NEW DELHI – Indian cricket fans are manic-depressive in their treatment of their favorite teams. They elevate players to god-like status when their team performs well, ignoring obvious weaknesses; but when it loses, as any team must, the fall is equally steep and every weakness is dissected. In fact, the team is never as good as fans make it out to be when it wins, nor as bad as it is made out to be when it loses. Its weaknesses existed in victory, too, but were overlooked.
Such bipolar behavior seems to apply to assessments of India’s economy as well, with foreign analysts joining Indians in swings between over-exuberance and self-flagellation. A few years ago, India could do no wrong. Commentators talked of “Chindia,” elevating India’s performance to that of its northern neighbor. Today, India can do no right.
India does have serious problems. Annual GDP growth slowed significantly in the last quarter, to 4.4%, consumer price inflation is high, and the current-account and budget deficits last year were too large. Every commentator today highlights India’s poor infrastructure, excessive regulation, small manufacturing sector, and a workforce that lacks adequate education and skills.
These are indeed deficiencies, and they must be addressed if India is to grow strongly and stably. But the same deficiencies existed when India was growing rapidly. To appreciate what needs to be done in the short run, we must understand what dampened the Indian success story.
In part, India’s slowdown paradoxically reflects the substantial fiscal and monetary stimulus that its policymakers, like those in all major emerging markets, injected into its economy in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. The resulting growth spurt led to inflation, especially because the world did not slide into a second Great Depression, as was originally feared. So monetary policy has since remained tight, with high interest rates contributing to slowing investment and consumption.
Moreover, India’s institutions for allocating natural resources, granting clearances, and acquiring land were overwhelmed during the period of strong growth. India’s investigative agencies, judiciary, and press began examining allegations of large-scale corruption. As bureaucratic decision-making became more risk-averse, many large projects ground to a halt.
Only now, as the government creates new institutions to accelerate decision-making and implement transparent processes, are these projects being cleared to proceed. Once restarted, it will take time for these projects to be completed, at which point output will increase significantly.
Finally, export growth slowed, not primarily because Indian goods suddenly became uncompetitive, but because growth in the country’s traditional export markets decelerated.
The consequences have been high internal and external deficits. The post-crisis fiscal-stimulus packages sent the government budget deficit soaring from what had been a very responsible level in 2007-2008. Similarly, as large mining projects stalled, India had to resort to higher imports of coal and scrap iron, while its exports of iron ore dwindled.
An increase in gold imports placed further pressure on the current-account balance. Newly rich consumers in rural areas increasingly put their savings into gold, a familiar store of value, while wealthy urban consumers, worried about inflation, also turned to buying gold. Ironically, had they bought Apple shares, rather than a commodity (no matter how fungible, liquid, and investible it is), their purchases would have been treated as a foreign investment rather than as imports that add to the external deficit.
For the most part, India’s current growth slowdown and its fiscal and current-account deficits are not structural problems. They can all be fixed by means of modest reforms. This is not to say that ambitious reform is not good, or is not warranted to sustain growth for the next decade. But India does not need to become a manufacturing giant overnight to fix its current problems.
The immediate tasks are more mundane, but they are also more feasible: clearing projects, reducing poorly targeted subsidies, and finding more ways to narrow the current-account deficit and ease its financing. Over the last year, the government has been pursuing this agenda, which is already showing some early results. For example, the external deficit is narrowing sharply on the back of higher exports and lower imports.
Every small step helps, and the combination of small steps adds up to large strides. But, while the government certainly should have acted faster and earlier, the public mood is turning to depression amid a cacophony of criticism and self-doubt that has obscured the forward movement.
Indeed, despite its shortcomings, India’s GDP will probably grow by 5-5.5% this year – not great, but certainly not bad for what is likely to be a low point in economic performance. The monsoon has been good and will spur consumption, especially in rural areas, which are already growing strongly, owing to improvements in road transport and communications connectivity.
The banking sector has undoubtedly experienced an increase in bad loans; but this has often resulted from delays in investment projects that are otherwise viable. As these projects come onstream, they will generate the revenue needed to repay loans. In the meantime, India’s banks have enough capital to absorb losses.
Likewise, India’s public finances are stronger than they are in most emerging-market countries, let alone emerging-market countries in crisis. India’s overall public debt/GDP ratio has been on a declining trend, from 73.2% in 2006-07 to 66% in 2012-13 (and the central government’s debt/GDP ratio is only 46%). Moreover, the debt is denominated in rupees and has an average maturity of more than nine years.
India’s external debt burden is even more favorable, at only 21.2% of GDP (much of it owed by the private sector), while short-term external debt is only 5.2% of GDP. India’s foreign-exchange reserves stand at $278 billion (about 15% of GDP), enough to finance the entire current-account deficit for several years.
That said, India can do better – much better. The path to a more open, competitive, efficient, and humane economy will surely be bumpy in the years to come. But, in the short term, there is much low-hanging fruit to be plucked. Stripping out both the euphoria and the despair from what is said about India – and from what we Indians say about ourselves – will probably bring us closer to the truth.
The author became Governor of the Reserve Bank of India on September 4. This commentary was written before he took office.