Inflation dips, but here’s why Indians don’t believe it will stay low

deflationHere is the good news—the inflation as measured by the consumer price index for the month of October 2014 came in at 5.52%. It was at 6.46 % in September 2014 and 10.17% in October 2013. The price of food products which make up 42.71% of the consumer price index rose by 5.59% in October 2014, in comparison to the same period during the previous year.
A major reason for the fall in inflation has been a global fall in food prices.
The Food and Agriculture Organization’s Food Price Index averaged at 192.3 points in October 2014. It was lower by around 0.2% in comparison to the September number. In comparison to a year earlier, food prices fell by 6.9%. Global food prices have now fallen for seven months in a row, and this has been the longest slide since 2009.
While food prices on the whole haven’t been falling in India, vegetable prices fell by 1.45% during October 2014 in comparison to October 2013. Interestingly, they had risen by 45.7% in October 2013 in comparison to October 2012. Cereal prices during the month went up by 6% in comparison to 12% a year earlier. Also, only two food products showed an increase in price of greater than 10%. The price of milk went up by 10.8% and the price of fruits went up by 17.5%.
Nevertheless, food prices might start rising again. The government has forecast that the output of
kharif crops will be much lower than last year and this might start pushing food prices upwards all over again. As the Business Standard reports “As per very preliminary estimates, India’s food grain production in 2014-15 kharif crop season is expected to be around 120 million tonnes, nearly 9.5 million tonnes less than last year, but officials have said that there could be a further downward revision in the estimates as arrivals gather steam from middle of November onwards.”
And this could push up prices in the days to come. As As Rupa Rege Nitsure, Chief Economist,
Bank Of Baroda told Reuters “recent data shows that towards the end of October we have seen spikes in vegetable prices as well as in cereal prices because of delayed monsoon. So there’s a big question of sustainability of these readings.”
Falling food inflation has come as a big relief given that half of the expenditure of an average household in India is on food. In case of the poor it is 60% (NSSO 2011). Over and above this a fall in global oil prices has also helped. Fuel and light inflation in October 2013 was at close to 7%. In October 2014, the number came in at 3.3%.
Hence, it can clearly be seen that there has been some relief on the inflation front.
For more than five years, inflation in general and food inflation in particular was very high. High inflation ate into the incomes of people and led to a scenario where their expenditure went up faster than their income. This led to a cut down on expenditure which was not immediately necessary.
With food inflation coming down, this should leave more money on the table for people to spend and at least theoretically should lead to a revival of consumer demand and hence, industrial activity. It is worth remembering here that when people cut down on expenditure, the demand for manufactured products falls as well. This is in turn reflected in the index of industrial production (IIP).
The IIP for the month of September 2014 was 2.5% higher in comparison to September 2013. This is a little better than the IIP for the month of August 2013 which was only 0.4% higher in comparison to August 2013. The IIP is a measure of the industrial activity in the country.
The manufacturing sector which forms a little over 75% of the IIP, grew by 2.5% during the course of the month. The number had fallen by 1.4% in August 2014. Hence, there seems to have been some recovery on this front. Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that recovery will sustain in the months to come.
As Nisture put it “What really matters is that all other indicators of economic activity actually have slowed in the month of October, whether it is PMI, or credit demand or auto sales. So I don’t think that today’s reading of industrial production is sustainable.”
Further, what is worrying are the consumer goods and the consumer durables sectors. The numbers representing these sectors are both down in comparison to last year. When we look at the IIP from the use based point of view it tells us that consumer durables (fridges, ACs, televisions,computers, cars etc) are down by 4% in comparison to September 2013. The consumer goods are down by 11.3%.
What this clearly tells us is that despite falling inflation, people still haven’t come out with their shopping bags.  When consumers are going slow on purchasing goods, it makes no sense for businesses to manufacture them.
Why is that the case despite falling inflation? A possible explanation is the fact the wounds of a very long period of high inflation still haven’t gone away. People are still not ready to believe that low inflation is here to stay. Hence, inflationary expectations (or the expectations that consumers have of what future inflation is likely to be) are on the higher side.
As per the Reserve Bank of India’s Inflation Expectations Survey of Households: September – 2014, the inflationary expectations over the next three months and one year are at 14.6 percent and 16 percent. In March 2014, the numbers were at 12.9 percent and 15.3 percent. Hence, inflationary expectations have risen since the beginning of this financial year.
The only possible way to bring them down is to ensure that low inflation persists in the months to come. Only then will people start to believe that low inflation is here to stay. And once that happens, it won’t take much time for some consumer demand to return. As Shivom Chakrabarti, Senior Economist at HDFC Bank told Reuters “The real improvement in industrial production will be seen next year when inflation comes down, which will spur consumer spending and exports will be higher.”

The article originally appeared on on Nov 13, 2014

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)