Monday, 10 September 2012

Could India’s biggest threat to growth be…Itself?

Raghuram Rajan could be the ‘go-to-guy’ to get India out of it’s slower than expected growth-woes

Hey folks! Let’s take a dive into some metrics that have come out of India recently; figures which have many investors scratching their head wondering, ‘what happened to the rapid-growth (and returns) seen only a few years back?’

Let’s get down to the point and expose the elephant in the room: GDP growth. The once jewel of the British Empire’s economy expanded at a rate of only 5.5% in the April-June period. Granted this was higher than the 5.3% GDP growth of the previous three months BUT it cannot even come close to the 9% expansion of early 2011!
"Whilst an upside surprise at 5.5%, the pace of growth is undeniably below potential and validates the need for the government to address sluggishness in investment and external sector activity," said Radhika Rao an economist at Forecast Pte.

So let’s break down what’s holding our mighty elephant back:

        Slowing global demand and uncertainty: What a surprise! (well, not really)… with key economies in trouble (such as Europe and even China) the global macro climate is hurting India in a big way.

  •      India's factory output fell 1.8% in June from a year earlier, the third fall in four months
  •      Foreign direct investment in India fell by 78% in June, from a year earlier

          A growing trade deficit:

  •     Recent figures show that imports outgrew exports by 15.5 Billion dollars
  •       India's trade deficit with China jumped 42% to $40 billion in the last financial year

             An indecisive government in a political deadlock and numerous allegations of corruption has harmed India’s outlook toward foreign investors.

  •          There is becoming a growing concern amongst economists and opposition parties that India’s government  will only pursue reforms which are favorable to its political partners
  •       Analysts are recommending that the government needs to take action to improve the investment climate in order to maintain a high growth rate in the future

            The S&P's has stated it would be more comfortable if the government raised retail petroleum prices and reduced energy subsidies as it has promised, and introduced a goods and services tax (GST)

Let’s talk about the Trade Deficit for a moment…

A 15.5 Billion dollar deficit is no laughing matter, especially given the perceived notion of India being an exporting power house. What’s happening… is this a cause for concern? Or should we be tingling from the excitement of new growth possibilities? Well, if India plays its cards right, the latter may be the correct course of action.

India has significant investment needs; it has issues in its infrastructure – or lack thereof – and needs to import capital goods as a part of where it is in its growth cycle. The result is (no matter how you spin it), India simply needs to import at this phase in the game.

And with a specific note on China; as China advances its production to a more value-added model, India will become more of a manufacturing center than what it is today – so it might sound like a good idea now to recapitalize and invest in infrastructure for the future.

So who will guide India through these uncertain times?

Enter: ‘reformed minded’ and newly appointed Chief Economic Adviser to the Indian Government: Raghuram Rajan (he called the 2008 Financial Crisis in 2005!!)

Could he be the man to save the day in India? As a strong believer in liberalization and privatization, he says “We need to become paranoid again [about growth], as we were in the early 1990s,” And while it might take some work, here’s what he suggests in terms of policy reform as quoted from a recent speech:

1)   Raise fuel prices to international levels in a set of quick steps, and then completely deregulate them. Announce this as soon as politically possible, and do not roll back.

2)   Be kinder to foreign investors – they are not the enemy but a necessity -- we need their money to fund our spending to the tune of 4% of GDP. No doubt, however badly we treat them today, they may eventually want to be in India, but crisis are always about timing. We need them now, when India looks increasingly tattered compared to alternative investment opportunities, not five years from now when growth recovers.

3)   We should bring certainty about taxation to foreign investors, and resist the temptation to levy new retrospective claims.

What in effect Mr. Rajan is trying to do hand India over to the free market again. Reduce government subsidies and appease foreign investors by making India a reliable market to do business in. Can it work? I think so, but there needs to be strong support from the government and a crackdown on corruption for it to happen.

The bottom line:

While recent scares in growth and trade metrics might make you skeptical of India’s future – hold on a moment and think: the trade deficit is there because India needs to invest in capital for production and infrastructure, all which will pay off in the future. Moreover, now with a more free-market inclined chief economic advisor, India will (hopefully) take the correct policy actions to promote a healthy market and ensure foreign investors are kept happy and wanting to come back to India for their business needs.

Matthew MacMull