Dr Bharat Jhunjhunwala
The main problems facing the Indian economy are price rise, low growth rate and falling value of the rupee. All these are a result of bad governance. Consider price rise. Government revenues are leaked away to be deposited in Swiss Banks or in buying gold. The Government does not have monies to pay for its expenditures. It has to borrow to cover this loss of revenue. Increased borrowing by the Government ‘crowds out’ private borrowers. Banks are happy to lend to the Government because this is considered safe. Private borrowers are deprived of credit to make investments.
The Reserve Bank prints more money to increase liquidity in the money market so that the interest rates do not shoot though the roof; and the Government can borrow easily. This increased supply of currency leads more notes chasing same amount of goods. The price of potatoes in the street market shots up if a big purchaser enters and buys what is available. Similarly, the price of everything from cement to steel shoots up if the Government enters and starts buying these goods from borrowed money. This leads to price rise.
Our growth rate is similarly falling because the Government is allowing the revenues to be siphoned away; and using the money for buying votes through programmes like loan waiver and MNREGA; instead of investing in research and improving infrastructure. Indeed it is true that these programmes have provided much needed relief to our millions. However, this is depriving the economy of investment in infrastructure leading to low growth. The rupee is falling, similarly, because our exports are less due to high cost of production. Our manufacturers have to pay hefty bribes and infrastructure is bad. Our goods are priced out of the global market. A textile mill in Singapore does not have to pay as many bribes. Its cost of production is less. It can sell textiles at a lower price than Indian manufacturers. Improvement of governance will, therefore, solve the problems of price rise, growth rate and falling value of the rupee.
The recent elections have indicated that the people are moving towards BJP-AAP. Both these parties are, I believe, less corrupt. Modi has cleaned up administration in Gujarat. AAP is likely to do so in Delhi. Therefore, I am quite bullish on India. Ascendency of these parties will spontaneously solve our economic woes. Of course, these parties will have to do more than cleaning up corruption. It is equally necessary to evolve creative ways of reaching relief to the poor without intervention of the corrupt bureaucracy. AAP has embarked on providing greater subsidies on water and electricity to the people. This is but a repeat of the UPA approach of taxing business for providing doles to the poor. It would be better to provide incentives to industries to employ greater numbers so that poor people get relief but businesses do not groan under the weight of taxation.
The threat lurking on the horizon comes from the happenings in the United States. Mainstream economists are generally bullish on the US economy. The growth rate in that country is picking up and unemployment is not increasing. This happy situation, however, is built upon the huge stimulus injected into the economy by the Federal Reserve Board(FRB). Recently, the FRB has started tapering the stimulus. Till last month it was buying USD 85 billion worth of bonds every month. This money was being injected into the economy till recently. Interest rates were near zero. Consumers borrowed for consumption; and businesses borrowed for investing in emerging markets like India. The FRB has now decided to reduce borrowing by USD 10 billion every month. Tapering will lead to less availability of money, a rise in the interest rates and reduced borrowing for consumption as well as overseas investment.
There are two possibilities here onwards. One possibility is that the US economy will survive tapering. Economic activity will continue to rise so that businesses can survive despite higher interest rates. They will continue to employ large numbers of workers who will continue to buy goods from China and India. The challenge before us, in this case, would be to reduce our cost of production and export more to the US. That, of course, is only possible by good governance. On the flip side, strengthening of the US economy would provide opportunity to global investors to invest in that country. Foreign investors are likely to move towards the US. That would lead to a flight of FIIs from India. We can reduce this impact if governance is improved and our companies do better in the intense competition for global capital.
The second possibility is that the US economy will crash under the burden of debt as it happened in 2008. The cost of production is likely to increase due to tapering of the stimulus. In this case there will be a scramble among global investors to pull out money from the US and invest in emerging markets like India—as happened in 2008. There was a short period of outflow followed by return of FIIs in 2009 onwards. In this case we will stand to benefit from FII inflows. The flow of investment to India, however, will not be automatic. FIIs will assess whether Indian companies are likely to make more profits in comparison to those in, say, Mexico or Brazil. The ability of our companies to attract global capital will depend on they having low cost of production. That, in turn, will depend on good governance. On the flip side, we will face problems in exports because consumption will fall in the US. Therefore, the key to success lies in good governance irrespective of what happens to the US economy.
I am bullish on India. The combination of BJP and AAP is likely to deliver better governance which will jump start our economy.
(Author was formerly Professor of Economics at IIM Bengaluru)