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The 2012-13 Economic Survey of India (with Raghuram Rajan)

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 4th March 2013

The Economic Survey (ES hereafter) is a document which presents the macroeconomic situation of India during a given period. It is drafted by the Ministry of Finance (MoF), Government of India with the Chief Economic Advisor (CEA) playing a chief role. The current CEA is Raghuram Rajan. At the MoF website, detailed profiles of the people who drafted the Economic Survey 2012-13 are available.

This blog has analysed the previous three economic surveys (2009-10; 2010-11; 2011-12) undertaken under the guidance of Kaushik Basu, the predecessor to Rajan. The current analysis is broadly divided into two parts. The first part deals with the ES’s view of economic growth and employment and its theoretical underpinnings. Here, we discuss the gloomy industrial performance, issues surrounding productivity of labour and the role of government expenditure. The second part focuses on select policy proposals and examines it in brief; the debates surrounding oil subsidies, high current account deficit and attracting foreign capital fall under this section.

I

The underlying theory of growth outlined in the ES is what economists’ term supply-side growth theory. Growth in output per worker is determined by growth in the supply of factors – labour and capital (more precisely, produced means of production). Whatever be the growth in their supply, the demand will automatically adjust. In other words, aggregate demand adapts to aggregate supply and investment adjusts to saving. Thus, in equilibrium, there can be no unemployment of factors, including that of labour. It will presently be seen that it is such a framework which enables the ES to recommend a reduction of government expenditure which will apparently promote growth.

Rajan deserves praise for underscoring the importance of quality employment right in the beginning of the ES. In Chapter 2 entitled ‘Seizing the Demographic Dividend’, a case is made for improving labour productivity and for increasing both the quantity and quality of employment.

Policymakers are usually focused on short-run economic management issues. But the short run has to be a bridge to the long run. The central long-run question facing India is where will good jobs come from? Productive jobs are vital for growth. And a good job is the best form of inclusion. (p. 26)

‘Productive jobs’ refers to jobs where the productivity levels are high. Growth in per capita income is primarily determined by labour productivity, growth in the working population and growth in the working population who find jobs – the employment rate (p. 30). Labour productivity rises with greater investment in physical and human capital. The reason for low agricultural productivity is identified to be low investment and therefore the solution proposed is an increase in capital per worker (p. 32). Yes, technological advances are necessary but so are transformations in agrarian relations pertaining to caste and gender. Moreover, the presence of inter-linked markets makes agricultural markets very coercive, and less competitive.

Furthermore, low labour productivity is linked to rigid labour laws and excessive government regulations. It is of course necessary that the current labour laws be examined and improved upon whereby workers are provided decent wages, adequate sick and maternity leaves, indexation with inflation, etc. As the chapter rightly concludes, ‘We need to examine carefully whether regulations constrain businesses excessively and, if so, strip away the excess regulation while ensuring adequate protection and minimum safety nets for workers’ (p. 54).

But, the question remains: what is the mechanism by which employment rises? The answer provided is that saving generates investment and investment generates employment. ES points out that investment can be increased by increasing saving.

If India were to follow a similar path [like that of China], it would need to increase savings and investment, both of which will follow from the demographic transformation. But it will also have to increase the intrinsic productivity of jobs…. (p. 31)

But, why will aggregate investment increase without a corresponding rise in aggregate demand? And, where will this increase come from if all the individuals save more, based on the recommendation by the ES? (One only needs to recollect the ‘paradox of thrift’.) Investment is undertaken so that the commodities and services that are being produced can be sold. Only if they are sold can profits be realised.

The adherence to a supply side theory of growth is clearly visible in the chapter dealing with industrial performance (Chapter 9). Owing to this belief, the analysis carried out in that chapter mistakes correlation for causation and also gets the causal chain wrong.

The moderation in industrial growth, particularly in the manufacturing sector, is largely attributed to sluggish growth of investment, squeezed margins of the corporate sector, deceleration in the rate of growth of credit flows and the fragile global economic recovery.

Low investment is considered to be the primary cause of poor industrial performance with a slight mention of decline in foreign demand. Further, the authors’ of the ES maintain that a low investment has resulted in excess capacity (obviously!) and also a decline in capacity utilization. Yet, they fail to point out that it is a fall in demand for industrial products which has caused the fall in capacity utilization and to a reduction in investment! Although, unconnected to their narrative of industrial decline, they note a reduction in the rate of growth of sales of listed manufacturing companies. The rate of growth ‘declined from an average of 28.8 per cent in Q1 of 2010-11 to 11.4 per cent in Q2 of 2012-13, the latest quarter for which comparable set of data are available.’ Hence, in order to increase investment, the authors’ want to attract foreign direct investment (FDI). But, the problem is not a lack of investment but a deficiency of demand.

In a similar line of supply-side thinking, the ES argues that fiscal consolidation or a lowering of government expenditure will result in a ‘higher growth in real GDP.’ As the ES clearly states,

Staying on the indicated fiscal consolidation path is critical to sustaining the desirable macroeconomic outcomes not only in terms of higher growth in real GDP and lower inflation, but also in easing the financing of the widening current account deficit (CAD), for which India’s sovereign credit rating is important. (p. 56)

While it is unfortunately true that credit rating agencies and foreign capital considers government spending to be a threat, the claim that fiscal consolidation enables faster growth seems to lack any solid proof. Unless, we treat inflows of foreign capital to be a source of sustainable and high economic growth!

In sum, the theoretical framework underlying the current Economic Survey is problematic because of its inability to explain labour unemployment (or excess capacity) as a permanent feature of capitalist economies. This unemployment is primarily owing to a deficiency of aggregate demand. Furthermore, owing to the supply-side underpinnings, the recommendations are to increase savings. This is clearly stated as objectives in the ‘Press Statement on Release of Economic Survey: 2012-13’. (1) ‘Increase government savings, especially by reducing distortionary subsidies’ and (2) ‘increase opportunities for savers to get strong real returns on financial investment.’ Therefore, a deficiency in saving is identified as the main hurdle for the Indian economy.

II

In this part we briefly examine the reasons why fuel subsidies are harmful to India in the long run and the problems surrounding India’s current account deficit. Fuel is a basic commodity in the sense that it enters as an input into the production of all commodities. And, petroleum is an exhaustible resource. The price in the international market does reflect its scarcity. A high price indicates that demand is over stripping supply. Fuel subsidies are a short term solution which takes the burden of innovation from Indian oil companies and the responsibility of proper use from Indian consumers onto the shoulders of the Government. Yes, workers need to be insulated from high oil prices. One way to do this is by indexing wages to inflation. A high fuel price also quickens the search for alternative sources of energy and better agricultural and manufacturing machinery which uses less fuel. One final point. The argument that fuel subsidies need to be reduced so as to reduce budget deficit so that there is economic growth is, as pointed out earlier, based on the flawed economics of supply-side growth theory.

India’s current account deficit has reached worrisome levels. The value of imports has been rising mainly on account of higher international oil price. Exports have fallen due to a slowdown in foreign demand. India’s main imports are (1) petroleum, (2) pearls (for re-export) and (3) gold. Owing to the surplus in invisibles (services such as transport and software; and private investment income transfers) some of the deficit in the merchandise trade balance is absorbed. Apart from the surplus in invisible trade, the other avenue for meeting the merchandise trade deficit comes from the capital account. The major source of (net) capital inflow is foreign investment, which comprises foreign direct investment and portfolio investment. The other source of foreign exchange is loans. Given this situation, the Economic Survey proposes measures which attract foreign investors and by imposing duties which make gold imports costlier. Both these are extremely short-sighted measures and the former one makes economic growth to hinge crucially on foreign capital which is not advisable. The long term solution, as suggested in the case of oil subsidies, ought to be technological innovations in the export industries so that they are internationally competitive. Also, the propensity to imports should be reduced by promoting industries which can produce similar commodities. Moreover, there is a huge potential in the Indian tourism industry. And, as the ES also recognises, ‘the best way to reduce gold imports in a sustainable way will be to offer the public financial investment opportunities that generate attractive returns.’

Conclusion

The move to reduce government spending and measures which attract foreign capital are therefore based on the flawed supply-side theory of economic growth; we require an increase in employment and incomes and in aggregate demand. Moreover, the proposed measures to deal with structural problems of the Indian economy are not just short-term but short-sighted and unsustainable in the long-run. These measures also discourage technological innovations especially in the area of alternative energy sources.  Oligopolistic markets should be replaced with competitive markets with good labour laws which ensure that part of the productivity gains go to the workers.

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Posted in Demographic Dividend, Economic Growth, Economics, Employment, Foreign Exchange, GDP, Government, India, Industrial sector, Macroeconomics, Neoclassical Economics, Supply side economics, Unemployment, Wages | 1 Comment »

To Economists: please pay attention to the ‘real’ problems

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 1st September 2010

A talk by Arundhati Roy and watching Peepli Live has motivated the contents of this post largely. I have been forced to rethink what ‘economics’ as a discipline should do in a country like India. How can it contribute to economic growth and human development. It is often forgotten that, economics studies the big black box that transforms the labour of the labourers into commodities for consumption by the labourers. People or rather, people who work, appear at both the ends of the tunnel. The black box or the tunnel consists of varied actors, markets, institutions, laws, power groups, social classes, etc.

Some economists try to make sense of this complex interaction using tools such as game theory, which throws light of certain aspects of the interaction. This in turn is supposed to aid in the design of better institutions. A few study labour, the main actor in the whole economic process. Some look at institutions and how various legal arrangements affect the economic outcomes. It remains to be asked: outcomes for whom? In this manner, the entire profession of economics has been divided into various sub-disciplines, each specialising in a particular aspect of the economy. And it is evident that communication between the above mentioned sets of economists happen rarely. Very often, the larger picture is forgotten. Each group presents their results with a tremendous sense of certainty, which is entirely misplaced. And, the joke that economists love their ceteris paribus clause comes true here. Except that, the clause in this case, assumes as constant the remaining processes or aspects of the economy!

Who are the real producers in an economy? What role do farmers (small, marginal and large) play in our society? Do they live in dignity? When inflation occurs, do these farmers get more incomes? Or do the intermediaries pocket the increase? Are proper institutions in place to provide them with adequate credit? Can these formal institutions compete with the informal ones, such as money lenders and chitti funds?

It is accepted that farming is not a profitable enterprise any more. Policy makers are calling for industrialisation. They want the farmers to come away from their lands and work in industries. And so arises the slums in and around major cities, where their living conditions are perhaps worse than in the villages. Or, most of them are forced to become construction workers. Urbanisation implies buildings, which creates construction jobs in plenty. Once the space in big cities are exhausted, the urbanisation will take place in small cities. Workers will be in demand. In short, labour migration and increasing labour distress, owing to improper housing conditions will become even more intense. It is time, serious attention is paid to farmers and the role of farming in the development of India.

To conclude, it is time we paid more attention to the condition of India and not blindly follow academic fashions. It is the duty of the civil society and especially, the academicians to study the problems and issues thrown up by the society. When the problems of the majority of the population in India –those who live in the rural areas, those who work in the informal sector and those who are farmers– are forgotten and relegated as “deviations from the normal” or “problems of the Indian economy” and not as characteristics of the society we live in, it is indeed a pitiable situation.

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Posted in Agricultural sector, Development Economics, Economic Growth, Economics, Globalization, India, Industrial sector, Inflation, Informal Sector, Labour Economics, Macroeconomics, Poverty, Real economy, Uncategorized, Unorganised Sector, Urbanisation | 3 Comments »

India and it’s ‘Segregated Growth’

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 1st March 2007

This article tries to show that high rates of GDP in India need not trickle down to the rest of the masses and also strives to explain why ‘segregated growth’ further fuels inequality. By ‘segregated growth’, I refer to growth which takes place in sectors which employ relatively a small percentage of the total labour force.

The IT revolution is happening but the GDP contribution of agriculture is decreasing.  One inference from this change could be that, labour from agriculture is migrating to the services sector; but that is not the case in India. India is witnessing farmer suicides, increased debts, droughts and low productivity in the agricultural sector.

Sustained economic growth requires progress in several dimensions – education, health, infrastructure, legal institutions, etc. [Noll 2006] For the whole of the population to enjoy sustainable growth, it is essential that growth takes place in all sectors of the economy. Otherwise, it will lead to growth, but only in a few sectors, like the IT boom which India faced. This growth is not sustainable in the long run. Another consequence of such ‘segregated growth’ is that, the GDP figures will show an increase. And as the GDP is the most commonly used (By the media) measure among the masses to portray economic growth, the picture presented will appear rosy.

Moreover, the per capita income will also show a rise due to the increase productivity coming from ‘such sectors’. This increased GDP will not trickle down as many economists and others state. This increased income accruing to the denizens of ‘such sectors’ will only be spent in conspicuous consumption. Thorstein Veblen coined the words ‘conspicuous consumption’ in his book ‘The Theory of the Leisure Class’. The basis on which good repute in any highly organised industrial community ultimately rests is pecuniary strength; and the means of showing pecuniary strength, and so of gaining or retaining a good name are leisure and a conspicuous consumption of goods. [Veblen 1899]

On Poverty

And though the country (India) has made significant strides – poverty levels are roughly 35%, down from close to 60% in the 1970s, (by the World bank’s $ 1 a day definition of poverty, though precise numbers are the subject of never-ending debate) – the benefits of this rapid growth are yet to trickle down to the masses. [Bhusnurmath 2006]

Development agencies define poverty as an income of less than $2 per person per day (about $3,000 annually for a family of four). By this standard, nearly 3 billion people are poor. [Noll 2006]

I wonder why India still defines poverty as an income of less than a dollar per day for a person. I had argued for a restructuring of the current poverty line in another article of mine. Probably the present estimate makes it easier to state that poverty levels have come down from 60% to around 35%!

On Development

Amit Bhaduri, in his recent paper in the Economic and Political Weekly, wonders if it is Developmental Terrorism or Development which is taking place.

Destruction of livelihoods and displacement of the poor in the name of industrialisation, big dams for power generation and irrigation, corporatisation of agriculture despite farmers’ suicides, and modernisation and beautification of our cities by demolishing slums are showing everyday how development can turn perverse. [Bhaduri 2007]

Conclusion

Thus, the Indian populace is dichotomized in terms of economic growth; there are certain areas where growth levels are very high along with a majority of sectors which are witnessing a decline. Thus, this kind of ‘segregated growth’ fails to ‘trickle down’ to other sectors of the economy.

References

1) Roger Noll, The Foreign Aid Paradox, SIEPR Policy Brief, October 2006.

2) Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899. (Full book available here)

3) Mythili Bhusnurmath, Time for a reality check, www.forumblog.org, November 25, 2006.

4) Amit Bhaduri, Development or Developmental Terrorism?, EPW, February 17, 2007.

Posted in Agricultural sector, Amit Bhaduri, Development Economics, Economic Growth, Economics, GDP, India, Industrial sector, Poverty, Real economy, Services sector | 42 Comments »

Indian Economic History:Part 1

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 8th December 2006

The decline of Indian manufacturing sector

This post will be one among a series of posts relating to the Indian economic history based on the book by Romesh Chunder Dutt called ‘The Economic History of India.’[Published 1902]

Being cognizant of what happened to the economy during the British rule in India will enable us to understand the causes and reasons of some of the contemporary social and economic issues. A thorough understanding of the British policies in India will bring to the fore the reasons why India, a relatively strong and mighty country earlier, faced famines, debts, etc.

This post tries to examine certain historical incidents brought out by Dutt in relation to the current socio-economic framework.

The Englishmen introduced western education, built a strong and efficacious administration, framed wise laws and also established courts of justice.

India encountered famines during the years 1877, 1878, 1889, 1892, 1897 and 1900 which carried off more than 15 millions of people.”
Though British introduced such efficient institutions, India lost millions of lives in the famines. Famines further aggravate poverty and also undermine the confidence on the Government.

Sources of wealth have been narrowed under British rule.”
Though they provided India with efficient enterprises, they thoroughly looted India of all its wealth. The British rule proved to be a lacuna in the growth of India which further accelerated and aggravated problems like high external debts, droughts even after Indian independence.

India was a great manufacturing as well as an agricultural country in the 16th century.” “Indian loom supplied the markets of Asia and Europe.”
The manufacturing sector is increasingly dependent on the agricultural sector for raw materials. The demand for manufactured goods predominantly comes from the primary sector. Most of the populace was engaged in agricultural activities, and due to this they enjoyed a considerable ‘Demand capacity’, which provided them with the sufficient ‘purchasing power’ to consume manufactured products. This sort of a healthy relation between the 2 sectors is sustainable in the long run, rather than an economy which depends heavily on a single sector. Of late, the rhetoric has been to increase GDP growth rates, without mentioning the importance of contributions from Agriculture to these growth rates.

East India Company and the British parliament, followed selfish commercial policy which discouraged Indian manufacturers.” “An excise duty was imposed on Indian cotton fabrics which disabled then to compete with Japan and China.”
The British ruined the manufacturing sector by imposing heavy duties on its exports thus making it costly in the global market. Owing to the fact that India had abundant natural resources, Agriculture could not be strangled.

British made Indian people grow raw produce only.”
This enabled them to purchase cheap raw materials and had it processed in England which was later sold for exorbitant rates in India and elsewhere.

Millions of Indian artisans lost their earnings.” “The invention of the power loom in Europe completed the decline of the Indian industries.”

Thus the Indian manufacturing sector was almost reduced to nothing by the end of 1947.

Advances in Economic History

A new branch of Economics, namely ‘Cliometrics’ which refers to the systematic use of economic theory and econometrics techniques to study economic history has helped economic historians in increasing the accuracy of their findings.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel for 1993 jointly to Professor Robert W. Fogel, University of Chicago, USA, and Professor Douglass C. North, Washington University, St. Louis, USA, “for having renewed research in economic history by applying economic theory and quantiative methods in order to explain economic and institutional change.” [Nobelprize.org]

Further Links

1) The Cliometric society
2) Cliometrica (Journal of Historical Economics and Econometric History)

Posted in Agricultural sector, Cliometrics, Economic history, Economics, India, Industrial sector | No Comments »