in outstanding debt; payments on its offshore bonds due this week. With new channels of debt ceased throughout the Mainland, repayment seems doubtful despite reassurances from the company officials. The broader cause of worry, however, is the impact of a default; which seems highly likely under current circumstances.
The residential property market and the real estate market control roughly 20% and 30% of China’s nominal GDP respectively. A default could destabilize the already slowing Chinese economy. Yet that’s half the truth. In reality, the failure of a ‘too big to fail’ company could bleed into other sectors as well. And while China could let the company fail to set a precedent, the spillover could devastate the financial stability hard-earned after a strenuous battle against the pandemic. Recent data shows that with the outbreak of the delta variant, the demand pressure in China has significantly cooled down while the energy prices are through the roof. Coupled with the regulatory crackdown rapidly pervading uncertainty, a debt crisis could further push the economy into a recession: a detrimental end to China’s aspirations to attract global investors.
The real question, therefore, is not about China’s willingness to bail out the company. Too much is at stake. The primal question is regarding the modus operandi which could be adopted by China to upend instability.
Naturally, the influence of China’s woes parallels its effect on the global economy. A possible liquidity crisis and the opaque measures of the government combined are already affecting the global markets: particularly the United States. The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) posted a dismal end to Monday’s trading session: declining by more than 600 points. The 10-year Treasury yields slipped down 6.4 basis points to 1.297% as investors sought safety amid uncertainty. The concern is regarding China’s route to solve the issue and the timeline it would adopt. While the markets across Europe and Asia are optimistic about a partial settlement of debt payments, a take over from state-owned enterprises could further drive uncertainty; majorly regarding the pay schedule of western bondholders amid political hostility.
Economists believe that, while a financial crisis doesn’t seem like a plausible threat, a delayed response or a clumsy reaction could permeate volatility in the capital markets globally. Furthermore, a default or a takeover would almost certainly pull down China’s economy. While the US has already turned stringent over Chinese IPOs recently, a debt default could puncture the economic viability of a wide array of Chinese companies around the world. And thus, while the global banking system is not at an immediate threat of a Lehman catastrophe, Evergrande’s bankruptcy would, nonetheless, erode both the domestic and the global housing market. Moreover, it would further dent Chinese imports (and seriously damage regional exchequers), and would ultimately put a damper on global economic recovery from the pandemic.
Economy Contradicts Democracy: Russian Markets Boom Amid Political Sabotage
The political game plan laid by the Russian premier Vladimir Putin has proven effective for the past two decades. Apart from the systemic opposition, the core critics of the Kremlin are absent from the ballot. And while a competitive pretense is skilfully maintained, frontrunners like Alexei Navalny have either been incarcerated, exiled, or pushed against the metaphorical wall. All in all, United Russia is ahead in the parliamentary polls and almost certain to gain a veto-proof majority in State Duma – the Russian parliament. Surprisingly, however, the Russian economy seems unperturbed by the active political manipulation of the Kremlin. On the contrary, the Russian markets have already established their dominance in the developing world as Putin is all set to hold his reign indefinitely.
The Russian economy is forecasted to grow by 3.9% in 2021. The pandemic seems like a pained tale of history as the markets have strongly rebounded from the slump of 2020. The rising commodity prices – despite worrisome – have edged the productivity of the Russian raw material giants. The gains in ruble have gradually inched higher since January, while the current account surplus has grown by 3.9%. Clearly, the manufacturing mechanism of Moscow has turned more robust. Primarily because the industrial sector has felt little to no jitters of both domestic and international defiance. The aftermath of the arrest of Alexei Navalny wrapped up dramatically while the international community couldn’t muster any resistance beyond a handful of sanctions. The Putin regime managed to harness criticism and allegations while deftly sketching a blueprint to extend its dominance.
The ideal ‘No Uncertainty’ situation has worked wonders for the Russian Bourse and the bond market. The benchmark MOEX index (Moscow Exchange) has rallied by 23% in 2021 – the strongest performance in the emerging markets. Moreover, the fixed income premiums have dropped to record lows; Russian treasury bonds offering the best price-to-earning ratio in the emerging markets. The main reason behind such a bustling market response could be narrowed down to one factor: growing investor confidence.
According to Bloomberg’s data, the Russian Foreign Exchange reserves are at their record high of $621 billion. And while the government bonds’ returns hover at a mere 1.48%, the foreign ownership of treasury bonds has inflated above 20% for the second time this year. The investors are confident that a significant political shuffle is not on cards as Putin maintains a tight hold over Kremlin. Furthermore, investors do not perceive the United States as an active deterrent to Russia – at least in the near term. The notion was further exacerbated when the Biden administration unilaterally dropped sanctions from the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. And while Europe and the US remain sympathetic with the Kremlin critics, large economies like Germany have clarified their economic position by striking lucrative deals amid political pressure. It is apparent that while Europe is conflicted after Brexit, even the US faces much more pressing issues in the guise of China and Afghanistan. Thus, no active international defiance has all but bolstered the Kremlin in its drive to gain foreign investments.
Another factor at work is the overly hawkish Russian Central Bank (RCB). To tame inflation – currency raging at an annual rate of 6.7% – the RCB hiked its policy rate to 6.75% from the all-time low of 4.25%. The RCB has raised its policy rate by a cumulative 250 basis points in four consecutive hikes since January which has all but attracted the investors to jump on the bandwagon. However, inflation is proving to be sturdy in the face of intermittent rate hikes. And while Russian productivity is enjoying a smooth run, failure of monetary policy tools could just as easily backfire.
While political dissent or international sanctions remain futile, inflation is the prime enemy which could detract the Russian economy. For years Russia has faced a sharp decline in living standards, and despite commendable fiscal management of the Kremlin, such a steep rise in prices is an omen of a financial crisis. Moreover, the unemployment rates have dropped to record low levels. However, the labor shortage is emerging as another facet that could plausibly ignite the wage-price spiral. Further exacerbating the threat of inflation are the $9.6 billion pre-election giveaways orchestrated by President Putin to garner more support for his United Russia party. Such a tremendous demand pressure could presumably neutralize the aggressive tightening of the monetary policy by the RCB. Thus, while President Putin sure is on a definitive path of immortality on the throne of the Kremlin, surging inflation could mark a return of uncertainty, chip away investors’ confidence: eventually putting a brake on the economic streak.
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The failure of the great games in Afghanistan from the 19th century to the present day