“I wouldn’t say [I’m] worried,” said Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman about the state of the Indian economy, in an interview to the Economic Times. “I don’t want to sound complacent, but it is also a fact that in spite of global headwinds, India is keeping its head well above the water.”
This is what India keeping its head above the water looks like:
Growth in eight core industries was down to 0.2% in June, a 50-month low, with some of those contracting. Nine of 11 automobile companies saw a double-digit drop in sales in July, the ninth straight month of falling sales. Maruti, the market leader, saw sales fall by more than 30%, the worst decline in two decades. Companies have already begun suspending production and there is fear among workers in the industry about layoffs.
Top Fast Moving Consumer Goods companies like Hindustan Unilever, ITC and Godrej have all registered single-digit growth in the first quarter of 2019. Mint’s Macro Tracker, a report based on trends from 16 high-frequency economic indicators shows that the slowdown is not abating anytime soon. As Bajaj Auto’s chairman, Rahul Bajaj, put it, “There is no demand and no private investment, so where will growth come from? It doesn’t fall from heavens.”
Some of these indicators may be cyclical, and indeed India is at the bad end of the cycle at the moment. Industry might hope that the upcoming festival season might spur some demand and offer light at the end of the tunnel.
But there are also clear signs that the downturn is structural, a reflection of something deeper in the Indian economy. The decline in demand is alarming because the consumption economy was one of the two main engines keeping India going for the last few years, with deficit-funded public investment being the other. But its fall reflects an extremely troubling indicator: Household savings have sharply declined over the past five years, from around 22% (as a percentage of GDP) in 2013-’14 to less than 17% now.
India is coming into its “demographic dividend”, a nearly four-decade period in which the working-age population is larger than dependents either young or old. One would expect household savings to grow at a time like this, simply because there are more people working and hopefully putting away money. But this does not seem to be the case.
Meanwhile, more troubling data has emerged from government itself. The Centre’s gross tax collections saw only a 1.4% growth in the first quarter of this financial year. Remember, Finance Minister Sitharaman’s budget projected growth of 18.3% for the whole year, meaning in the next four quarters tax collections will have to hit 22.3% – even as the economy continues slowing down.
Maybe Sitharaman’s metaphor was apt. It does seem like the deluge is here, and India is only able to keep its head above the water. But even that may be illusory. As the former Chief Economic Adviser, Arvind Subramanian, has pointed out, India’s Gross Domestic Product figures seem extremely suspect and are likely to be significantly lower.
If all of this isn’t worrying the finance minister and the government of India, which unveiled a lacklustre budget that made no note of the slowdown, what will it take to get them to pay attention before even the head is submerged?
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