A tale of two economists

Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian publicly differed with RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan and took a bet on accelerating growth. He is clearly losing

January 19, 2016 01:32 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:10 pm IST

Chief Economic Advisor (CEA) Arvind Subramanian started 2015 on an over-optimistic note. He is likely to have ended it in disappointment. The economy is slowing down: in the first six months of the financial year, >real GDP grew 7.2 per cent, slower than the 7.5 per cent in the corresponding earlier-year period. In 2016-17 too, GDP growth will not be significantly greater unless some specific steps are taken, the CEA has said. Thankfully, there are few takers in the government for the main measure he is suggesting: a further pause on fiscal deficit reduction.

About a year ago, barely months into his job in the Finance Ministry, Dr. Subramanian projected a sharp recovery with growth of up to 8.1-8.5 per cent. He forecast the acceleration even though he did not expect any big-bang reforms (on this count, his forecast was correct). In his scheme of things, the spurt in growth would come from incremental policy pushes, such as to subsidy reforms, direct benefit transfers, and financial inclusion of the poor.

The brave outlook underestimated the weakness in the exports sector. It relied on the Rs. 70,000 crore of public investment that was earmarked in the year’s budget — as suggested by him — for building infrastructure to stimulate private investments. The stimulus he had designed was implemented. It proved insufficient to generate the growth impulses needed to kick-start the over $2 trillion economy and rekindle animal spirits gone numb in the dying years of the United Progressive Alliance’s 10-year stint due to policy paralysis and corruption scandals.

As things stand, it seems unlikely that industrial growth will cross 5 per cent. Growth in lending by banks to industry, a proxy for investment sentiment, hasn’t budged from a 20-year low. Corporate balance sheets are burdened with mountains of debt. The worst exports performance since 1952-53 is inevitable.

A government not shy of its business-friendly credentials should have picked up these stress signals early on and administered the remedies, but its mandarins were too excited: international agencies had declared that 2015 was going to be the year in which >India would race past China (the Chinese economy is about five times as large as India’s) to be the fastest growing economy in the world.

It was. But that this had probably more to do with China slowing down rather than India picking up, and the stark difference in size made the comparison between the two economies irrelevant. But the cheerleaders among bureaucrats and ministers couldn’t be bothered with technical minutiae — all that mattered was that India is a bright spot in a gloomy global economy.

Why is growth slowing? In the boom years during the UPA government’s tenure, four engines had powered the economy. Of those, just two are still running: government investments and private consumption. Exports and private investments, the other two, are out of steam. The UPA years saw an investment boom, which was bound to turn sooner or later, and has.

Lower borrowing costs could restart the investments cycle but the hands of the Reserve Bank of India Governor, Raghuram Rajan, are tied. An agreement that the government and the RBI signed a year ago has made controlling inflation the main objective of monetary policy. The agreement formalised a policy goal that the central bank has always pursued anyway, except that it set the targets in terms of consumer price inflation. Moreover, government-owned public sector banks have been slow to pass on to borrowers the rate reductions that Dr. Rajan has announced. Banks are a cartel and keep interest rates high because higher interest rates mean bigger profits.

Dr. Rajan is well on course to bring inflation within the 6 per cent target that the government set around the same time the CEA made his cheery growth forecast. In fact, the ‘rock star’ Governor, with whom the CEA has worked closely earlier in the International Monetary Fund, has had an excellent year. India was still one of the ‘fragile five economies’ when the year began. Yet, it is the only one to have come out of the phase of heightened currency volatility and current account deficit instability that characterised the group. Besides, the purse-string managers of the government’s budget in North Block, who haven’t yet let its fiscal deficit slip, Dr. Rajan too deserves credit for restoring India’s macroeconomic stability, which the government hasn’t quite leveraged to push growth, just as it has been caught sitting on its hands despite the favourable global trends in oil and commodity prices.

On growth, Dr. Rajan has been spot on. By the end of the summer, he had cut the Reserve Bank’s GDP growth projection for the year not once but twice. In July, even as Dr. Subramanian was sticking to 8.1-8.5 per cent, Dr. Rajan’s call was 7.4 per cent.

The overconfidence in Delhi lasted till the last day of November, when new official data released, revealed a slowdown instead of the promised smart recovery. Within hours, the government cut its growth projection to 7.5 per cent.

In the following weeks, the CEA did a few mea culpas on earlier positions, raised fresh concerns about the state of the economy and declared the official data puzzling and unusually difficult to interpret. And he called for reassessing the government’s commitment to fiscal deficit reduction.

Environment for lower interest rates Abandoning the committed path for fiscal rectitude now will put macroeconomic stability at risk. It might end up hurting growth rather than supporting it with the government and the RBI working at cross purposes. How? To fund a wider deficit, the government will have to borrow more, which could push up interest rates and crowd out private borrowers.

Inflation might have been tamed but the Reserve Bank’s key interest rate, despite cuts adding up to 125 basis points in 12 months, is still high for a revival in investments and growth. Although higher public investments are desirable, the government needs to do all it can to create the environment for lower interest rates, not higher.

Public investments can be increased without deferring deficit reduction, though. There is a perceptible improvement in the quality of government spending with a shift towards capital expenditure. This can be built upon. Savings from efficiency in spending remain an underrated resource. The government ought to cross the political hurdles for strategic disinvestment. If the government’s fiscal consolidation would distract from the demand in the economy, much of its spending will also add to it. Government employees’ salaries and pensions are set to rise as the Seventh Pay Commission award is accepted and disbursed. The hikes are bound to result in a surge in demand for goods and services. So are other transfers from the government.

The growth and the outlook won’t seem as lacklustre if Dr. Subramanian had corrected his forecast earlier, as Dr. Rajan had. He publicly differed with Dr. Rajan and took a bet on accelerating growth, and it looks as if he is going to lose the bet.


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