The Great Indian Growth Story Is On Hold For Now

Until recently, Indians had gotten used to taking economic growth for granted. After a decade of annual growth averaging over 9%, India’s economy weathered the post – 2008 worldwide recession and grew at a still impressive rate of 7% until 2014 -15. Nothing, it seemed, could stop the gravy train from rolling on.

And then came Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and his biggest economic blunder, demonetization, which took 86% of India’s currency abruptly out of circulation. The economy is yet to recover. Millions of jobs were lost and hundreds of thousands of small and micro enterprises – employing two to seven workers and dependent on daily cash flow to sustain themselves – went under. All that was achieved was that Modi managed to look bold and decisive.

It demonetization was a bad idea badly implemented, next come a good idea badly implemented: a nationwide Goods and Services Tax (GST). Instead of a simple, flat and all-inclusive GST – applied in every country where the concept has worked well – the government unveiled a multi – tier GST. Despite having five different rates and a luxury tax on top, the government’s hasty and botched roll-out retained a number of key exclusions (including alcohol and petrol) and continues to confuse all who are subject to it. These 2 initiatives derailed economic growth which is now expected to slow to 5% this fiscal year.

Currently, bad news is everywhere: unemployment is at a 45 – year high of 8.4% and rising; the distressed agriculture sector is driving record numbers of farmers to suicide; and manufacturing exports, and the index of industrial production are all down. Output in India’s eight core industrial sectors – coal, crude oil, natural gas, refined petroleum products, fertilizer, steel, cement and electricity – declined 0.5% in August.

Meanwhile, India’s banks are reeling under a huge burden of non-performing assets (NPA’s), with debts exceeding 150 billion US-Dollar and one financial institution after another coming under the scrutiny of regulators and law-enforcement authorities. Loans have dried up, owing to banks’ leeriness of piling up more NPA’s; investment has slowed to a trickle as a result. A major wave of layoffs by carmakers has followed, with Ford announcing factory closures and an estimated one million jobs in jeopardy.

Signs of downturn

The signs of the downturn are everywhere, affecting ordinary Indians’ daily lives. Indians are fond of cookies (biscuits) with our omnipresent cups of tea, but even biscuit sales are down 8%, prompting the popular biscuit manufacturer “Parle” to announce thousands of layoffs. The recent increase in oil prices has compounded India’s problems in the short term. Advances in robotization and Artificial Intelligence (AI) represent a longer – term drag on growth, because they have reduce many Western countries’ dependence on outsourced Indian skills in such areas as code – writing, medical transcription, and business – process offshore call-centers. And with the Indian rupee plumbing record lows against the US-Dollar, essential imports have become more expensive.

It hasn’t helped that in the midst of all this, US President Donald Trump has made India a target of his increasingly acrimonious approach to trading partners. The bonhomie Trump and Modi displayed in Houston did not translate into a resolution of the issues the United States has been griping about. Though it all, the government has appeared clueless. Its proposed budget has prompted despair in the business community, with an unexpected tax increase on foreign investors leading many of them to sell their Indian Holdings and leave.

After Modi was overwhelmingly re-elected in May many economists expected him to remove the many bottlenecks that have discouraged investors both Indian and foreign. There have been none, and no short term stimulus, either. Long – standing issues such as agricultural stagnation, rigid labor laws, and prohibitive land costs are simply absent from the government’s agenda.

With the economic downturn leaving revenues well short of projections, pressure of India’s tax officials to catch evaders has mounted, prompting intrusive investigations that have been described as “tax terrorism”.

Many Indian millionaires are voting with their feet; 5000 migrated last year, and the number this year is likely to be much higher.

The conclusion is inescapable: the Great Indian growth story in our opinion is on hold.