The Economic Survey for 2020-21 was published yesterday. I wrote a summary of the survey titled 10 major points made by the Economic Survey.
It wasn’t possible to even speed-read the whole Survey quickly, hence, I missed out on a few points, and am writing about them here. This piece is a follow up and I strongly recommend that you read the first piece before reading this one.
Let’s look at some important points made in the Survey.
1) The spread of corona has led to a massive economic contraction this year. While the growth is expected to bounce back over the next few years, the impact of this year’s contraction isn’t going to go away in a hurry.
As per the Survey, if India grows by 12% in 2021-22 and 6.5% and 7%, in 2022-23 and 2023-24, respectively, the Indian economy will be at around 91.5% of where it would have possibly been if there would have been no covid and no economic contraction, and India would have continued to grow at 6.7% per year on an average, as it has in the five years before 2020-21.
At 10% growth in 2021-22, and 6.5% and 7% growth in 2022-23 and 2023-24, respectively, the Indian economy will be at around 90% of where it could have possibly been, the Survey points out.
This is an important point that we need to understand. While, 2021-22 might see a double digit growth, covid has put us back by more than half a decade, if we look at trend growth.
2) The Economic Survey recommends money printing to finance higher government expenditure. Call me old school, but I always feel uncomfortable when economists recommend outright money printing to fund government expenditure. Of course, there is always a theoretical argument on offer.
The Survey refers to a speech made by Patrick Bolton, a professor of business at Columbia University in New York, to make the money printing argument and why money printing, where an excess amount of money chases a similar amount of goods and services, doesn’t always lead to inflation.
As the Survey points out:
“Printing more money can result in inflation and loss of purchasing power for domestic residents if the increase in money supply is larger than the increase in output….Printing more money does not necessarily lead to inflation and a debasement of the currency. In fact, if the increased money supply creates a disproportionate increase in output because the money is invested to finance investment projects with positive net present value.”
What does this mean in simple English? The Survey is essentially saying that if the printed money is well utilised and put into projects which are beneficial for the society, it benefits everyone, and doesn’t lead to inflation.
The trouble is a lot of things sound good in theory. One of the major things that the bad loans crisis of Indian banks teaches us is that the Indian system cannot take a sudden increase in investments. There is only so much that it can handle and that’s primarily because there is too much red tapism and bureaucracy involved in getting any investment project going. We are still dealing with the fallout of this a decade later.
Also, how do the government and bureaucrats ensure that the amount of money being printed is just enough and will not lead to inflation. (Central planning keeps coming back in different forms).
The government can print money and spend it. This can ensure one round of spending and the money will land up in the hands of people. Also, as men spend money, this money will land up with shopkeepers and businesses all over the country. The shopkeepers may hold back some of the cash that they earn depending on their needs.
The chances are that most of this money will be deposited back into bank accounts. In the normal scheme of things, the banks would lend this money out. In difficult times, banks are reluctant to lend. Hence, they end up depositing this money with the RBI. The RBI pays interest on this money. As of yesterday, banks had deposited Rs 5.6 lakh crore with the RBI. This is money they have no use for, or to put it in technical terms, this is the excess liquidity in the system.
Money printing will only add to this excess liquidity. Ultimately, for the economy to do well, people and corporates need to be in a state of mind to borrow and banks in the mood to lend. Printing money cannot ensure that.
Over and above this, money printing can and has led to massive financial and real estate bubbles, in the past few decades. This is asset price inflation. While this inflation doesn’t reflect in the normal everyday consumer price inflation, it is a form of inflation at the end of the day. And whenever such bubbles burst, which they eventually do, it creates its own set of problems.
Given these reasons, the chief economic advisor Krishnamurthy Subramanian’s recommendation of money printing by the government is a lazy idea which hasn’t been thought through. (For a detailed argument against money printing, please read this).
3) During the course of this financial year, banks have gone easy on borrowers who haven’t been in a position to repay.
Technically, this is referred to as regulatory forbearance. In this case, the central bank, comes up with rules and regulations which basically allows banks to treat borrowers in trouble with kids gloves. One of the learnings from the bad loans crisis of banks has been that regulatory forbearance of the Reserve Bank of India, India’s central bank, went on for too long.
The banks are yet to face the negative impact of the covid led contraction primarily because of regulatory forbearance. The banking system should be facing the first blows of the economic contraction. But that hasn’t happened, thanks to the Supreme Court and regulatory forbearance. The Supreme Court, in an interim order dated September 3, 2020, had directed the banks that loan accounts which hadn’t been declared as a bad loan as of August 31, shall not be declared as one, until further orders. Hence, the balance sheets of banks as revealed by their latest quarterly results, seem to be too good to be true.
The Survey suggests that an asset quality review of the balance sheets of banks may be in order. As it points out: “A clean-up of bank balance sheets is necessary when the forbearance is discontinued… An asset quality review exercise must be conducted immediately after the forbearance is withdrawn.”
This is one of the few good suggestions in the Survey this year and needs to be acted on quickly, so as to reveal the correct state of balance sheets of banks. The Survey further points out: “The asset quality review must account for all the creative ways in which banks can evergreen their loans.” Evergreening involves giving a new loan to the borrower so that he can pay the interest on the original loan or even repay it. And then everyone can just pretend that all is well.
In fact, even while making a suggestion for an asset quality review, the Survey takes potshots at Raghuram Rajan and the asset quality review he had initiated as the RBI governor in mid 2015.
4) Another point made in the Survey is to ignore the credit ratings agencies and their Indian ratings. As the Survey points out: “The Survey questioned whether India’s sovereign credit ratings reflect its fundamentals, and found evidence of a systemic under-assessment of India’s fundamentals as reflected in its low ratings over a period of at least two decades.”
This leads the Survey to conclude: “India’s fiscal policy must, therefore, not remain beholden to such a noisy/biased measure of India’s fundamentals and should instead reflect Gurudev Rabindranath Thakur’s sentiment of a mind without fear.”
While invoking Tagore, the Survey basically recommends that India’s government borrows more money to spend, taking into account “considerations of growth and development rather than be restrained by biased and subjective sovereign credit ratings”. (On a slightly different note, who would have thought that one day an economist would invoke Rabindranath Thakur’s name to market higher government borrowing).
Whether, the ratings agencies correctly rate India based on its fundamentals is one issue, whereas, whether it makes sense for India to ignore these ratings and borrow more, is another.
As the Survey points out: “While sovereign credit ratings do not reflect the Indian economy’s fundamentals, noisy, opaque and biased credit ratings damage FPI flows.” (FPI = foreign portfolio inflows).
What this means is that any further cut in credit rating can impact the amount of money being brought in by the foreign investors into India’s stock and bond market. In particular, it can impact the long-term money being brought in by pension funds.
While, the Survey doesn’t say so, it can possibly impact even foreign direct investment.
So, the point is, why take unnecessary panga, for the lack of a better word, with the rating agencies, at a point where the economy is anyway going through a tough time.
In another part, the Survey points out: “Debt levels have reached historic highs, making the global economy particularly vulnerable to financial market stress.”
5) Given that, tax revenues have collapsed, government borrowing money to finance expenditure has gone up dramatically during the course of this year. As the Survey points out:
“As on January 8, 2021, the central government gross market borrowing for FY2020-21 reached Rs 10.72 lakh crore, while State Governments have raised Rs 5.71 lakh crore. While Centre’s borrowings are 65 per cent higher than the amount raised in the corresponding period of the previous year, state governments have seen a step up of 41 per cent. Since the COVID-19 outbreak depressed growth and revenues, a significant scale up of borrowings amply demonstrates the government’s commitment to provide sustained fiscal stimulus [emphasis added] by maintaining high public expenditure levels in the economy.”
Fiscal stimulus is when the government spends more money in order to pump up the economy in a scenario where individuals and corporates are going slow on spending. The total government spending during April to November 2020 stood at Rs 19.1 lakh crore. It has risen by just 4.9% in comparison to April to November 2019. Given that inflation has stood at more than 6% this year, this can hardly be called a fiscal stimulus.
To conclude, economic surveys in the past, other than offering a detailed assessment on the current state of the Indian economy, also used to do some solid thinking about the future or stuff that needs to be done on the economic front.
Over the past few years, a detailed reading of these Surveys suggests that they have become yet another policy document which feeds into government’s massive propaganda machinery, albeit in a slightly sophisticated way.