1. GDP growth slows, India is number 2 again, and Modi should be worried

GDP growth slows, India is number 2 again, and Modi should be worried

For quite awhile now, it's been rare to hear the name “India” without the giddy qualifier, “the world’s fastest-growing large economy."

By: | Updated: June 2, 2017 12:26 PM
Economy, fatest growing large economy, India, Indians, GDP For quite awhile now, it’s been rare to hear the name “India” without the giddy qualifier, “the world’s fastest-growing large economy.”(Image: PTI)

For quite awhile now, it’s been rare to hear the name “India” without the giddy qualifier, “the world’s fastest-growing large economy.” Those seeking to promote India as a destination for investment — including, perhaps especially, its government — have driven home the message that India is the “bright spot” in the global economy. The latest data on economic growth have, however, punctured that narrative reasonably effectively. While full-year growth for 2016-17 came in at a respectable 7.1 percent, the numbers have benefited from a change in how inflation is measured. The real news is that fourth-quarter GDP growth fell to 6.1 percent — lower, in other words, than China’s. India’s no longer the fastest-growing large economy in the world, and government ministers are going to need a new first line for their speeches.

It would be easy to blame this on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s disastrous decision, last November, to withdraw 86 percent of India’s currency from circulation. His predecessor, Manmohan Singh, said in Parliament at the time that the move might dent growth by two percentage points or more, and that estimate might well be borne out by these numbers. But what’s more worrying is that it’s now clear that India’s economy was slowing well before Modi delivered a coup de grace last November. Growth in gross value added — output as measured from the economy’s supply side — has slowed every quarter since last spring: It’s down from 8.7 percent to 5.6 percent in these latest figures. The problem isn’t just demonetization: Something is very wrong with India’s engine of growth, which looks to be spluttering.

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The biggest problem is, of course, that nobody is investing. Those speeches about how India was the world economy’s sole bright spot might have won enthusiastic applause, but too few investors and companies followed up with actual money. As a proportion of GDP, investment has trended downwards for some time, and is now well below 30 percent. Investment actually shrank in absolute terms in 2016-17. Partly, that’s because the government has simply not moved swiftly or decisively enough to address India’s mountain of bad loans beyond passing a bankruptcy law and, more recently, giving the central bank additional power to force resolutions in the most pressing cases. Much of Indian investment, even for large-scale, growth-enhancing infrastructure projects, is routed through banks. And public-sector banks, struggling with their balance sheets, are reluctant to lend. Bank credit growth has recently hit multi-decade lows.

But that’s hardly the only problem. As and when banks are willing to lend, they find too few takers for funds. Companies complain, of course, that the Reserve Bank of India — now officially targeting inflation — is keeping real interest rates too high. What’s more relevant, however, is that the government hasn’t worked hard enough to reduce the sort of risk that worries investors who’ve been burned multiple times in the past when they reposed faith in the “India story.” India desperately needs a more efficient and less intrusive state, as well as deeper and more flexible markets. But structural reform of that sort has been taken off the government’s agenda.

The finance minister, in a press conference after the GDP data was released, defended the government’s record by highlighting the troubles it inherited, and the poor monsoons with which it’s had to deal. He wasn’t wrong, but that’s not the whole story. While the government inherited an underperforming economy in 2014, the data show it was tracking upwards. The business cycle was turning, commodity prices were easing and growth was increasing steadily as Modi took office. And while there have indeed been bad monsoons, the last one was excellent — a fact that’s visible in the strong performance of the agricultural sector in the latest data. In other words, if the economy started slowing two years into the government’s tenure, and that loss of momentum has continued and intensified, then it can blame nobody but itself.

What has India’s government done wrong? Its greatest faults have been a lack of focus, a shortage of ambition and misplaced priorities. Since he took over three years ago, Modi has focused on being simply a competent manager and an investment-oriented marketing man for the India story. He seemed to believe that would be enough to propel India to double-digit growth. But it’s now clear that this simply isn’t enough. Deeper reform can’t be avoided any longer: defanging India’s obstructive state, cleaning up its judicial processes and dispute resolution, reforming and privatizing state-owned banks, easing restrictive land and labor laws. Investors were willing, early in Modi’s tenure, to buy into the idea that he would start on some of these long-pressing problems; that enthusiasm has clearly dissipated now.

Given that the political opposition is in disarray, Modi might imagine that he will coast to reelection easily in 2019. But these numbers should be a wake-up call. Unless he starts working on real structural reforms immediately, the damage to India’s growth story — and to his own image — could be permanent.

  1. R
    R K
    Jun 2, 2017 at 3:50 pm
    OH...something is very wrong with our economy....that is why we are growing at the fastest rate in the world...how sick pseudos r.....
    Reply
    1. S
      swathikrishna guru
      Jun 2, 2017 at 1:07 pm
      This slow down has already expected and Prime minister himself told about this during demonetization time. This slowness can be considered as a fast growth going to be happen in future. There is no parallel economy now. Fake currencies are disappeared. This will be recovered for sure
      Reply
      1. H
        Harvinder Maini
        Jun 2, 2017 at 4:42 pm
        Khyal acha hai galib dil ko behlane ke liye
        Reply
      2. A
        A.K.Roy
        Jun 2, 2017 at 12:43 pm
        The problem with Indian Ministers is that they lack bold decisions and the need to take urgent immediate decisions. Too slow and as Iran rightly pointed out we are slow movers, The mindset has to be changed. Too much of corruption has gone into the heads of our Bureaucrats, and with lucrative palm greasing their heads don't seem to work. Modi alone cannot shake them but what needs is swift action on these people to make them work or just kick them out. We need decision makers and fast. There is abundant talent in this Country, just need to get the right one to handle the situation. The other thing is the Corrupt Congress and the Opposition who are more speed breakers rather helping the country to grow, Congress and Zakir Naik and its stooges are the one who are out to this country.
        Reply

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