What a Mumbai Real Estate Agent Can Tell You About Indian Economy Contracting

Koi yahan aaha naache naache,
Koi wahan aahe naache naache.

— Usha Uthup, Faruk Kaiser, Bappi Lahiri and Babbar Subhash (better known as B Subhash), in the Disco Dancer

The gross domestic product (GDP) figures for the period July to September 2020 were published yesterday. The GDP is a measure of the economic size of a country during a particular period. The Indian GDP or the economic size of the country during the period contracted by 7.54%  against the same period last year.

This looks very good in comparison to the contraction of 23.92% that the economy had seen during the period April to June 2020 and has led to the uncorking of the bubbly among a certain set of politicians, economists, analysts, journalists, stock market wallahs and Twitter warriors.

Of course, there is no denying that a contraction of 7.54% is a lot better than a contraction of 23.92%, one would be a fool to deny that. But has the time to uncork the bubbly come? Or, if you are not the drinking type, should we be high-fiving on this one?

Let’s take a look at this pointwise.

1) For much of the period between April to June, the economy was under a lockdown. Once the economy was opened up, things were bound to improve. Hence, a better performance in July to September should not come as a surprise. Second, the period benefitted because of a lot of pent up demand. People who could not buy the stuff they wanted to during April to June, ended up buying it between July to September. These points need to be kept in mind.

2) The economists were expecting a contraction of 8.5-9% during the quarter. Against that a contraction of 7.54% looks just about a little better. Having said that, India has a large unorganised sector. Measuring the value added by the unorganised sector is never easy. Hence, when releasing GDP data for a period of three months for the first time, the National Statistical Office (NSO) essentially proxies the value added by the informal sector using formal sector data. This is set right as data streams in over a period of time.

Over and above this, we are in midst of a pandemic and hence, collection of data isn’t easy. As the NSO points in its release: “Some other data sources such as GST, interactions with professional bodies etc. were also referred to for corroborative evidence and these were clearly limited.”

What this means is that the GDP data presents a picture which is rosier than the actual picture.

3) There is another important point that needs to be made here. India has been publishing quarterly GDP for close to 24 years now. This is only the second time in all these years that the GDP during a particular period of three months has contracted. Only twice in 94 quarters has the economy contracted. And given that GDP has contracted in two consecutive quarters, India is in a midst of what economists call a technical recession. If the economy continues to contract in the months to come, it will enter a recession. That’s the difference between a recession and a technical recession.

Source: Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

4) In the period April to June with a contraction of 23.92%, India was the worst performing economy among the major economies in the world. From the data that is currently available on the OECD website, India is no longer the worst performing economy in the world, nonetheless, it continues to be among the worst performing economies in the world.

Source:  https://stats.oecd.org/index.aspx?queryid=350

5) A major surprise in the GDP data has been the recovery of the manufacturing sector. The sector grew by 0.62%, after contracting (or degrowing as analysts like to say) by 39.30% between April to June. While this is good news, it goes against the fact that index of industrial production contracted by 6.09% during July to September. If the production has contracted how has the growth come about? The growth has come primarily from the fact that companies in the listed space have been able to increase their profit margins primarily because of controlling costs, this includes firing employees and slashing their salaries.
As economist Mahesh Vyas recently wrote in a column: “In the September 2020 quarter, while sales fell again by 9.7 per cent, profits sprang a surprise by scaling up by a handsome 17.8 per cent. Yet, wages declined by one per cent. Evidently, companies do not apportion resources to labour in any proportion of profits.”

6) Sectors like construction, mining as well as services continued to remain weak, though better than they were during April to June. These sectors are high employment sectors. This remains a worry given that what seems to be happening currently is a recovery which isn’t creating enough jobs. In fact, financial services, real estate and professional services (bundled together for some reason in the GDP data) contracted by 8.09% during July to September. It had contracted by 5.33% during April to June. And that can’t possibly be a good thing. This can also be seen under NREGA data where demand for jobs this year remains astonishingly higher than last year. It can also be seen in the labour participation rate contracting with people stopping to look for jobs because they are unable to find one, and hence, dropping out of the workforce.

It also needs to be said here if there is a second round of covid, as is being feared, the services sector will continue to remain weak, in particular services like restaurants, hotels, tourism, cinema halls, malls etc.

7) If we look at GDP from the expenditure side, the private consumption expenditure contracted by 11.32% against a contraction of 26.68% between April to June. Clearly, there has been improvement on this front. Nevertheless, private consumption expenditure forms more than half of the Indian economy, and as long as it continues to remain weak, the economy will continue to remain weak. Also, we need to remember that the contraction of 11.32% happened despite pent up demand and festivals in the Western and Southern part of the country. Further, the fact that private consumption has continued to contract, brings into question the growth in the manufacturing sector. Are actual sales happening at the consumer level or is this simply a case of a  build-up of inventory, as has been the case in the auto industry?

8) This is a slightly technical point but still needs to be made. On the expenditure side, the GDP is calculated as a sum of private consumption expenditure, investment, government expenditure and net exports. Net exports is exports minus imports. In the Indian case, this is a negative entry into the GDP figure, given that exports are usually less than imports. During July to September, net exports is a positive number, given that imports are lower than exports, having fallen by a much higher rate. This is primarily because of a collapse in consumer demand, which is not a good thing. When it comes to the goods part of imports, the non-oil non-gold non-silver part of imports collapsed by 23.82% during July to September. This helped push up the GDP number.

9) The GDP has contracted by 15.67% during the first six months of the year. If the economy contracts by 3-5% during the second half of the year, we still are looking at 9-10% contraction this year. This was largely the consensus forecast made for this year. Even if there is no contraction in the second half of the year, the economy will still contract 7.66%, which will make India one of the worst performing economies in 2020-21. Also, we need to remember that the GDP of 2019-20 is likely to be crossed now only in late 2021-22 or 2022-23. So this pushes the Indian economy back by at least two years. Of course a lot of it is because of covid, but let’s not forget, the Indian economy had been slowing down even before the pandemic struck.

10) Let me close this piece with a little story. Sometime in April 2006, I first started to look for a flat to rent, in Mumbai. Of course, one had to go through agents. Pretty soon, I realised that the agents were trying a psychological trick on me. They first showed me a flat which was in a very bad state. They would then show me something which was slightly better. Nevertheless, the difference in rent between the flat was much more than the difference in their quality, with the rent of the second flat being much more than the first one. I caught on to this because I had read this book called Freakonomics sometime in 2005. The book had an extended chapter on the contrast effect.

We all tend to compare things before making a decision. Given this, the attraction of an option can be increased significantly by comparing it to a similar, but worse alternative. This is known as the ‘contrast effect’.

How does this apply in the present context? It’s simple. The fact that the Indian economy contracted by a massive 23.92% during April to June, it makes a contraction of 7.54% during July to September, much better. But there are many nuances, as explained above, that need to be taken into account.

PS: My writing has been highly irregular over the last few weeks. I was busy with a project I had taken on. Now that I am done with it, will write more regularly.