Three weeks after its monetary policy committee decided to hold fire on interest rates amid accelerating retail inflation, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has forecast more pain for the economy . Its assessment of the economic landscape and its prognosis for near-term prospects posit a stark picture: of demand hollowed out by the severe shock to private consumption, public finances strained by the imperative of funding mitigation measures, anaemic appetite for investment among corporates and credit-flow-impeding risk aversion among bankers, to name but a few. The COVID-19-induced economic contraction that manifested itself in the fiscal first quarter, is now almost certain to extend through the July-September period, the RBI said in its Annual Report. Observing that the “reimposition or stricter imposition of lockdowns” in different parts of the country in July and August had mainly contributed to damping the tentative revival in momentum seen in the preceding two months, it said several recent high-frequency indicators pointed to an unprecedented retrenchment in activity. Noting that the services sector has been a prime mover of the Indian economy, the central bank flagged the fact that whatever consumption had survived the shock was now manifesting as essential spending with services including transport and hospitality almost completely eviscerated.
The Central government, which has gamely attempted ‘pandemic proofing’ demand by increasing its net revenue expenditure by a third in the first quarter, is, however, likely to find itself strapped for resources in the coming months. As a result, it would have little leeway to continue to undergird momentum. States too are expected to find their finances so tightly squeezed as to have to cut capital spending. In its prescription to overcome the funds crunch, however, the central bank appears to run into a contradiction. The RBI suggests that the government should help “crowd in” private investment through targeted public investment that could be funded by monetising assets in steel, coal, power, land and railways. But given that private companies have been either too highly in debt and therefore keen to use gains from the government’s corporate tax rate cut to repay loans, or loath to raise capital spending when saddled with excess capacity, it is hard to see the government raising much out of its privatisation efforts. Ultimately, as Expenditure Secretary T.V. Somanathan has acknowledged, the Centre may opt to marshal its meagre resources more prudently and wait for the curve of infections to start flattening before committing to any further stimulus spending. A revival will ensue only once consumers regain confidence to go out and spend. And that, as of now, seems a fair distance away.