The Curious Case of the Indian Festival Season

Summary: Does the Indian economy actually have a festival season when it comes to consumption? 

I recently did a long story for the Mint where I elaborated on why this festival season isn’t going to rescue the Indian economy.

One of the questions I originally wanted to explore in the piece was whether the so-called festival season actually has an impact on the overall economic growth or is it simply a marketing gimmick, like many other things. I couldn’t get into it for lack of space and hence, have decided to explore this separately here.

The festival season is defined as the period between October and December which typically has festivals like Dussehra, Diwali and Christmas, among other festivals. This is believed to be an auspicious period for making purchases, particularly the period between Navratri and Diwali.  Of course, there are many big festivals that do not happen during this three-month period, like Ganesh Chaturthi, Holi etc. (Even Dussehra can sometimes fall towards the end of September).

As a 2018 research note published by the rating agency Crisil points out: “Indeed, in the last ten years, around 30% of two-wheeler sales has come in the festive months.”  Over and above this, industry estimates suggest that 35-40% of sales of consumer durables in particular electronic products, happens during the festival season.

Hence, in the run-up to this period, corporates are typically very confident about how festival season sales will perk up the overall economy. And this year, as I explained in my Mint piece, has been no different on that front. This grandstanding has only increased over the last few years as the economy has gone downhill. The corporates need to say something positive to keep the media interested and this is what they come up with. Come festival season, and all will be well. Of course, I am making this a tad simplistic, but I hope you do get the drift.

There is a simple way of checking out whether the so-called festival season has a marked impact on economic growth and whether growth during these three months is higher than the growth during the remaining part of the year.
India started declaring quarterly gross domestic product (GDP) data from 1996 onwards. Hence, GDP growth data is available from April-June 1997, a year later. GDP is a measure of the economic size of a country.

Between April to June 1997 and April to June 2020, we have 93 counts of GDP growth data, with 23 counts of the October to December period. In three years out of the data for 23 years that we have, the economic growth has been the fastest during the October to December period, in comparison to the remaining parts of the year.

Also, the three instances where before 2011, in 2001, 2003 and 2010, when the economy during the period grew by 6.3%, 11.2% and 10.7%, respectively. So, clearly on the whole, there is no evidence to suggest that the economy grows faster during the so-called festival season vis a vis the remaining parts of the year. And there is nothing in the last decade.

While, the economy may not grow faster during the festival season, that is no reason to believe that the private consumption part of the economy doesn’t grow faster during this period than other periods.

One of the methods to calculate the GDP is private consumption expenditure plus government expenditure plus investment plus net exports (exports minus imports). Private consumption expenditure, the stuff you and I buy to keep our lives going, over the years has formed the biggest part of the GDP. Data from the last 24 years shows that it typically tends to oscillate between 55-60% of the economy. On rare occasions it goes above 60% or falls below 55% (as it has during the period April to June 2020).

There are seven instances in the growth data of 23 years that is available, where private consumption expenditure has grown faster during the festival season than other periods. Three of these instances are between December 1996 and December 2010 and four after that. What this means is that around 30% of the time in the last 23 years, the festival season consumption growth has been the fastest during the year.

While, this is better than overall growth, it is not definitive evidence. Let’s look at something specific like domestic two-wheeler sales and see if companies end up selling more two-wheelers during the festival season than any other time of the year.

We have quarterly two-wheeler data going as far back as April to June 1991, that is for a period of 29 years. In eight out of these 29 years, two-wheeler sales were the most during the festivals season than other parts of the year. This works out to 27.6%. The interesting thing is that the sales during the festival season were the highest in each of the years from 2002 to 2007. This makes for six out of the eight instances. There have been only two instances in the 2010s, in 2012 and in 2013, and no instance in the 1990s.

What more data can we check? Let’s look at domestic car sales. There are two instances (2015 and 2019) where cars during the festivals season have outsold the other periods, in the last 29 years. Clearly, cars don’t have a festival season.

Ideally, I would have liked to look at the data for electronic products (washing machines, phones, TVs, ACs, etc.) as well. But data for such products isn’t really publicly available.

From what is publicly available we can conclude that the evidence for there being a festival season for Indian consumption is at best weak. In fact, when it comes to car sales, evidence for many years suggests that most cars actually sell during the period January to March.

So, the question is why do corporates keep talking about festival season sales? In the past few years, as the economy has gone downhill, it is a good way to sell hope which the media and the people reading and watching the media, are desperately looking for. (For all you guys who keep asking we know the problems, give us the solutions, this is for you).

One sector which has used this strategy over and over again, over the years, is the real estate sector. Come August and you will start seeing the gurus of this sector telling the media that Diwali sales are going to perk up. But what has happened instead, at least over the last half a decade is that the number of unsold homes has gone up and at the same time the total amount of money that the real estate sector owes to the banks has gone up as well. Of course, it hasn’t defaulted as yet, primarily because the Reserve Bank of India has come to its rescue and changed regulations.

For the media the belief in the festival season makes sense because it tends to drive up advertisements which it badly needs.

To conclude, even if there are sectors that benefit because of the festive season, it doesn’t translate into overall consumption and economic growth, that much is a given. The reason for the same can lie in the fact that while people increase consumption of a few things, they cut down on consumption of other things to maintain a sense of balance. But that is just an explanation, I really have no evidence of the same.

PS: For all you marketing and economic researchers out there, this might be an interesting topic to explore, using a more robust methodology than what I have used here.

In April to June 2021, India May Grow by 15-30%, But We’ll Still Be Catching Up

Summary: Base effect – The collapse in GDP during the April to June 2020 is going to make the GDP growth during April to June 2021 look fantastic.

I want to make a prediction here. And this is a fairly easy one.

A year from now, in early September 2021, you will see a spate of WhatsApp forwards and social media posts, which will say that India is the fastest growing large economy in the world.

And unlike most other times, when WhatsApp forwards and the social media are either trying to outrightly lie and if not that, then at least trying to mislead, this time around they will be 100% correct.

Of course, this grand success will be attributed to the greatness of the current government. And that’s where the misleading part will come in again.

All that will happen is the base effect will come into play. Now what’s the base effect? Instead of me giving you a definition and confusing you, let’s try and understand this in some detail, but in a simple way.

For the period April to June 2020, the Indian gross domestic product (GDP), a measure of economic size, was at Rs 26.9 lakh crore. This was 23.9% lower than the GDP during the period April to June 2019, which was at Rs 35.4 lakh crore. Hence, the GDP came down by a massive Rs 8.5 lakh crore.

The major reason for this was the massive contraction of 26.7% in private consumption, in comparison to April to June 2019. Over and above this, the investment in the economy contracted by 47.1%.

Given that consumption and investment are two major parts of the economy, it is hardly surprising that the economy contracted by as much as it did.

Nevertheless, as the economy opens up and people gradually go back to doing things like they always used to, the private consumption number is bound to improve gradually. The investment in the economy will also go up albeit at a much slower pace.
The reason for this lies in the fact that even before covid struck, the Indian industry had excess capacity and the capacity lying idle has gone up post covid.

This will ensure that the GDP figure for the current and the next two quarters will improve. By the time April to June 2021 comes around India will be in growth territory and that too a massive one.

The GDP during April to June 2021 is bound to be much more than the GDP during April to June 2020 (unless there is a lockdown of similar proportions). This is where things get interesting.

Let’s see what the GDP growth in April to June 2021 is likely to be at various levels of GDP in comparison to the GDP of Rs 26.9 lakh crore in April to June 2020. The chart plots various scenarios.

Up, up and away 

Source: Author calculations and National Statistics Office.

As can be seen from the above chart, the GDP growth figure is likely to be very high for the period April to June 2021.

If the GDP were to recover to Rs 30 lakh crore, the growth will be 11.5%. But in absolute terms we will still be where we were in April to June 2016, when the GDP was at Rs 29.7 lakh crore. So, we will be around five years behind.

If the GDP were to recover to Rs 31 lakh crore, the growth will be 15.2%. But in absolute terms we will still be where we were in April to June 2017, when the GDP was at Rs 31.4 lakh crore. So, we will be around four years behind.

If the GDP were to recover to Rs 32 lakh crore, the growth will be 19%.

If the GDP were to recover to Rs 33 lakh crore, the growth will be 22.7%.

If the GDP were to recover to Rs 34 lakh crore, the growth will be 26.4%. But in absolute terms we will still be where we were in April to June 2018, when the GDP was at Rs 33.6 lakh crore. So, we will be around three years behind.

If the GDP were to recover to Rs 35 lakh crore, the growth will be 30.1%. But in absolute terms we will still be where we were in April to June 2019, when the GDP was at Rs 35.4 lakh crore. So, we will be around two years behind.

In exact terms, India needs to grow by greater than 31.6% in April to June 2021 to be able to cross where we were in April to June 2019. Even in the most optimistic scenario, covid has probably cost us two years of growth.

Hence, the growth in April to June 2021 will look fantastic. And that’s simply because the GDP in April to June 2020 simply collapsed. This collapse will lead to the GDP growth April to June 2021 looking very good. And this, dear readers, is nothing but the base effect at play. Also, if the GDP figure for April to June 2020 gets revised downwards, as it is likely to be, then the growth figure will look even better.

Given this, the GDP growth numbers during 2021-2022, the next financial year, will have to be taken with a pinch of salt. The numbers from April to June 2022 onwards will tell us the real story about economic growth being back on track or not.

Of course, given that most of us do not understand basic fifth standard mathematics or simply choose to ignore it, we will buy into this massive double-digit growth story.

Yes, we did it. It’s always been more fun to believe in rhetoric than use the brain. And a year down the line in history isn’t going to change that.

Winter and Money Printing are Coming to India, In a Few Months

The Controller General of Accounts publishes the state of government finance at the end of every month. This data is published with a gap of one month. Hence, on 31st August, the data as of 31st July, was published.

This data, not surprisingly, doesn’t make for a good reading. The fiscal deficit, the difference between what a government earns and what it spends, for the period April to July 2020 stood at Rs 8.21 lakh crore. The fiscal deficit that the government had plans to achieve during the course of the current financial year (2020-21) stands at Rs 7.96 lakh crore. Hence, at the end of July, the actual fiscal deficit of the government was 103.1% of the budgeted one.

But given the state we are in this is hardly surprising. Nevertheless, there are several reasons to worry. Let’s take a look at it pointwise.

1) Tax collections have collapsed. Between April and July 2020, the gross tax revenue, which brings in a bulk of the money for the central government and which it shares with the state governments, is down 29.5% to Rs 3.8 lakh crore, in comparison to the same period in 2019.

Let’s look at the different taxes collected by the government between April and June this year and the last year.

They all fall down

Source: Controller General of Accounts.


As can be seen from the above chart, the collections of all major taxes are down big time.

Take the case of central goods and services tax. (GST) or the part of GST that ends up with the central government. During April to July 2019, the total collections of the central GST had stood at around Rs 1.41 lakh crore. During the same period this year the collections have fallen by 34% to Rs 92,949 crore. Other taxes have fallen along similar lines.

The fall in GST collections is a reflection of a massive slowdown in consumption. A slowdown in consumption ultimately reflects in a slowdown in income of individuals as well as incomes of companies. Ultimately, one man’s spending is another man’s income.

But there is something that the above chart does not show, the excise duty collections of the central government. They are up year on year by 23.8% to Rs 67,895 crore. This despite the fact that the consumption of petroleum products between April and July is down 22.5% in comparison to 2019.

So, how have excise duty collections gone up? The central government has increased the excise duty on petrol from Rs 22.98 per litre to Rs 32.98 per litre. The excise duty on diesel has been raised from Rs 18.83 per litre to Rs 31.83 per litre. Also, a substantial part of this duty is a cess, leading to a situation where the central government does not have to share the revenue earned through the cess with the state governments.

In the process, the central government has captured a bulk of the fall in oil prices.

2) As mentioned earlier, the central government needs to share a part of the money it earns with state governments. Between April and July it shared Rs 1.76 lakh crore with states, against Rs 2 lakh crore, during the same period last year. This is 12% lower, during a time when the states are at the forefront of fighting the covid-epidemic.

The ability of the state governments to raise taxes, after having become a part of the goods and services tax system, is rather limited. Take the case of petrol and diesel. The central government has raised excise duty by such a huge extent that the state governments aren’t really in a position to raise the value added tax or the sales tax on petrol and diesel, which they are allowed to charge, without having to face political repercussions for it.

3) The central government has more ways of raising money than the states. One such way is disinvestment of its stakes in public sector enterprises. This year the government plans to earn a whopping Rs 2.1 lakh crore through this route. The original plan included the plan to sell Air India. Whether that happens in an environment where the airlines business has been negatively rerated in the aftermath of covid, remains to be seen.

The other big disinvestment plan was that of the government selling its stake in the Life Insurance Corporation of India through an initial public offering. There are one too many regulatory hurdles that need to be removed, before a stake in India’s largest insurance company can be sold to investors. Long story short, it looks highly unlikely that the government will get anywhere near earning Rs 2.1 lakh crore this year, through the disinvestment front.

Having said that, the government can always resort to some accounting shenanigans, like getting one public sector enterprise to buy another, and pocketing that money. This is likely to happen in the second half of the year.

Over and above this, the government earns a lot of money from the dividends that it earns from public sector enterprises as well as banks and financial institutions. The target for this year is around Rs 1.55 lakh crore. Public sector banks will continue to remain on a weak wicket through this year, hence, their ability to pay dividends is rather limited.

The only way the government can make good this target is by raiding the balance sheet of the RBI for money. Also, the government is likely to raid the cash balances of public sector enterprises which have them, by asking them to pay special dividends.

4) The money that gets invested into various small savings schemes, which includes schemes like Post Office Savings Account, National Savings Time Deposits ( 1,2,3 & 5 years), National Savings Recurring Deposits, National Savings Monthly Income Scheme Account, Senior Citizens Savings Scheme, National Savings Certificate ( VIII-Issue), Public Provident Fund, KisanVikas Patra and Sukanya Samriddhi Account, net of the redemptions, is a revenue entry into the government budget.

This time it has been assumed that the government will get Rs 2.4 lakh crore through this route. Between April and July, Rs 38,413 crore or just 16% of the targeted money has come in. Last year, during the same period, 38% of a much lower target of Rs 1.3 lakh crore had been achieved. Clearly, this target is also going to be missed.

5)  Of course, the government understands this and which is why in early May it increased its borrowing target from Rs 7.8 lakh crore to Rs 12 lakh crore, by more than 50%. The government borrows money to finance its fiscal deficit.

What this means is that the government wants to at least keep the fiscal deficit to around Rs 12 lakh crore. The question is will that happen? Gross tax revenues are already down 30%. Of course, as the economy keeps opening up, this number will look better. Having said that, even if tax revenues are down by 15% as of the end of the year, we are looking at a shortfall of Rs 2.5 lakh crore for the central government. The other big entries of disinvestment and the net-revenue from small savings schemes, are also looking extremely optimistic in the current situation.

Even if the government achieves a fiscal deficit of Rs 12 lakh crore and the economy shrinks by around 10% this year, we will be looking at a central government fiscal deficit of 7% against the targeted 3.5%.

In this scenario, it is now more than likely that the RBI will resort to direct financing of government expenditure by printing money and buying government bonds. The government sells bond to finance its fiscal deficit.

This isn’t to say that the RBI hasn’t printed money this year. It has. But it has chosen to operate through the primary dealers. But the mask might come off in in the time to come and the RBI might decide to buy bonds directly from the government.

Winter and money printing are coming to India, in a few months.


The US Economy Contracted by 9.1% and not 32%. India’s Economy Contracted by 23.9%.

Summary: I had absolutely no plans of writing this. But given what has been happening on Twitter and WhatsApp since the morning, I was forced to write this. Please read and share widely.

There is a full-fledged controversy raging on the internet where people have said that the economy of the United States, as represented by its gross domestic product (GDP), contracted by 32%, during April to June 2020. This was worse than India’s contraction of 23.9%.

This comparison is totally wrong. The way the United States reports GDP growth/contraction is different from the way India does. Let’s try and understand this in detail.

In April to June 2020, the US economy contracted by 9.1% in comparison to January to March 2020. This is a quarter on quarter comparison. This figure is then annualised.

How do we annualise it?  We do that by assuming that the US economy will continue to contract by 9.1% quarter on quarter, over the next three quarters (basically we compound in a negative direction, since the economy is contracting). Let’s understand this through a simple example.

So, let’s say during the January to March 2020, the size of the US economy or its GDP was $100. In April to June 2020, this contracted by 9.1%. The size of the economy came in at $90.9 ($100 – 9.1% of $100).

In July to September 2020, the economy will contract further by 9.1% to $82.63 ($90.9 – 9.1% of $90.9).

In October to December 2020, the economy will contract further by 9.1% to $75.11 ($82.63 – 9.1% of $82.63).

In January to March 2021, the economy will contract further by 9.1% to $68.27 ($75.11 – 9.1% of $75.11).

Hence, by the end of one year, the economy has contracted from $100 to $68.27 or by 31.73%, which is nearly equal to 32%.

This is how the GDP growth/contraction numbers in the US get reported. Hence, by this logic, on an annualised basis, the US economy contracted by close to 32% in the period April to June 2020, in comparison to January to March 2020. But this figure can’t be compared with the Indian figure.

The Indian system is different. The GDP during a particular quarter is compared to the GDP during the same quarter in the last year. In the Indian case, the GDP contracted by 23.9% during April to June 2020, in comparison to April to June 2019 (and not January to March 2020, as is the case with the US). The Indian comparison is a year on year one and not a comparison with the previous quarter. The US comparison is a quarter on quarter comparison which is then annualised.

If the US were to report the GDP growth/contraction in the same way as India, its GDP during April to June 2020 contracted by 9.1% in comparison to the GDP between April to June 2019. The Indian economy contracted by 23.9% during the same period. That’s the right comparison.

This is the right way of looking at things and not how they are being misrepresented on the social media, even by experienced economists.