Increasing investment to stimulate growth

Attention needs to be paid to both cyclical and structural dimensions of India’s present economic slowdown

August 23, 2019 12:05 am | Updated 12:45 am IST

India’s current economic slowdown is due to a combination of two underlying trends. First, there is the short-run cyclical slowdown exhibited by a number of high-frequency indicators, reflecting a significant fall in demand, especially for sectors such as automobiles, consumer durables and housing.

Second, there is the more serious long-term fall in investment and savings rates. Raising growth requires that attention be paid to both cyclical and structural dimensions of the problem.

Fixed capital formation

When it comes to the Gross Fixed Capital Formation (GFCF) relative to GDP at current prices, a steady fall has been visible since 2011-12, when it was 34.3%. By 2017-18, it had fallen by 5.7% points, to a level of 28.6%.

Assuming an Incremental Capital Output Ratio (ICOR) of 4, this meant a fall of nearly 1.4% points in the potential growth rate. The fall consisted of sectoral decreases in the household, private corporate and public sectors (as indicated in the table).

It is noticeable that the fall in the household sector’s investment rate got arrested by 2015-16. However, by then, the rate had already fallen by 6.3% points. From 2016-17, the sector’s investment rate even showed some recovery.

In contrast to the household sector rate, the private corporate sector investment rate did not show any fall up to 2015-16 when, at 11.9%, it was in fact higher than the corresponding rate for 2011-12 (11.2%). It fell in the subsequent years, but only by 0.7% points. This near-constancy runs counter to what industry leaders have been saying and what other data sources such as CMIE indicate, casting some doubts on the veracity of the figures.

In the case of the public sector, the rate fell by 0.3% points between 2015-16 and 2017-18.

Thus, the period from 2011-12 to 2017-18 can be seen as consisting of two parts: 2011-12 to 2015-16, when the household sector investment rate fell sharply; and 2015-16 to 2017-18 when the investment rates of the private corporate and public sectors fell marginally.

Fall in household savings rate

The Gross Domestic Savings Rate also fell between 2011-12 and 2017-18 by 4.1% points, from 34.6% of GDP to 30.5%. However, this fall was entirely due to the household sector, with the private corporate and public sectors showing increases in their savings rates by margins of 2.2% points and 0.2% points, respectively. This differentiated sectoral pattern of investment and savings rates had significant implications for the financing of investment. Private corporate and public sectors were the deficit sectors, financing their deficits from the surplus savings of the household sector. In addition, net inflow of foreign capital added to the flow of investible resources.

Throughout the period from 2011-12, the savings rate of the private corporate sector increased, reducing its dependence on the surplus savings of the household sector. While the excess of private corporate sector’s investment over its own savings rate was 3.8% points of GDP in 2011-12, the gap fell to 0.5% points by 2017-18.

Given this pattern, at present, all the surplus savings of the household sector is available for the public sector. With private corporate sector’s investment demand being largely met by its own savings, public sector’s borrowing requirements can be fully financed using the surplus from the household sector, supplemented by net inflow of foreign capital without any fear of crowding out.

In 2018-19, the real GDP growth rate was 6.8%. Two critical policy challenges need to be addressed. First, a countercyclical policy should increase growth rate to its current potential of 7%-7.5% and then structural reforms should raise the potential growth itself to above 8.5% if India is to attain a size of $5 trillion by 2024-25.

More capital expenditure

From the monetary side, reducing the repo rate by a cumulated margin of 110 basis points in 2019 has not as yet induced a noticeable growth response. Complementary fiscal stimulus, in the form of additional public sector investment, may prove to be more effective.

However, given the fiscal deficit constraint, there is limited flexibility for increasing centre’s capital expenditure directly. In the 2019-20 budget, this is estimated to be 1.6% of GDP. There may be some expansion, if additional dividends from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) flow to the government. Further, there may be some possible additional disinvestment. However, care should be taken to deploy all of these additional funds for capital expenditure.

Normally, the prescription to meet slowing demand is to increase government expenditure. In the current situation, there can be an increase in government expenditure but it has to be directed towards an increase in investment expenditure.

A similar effort may be made by State governments and non-government public sector enterprises to increase capital expenditures. All these measures may also crowd in private investment. Thus, this fiscal push, together with the already-initiated monetary stimulus, may help raise the growth rate.

Another area that needs immediate attention is the financial system, which must be activated to lend more.

On the structural reforms that are needed to push the economy onto a sustained high growth path, much can be said. We will confine ourselves to only one suggestion, on the fiscal account. We need a re-look at the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act (FRBM) Act. The government should actually move towards reducing the revenue deficit to zero. This can happen if the Centre focusses more on items on the Union list. Once this is achieved, the Central Government can be given full freedom over fiscal deficit, as the entire deficit will be directed towards meeting capital expenditures. This was described as the ‘golden rule’ in U.K.

C. Rangarajan is former Chairman, Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council and former Governor, Reserve Bank of India; D.K. Srivastava is former Director, Madras School of Economics. View are personal

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