Time right for Indian fiscal consolidation

Author: Suman Bery, NCAER

India’s forthcoming Union Budget, now just two weeks away, will be presented at an extraordinarily interesting moment. Two recent releases of data from India’s Central Statistical Organisation (CSO) have contributed to the build-up. These are the ‘Quick Estimates of National Income, Consumption Expenditure, Saving and Capital Formation 2008-09’, released on January 29, and the ‘Advance Estimates of National Income 2009-10’, released on February 8.

My own awareness of these data releases has been heightened by my induction as a Member of the National Statistical Commission, responsible for reviewing and monitoring the entirety of India’s statistical system. This position has led me to take interest in these numbers as they first appear, rather than only when or as I might need them for analysis.

The first of these two releases is significant for the fact that it provides greater statistical authority for numbers that had previously been circulating as estimates. It also rebases recent data to the base year of 2004-05 rather than the former base year of 1999-2000. Just as important, the second release of data represents the first official projection by the CSO for India’s economic performance in the current year.

Accordingly, between the two documents one has a fascinating account of how the economy reacted to the ‘Great Crisis’ of 2008-09, how and why the recovery has been so robust, and therefore what this implies for the balance of judgment on the shape of ‘exit’ from the aggressive fiscal stance that has been adopted over the past couple of years.

Much of the continuing economic crisis in the advanced countries, particularly the United States, has revolved around the saving behaviour of the household sector. In brief, largely because of booming asset markets, American households drastically reduced their saving over the decade leading up to the crash, while simultaneously building up debts. With the crash in asset values, principally homes and to a lesser extent equities, and without a similar write-down in their debts, US households are worried about their long-term financial health and are busy saving again.

As Martin Wolf has repeatedly pointed out in his columns in the Financial Times, it has been the willingness of the US government to dissave substantially that has saved the US from depression. The issue is how much longer this process should continue, and how much it is aggravated by the additional weakness of the private sector in America and also in other countries, like India.

These recently released Indian data allow one to piece together a similar narrative for the Indian boom, bust and recovery. In national accounts terms, investment, consumption and net exports (exports minus imports) are the three elements of final demand that exhaust domestic production or output. In turn, investment consists of a discretionary or voluntary element, namely fixed capital formation, and a partly involuntary element – the change in stocks or inventories. Investment in turn must be ‘financed’ through saving. Such saving can either be domestically generated, by the household, government or private corporate sector, or from abroad, represented by the current account deficit.

In India, under ordinary circumstances, it is assumed that output, that is, GDP, is determined by the supply side of the economy, as supply constraints are usually binding. In contrast in advanced countries, short-term fluctuations are usually ascribed to demand, as individual sectors and agents adapt to the income and borrowing constraints that they face.

But the last couple of years were not normal, with the source of fluctuations, even for India, emanating from the demand side of the economy. The most striking evidence for this was the sharp reduction in the overall growth rate, from 9.2 per cent in 2007-08 to 6.7 per cent in 2008-09. These are the data at so-called ‘factor cost’. At market prices, the more relevant concept for the demand analysis to follow, the fall was even sharper – from 9.6 per cent to 5.1 per cent. This was indeed a sharp, savage downturn, one much more characteristic of a demand rather than supply-constrained economy.

This ‘growth recession’, for that is what it was, was caused in a statistical sense, by a sharp fall of almost 17 per cent in private corporate investment in 2008-09 compared to 2007-08. A relatively small part of this fall (5 per cent) was in fixed capital formation, but a much larger part of the story was the working off of inventories. It should be noted that it is the change in stocks that constitutes ‘investment’. While the data for 2009-10 are not yet available, the data for 2008-09 are quite extraordinary – the growth in stocks held by the private corporate sector went from 1.25 trillion rupees in 2007-08 to a mere Rs 270 billion rupees in 2008-09. Normally in a recession, one first expects inventory to grow as sales slow, and only then to be liquidated. It would seem that the agility of the Indian corporate sector, or alternatively, the financial pressure it came under, caused it to undertake a massive liquidation of inventory, which accentuated the downturn, but may have allowed a quicker recovery.

Things could have been much worse but for the public sector, and its contribution to consumption. Total consumption grew at the respectable rate of 8.3 per cent. This was not very different from previous years, largely because of a large jump in government consumption, which is one-fifth the size of private consumption. The share of private consumption in the economy also went up slightly, by approximately one percentage point of GDP, while that of government rose by 1.3 per cent of GDP.

The main burden of adjustment by the economy to the massive growth shock was in the savings behaviour of the public sector, essentially representing the expansion of the fiscal deficit.

Is it now time for the fiscal stimulus to draw back? Clearly, unlike in the US, there is no serious problem with private consumption. Rather, the issue is whether private investment is poised for a comeback. Based on the recently released NCAER-Mastercard Business Expectations survey, the answer seems to be yes. Convincing fiscal consolidation would also give the Reserve Bank of India the occasion to take a less hawkish position on monetary policy. Earlier I was more tentative. Now I would add my voice to those who argue that the time is ripe for credible fiscal consolidation.

This piece first appeared here in the Business Standard.

Suman Bery is Director-General, National Council of Applied Economic Research and Member, Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council.

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  • Nikhilesh

    Thanks for your interesting analysis, as is the norm on this site.

    Two questions that come to mind are why will India not release a breakdown of private vs public inventories and investment in the quarterly national accounts data?

    Also why isn’t any of the national accounts data seasonally adjusted?