Indian Banks Will Have Rs 17-18 Lakh Crore Bad Loans By September

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) publishes the Financial Stability Report (FSR) twice a year, in June and in December. This year the report wasn’t published in December but only yesterday (January 11, 2021).

Media reports suggest that the report was delayed because the government wanted to consult the RBI on the stance of the report. For a government so obsessed with controlling the narrative this doesn’t sound surprising at all.

Let’s take a look at the important points that the FSR makes on the bad loans of banks and what does that really mean. Bad loans are largely loans which haven’t been repaid for a period of 90 days or more.

1) The bad loans of banks are expected to touch 13.5% of the total advances in a baseline scenario. Under a severe stress scenario they are expected to touch 14.8%. These are big numbers given that the total bad loans as of September 2020 stood at 7.5% of the total advances. Hence, the RBI is talking of a scenario where bad loans are expected to more or less double from where they are currently.

2) Under the severe stress scenario, the bad loans of public sector banks and private banks are expected to touch 17.6% and 8.8%, respectively. This means that public sector banks are in major trouble again.

3) In the past, the RBI has done a very bad job of predicting the bad loans rate under the baseline scenario, when the bad loans of the banking system were going up.

Source: Financial Stability Reports of the RBI.
*The actual forecast of the baseline scenario was between 4-4.1%

If we look at the above chart, between March 2014 and March 2018, the actual bad loans rate turned out to be much higher than the one predicted by the RBI under the baseline scenario. This was an era when the bad loans of the banking system were going up year on year and the RBI constantly underestimated them.

4) How has the actual bad loans rate turned out in comparison to the bad loans under severe stress scenario predicted by the RBI?

Source: Financial Stability Reports of the RBI.
*The actual forecast of the baseline scenario was between 4-4.1%

In four out of the five cases between March 31, 2014 and March 31, 2018, the actual bad loans rate turned out higher than the one predicted by the RBI under a severe stress scenario. As Arvind Subramanian, the former chief economic advisor to the ministry of finance, writes in Of Counsel:

“In March 2015, the RBI was forecasting that even under a “severe stress” scenario— where to put it colourfully, all hell breaks loose, with growth collapsing and interest rates shooting up—NPAs [bad loans] would at most reach about Rs 4.5 lakh crore.”

By March 2018, the total NPAs of banks had stood at Rs 10.36 lakh crore.

One possible reason can be offered in the RBI’s defence. Let’s assume that the central bank in March 2015 had some inkling of the bad loans of banks ending up at around Rs 10 lakh crore. Would it have made sense for it, as the country’s banking regulator, to put out such a huge number? Putting out numbers like that could have spooked the banking system in the country. It could even have possibly led to bank runs, something that the RBI wouldn’t want.

In this scenario, it perhaps made sense for the regulator to gradually up the bad loans rate prediction as the situation worsened, than predict it in just one go. Of course, I have no insider information on this and am offering this logic just to give the country’s banking regulator the benefit of doubt.

5) So, if the past is anything to go by, the actual bad loans of banks when they are going up, turn out to be much more than that forecast by the RBI even under a severe stress scenario. Hence, it is safe to say that by September 2021, the bad loans of banks will be close to 15% of advances, a little more than actually estimated under a severe stress scenario.

This will be double from 7.5% as of September 2020. Let’s try and quantify this number for the simple reason that a 15% figure doesn’t tell us about the gravity of the problem. The total advances of Indian banks as of March 2020 had stood at around Rs 109.2 lakh crore.

If this grows by 10% over a period of 18 months up to September 2021, the total advances of Indian banks will stand at around Rs 120 lakh crore. If bad loans amount to 15% of this we are looking at bad loans of Rs 18 lakh crore. The total bad loans as of March 2020 stood at around Rs 9 lakh crore, so, the chances are that bad loans will double even in absolute terms. If the total advances grow by 5% to around Rs 114.7 lakh crore, then we are looking at bad loans of around Rs 17.2 lakh crore.

6) The question is if this is the level of pain that lies up ahead for the banking system, why hasn’t it started to show as yet in the balance sheet of banks. As of March 2021, the RBI expects the bad loans of banks to touch 12.5% under a baseline scenario and 14.2% under a severe stress scenario. But this stress is yet to show up in the banking system.

This is primarily because the bad loans of banks are currently frozen as of August 31, 2020. 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.

As the FSR points out:

“In view of the regulatory forbearances such as the moratorium, the standstill on asset classification and restructuring allowed in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the data on fresh loan impairments reported by banks may not be reflective of the true underlying state of banks’ portfolios.”

The Supreme Court clearly needs to hurry up on this and not keep this hanging.

7) Delayed recognition of bad loans is a problem that the country has been dealing with over the last decade. The bad loans which banks accumulated due to the frenzied lending between 2004 and 2011, were not recognised as bad loans quickly enough and the recognition started only in mid 2015, when the RBI launched an asset quality review.

This led to a slowdown in lending in particular by public sector banks and negatively impacted the economy. Hence, it is important that the problem be handled quickly this time around to limit the negative impact on the economy.

8) Public sector banks are again at the heart of the problem. Under the severe stress scenario their bad loans are expected to touch 17.6% of their advances. The sooner these bad loans are recognised as bad loans, accompanied with an adequate recapitalisation of these banks and adequate loan recovery efforts, the better it will be for an Indian economy.

9) At an individual level, it makes sense to have accounts in three to four banks to diversify savings, so that even if there is trouble at one bank, a bulk of the savings remain accessible. Of course, at the risk of repetition, please stay away from banks with a bad loans rate of 10% or more.

To conclude, from the looks of it, the process of kicking the bad loans can down the road seems to have started. There is already a lot of talk about the definition of bad loans being changed and loans which have been in default for 120 days or more, being categorised as bad loans, against the current 90 days.

And nothing works better in the Indian system like a bad idea whose time has come. This is bad idea whose time has come.


All You Wanted to Know About India’s Economic Contraction This Year

The National Statistical Office (NSO) published the first advance estimates of the gross domestic product (GDP) for 2020-21, the current financial year, yesterday.

The NSO expects the Indian GDP to contract by 7.7% to Rs 134.4 lakh crore during the year. The GDP is a measure of the economic size of a country and thus, GDP growth/contraction is a measure of economic growth/contraction. Data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) shows that this is the worst performance of the Indian economy since 1951-52.

Let’s take a look at this pointwise.

1) This is the fifth time the Indian economy will contract during the course of a financial year. The last time the Indian economy contracted was in 1979-80, when it contracted by 5.2%, due to the second oil shock.

Before 1979-80, the Indian economy had contracted on three occasions during the course of a year. This was in 1957-58, 1966-67 and 1972-73, with the economy contracting by 0.4%, 0.1% and 0.6%, respectively.

Source: Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

Hence, in the years after independence, the Indian economy has seen two serious economic contractions, the current financial year is the second one.

2) One way the GDP of any country is estimated is by summing the private consumption expenditure, investment, government expenditure and net exports (exports minus imports), during the year.

The government expenditure has always been a small part of the Indian economy. It was at 5.6% of the GDP in 1950-51. It has gradually been going up since then. In 2020-21, it formed 13% of the GDP, the highest it has ever been. This tells you the times that we are living in. The government expenditure as a part of the GDP has been going up since 2013-14, when it was at 10% of the GDP. Hence, the government has had to spend more and more money to keep the growth going over the last five to six years.

Given this, while the spread of the covid-pandemic has created a massive economic mess this year, the Indian economy has been slowing down for a while now. This is the broader message that we shouldn’t miss out on, in all the song and dance around the economic recovery.

3) If we leave out the government expenditure from the overall GDP figure, what we are left with is the non-government GDP. This is expected to contract by 9.5% during this year, the worst since 1951-52. What this also tells us is that the non-government part of the economy which will form 87% of the economy in 2020-21, is in a bigger mess than the overall economy.

4) This isn’t surprising given that investment in the economy is expected to contract by 14.5% during the year. What does this mean? It first means that for all the positivity that  the corporates like to maintain in the public domain about the so-called India growth story, they clearly aren’t betting much money on it.

As the new twist to the old proverb goes, the proof is in the pudding. During the period October to December, the new investment projects announced, by value, fell by 88%, and the investment projects completed, by value, fell by 72%. This is a period when corporates were talking up the economic recovery big time.

5) It is investments into the economy that create jobs. When the investments are contracting there is clearly a problem on that front. It also leads to the question of what happens to India’s so-called demographic dividend. One fallout of a lack of jobs has been the falling labour force participation rate, especially among women, which in December 2020 stood at just 9.28%. This is a trend that has been prevalent for five years now and Covid has only accelerated it. More and more women are opting out of the workforce.

6) Getting back to corporates. The profitability of Indian corporates went through the roof between July and September. This when the broader economy was contracting. How did this happen? The corporates managed to push up profits by driving down costs, in particular employee cost and raw material cost. While this is corporates acting rationally, it hurts the overall economy.

This means that incomes of those working for corporates and those dealing with them (their suppliers/contractors etc.) have come down. Net net this will hurt the overall economy and will eventually hurt the corporates as well, because there is only so much cost-cutting you can do. Ultimately, only higher sales can drive higher profits and for that the incomes of people need to grow.

7) It is hardly surprising that investments are expected to contract during the year, given that private consumption expenditure, the biggest part of the Indian economy, is expected to contract by 9.5% during the year. Ultimately, corporate investment leads to production of goods and services that people buy and consume, and things on the whole don’t look too good on this front.

In fact, even in 2019-20, the last financial year, the private consumption expenditure had grown by just 5.3%, the worst in close to a decade. This again tells us that while covid has been terrible for the economy, things weren’t exactly hunky dory before that.

8) The final entry into the GDP number is net exports. Typically, this tends to be negative in the Indian case, simply because our imports are much more than our exports. But this year that is not the case with net exports being in positive territory, the first time in four decades. This has added to the overall GDP. But is this a good thing? The exports this year are expected to contract by 8.3% to Rs 25.8 lakh crore. In comparison, the imports are expected to contract much more by 20.5% to Rs 24.8 lakh crore.

What does this tell us? It tells us that the demand for Indian goods in foreign countries has fallen because of covid. At the same time, the contraction of Indian imports shows a massive collapse of demand in India. Non-oil, non-gold, non-silver goods imports, are a very good indicator of consumer demand and these are down 25.3% between April and November this year, though the situation has been improving month on month.

9) There is another way of measuring the GDP and that is by looking at the value added by various sectors. If we were to consider this, agriculture growth during the year remains sturdy at 3.4%. While, this is good news on the whole, it doesn’t do anything to change the fact that close to 43-44% of the workforce is employed in agriculture and contributes just 15% of the economic output.

Come what may, people need to move away from agriculture into professions which add more value to the economy. This hasn’t been happening at the pace it should.

10) The non-agriculture part of the economy, which will form around 85% of the economy this year, is expected to contract by 9.4%, This clearly isn’t good news.

11) Industry is expected to contract by 9.6%. Within industry, manufacturing and construction are expected to contract by 9.4% and 12.6%, respectively. The construction sector is a big creator of jobs, especially jobs which can get people to move away from agriculture. With the sector contracting, the importance of agriculture in the economy has gone up.

12) The services sector is expected to contract by 8.8%. Within this, trade, hotels, transport, storage and communication (all lumped into one, don’t ask me why) is expected to contract by 21.4%. This isn’t surprising given that people continue to avoid hotels and travelling, thanks to the fear of the covid pandemic.

13) The GDP during 2020-21 is expected to be at Rs 134.4 lakh crore.  The GDP during 2019-20 was at Rs 145.6 lakh crore. Given this, when it comes to the GDP growth during 2021-22, the next financial year, the low base effect will be at play. Even if the GDP in 2021-22 touches the GDP in 2019-20, we will see a growth of 8.4%. Nevertheless, even with that sort of growth we will be just getting back to where we were two years ago. In that sense, the covid pandemic along with the slow growth seen before that, has put India’s economy back by at least two years.

To conclude, the economy will do much better in the second half of this financial year than the first half. In fact, it already is.

The question is whether this is because of pent up demand or covid induced buying or is a genuine economic recovery already taking place. I guess, there is a little bit of everything happening.

But how strong the economic recovery is, will only become clear in the months to come, as the covid induced buying, and buying because of pent up demand, start to dry out.

Watch this space!


The Rs 20 Lakh Crore Bad Loans Problem of Indian Banks Hasn’t Gone Away

On December 29, 2020, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) released the Report on Trend and Progress of Banking in India.

Like every year, the report is a treasure trove of information, especially for people like me who like to closely track the aggregate banking scene in India.

Sadly, most of this important information barely made it to the mainstream media, this, despite the fact that the health of the country’s banking sector impacts almost all of us. (This is one reason why I need your continued support).

Among other things, the report discusses the issue of the bad loans of banks in great detail. Bad loans are largely loans which haven’t been repaid for a period of 90 days or more. They are also referred to as non-performing assets or NPAs.

Let’s take a look at this issue pointwise.

1) The total bad loans of banks (public sector banks, private banks, foreign banks and small finance banks) as of March 31, 2020 stood at around Rs 8,99,802 crore. This is the lowest since 2017-18. The following chart plots the bad loans of banks over the years.

Source: Reserve Bank of India.

Despite this fall, the Indian banking sector on a whole continues to remain in a mess. We shall look at the reasons in this piece.

2) The total amount of loans written off by banks has steadily been going up over the years. In 2019-20 it peaked at Rs 2,37,876 crore. The following chart lists out the loans written off by banks over the years.

Source: Reserve Bank of India.

Basically, loans which have been bad loans for four years (that is, for one year as a ‘substandard asset’ and for three years as a ‘doubtful asset’) can be dropped from the balance sheet of banks by way of a write-off. In that sense, a write-off is an accounting practise.

Of course, before doing this, a 100 per cent provision needs to be made for a bad loan which is being written-off. This means a bank needs to set aside enough money over four years in order to meet the losses on account of a bad loan.

Also, this does not mean that a bank has to wait for four years before it can write-off a loan. If it feels that a particular loan is unrecoverable, it can be written off before four years.

So, does that mean that once a loan is written off it’s gone forever and is no longer recoverable? In India things work a little differently. In fact, almost all the bad loans written off are technical write-offs.

The RBI defines technical write-offs as bad loans which have been written off at the head office level of the bank, but remain as bad loans on the books of branches and, hence, recovery efforts continue at the branch level. If a bad loan which was technically written off is partly or fully recovered, the amount is declared as the other income of the bank. Having said that, the rate of recovery of loans written-off over the years, has been abysmal at best.

Now getting back to the issue at hand. The bad loans of banks as of March 31, 2020, have come down to some extent due to write-offs. As the Report on Trend and Progress of Banking in India points out: “The reduction in NPAs during the year was largely driven by write-offs.” Interestingly, the RBI offers the same reason for bad loans coming down in the years before 2019-20 as well.

Let’s try examining the above logic in a little more detail. The bad loans or NPAs of banks as of April 1, 2019, stood at Rs 9,15,355 crore. During the course of 2019-20, banks wrote off loans worth Rs 2,37,876 crore. Nevertheless, as of March 31, 2020, the bad loans of banks had come down to Rs 8,99,803 crore.

If we subtract the loans written off during 2019-20 from the overall bad loans of banks as of April 1, 2019, the bad loans as of March 31, 2020, should have stood at Rs 6,77,479 crore (Rs 9,15,355 crore minus Rs 2,37,876 crore). But as we see they are actually at Rs 8,99,802 crore.

What has happened here? What accounts for the significant difference? Banks have accumulated fresh bad loans during the course of the year. The net fresh bad loans (fresh bad loans accumulated during the year minus reduction in bad loans) during 2019-20 stood at Rs 2,22,323 crore. Once this added to Rs 6,77,479 crore, we get Rs 8,99,802 crore, or the bad loans as of March 31, 2020.

The point to be noted here is that banks on the whole have accumulated fresh bad loans of more than Rs 2 lakh crore during 2019-20. This is a reason to worry. It tells us that the bad loans problem of Indian banks hasn’t really gone anywhere. It is alive and kicking, unlike what many bankers, economists, India equity strategists and journalists, have been trying to tell us. Many borrowers continue to default on their loans.

The net fresh bad loans accumulated in 2018-19 had stood at Rs 1,34,738 crore. This tells us that there was a huge jump in the accumulation of fresh bad loans in 2019-20. The current financial year will see a further accumulation of bad loans due to the covid-pandemic.

3) In a February 2017 interview to Dinesh Unnikrishnan of Firstpost, Dr KC Chakrabarty, a former deputy governor of the RBI and a veteran public sector banker, had put the bad loans number of Indian banks at Rs 20 lakh crore.

As he had said:

“I’ll put the figure around Rs 20 lakh crore…One should include all troubled loans including reported bad loans, restructured assets, written off loans and bad loans that are not yet recognised.”

The trouble was not many people took Chakrabarty seriously at that point of time. Nevertheless, the Rs 20 lakh crore number doesn’t seem far-fetched at all. As mentioned earlier, the bad loans number as of March 31, 2020, stood at Rs 8,99,802 crore.

Between 2014-15 and 2019-20, the total bad loans written off by banks was Rs 8,77,856 crore. We are taking this particular time period simply because in mid 2015 the RBI launched an asset quality review and forced banks to recognise bad loans as bad loans. Up until then the banks had been using various tricks to kick the bad loans can down the road.

If we add, the bad loans as of March 2020 to bad loans written off between 2014-15 and 2019-20, we get Rs 17,77,658 crore. What does this number represent? It represents the total bad loans, the Indian banks have managed to accumulate between 2014-15 and 2019-20. And it is very close to the Rs 20 lakh crore number suggested by Chakrabarty.

Of course, this calculation does not take into account the loans which are bad loans but have not yet been recognised as bad loans. Former RBI Governor Urjit Patel in his book Overdraft—Saving the Indian Saver writes:

“In February 2020, ‘living dead’ borrowers in the commercial real-estate sector – under a familiar guise (‘a ghost from the past’, if you will) viz., ad hoc ‘restructuring’ – have been given a lifeline. It is estimated that over one-third of loans to builders are under moratorium.”

Professor Ananth Narayan of the S. P. Jain Institute of Management and Research, writing in the Mint in June 2020, said: “Banking NPA recognition remains incomplete… For a while now, RBI has allowed banks to postpone NPA recognition for some of the over Rs 8 lakh crore of MSME, MUDRA and commercial real estate loans.” The situation could only have worsened post the spread of the covid-pandemic.

If we take this into account, the bad loans of Indian banks over the last five years have amounted to much more than Rs 20 lakh crore. In that sense, Dr Chakrabarty has had the last laugh. As Chakrabarty had said in the Firstpost interview: “Unless this portion is recognised first, there will be no solution to the bad loan problem.”

Or to put it simply, how do you solve a problem without recognising that it exists.

2021 – The Chinese Problem in Your Personal Finance

Dear Reader, before you start thinking that I have click-baited you one more time, let me assure you that’s not true. Your personal finances in 2021 will actually face a Chinese problem.

But before we go into this, let’s first understand a few aspects about the Chinese saving habit over the years. Let’s look at this pointwise.

1) As is well known, the Chinese physical infrastructure over the years was funded through massive domestic savings being invested in bank deposits. As Charles Goodhart and Manoj Pradhan write in The Great Demographic Reversal: “Interest rates were set well below the rate of growth and the rate of inflation. While the economy grew on average by around 10% over 1990–2010, the inflation-adjusted deposit rate over the same period averaged −3.3% (for a 1.4% average for the nominal deposit rate versus an average annual inflation rate of 4.75%).”

Hence, the rate of interest rate was lower than the prevailing rate of inflation, for a period of two decades. If one were to state this in a simple way, the low interest rates acted effectively as a tax on Chinese households.

2) This tax did not matter much because the savings were channelised into investments. This created economic growth and the average income of a Chinese kept going up, year on year. Hence, while the interest being earned on the accumulated wealth was low, the regular yearly income kept going up.

3) Low interest rates led to an interesting behaviour at the household level. As Goodhart and Pradhan point out, there was “a negative correlation between urban savings and the decline in real deposit rates.” “When banks fail to protect household savings, households tend to save more, not less, in order to achieve a ‘target’, whether that is for education or the purchase of a home.”
Basically, given the negative real rate of interest on bank deposits, where inflation was higher than the interest rate, Chinese households saved more money in bank deposits in order to achieve their targeted savings. Options of investing in other avenues were extremely limited.

Now the question is how does all this apply to your personal finance in India in 2021. Allow me to explain pointwise.

1) Interest rates on bank fixed deposits have collapsed. The interest offered on fixed deposits of more than one year, currently stands at around 5.5% on an average. This when the rate of inflation as measured by the consumer price index in November 2020 stood at 6.93%. Hence, the real rate of interest is in negative territory. If after tax the rate of return on fixed deposits is taken into account, the gap gets even bigger.

2) The major reason for this collapse in interest rates has been a collapse in bank lending. Given that banks, on the whole, have barely given out fresh loans since March, they possibly couldn’t keep paying a high rate of interest on deposits. Hence, the crash in interest rates. But what has added to this is the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) policy of flooding the financial system with money, in order to drive down interest rates further. The excess money in the financial system, which the banks deposit with the RBI, stood at Rs 6.25 lakh crore as of December 31, 2020.

3) From the indications that the RBI has given, this excess liquidity in the financial system is likely to continue. The idea is to help ease the burden on current loans of corporates. In a year the tax collections have collapsed this also helps the government to borrow at extremely low interest rates. At the same time, the hope is at lower interest rates corporates will borrow and expand. But that is not happening. Data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy shows that announcements of new investment projects in terms of value fell by 88.3% during the period October to December 2020. Investment projects completed were down by 74%. So, the corporates aren’t in the mood to borrow and expand.

There are a couple of reasons for this. Many corporates continue to remain over-leveraged. Still others don’t have enough confidence in India’s economic future, irrespective of what they say in the public domain. As they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

4) What does all this have to do with personal finance? What happened in China is happening in India as well. The bank savings have gone up dramatically during 2020. Between March 27 and December 18, they were up by Rs 9.15 lakh crore. In comparison, the increase during similar periods in 2019 and 2018, had stood at Rs 4.35 lakh crore and Rs 3.90 lakh crore, respectively. Of course, all this increase in saving is not just because of low interest rates. Some of it is because of fewer opportunities to spend money in 2020. Some of it is because of the general uncertainty that prevails. Some of it is because of jobs losses and the fear of job losses. And some of it is because Indians, like the Chinese, are saving more, in order to achieve the savings target for the education of their children or their weddings, or for the purchase of a home.

5) This has repercussions. With people saving more and with banks being unable to lend that money, interest rates have come down. And people saving more in response to the lower interest rates, means extended lower interest rates. This is not good news for savers. It is also not good news for consumption. If people are saving more, they are clearly spending lesser. This is the paradox of thrift or saving. When an individual saves more, it makes sense for him or her at an individual level. When the society as a whole saves much more than it was, it hurts the economy simply because one man’s spending is another man’s income. Over a period of time, this leads to job losses, more paradox of thrift and further job losses.

At the risk of sounding very cliched, there is no free lunch in economics. The RBI’s policy of flooding the financial system with money in order to help the corporates and the government, is basically hurting individual savers, consumption and the overall economy. The savers are paying for this lunch. And unlike the corporates, the savers have no unified voice. The government, obviously, is the government.

While, there is no denying that with lending not happening bank deposit rates had to fall, but the RBI policy of driving them down further, is something that is hurting the economy.

6) So, where does that leave the Indian saver? Some individual savers are betting on the stock market. But the price to earnings ratio of the Nifty 50 index as of January 1, stood at 38.55, an all-time high level. If you have the heart to invest in stocks at such a level, best of luck to you. Some others are betting on bitcoin, which has given a return of more than 75% in dollar terms, in the last one month.

Also, unlike the Chinese, the prospects of an increase in the yearly income of an average Indian, over the next years, at best remain subdued. Hence, the humble Indian fixed depositor, who liked to fill it, shut it and forget about it, so that he could concentrate on many other issues that his or her life keeps throwing up, clearly has a problem in 2021.

To conclude, all of you who write to me asking for a safe way of investing so that you can earn a 10% yearly return, well, sorry to disappoint you, no such way exists. At least not in 2021. Of course, there are always Ponzi schemes to invest in, some fraudulent, and some not so fraudulent.

The choice is yours to make.

PS: Wishing all my readers a very Happy New Year. Hope 2021 is much better than 2020 was for each one of you.

India might grow by 30% early next year, but that won’t mean much.

छोड़ो कल की बातें, कल की बात पुरानी
नए दौर में लिखेंगे, मिल कर नई कहानी
हम हिंदुस्तानी, हम हिंदुस्तानी
— Prem Dhawan, Usha Khanna, Mukesh and Ram Mukherjee in Hum Hindustani. 

The Indian economy contracted by 7.5% during July to September 2020, in comparison with the same period in 2019.  When compared with a contraction of 23.9% during April to June 2020, a contraction of 7.5% looks significantly better.

Hence, there has been a lot of song and dance from the establishment and its supporters, on how quickly the Indian economy is recovering, especially when most economists expected the economy to contract by 10% during July to September and it contracted by only 7.5%. Terms like a V-shaped recovery have been bandied around a lot, over the last few weeks.

Nonetheless, India continues to remain in the bottom quartile, when it comes to economic growth/contraction of countries between July to September this year. Greece with an economic contraction of 11.7% is right at the bottom.

In fact, the song and dance of the establishment is likely to continue in the months to come and will reach its peak sometime in the second half of the next year, after the gross domestic product (GDP) figure for the period April to June 2021, is published. GDP is a measure of the economic size of a country.

It is worth remembering here that the GDP during the period April to June 2020 contracted by nearly a fourth. The GDP during the period was Rs 26.90 lakh crore. In comparison, the GDP during April to June 2019 was at Rs 35.35 lakh crore.

So, the GDP during April to June 2021, will grow at a pace which has never been seen before. If it comes in at Rs 30 lakh crore, the growth will be around 11.5%. Given that, the GDP during the period July to September 2020 was already at Rs 33.14 lakh crore, the GDP during April to June 2021, is likely to be higher than that.

At a GDP of Rs 35 lakh crore, the economic growth during April to June 2021 will come in at a whopping 30.1%. Nevertheless, this is just an impact of what economists like to call the low-base effect.

A central government which can use a contraction of 7.5% to market itself, imagine the possibilities of what it can do if the economic growth rate crosses 30% in the first quarter of the next financial year.

While, some song and dance can do no harm to the economy, the real story needs to be understood and told as well. The real GDP in April to June 2021 will be more or less where it was during April to June 2019. In that sense, we will be where we were two years back.

Hence, the economic slowdown which started in mid 2018, along with the contraction that has happened post the spread of the corona epidemic, has pushed the Indian economy back by at least two years. Obviously, this can’t be good news.

Other than talking, the central government hasn’t done much to get the Indian economy going. Between April and October 2020, the government spent a total of Rs 16.61 lakh crore. In comparison, it had spent Rs 16.55 lakh crore during the same period in 2019. The difference being, this year we are in the midst of an economic contraction.

In a scenario where the corporates as well as individuals are going slow on spending money, government spending becomes of utmost importance. Between March 27 and November 20, the non-food credit of banks has gone up just Rs 26,496 crore.

Banks give loans to the Food Corporation of India and other state procurement agencies to buy rice and wheat, directly from the farmers. Once these loans are subtracted from the overall lending of banks what remains is non-food credit.

In comparison, the deposits of banks have gone up by Rs 8.03 lakh crore during the same period. This means just 3.3% of the fresh deposits that banks have got post March have been lent out.

What does this tell us? It tells us that both corporates and individuals are largely sitting tight and saving money. This is an indication of the lack of confidence in the near economic future. While the corporate executives might keep going gaga in the media about an economic revival, these numbers tell us a different story.

What hasn’t helped is the fact corporates have reported bumper profits by driving down their raw material costs, input costs and employee costs. This basically means that along with employees, the suppliers of corporates have also seen an income contraction. This can’t be good news for the overall economy.

The government’s inability to spend, comes from the lack of tax revenues, something that is bound to improve in 2021-22. Other than that, the government hasn’t gotten around to selling its stakes in public sector enterprises. Of the targeted Rs 2.1 lakh crore just 3% has been achieved. This is bizarre given that the stock market is at an all-time high-level.

Hopefully, the government will make up on this in the next financial year. Also, it can look at selling some of the land that it owns in prime localities in Indian cities.

All this can be used to put more money in the hands of consumers through an income tax cut and a goods and services tax cut, encouraging them to spend.

People who pay income tax may form a small part of the population but they are the ones who actually have some purchasing power. And once they start spending more, the chances of it boiling down the hierarchy are higher. Do remember, at the end of the day, one man’s spending is another man’s income.

A slightly different version of this piece appeared in the Deccan Herald on December 20, 2020.