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The Monopoly of Credit Rating Agencies

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 27th September 2015

“After Fitch, Moody’s lowers India’s growth forecast” reads a headline in The Hindu on August 25. Who are these agencies? They are credit rating agencies responsible for assessing the creditworthiness of big borrowers – companies and governments. The market for credit rating is dominated by 3 big firms – Standard & Poor, Moody’s and Fitch. Basically, these credit rating agencies sell information about the debtors to the creditors.

How reliable are they? As the regulator of the Indian securities market, Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) writes in its FAQ, ‘A credit rating is a professional opinion given after studying all available information at a particular point of time. Nevertheless, such opinions may prove wrong in the context of subsequent events. There is no contract between an investor and a rating agency and the investor is free to accept or reject the opinion of the agency.’ As a matter of fact, the credit ratings were proven to be completely wrong in the wake of the Great Recession because they grossly misrepresented the risk on the mortgage-backed securities. Joseph Stiglitz is quoted as saying: “I view the rating agencies as one of the key culprits.” And not surprisingly, between 2001 and 2007, the operating margins of Moody’s exceeded 50 per cent, three to four times those of Exxon Mobil Corp., the world’s biggest oil company. Also, as a CFR report states, the “EU governments and ECB policymakers accused the Big Three [S&P, Moody and Fitch] of being overly aggressive in rating eurozone countries’ creditworthiness, exacerbating the financial crisis”.

A financial market mediates between debtors and creditors through the buying and selling of financial instruments with varying risk and liquidity (to meet the different preferences and needs of the market participants). Unlike in a product market, say for tomatoes, it is difficult to assess the ‘value’ (let alone the quality) of a financial instrument. Suffice to note here that different financial theories exist which provide explanations for the ‘value’ of a financial instrument. The creditor needs to know whether the debtor is credit-worthy, i.e., whether the probability of the debtor to default is low. This information need is met by the credit rating agencies, of course, not very satisfactorily. For, they also seem to fall prey to the irrational exuberance characterizing the financial markets. More importantly, as during the Great Recession, evidence points to them as perpetrating a financial crime by aiding and abetting the housing bubble by issuing top ratings to bad mortgage-backed securities.

Global investors obtain information on investment avenues from multiple sources. And in the specific case of India, most of the financial savings are parked in time deposits, Post Office savings and with LIC and not in the stock market. Should a credit rating downgrade worry us? Are we worried because of how the stock market may react? Will it affect capital inflows? Rational investors make informed decisions by examining the macroeconomic situation, the ease of investing and the transparency and stability of macroeconomic policies. For example, any amount of mere rhetoric of ‘Make in India’ will not help – as seen by the exit of Jim Rogers, a global commodities trader and hedge fund manager, from India. As Rogers’ says, “one can’t invest just on hope.”

The argument of this blog post is not that all the assessments by credit rating agencies are incorrect. The argument is rather than we must critically appraise them and contextualize them. For instance, the lowering of Asia’s growth forecasts on account of slowing exports and subdued demand by Moody’s on 8th September 2015 should be a cause for concern. Why are we not focusing on policies which generate domestic demand?

I end with the financial commentator John Kay’s observation on the power of the bond markets in Britain. “So how do bond markets acquire their power to intimidate? Politicians spend too much time talking to people who take a daily interest in the bond market, and come to believe that their obsessions are important. Britain’s economic performance should be judged by benchmarks relating to employment, productivity, growth and innovation, not credit ratings.” This should be the case in India too.

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Posted in Capital Market, Economics, Financial Economics, India, Irrational Exuberance, Macroeconomics | No Comments »

A Review of Banik’s The Indian Economy: A Macroeconomic Perspective

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 24th June 2015

Undergraduate economics education in India relies heavily on American textbooks, especially to teach Microeconomics and Macroeconomics. So it was a welcome change to see Nilanjan Banik’s The Indian Economy: A Macroeconomic Perspective published in 2015 by Sage Publishers. It is intended to be a Macroeconomics textbook for Indian students. As Banik writes in the Preface, ‘the available standard macroeconomic textbooks have limited information about how macroeconomics works for India.’ And therefore, ‘[t]his book is for anyone who wants to clear their concepts on Indian macroeconomy.’ This blog post critically reviews (only) Chapter 1 of this book titled ‘Introducing Macroeconomics’.

Banik starts Chapter 1 with an explanation of why macroeconomics – output, employment and inflation levels – is of significance to a ‘common man’. Here, basic macroeconomic concepts and their measurement are explained. Some discussion on the evolution of growth theories is also present. Economic prosperity of common person, according to Banik, is ‘encapsulated in a higher growth rate of GDP and lower inflation and unemployment rate, since these are the factors which directly or indirectly affect his/her well-being.’ But, we must also recognise that an individual’s employment and India’s overall unemployment rate are interdependent variables, and consequently we cannot draw a simple causal line of ‘prosperity’ running from overall employment rate to an individual’s well-being. [By interdependent, I mean that the aggregate employment rate is a summation of individual employments. Not only this, but also that the magnitude and trend of aggregate employment rate often impacts the rate of investment and therefore individual employment.] And, later, on p. 19, he draws a totally reverse causal line: ‘A summation of individual well-being gives us a sense about how an economy is doing.’

Output and employment levels are determined by factors affecting aggregate supply and demand. ‘Economy-wide demand and supply conditions are aggregation of all individual market conditions.’ Is this correct? Market supply and demand curves are an aggregating of individual market supply and demand curves. But, is it legitimate to extend this argument to aggregate supply and demand? Or, is Banik here making a microfoundations argument? A macroeconomic equilibrium is characterised by the equality between planned saving and investment and therefore of aggregate supply and demand. Banik is committing the fallacy of composition in the above quoted sentence wherein aggregate demand condition is seen as an aggregation of all the individual market demand conditions.

Subsequently, Banik starts the discussion on economic growth by clarifying to the reader that the growth rate of an economy refers to the growth rate of real gross domestic product (GDP) of that economy. ‘Supply of output is determined by the availability of factor endowments such as labour, capital, organization, and technology in the economy.’ Aggregate demand is made up of consumption, investment, government and foreign demand. The full-employment level of output, as in neoclassical economics, according to Banik, is determined by supply-side factors. Therefore, it follows that supply-side policies are to be undertaken in order to increase the full-employment level of output. Hence, he writes:

‘However, any policy measure to increase the supply of output requires time. … So managing supply-side components is not that effective in the short run; however, in the long run, components such as investment in education, health-care, and physical infrastructure will have an influence over the availability of future supply of output.’ (p. 6)

What is the role for demand-side policies in this growth framework? They are employed only to take care of ‘fluctuations’ for they have no role to play in determining the full-employment level of output. This is validated by the following excerpt from Banik.

‘Demand management policies would not have been important if there was no fluctuation in demand, taking the output away from the full employment level of output.’ (p. 7)

It suffices here to note that this is a contested assertion with the contestation emerging from the research on demand-led growth.

Among historians of economic thought and economists with a historical understanding, classical economists refer to Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Robert Malthus and Karl Marx, who, while distinguishing himself from their works also employed their framework – the surplus approach to value and distribution. However, in textbooks of Macroeconomics, pre-Keynesian economics is commonly, although incorrectly, classified as classical economics; Keynes is also responsible for this confusion. Banik has a very different understanding of classical economics or as he writes, the ‘classical school of economics’. For him, it comprises ‘particularly, the Austrian school of economists led by Hayek, Robbins, and Schumpeter’ (p. 7).

On Keynes’s principle of effective demand, Banik has the following to say. ‘

Keynes tried to explain the occurrence of an event like the Great Depression through his notion of effective demand. Effective demand is the quantity of goods and services that consumers buy at the current market price. According to Keynes, economic agents behave like animals – all of a sudden becoming optimistic or pessimistic about the future. When on average, economic agents become pessimistic about the future, then consumers start spending less money, firms cut down their production, and the economy enters into recession. In Keynesian model, the emphasis is on demand-side factors.’ (p. 7)

The principle of effective demand states that aggregate activity levels are determined by aggregate demand, and that planned saving adapts to planned investment. This principle was advanced in opposition to the neoclassical Say’s law which states that supply creates its own demand. Moreover, this principle works even without having recourse to animal spirits.

Following this, Banik presents a brief overview of Samuelson’s neoclassical synthesis, Lucas’s critique, real business cycle theory and new classical approach (pp. 10-11); and, he categorises the following economists within the ‘new Keynesian group’: ‘Gregory Mankiw, Lawrence Summers, Olivier Blanchard, Edmund Phelps, and John Taylor’ (p. 12). Such a classification of economists along with the overview of different macroeconomic schools is of much value to the student readers.

After carrying out a short empirical discussion on India’s macroeconomy and empirical definitions such as consumer durables, service exports, etc, Banik makes a fallacious statement regarding the relationship between saving (S) and investment (I).

‘…in a closed economy framework … one would expect domestic savings to be the only source of investment. Accordingly, what is saved is invested and hence investment is expected to be equal to savings. In the present context, however, there is a divergence between investment and savings components of GDP. This divergence is on account of the fact that we are considering an open economy framework where we allow for foreign transactions. Typically, the more open is the economy, the more is the extent of this divergence.’ (p. 17).

In a two-sector economy (with firms and households), the accounting identity S=I holds. But, what is the explanation or theory behind this? It is the principle of effective demand: planned saving adapts to planned investment (via changes in activity levels). The mainstream neoclassical view is that planned investment adapts to planned saving (via changes in a sufficiently sensitive rate of interest). In a three-sector economy (with firms, households and a government), the accounting identity becomes: S+T = I+G, where T is taxes and G is government expenditure. And, in a four-sector economy (with firms, households, a government and the foreign sector), the accounting identity is: S+T+M = I+G+X, where M is imports and X is exports. In other words, the above 3 identities reaffirm the condition for macroeconomic equilibrium: leakages must equal injections. Thus, in equilibrium, there can be no divergence between saving and investment in a two-sector economy and in general, in equilibrium, leakages equal injections. Banik appears to be confusing macroeconomic theory with accounting identities, and disequilibrium with equilibrium positions. The above statement of Banik is therefore conceptually incorrect.

Next, he presents a commentary on growth economics, with a focus on the Harrod-Domar and Solow growth models.

‘One of the earlier works in the area of supply-side economics was independently undertaken by two economists – Roy Harrod in 1939 and Evsey Domar in 1946. The relevance of the Harrod-Domar model lies in its ability to give a dynamic flavour to the Keynesian model. The Keynesian model is a static model putting emphasis on aggregate demand and its effect on the output gap in the short run.’ (p. 21)

In the mushrooming, although at a moderate pace, research on demand-led growth, the growth model of Harrod is a seen as an early contribution to demand-led growth and not supply-side growth. It is not clear why Banik places Harrod’s contribution under supply-side economics. He goes on to point out limitations of Harrod’s model.

‘Another limitation of the model is that it assumes that labour and capital and used in equal proportions (equal prices for labour and capital).’ (p. 22).

Here, he makes yet another incorrect statement because Harrod assumed that labour and capital are used in constant not equal proportions. With this glaring error, one cannot help but wonder whether this macroeconomics textbook went through any serious internal or external reviewing. Banik then goes on to discuss the Solow model and undertakes a very brief survey of the endogenous growth models of Paul Romer, discusses the work of Robert Hall and Charles Jones on social infrastructure, and Robert Fogel’s study of the positive association between health and economic growth. Next, the author moves on to issues involved in the measurement of GDP, and in this context clarifies the meaning of operating surplus and mixed incomes.

To conclude, whilst Banik’s macroeconomics book for Indian students contains serious conceptual errors, the design of the structure of chapter one (and the others) deserves some merit. There is indeed ample scope for improvement and enlargement of the contents. Yet, it is deeply disappointing to come across the errors, such as the ones mentioned in the preceding paragraphs, in a book such as this which is stated to be an advance over existing (foreign) macroeconomics textbooks.

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Posted in Book reviews, Economics, India, Macroeconomics | No Comments »

An Economic Analysis of the ‘Make in India’ Program

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 7th January 2015

The ‘Make in India’ program webpage states as its objectives the following: (1) to facilitate investment, (2) to foster innovation, (3) to enhance skill development, (4) to protect intellectual property, and (5) to build manufacturing infrastructure. This short blog post focuses of selected aspects of the program as laid out of the webpage and then critically examines them and the economics underlying them.

Selected features of the program from the webpage are outlined in this paragraph.  The process of industrial licensing has become simpler and for some, the validity has been extended. There is an impetus to develop industrial corridors and smart cities. The cap of foreign direct investment (FDI) in defence raised from 26% to 49%, with further easing of FDI norms underway in the construction sector. Labour-intensive sectors such as textiles and garments, leather and footwear, gems and jewellery and food processing industries, capital goods industries and small & medium enterprises will be supported. Further, National Investment & Manufacturing Zones (NIMZ) will be set up. Incentives for the production of equipment/machines/devices for controlling pollution, reducing energy consumption and water conservation will be provided.

To summarize, the government will provide incentives for the construction of green technology while at the same time making it easier for firms to get environmental (land) clearances. Setting up industrial zones is a good idea because it reduces transportation costs and common infrastructure can be better streamlined; also, they should be located at a safe distance from populated areas. Investment by foreign companies is beneficial if they these investments entail the learning of new technology and scientific and managerial collaboration. FDI should not be forthcoming solely to exploit the low wages prevailing in India.

Undoubtedly, India needs to revive its manufacturing sector. Globally, Indian manufacturing products need to be competitive. To achieve these two objectives, the present government’s ‘Make in India’ program is necessary. As always, we need to wait and see how the program works in practice. This program is aimed at improving the supply-side of the economy – improving the capacity to supply manufactured products. Creating of physical infrastructure will also have multiplier effects on agricultural and services sector.

Two related issues need to be raised in this context. Firstly, what about economic ‘reforms’ targeted at the demand-side of the economy? Secondly, isn’t it more prudent to validate the supply of manufactured commodities from domestic demand than foreign demand? Let us take each of them in some more detail. Raghuram Rajan made the second point in his December 12, 2014 Bharat Ram Memorial Lecture. Ashok Desai, in the Outlook, criticises the previous government for their corruption scandals and economic schemes which, according to Desai, primarily benefited the non-poor and due to their consumption raised the industry and services growth rates.

While supply-side measures are important, we must not lose sight of demand-side measures – such as public investment in health and education. The recent cut in public health expenditure by the current government is indeed very alarming. Equally important is a good labour law framework which ensures good working conditions for workers and a decent minimum wage. This will ensure adequate domestic demand, as our workers will earn above-subsistence incomes and be healthy. If the core institutions of health and education (and clean environment) are also strengthened alongside the labour market ones, then domestic demand-led growth will not be difficult to manage.

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Posted in Economics, Education, Employment, India, Industrial sector, Macroeconomics | No Comments »

The Macroeconomics Underlying the Economic Survey of India 2013-14

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 10th November 2014

This blog post critically evaluates the first two chapters of the Economic Survey of India 2013-14 in order to get a sense of the macroeconomic theory underlying it. [This blog has assessed previous ones for the years:2012-13,2009-10;2010-11;2011-12.] What conceptual framework does the Economic Survey adhere to, implicitly and/or explicitly? This is of significance not just for those interested in theory but also for those who want to understand how economic policies are formulated. Attention will be mainly divided among the following macroeconomic themes: (1) role of investment in economic growth, (2) labour market flexibility and economic growth, (3) policies emanating from (1) and (2), and (4) the overarching aim of economic policy.


It is well-known and widely accepted that investment, be it private or public, is necessary for economic growth. By investment, we primarily refer to additions to fixed capital – machinery, tools, storage facilities, transport equipment, etc. Investment in education, health and environment should also be included, for they expand the productive capacity of the economy in the long term. Two questions may be posed now. First, what is the source of investment? Second, what ensures that the growth in productive capacity will be matched by an equivalent growth in demand?

Prior to the path-breaking work of Keynes, it was widely believed that investment is savings constrained and that saving and investment are equilibrated through variations in a sufficiently sensitive interest rate. Keynes convincingly argued that investment is not savings constrained, rather, it is finance constrained. Moreover, he demonstrated that it is activity levels (output and employment) which equilibrate saving and investment, and the causation runs from investment to saving. This is the principle of effective demand, also to be found in the work of the Polish economist Kalecki. The Economic Survey adopts the pre-Keynesian view, which, not surprisingly is still around, embedded in the neoclassical school of economics – the dominant school in economics teaching and publishing. This marginalist idea of saving-investment equilibrium is mirrored by the market equilibrium for ‘capital’ – the demand for and supply of capital is brought into equilibrium by variations in the interest rate; this is nothing but the marginal productivity theory of distribution.

Implicit in the Economic Survey is the pre-Keynesian view, an essential part of neoclassical economics. ‘…higher investment required for raising growth had to come from higher domestic savings…’ (p. 9). However on p. 11, the slowdown in investment growth is attributed to policy uncertainty, sluggish demand and high interest costs. Despite the reference to demand deficiency on the same page (on p. 13, it is acknowledged that an increase in aggregate demand has a positive impact on economic growth), the conclusion on the same page supports ‘structural reforms’ and the elimination of ‘supply-side bottlenecks’. Also, Keynes’s finance-constrained investment view is expressed when the ‘bank credit flow to industry’ is briefly discussed (p. 25); due to sluggish demand, the demand for credit was lower. [See an earlier post on the determinants of investment.]

Income earners make saving decisions (commonly referred to as households or wage earners) whereas it is the firms and entrepreneurs who make investment decisions in a decentralized economy as India. Firms also make use of their retained earnings for purposes of investment (p. 14). The intermediation of saving and investment is carried out via the banking and financial system – the suppliers of credit, so to speak. The point I wish to highlight is this: abundant savings or a low rate of interest is not sufficient for (physical) investment. There should be demand for the commodities and services produced. Also, there are no mechanisms which ensure that supply will create its own demand, famously known as the Say’s Law. At various points, it appears that the architects of the Economic Survey believe in the Say’s Law. In other words, they do believe that a growth in productive capacity will engender an equivalent growth in demand.

Policy uncertainty & investment

Policy uncertainty emanates from ‘difficulties in land acquisition, delayed environmental clearances, infrastructure bottlenecks, problems in coal linkages, ban on mining in selected areas, etc.’ (p. 11; also see p. 33). This particular statement is reflective of a view which does not take common property resources, ecosystems and environmental sustainability seriously and with caution. The uncertainty in policy vanishes when the government is clear, transparent and committed to socio-economic and environmental justice. Policy uncertainty arises from vague, untimely and arbitrary policy decisions. In fact, this approach to securing higher economic growth is inconsistent with the position adopted in the Economic Survey on sustainable development and climate change which, on paper, appears committed to environmental justice and inter-generational equity. And it is such inconsistencies which cause confusion and policy uncertainties for firms wishing to invest in India.


The marginalist growth theory (Solow’s growth model being the exemplar) makes use of the marginal productivity theory of distribution. Put simply, a growth in the factors of production (or factor endowments) is sufficient for economic growth. And, supply creates its own demand. According to this view, widely taught in macroeconomics courses, growth is supply-side. The impediments to growth then become imperfections in the factor markets, particular labour markets. Consequently, policy is supposed to make labour markets flexible/free/perfect so that the economy can gravitate towards the full-employment position. But, this theoretical view has been shown to be unsatisfactory given the logical problems associated with the marginal productivity theory of distribution. In addition, the creation of a just society must necessarily ensure a minimum wage for all workers sufficient for a decent living, the scope of which ought to widen as societies progress.

According to the Economic Survey, ‘[t]he inflexibility of labour markets have prevented high job creation’ (p. 30). For those brought up in the marginalist tradition, the usual culprit is the labour market. Of course, labour laws, like any other law, should be just and provide opportunities for workers to support each other given that the employers are more powerful than the workers. Also, working conditions, social security, equal opportunity across gender, caste and class and so on must be provided to the workers. This is the responsibility of institution builders – the government together with the civil society. Yes, labour market reforms are necessary: ‘changes in the legal and regulatory environment for factor markets’ (p. 31).

Reforms, unfortunately, have come to possess a single meaning in economics and politics. Reforms have come to refer to policies which make markets more free. There is no reason why reforms need to be thought of in this manner. Politics is about possibilities, and economics suggests some ways of engineering these possibilities in order to provide a decent life to all. There is nothing intrinsically good in any economic or political sense about reforms. The efficacy and goodness of reforms lies in its details.

‘Factor markets such as those for labour, land, and capital, however, remained largely unreformed. This has proved to be a constraint for growth and employment generation’ (p. 48). This statement also is very marginalist or neoclassical in nature. Moreover, one has to be cautious for the three factors of production are very different from one another. Capital refers to produced means of production – commodities and services. Barriers to entry and exit need to be reduced and firms need to operate in a competitive environment. Land is a resource which needs to be treated very carefully and on a case-by-case basis; it has immediate impacts on livelihood as well as on the natural environment. Labour market constitutes people, and there should be strong social security for workers and good working conditions.


Policy prescriptions include primarily supply-side measures. This is not surprising owing to the Economic Survey being fundamentally neoclassical. Investment, a component of aggregate demand, is rightly considered crucial. But, public investment is not much favoured. Investment, as noted in section I, will be revived if supply bottlenecks are removed – that is, projects get easily cleared. Policies are targeted at boosting productivity. Provision of physical and social infrastructure is of utmost importance. A market for food (reducing distortionary interventions in agriculture) needs to be created. Manufacturing must be improved.


What is the central aim of these economic policies? Repeatedly, in these two chapters, the objective is to create a ‘well-functioning market economy’ (p. 29; also 26, 46). This is much needed, but the ‘reforms’ need to be socially and environmentally sensitive. Also, just as with reforms, many different configurations of a market economy are possible. This must not be forgotten, and nor should social, economic and environmental justice be overlooked. To conclude, I would add a few words to the first sentence in chapter 2: ‘The defining challenge in India today is that of generating employment and growth’ (p. 29) which is economically, socially and environmentally inclusive. These additional words make all the difference, both in terms of economics and politics.

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Posted in Economics, Employment, Government, India, Macroeconomics, Marginalist economics, Neoclassical Economics, Supply side economics | No Comments »