Monday , 22 April 2019

Challenging Times Ahead For Economy



The economy is heading into adverse macro winds as we begin this fiscal year of 2018-19. By the end of this year or later, we will also have national elections, which are always a disruptive factor for the economy. The current adverse macro winds have four reasons. Firstly, the rupee is depreciating against the dollar. Some of this is correction for its over-valuation. It was too strong, as borne out even by calculations of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). The overly strong rupee makes imports attractive and cheap, to the detriment of locally produced goods. The strong rupee also is a negative factor for our exports. So the falling rupee is beneficial somewhat to domestic industry, for exports and jobs. But a steep fall is certainly bad news. We must also note that the rupee is falling even as the dollar itself is losing value against major global currencies. Hence this is a double depreciation for the rupee.

The second adverse macro factor is oil prices. The Brent crude has crossed 80 dollars per barrel, and there is talk that it could even be headed to 100. The re-imposition of US sanctions on Iran might mean lesser global supply causing oil prices to remain high. Much of the oil producers may side with the US on the Iran issue, so that an easy resolution seems unlikely. India’s import of oil may go up by 50 billion dollars more than last year, and the total bill could be as high as eight per cent of the GDP. The third related adverse macro factor is higher inflation. This is mainly on account of oil prices which feed into general inflation due to cost of transport and logistics. Additionally, if the rainfall is not adequate, it can aggravate food inflation.

The fourth adverse macro factor is higher interest rates. The policy benchmark rate is set by the RBI, which will certainly be influenced by higher oil prices and inflation. The US Federal Reserve Bank has also begun to raise interest rates which means global rates are moving upwards. Higher interest rates make investments costlier (since bank loans become expensive). In particular, housing loans and the real estate sector is affected negatively. Housing and construction are major drivers of economic growth, and rising interest rates can slow down these sectors.

Adverse macro factors

The consequence of these four adverse macro factors, sliding rupee, rising oil prices inflation and interest rates imply that the current account deficit will deteriorate. If it crosses more than three per cent of the GDP that is a danger mark. It can put further pressure on rupee depreciation causing foreign investors to panic and flee. This can have a negative consequence for stock and bond markets. Defending a sliding rupee requires RBI intervention and thankfully the country’s foreign exchange reserves look fairly adequate. Another consequence is that the oil subsidy will increase. In the three years between 2014 and 2017, the country saved nearly 180 billion dollars in the oil import bill cumulatively, amounting to nearly nine per cent of GDP. This made it possible to stabilise the fiscal deficit due to big savings in oil subsidy. The retail price of petrol and diesel was not allowed to decrease despite a steep fall in international oil prices. Domestic taxes (excise) were raised by almost 150 per cent, and hence the fiscal bonanza of the steep fall in oil prices was partly diverted to infrastructure and welfare spending, rather than passing on wholly to the consumer.

Now that oil prices are rising quickly there is the question of whether excise can be reduced to cushion the blow. But the fiscal situation may not permit such generosity. The fiscal situation is also getting stretched, especially at the state level (where half the petrol diesel excise is applied) due to extra fiscal obligations. These include farm loan waivers and additional burden of running centrally sponsored schemes. So fiscal strain is a third consequence of the adverse macro factors. And finally, as we head into general elections next year, the fiscal pressure owing to populist measures is unlikely to subside.

Micro indicators

So clearly we are headed into a challenging macro economic scenario. Thankfully many micro indicators are encouraging. Corporate results show an improving trend across many sectors (excluding telecom and public sector banks). The fall in the rupee seems to have given a shot in the arm for exports. Engineering exports rose by 17 per cent last year, of which to the US alone they rose by 44 per cent. Agriculture production was at record levels last year (even though prices were subdued), so agri exports also may go up. India can negotiate a rupee trade with Iran, and pay for oil imports in rupees, thus circumventing the sanctions. That may save some foreign exchange. The non-bank finance, including equity and bond financing for small firms is showing robust growth. To the extent it can fill the gap left by slowing of bank credit, it is a good development. The bankruptcy process is also showing some early success, which can relieve some of the load or bad loans on banks. As the distressed assets go to new owners, it will lead to the kick-start of stalled companies and projects, which is heartening. The consumption spending is showing momentum, and especially civil aviation traffic is still growing at 20 plus per cent, now almost three years in a row. The huge valuation received by Flipkart in its sale to Walmart will hopefully bode well for e-commerce in particular and startups in general. There is much buzz among startups in spaces like fintech, e-commerce, digital and telecom, some of which can be quite transformative.

So in brief, it is turning out to be a story of adverse macro factors and strengthening micro performance. The policy makers are going to be a busy lot in the coming months steadying the ship of the economy.

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