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Creating Perceptions: What is Really Happening with the Indian Economy?

Manak Suri

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Narendra Modi India Economy 2019

In just a little over a year, Indians will take to the polling booths again to decide whether the Narendra Modi led BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government’s much anticipated second term as the ruling party will become a reality or not. Even though the present government has always been the favourite to retain its position, a heightened focus on the health of the Indian economy may or may not be in their best interest, and it all depends on which picture Indians choose to accept.

One picture, two different outlooks

IMF (International Monetary Fund) chief Christine Lagarde said earlier in October that “for the medium term, we see a very solid track ahead for the Indian economy”, assuaging some of the disconcertedness that has surrounded the Indian economy post two of the boldest moves ever attempted by any government since independence in the country: demonetisation and a massive rollout of the GST (goods and services tax) earlier in the year. The lingering effects of the disruption caused by these steps resulted in India’s GDP growth slowing down again in the latest quarter to 5.7%, with the country playing second fiddle to China, again. However, Lagarde has lauded the steps taken by the Indian government to digitise the economy and simplify the tax regime, dismissing any surprises in the drop in figures as “a little bit of short-term slowdown” which was to be expected following the government’s “monumental effort”.

Moreover, during his visit to the US to meet with investors and corporate leaders, Minister of finance Arun Jaitley reflected that there is a “positive mood” about India in the US, adding that Americans have a good understanding of the actions taken by the government and what they will lead to. That may very well be the case, but the picture of the economy within the borders is far less pronounced, and the division of its state among the citizens far more.

Soon after the figures for growth were in for the latest quarter, India’s former minister of finance Yashwant Sinha, who is also a member of BJP, singlehandedly contributed hugely to the already dwindling confidence of the public in the government’s approach when he wrote in a letter in his column on The Indian Express about “the mess the finance minister has made of the economy.” Citing issues ranging from the decline in private investment and distress in the agricultural sector to the loss of jobs across different sectors, he has blamed demonetisation and a poorly implemented GST for the poor state in which the economy finds itself. Consequently, the past month has seen a flurry of editorials and opinion pieces on what the true picture is of India’s economy, where it is headed, and whether the fears of the people are warranted or if these tiny setbacks will finally be followed by the promised prosperity.

The problems are real, but what are they?

Agriculture was one crucial sector of the economy hit badly. The agrarian crisis has worsened due to an unsatisfactory monsoon season after farm loan waivers were granted following massive protests across states. On the other hand, the GST rollout has hit hard the small and medium businesses which were vastly unprepared to cope with the government’s move. While the GST council meet earlier in October may have eased the tax burden on the SMEs, it is still some way to go before they can be pulled out of what Mr Sinha accurately describes an “existential crisis”. An improvement in growth would also require a timely recovery from the supply shock caused by the implementation of the GST, in the absence of which it would be more realistic to expect more quarters of slow growth. Another major problem is the dearth in the investment by the private sector with an increase in stalled projects for the fifth consecutive quarter. This, along with other engines of economic growth including private consumption has shown slowing signs as well. The government may argue that when they inherited the economy it wasn’t in its best shape either, but demonetisation and now GST, no matter how ambitious have created a scare among the people leading to alarms of low confidence ringing across all major sectors, which needs to be addressed.

The biggest concern perhaps for the government is the lack of jobs created. One of the promises made by the Modi government during the elections was the creation of millions of jobs. However, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy the workforce declined from 406.5 million at the end of last year to 405 million till April this year. Almost every indicator points out to a net loss of jobs for the year 2017. The telecom, construction, and textile industries among others have also laid off a large number of their workforce. A broken promise on this end is unlikely to be forgiven and forgotten that easy.

Where the government is right

As is always the case, the analysis here as well is a two-way street. To the credit of the government, some positive signs have shown with the first tax collection under GST exceeding government’s expectations of Rs. 91,000 crore. Other sources also show a bit of a revival in consumer spending. Moreover, irrespective of the expected duration of the slowdown, PM Modi has recognised the need to tackle some of the most prominent issues that plague the economy in order to get it back on track. It is for that purpose that the Economic Advisory Council to Prime Minister has been set up consisting of experts chosen by Mr Modi himself. “There is a consensus amongst us that there are various reasons that have contributed to a slowdown of growth rate. Our entire thrust would be on implementable decisions”, said the Council’s chairman Bibek Debroy. The EAC or EAC-PM has identified 10 issues to tackle in order to launch the economy towards a higher trajectory of growth. These are inclusive of but not limited to the areas of agriculture, the informal sector in the country, job creation, public expenditure, and monetary policy among others. The need for instituting an Economy Track Monitor has also been realised by the Council to suggest correct courses of actions based on heavy and informed assessments.

Making it right: which path to follow

What can the government do? What should be done? Division exists on the suggested courses of actions as well. One of the solutions to the problem would be an increase in the government spending, a suggestion that has found the support of many policymakers throughout the country. That, however, is not without its problems. The central bank has warned that such a fiscal stimulus may come at the cost of macroeconomic stability and even the EAC seems not to be in favour of it. The government also wants to stick to its fiscal deficit target of 3.2% of the GDP and is unlikely to trade off some of this stability for growth. In the event that it should achieve neither, it would be further behind the starting line, not making for a flattering image before the next general elections.

If not a fiscal stimulus, then what is the alternative? The answer is policy reforms in those sectors of the economy that have been plagued with poor performance in terms of both employment and growth – textiles, real estate and construction, and leather among others. A report from JP Morgan suggests that the government should focus on fixing the supply chains that were disrupted first due to demonetisation and then the GST by improving the regulatory framework for SMEs. Resolving the problem of non performing assets in banks is another area that the government needs to set its sights on. The EAC, in its next meeting may look at the sale of government stakes for the recapitalisation of banks as the right step to take.

Time prevails over all

“It is a mistake to think that there is some magical, perfect way to run a large-scale complex system like an economy”, says Jitendra Singh, emeritus professor of management at Wharton, on the subject of the growth of the Indian economy. Yashwant Sinha expressed the same sentiment while concluding his letter when he mentioned: “nobody has a magic wand to revive the economy overnight.” The problems that the Indian economy is facing did not start with demonetisation and GST, they were already headed this way. These steps may have accentuated some of the many problems that have slowed growth but it is also true that an excessive and undue amount of attention is being placed on them. The real problems of the economy are the ones that the EAC to PM Modi hope to tackle and only time will tell what the government is able to do. Unfortunately, time is what is most scarce for the government.

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A student of economics with a keen eye for developments in the geopolitical sphere, Manak is a curious individual with a penchant for writing about anything that makes him ponder long enough.

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Fears of a 2019 European Economic Slowdown Loom

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Although the spotlight is on the trade war between the United States and China, one aspect that is currently ignored by the media is represented by signs of weakness in the European continent.

Germany slows down

After posting a -0.3% GDP contraction in the third quarter of 2018, the economic indicators released from Germany in 2019 cannot support a positive economic picture. The manufacturing sectors continue to show signs of weakening, with the Markit PMI Composite now at 51.6, down from 52.3.

Industrial Production had been contraction by 1.9% in November, and both imports and exports had been down by 1.6% and 0.4%, respectively. DAX trading had also suggested there is growing concerns among investors and the main German stock index peaked out in July 2018, being now down by 15%.

Germany relies mostly on exports, being the third exporter in the world, only surpassed by the United States and China. That is why the weakness we see in Germany is actually a symptom of what’s happening in other European countries as well.

Italy and France not too encouraging

The new populist government in Italy, formed by La Lega and The Five Star Movement faced a serious challenge to get the EU’s approval for the 2019 budget, as the already high debt-to-GDP ratio (currently at 131.8%) raises concerns on whether the country will be able to meet its debt obligations in the future.

There are also serious concerns about the banking sector, which despite mergers and acquisitions, and huge capital available from the ECB, were unable to solve their problems which emerged after the 2008 financial crisis. The future of Italy is very uncertain, and analysts predict that the new government will not be able to meet their economic promises, given that we are at the end of a business cycle.

Speaking of France, the problems are social at the present time. President Macron was unable to stop the “Yellow Vests” protests, despite promises to increase the minimum wage and the overall standard of living for the very poor. France’s debt-to-GDP ratio currently stands at 97%, but given the latest promises, there are concerns whether the country will manage to keep the budget deficit below 3% in 2019, as the European treaties demand.

Although there’s a single currency in Europe, in terms of fiscal policy things were very fragmented, which is why the economic recovery had been very slow and the reason why investors predict Europe will face the greatest challenges to solve its economic, political, and social problems.

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Sterling Whipsaws as Brexit Negotiations Fall Flag

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Sterling whipsawed on Thursday, first tumbling and then rallying, and experiencing robust volatility. The GBP/JPY also experienced a wild ride as the yen increased in value on safe-haven flows. Sterling has been trading under pressure following news that the European Union has no plans for further Brexit discussions. May is now stuck between a rock and a hard place and may have to exit from the EC without an agreement.

The EU Has No Plans to Continue Brexit Talks

The European Union announced through a spokesperson saying that they had no plan on further Brexit discussions with the UK. The British had hoped for additional assurances on the contested Irish backstop. Prime Minister May has been making the rounds with EU leaders ahead of this month’s vote in parliament, but her diplomacy appears to have failed to change any minds.

The Financial Times reports that a EU source said no dialogue has occurred over the past 10-days and that PM May spoke to the EC head Donald Tusk on January 2. The EU is sticking to their word and appears to reflect the view that EU officials have gone as far as they can as it relates to the Irish backstop. They also revealed that if a backstop was triggered that EU negotiators would use “best endeavors” to negotiate a replacement agreement.

Strong US Private Payrolls Help Buoy US Yields

Sterling was also shaken by a rebound in the dollar which was buoyed by an uptick in US yields. US yields tumbled on Wednesday as traders removed all the potential tightening of interest rates in 2019. In fact, the yield curve shows that 1-year yields are less than current yields. This came despite a stronger than expected private payroll report, released by ADP on January 3.

ADP reported that Private payrolls rose by 271,000 in December, beating expectations that jobs would increase by 178,000. You can follow the private payroll report on Vestle news. The strong jobs numbers should help lift wages which is an argument for why the Fed should remain vigilant. The increase in private payrolls was the largest climb in nearly 2-years and increased the 2018-month average of private payroll gains to 203,000.

The report showed the increase in jobs was mainly drive by professional and business services which increased by a solid 66,000 while education and health services contributed 61,000 and leisure and hospitality added 39,000. In all, service-related industries were responsible for 224,000 of the new hires, while goods producers rose by 47,000. This include an increase in construction which grew by 37,000 and manufacturing added 12,000. Natural resources and mining lost 2,000 positions.

Brexit Graph

Sterling rebounded after making a fresh low of 1.24 which is a 20-month low on sterling versus the greenback. The exchange rate is likely to remain volatile until there is a solution to the UK exit from the EU.  The trend is also downward sloping, and with momentum negative, the path of least resistance is for a lower exchange rate for sterling.

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Manufactured goods and industry: a symbol of German decline

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German industrial power and quality levels became a national symbol in the latter part of the 20th century, and to some extent the lifeboat of post-war reconstruction. Even throughout the industrial rise of Asia at the end of the century, the German island remained sanctuarize from the competitive attacks of Eastern developing countries. But several German industries have been increasingly struggling in the past decade and gasping for air. Is Germany at the end of its prosperity cycle, for having rested on its laurels?

Germany, along with its wartime Japanese ally, impressed the world with its rise from its ashes in the latter half of the 20th century. Starting with the Marshall plan quickly followed by self-standing growth, Germany speedily re-built its industrial capacity, and its reputation for top-notch quality. As soon as in the 1960s, German brands invaded the global market with their sturdy reputation preceding them: if the product said “Made in Germany” then the customer could feel sure there was nothing better on the market. At the end of the century, a large share of the top global engineering segment was German: BMW, Bosch, Rheinmetall, Merck, the list is endless. Economic historian Werner Abelshauer describes [1] how the label “made in Germany” became a symbol of quality: “The label “Made in Germany” ultimately developed into a sign of quality, though it took a while.” But the era during which Germany levitated above the rest of the industrial world is coming to an end. While Germany remained unharmed by Asian competition for longer than its neighbors, it is now fighting on a level field with all other manufacturers in the field, and worse: it’s not doing all that well. Economic reporter Chris Papadopoullos placed [2] the start of the decline during the year 2015: “Total production, which includes construction, manufacturing and mining, dipped 1.2 per cent in August compared with July, German statistical office Destatis said. The production of capital goods fell 2.1 per cent while consumer goods dipped 0.4 per cent. Construction and energy output also posted declines “.

Of course, the Volkswagen scandal caused a major dent in the image of industrial Germany. Consulting group ALVA published an extensive study of the post-scandal consequences on the image of Volkswagen and German quality altogether, and wrote [3]: “After the emissions scandal revelations, we can see a very different picture, with all Advocacy drivers having moved into negative territory to a greater or lesser extent. This is indicative of a reverse halo effect in which a negative emotional response to a company due to an erosion of trust spills over and clouds rational judgement of all of its traits.” Until then, German car manufacturers had been above suspicion, thanks to their reputation for industrial quality and business performance: when one is the best, there is no need to cheat. Through the fraudulent emissions revelations, Volkswagen, one of Germany’s flagships, showed that “Made in Germany” wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and that they had flown too high on borrowed wings. The scandal shed doubt over other German flagships in its wake, as reported [4] by automotive journalist James Mills: “German media allege that US authorities have discovered that Daimler, parent of Mercedes, developed software for its diesel-powered vehicles that would shut down vital emissions equipment after driving just a short distance. Daimler is reported to have come up with programs that would shut down certain functions of the selective catalytic reduction filter after just 16g/km of NOx is admitted.” And the damage extended beyond the automobile world, into the whole industry.

Of course, if the problem were limited to the automobile world, Germany could survive on the others. But the slipping in industrial standards, the resulting loss of performance, and finally the need to resort to unsavory business practices to survive, seems to have contaminated all fields of the German industrial apparatus. German shipbuilder TKMS recently illustrated the downfall: after decades of occupying high grounds on the submarine market, the engineering firm is facing such a severe string of problems that it is facing being sold off entirely and scrapped from the national heritage. After losing a major submarine contract in Australia, it delivered a few corvettes to the German Navy, which simply refused them on the dock, due to quality standards being overstepped. Wall Street Journal William Wilkes reported [5]: “Germany’s naval brass in 2005 dreamed up a warship that could ferry marines into combat anywhere in the world, go up against enemy ships and stay away from home ports for two years with a crew half the size of its predecessor’s. First delivered for sea trials in 2016 after a series of delays, the 7,000-ton Baden-Württemberg F125 frigate was determined last month to have an unexpected design flaw: It doesn’t really work.” Germany’s submarine fleet, also built by the same shipbuilder, is currently completely out of order [6]. In desperate need for new contracts, it resorted to bribing officials, resulting in a political and economic quagmire in Israel. In an attempt to secure a submarine purchasing contract in Tel-Aviv, TKMS allegedly transferred over 10 million dollars through shell companies to a top government Israeli official. News Site Haaretz [7] reports: “At least ten high-powered individuals have been identified as involved in the scandal, including very close associates of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A multimillion dollar submarine deal with German shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp is the focus of a police investigation, which is probing possible wrongdoing involving Netanyahu’s personal lawyer and German shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp’s local representative.” For weathered investors, this time in which German manufacturers need to resort to cheating to make up for their slipping industrial standards is something completely new, and in some ways an earthquake. As a result, investments are scarce for start-ups [8], as well as for established businesses [9].

Germany’s downfall in the industrial world isn’t taken lightly by political forces, and the economic problem is turning into a political one, with worker unions stepping up their criticism of management, and politicians scrambling to stop the nosedive. Angela Merkel has been urgently addressing the problem, but so far too little or no avail. “Angela Merkel champions Industry 4.0, urging investment in new technology. German business isn’t heeding the call”, says Politico [10]. Unlike Angela Merkel, many in the country haven’t figured out that Germany had slipped from one industrial model to another: initially known for the superb quality of its products, it was caught up quickly by its direct competitors: United Kingdom, France, Japan and the United States in particular. The core of German’s added value today lies mainly in the machine-tools and high-tech subsystems of German equipment-makers. But as a whole, Germany no longer has the capacity to integrate large and complex systems such as aircrafts, frigates or new-generation submarines.

[1] https://www.dw.com/en/125-years-of-made-in-germany/a-16188583
[2] http://www.cityam.com/226018/german-industrial-production-sees-steep-decline
[3] http://www.alva-group.com/en/reputation-damage-vw-emissions-scandal/
[4] https://www.driving.co.uk/news/emissions-scandal-vw-mercedes-cheat-diesel-tests/
[5] https://www.wsj.com/articles/german-engineering-yields-new-warship-that-isnt-fit-for-sea-1515753000
[6] https://www.defensenews.com/naval/2017/10/20/all-of-germanys-submarines-are-currently-down/
[7] https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/LIVE-the-israeli-submarine-scandal-what-we-know-1.5626626
[8] https://global.handelsblatt.com/companies/german-startups-drying-up-without-risk-ready-investors-863686
[9]https://www.reuters.com/article/germany-investment/big-investors-cautious-on-german-public-private-partnership-plan-idUSL5N0XK45Q20150423
[10]https://www.politico.eu/article/why-europes-largest-economy-resists-new-industrial-revolution-factories-of-the-future-special-report/

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