November 2019

Is Indian Economy Under Slowdown or Crisis

Politics can’t be without economics but economics can be without politics; if we choose to practice so. Political economics focus solely on getting elected and re-elected by the political parties. Though economics is the second word of political economics but when it comes to objective, economics becomes third or distant last in the priority list.

Fidel Castro, famous ruler of Cuba (Prime Minister from 1959 to 1976 and President from 1976 to 2008) and noted communist famously said, “I became a communist by studying capitalist political economy, and when I had understanding of that problem, it actually seemed to me so absurd, so irrational, so inhuman, that I simply began to elaborate on my own formulas for production and distribution”.

What he did not tell all of us that every individual action depends on psychological functions which further depends on numerous biases and heuristics created by demographical, social-economical, educational etc. nudges and interventions applied by different forces every moment, which further fires many chemicals known neurotransmitters laying down new memories, creating new biases and heuristics or strengthening the earlier one. Hasn’t this become a heady cocktail of jargons and words, very difficult to understand? That’s what political economics is; very difficult to understand.

India as a country is as diverse as the word ‘diverse’itself can be and it is as multidimensional as‘multidimensional’the word can be. Indian economy is complete reflection of the country, giving scope to every party to claim what they want to claim and most of the time each one of them may be completely true or true to some extent or completely wrong.Since economy is what matters to everyone the most, it becomes imperative to make this cocktail light, if not nectar, for everyone to consume, I talked to Mr. Suraj Sharma, who is an authority in this field.

Mr. Suraj Sharma is Chevening Financial Services Fellow, hosted by Kings College, London and IIM-Kolkata alumni. He also holds PGDM from Centre of Management Education, VAMNICOM, Pune. Presently, he is Chief Executive Officer of Punarvasu Financial Services Pvt. Ltd and also one of its board members. I had couple of straight questions to him and he cleared the haze overstate of Indian economy. Here we go with our discussion…..

Mukul Bhartiya: What is your opinion on current economic situation of the country? Would you call it “slowdown” or “crisis” and what are the factors which led to it?

Suraj Sharma: Current economic situation has the symptoms of “slowdown”, which if ignored, can develop into “crisis”.

Now, issues constituting second part of your question are crucial, poignant and present a paradoxical picture at the same time; issues which impacted or is impacting the economy needs to be divided into two parts; short term and long term. Short term issues are the policy decisions and long term issues are collateral effect of some other major domestic and transnational events.

You will agree with me that Indian economy, despite demonetization in 2016 is still largely a cash economy.Since ages, few individual who knew or probably still know how to leverage their connections with higher echelons of decision making bodies pockets the benefits meant for all. Incumbent government took certain policy decisions to streamline and make business activity transparent. Some of the decisions can be debated for its necessity or effectiveness, but rather than getting into details of the decisions, let’s understand what happened after that. It will help us to speed up our discussion.

Let’s begin with short term issues.

On 8th November 2016, Government of India took a humongous decision of calling back all currency of Rs.500 and Rs.1000 from the market. Whether objectives set by the government were met or not can be debated separately, but it led to massive cash crunch for SME and MSME sector which we agree or not, but were largely running on cash economy. This impacted the overall economy because money from the market were getting sucked in, demand of everything except necessary food items slowed down and job were cut on massive scale.

Before economy could recover from the impact of demonetisation, Goods and Service Tax became operational from 1st July 2017. GST Act is an excellent step by government of India to boost the ease of doing business in the country and bring in more transparency in the Indirect Tax regime. It was needed not only to remove friction in business operational activity but bring more and more business transactions under tax net.

But shift from one policy structure to another of such a humongous nature needs at least few business years to settle down and is implemented when economy is growing, not when it has slowed down. Here, government introduced not one or two but three policy changes of big impact in quick succession.

During this period itself, on 10th March 2016, Upper House of the government passed Real Estate Regulation and Development Act (RERA), which became effective from 1st May 2016. By this time, out of 92 sections, 56 were notified. By 1st May 2017, all the sections were operational. Real estate sector before bringing this act was unorganized, which was not only leading to exploitation of home buyers but restricting investment in this sector preventing credible and rated developers from sourcing money from the market.

Unregulated market was allowing many developers to manipulate the home buyers by channelling fund from one project to another without completing the earlier one, working on multiple projects without availability of required fund and many things more. Since there were many such developers and many such projects, this sector proved to be one of the leading employment providers, which it actually is, along with textile industry and after agriculture sector.

After implementation of RERA Act, many real estate projects were shelved and many developers defaulted.

Demonetization had maximum impact on SME, MSME and real estate sector the most because it dealt in cash the most. Implementation of GST forced them to put their business in a structure to be system compliant. Again I would say that it was good step but it delayed the sales activity. Since this sector makes a huge contribution towards employment generation as well, not only it had clear slowdown impact on economy but growth in unemployment as well.

All these policy decisions have not only stretched the business environment straight in the country but has also brought banking sector under lot of stress, which anyways is under lot of stress due to NPAs and toxic assets under control of banking sector.

That’s why I told you in the beginning itself that issues which led to slowdown are crucial, poignant and paradoxical at the same time. While decisions taken by Government of India are on solid merit points but Indian economy has never been in such a shape to absorb body shot shocks in such a quick succession.Though these decisions were right but the timings were questionable.

If we expand this discussion a bit more and go ten-eleven years back, then we see that world economy suffered a body blow due to US sub-prime crisis. Though it did not impact the Indian economy much but how can it remain unharmed because it is not insulated from the world economy. Efforts were made to boost the purchasing power and economy was on revival path, but many scandals tumbling out of government’s closet led to massive anti-corruption movement in the country. This movement brought in a kind of policy paralysis, where decision makers became afraid of taking decisions.

Mukul Bhartiya: Here I would like add something; there are many estimates of total business and employment losses due to US sub-prime crisis. I have read somewhere that business losses stood around USD 15 Trillion and employment losses around 80 Million. Further, in my opinion, Supreme Court gave the body blow to whatever was left after the impact of this financial crisis and policy paralysis, by cancelling 122 licenses of 2G telecom spectrum in February 2013. Foreign investors had shown their faith in Indian economy and telecom scam was the internal matter of the country. Without providing adequate relief to the investors or even thinking about them, Supreme Court gave harshest blow to the economy.

Suraj Sharma: There is no denying fact that impact of US sub-prime crisis was huge, but I would refrain from giving specific numbers in the want of accuracy or lack of it. What you said about the impact of Supreme Court’s decision on cancellation of license of 2G telecom spectrum and coal license cancellation may be right.

Though India was not influenced much by US financial crisis, but credit easing did happen here as well during that period. Most of the power, infrastructure, steel and other big projects were financed during that period itself. And because most of these decisions got entangled in court cases, projects either failed to start or got delayed putting humongous stress on the banking sector. Most of NPAs of Rs.14 Lakh Crore which is being talked about were financed during this period only. On top of it, this IL&FS crisis has adversely affected the business sentiment. In 2018, 40% of the incremental consumer financing was done by NBFCs and not the banks. Since mutual funds used to buy NBFC papers and give them money. A good share of NBFC money was coming from mutual funds, but IL&FS scandal turned the applecart upside down.

Look, every other business sector’s health depends on the health of financial sector. Though NPA problem has been resolved to certain extent but challenges are still there, NBFC crisis arising out of IL&FS scandal, freeze on payments to the account holders due to scam in PMC Cooperative bank, low capital ratios at Yes Bank and how it went unnoticed for so long, continuous defaults by real estate and infrastructure sector etc. have put banking and financial sector as a whole under huge stress. Government needs to see that how quickly it brings the economy out of this rut.

But we are seeing growth quarter-to-quarter basis, though slowed down andthat’s why we can’t call present situation an economic crisis.

Mukul Bhartiya: What should government do to reverse the situation and increase the opportunities of employment?

Suraj Sharma: Government has taken many steps to revive the situation but if things don’t start improving in next eighteen month or so, then as I mentioned earlier, it will trigger bigger crisis.

Infrastructure/real estate/industries/power etc. projects should not be financed by commercial banks. Instead, they should be financed by long term investors through debentures .You tell me which bank accepts fixed deposits for 20-30 years and which infrastructure project becomes cash positive in 5-6 years? Even residential projects of real estate sector take more time to complete than that.

Apart from bringing in RERA for removing the frictions of real estate sector and pave the way for more legitimate funding, Government has created the necessary rules and policy structure to encourage REIG(Real Estate Investment Group) investing to clean up the real estate investment, bring more transparency and make real estate projects more viable. Recently announced Rs.25,000 Crore Priority Debt Fund to revive stalled real estate projects is a critically important decision. It will give relief to much aggrieved home buyers. All the steps taken by government will bring synergy between investors, developers and sellers and foster growth. Now, only thing is to be seen is how quickly all these steps fructify result.

Barring 4-5 banks, all nationalized banks have come out of NPA mess. To make liquidity available in the market, government is aggressive on repo and other fiscal rates.

Boldest of all the step is corporate tax to be levied on new manufacturing set up to come up after 1st October 2019, which is 15%. If you add cess and all, then it will not be more than 17% and it is lowest in the world. Government might have done so keeping US-China trade war in mind, expecting companies flying out of China may land up in India for setting up their infrastructure. I can’t comment right now about its impact on fiscal discipline.

Helping banks to clean up NPA mess, recapitalization of banks, aggressive interest rates, aggressive corporate tax, reduction in base corporate tax, creation of fund for interest subvention scheme for GST registered MSMEs, holding hands of real estate sector through RERA, REIG etc., government is doing many right things.

Though government has taken many steps in the right direction, but all of it has to bear the result very quickly. A lot of time has already lapsed and things can’t be delayed anymore. Liquidity crunch has prolonged for too long and media sentiment has been depressed for too long. Remember that negative business sentiments have domino effect on overall business scenario and one fall triggers others to fall. Liquidity crunch does not happen just because of unavailability of funds in the market, it also happens because of unavailability of intent and courage among the investors. If it continues, then SMEs and MSMEs will start defaulting and since most of government’s lending are to this sector, it will create the challenge which no one has ever imagined.

Further, government shall bear in mind that Indian economy has never been in the stage where policy decisions of such a humongous nature can’t be implemented in such a quick succession. Implementation of GST will take at least three to four business years for everyone to see which direction it will move. Business community will get adapted to its implementation and government will be able to plug the holes and explain it clearly to them. Similarly, real estate sector will take time to work on the lines of guidelines set by RERA.

Government and RBI shall see that credibility and reputation financial sector is restored and that also on priority basis. They must see that without any delay depositors’ interest is protected and they again repose their faith in country’s banking sector. Business decisions can fail but business decisions quite adverse to very common business sense shall not be acceptable. Promoters shall not be allowed to have executive position in private banks and no executive should be allowed to hold the top position for more than 10-15years or so. Government and RBI shall see that executives holding highest position in banking industry must get enough time to execute their decisions but must not get time to be synonym with the organization itself. Government shall also see that individual account holders shall have insurance cover of at least Rs.10 Lakh or even more for the deposited money with a bank; right now it is Rs.1 Lakh and it is very less. Government and RBI shall work towards rebuilding trust of depositors towards banking and financial system of the country. If it doesn’t happen, then nothing will happen.

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