Indian Economic Growth Data Has Gone the Chinese Way—It’s Not Believable

The Central Statistics Office (CSO) has declared the economic growth, as measured by the growth in gross domestic product (GDP), for the period October to December 2015. During the period India grew by 7.3%.

The economic growth for the period July to September 2015 has also been revised to 7.7%, against the earlier 7.4%. The economic growth for the period April to June 2015 was also revised to 7.6%, against the earlier 7%.

The CSO also said that the “growth in GDP during 2015-16 is estimated at 7.6 per cent as compared to the growth rate of 7.2 per cent in 2014-15”.

The question to ask here is that why doesn’t it feel like India is growing at greater than 7%? Before I answer this question let me reproduce a paragraph from author and economic commentator Satyajit Das’ new book The Age of Stagnation: “In a 2007 conversation disclosed by WikiLeaks, Chinese premier Li Keqiang told the US ambassador that GDP statistics were ‘for reference only’. Li preferred to focus on electricity consumption, the volume of rail cargo, and the amount of loans disbursed.”

This was promptly dubbed as the Li Keqiang index, by the China watchers.

Over the years, lot of doubts have been raised about the official Chinese economic growth data. And many analysts now like to look at high speed economic indicators to figure out the ‘actual’ state of the Chinese economy.

The Indian GDP data also seems to have reached a stage where it is ‘for reference only’. And we probably now need our own version of the Li Keqiang index, to figure out how different the actual economic growth is from the official number.

It is worth understanding here that GDP ultimately is a theoretical construct. One look at the high speed economic indicators clearly tells us that India cannot be growing at greater than 7%.

Let’s first take a look at the data points that constitute the Li Keqiang index. The electricity requirement for the period April to December 2015 has gone up by only 2.5% to 8,37,958 million Kwh, in comparison to the period between April to December 2014.

How does the earlier electricity requirement data look? The electricity requirement between April to December 2014 had gone up by 8.3% to 8,16,848 Kwh, in comparison to the period April to December 2013. What this clearly tells us is that the demand for electricity has gone up by a very low 2.6% during the course of this financial year, in comparison to 8.3% a year earlier. This is a clear indicator of lack of growth in industrial demand. As industrial demand picks up, demand for electricity also has to pick up.

And how about railway freight? Between April to December 2015, revenue earning railway freight grew by 1% to 8,16,710 thousand tonnes, in comparison to April to December 2014. Between April to December 2014, revenue earning railway freight had grown by 5% to 8,08,570 thousand tonnes, in comparison to April to December 2013.

The railways transports coal, pig iron and finished steel, iron ore, cement, petroleum etc. A slow growth in railway freight is another great indicator of lack of industrial demand.

This brings us to the third economic indicator in the Li Keqiang index, which is the amount of bank loans disbursed, an indicator of both consumer as well as industrial demand. The bank loan growth for the period December 2014 to December 2015 stood at 9.2%. Between December 2013 to December 2014 the loan growth had stood at a more or less similar 9.5%. Bank loan growth has been in single digits for quite some time now. In fact, growth in loans given to industries stood at 5.3% between December 2014 and December 2015.

And what is worrying is that bad loans of banks have jumped up. Bad loans of banks stood at 5.1% of total advances as on September 30, 2015, having jumped from 4.6% as on March 31, 2015. The stressed loans of public sector banks as on September 30, 2015, stood at 14.2% of the total loans.

Hence, for every Rs 100 of loans given by public sector banks, Rs 14.2 has either been declared to be a bad loan or has been restructured. In March 2015, the stressed assets were at 13.15%.

Estimates suggest that over the last few years nearly 40% of restructured loans have gone bad. This clearly means that banks have been using this route to kick the bad loan can down the road. It also means that many restructured loans will go bad in the time to come.

Hence, the Indian economic growth story is looking ‘really’ weak when we look at the economic indicators in the Li Keqiang index. There are other high frequency economic indicators which tell us clearly that economic growth continues to be weak.

Exports have been falling for 13 months in a row. Between April and December 2015, exports fell by 18% to $196.6 billion. Non petroleum exports between April and December 2015 were down by 9.4% to $173.3 billion. The bigger point is that is how can the economy grow at greater than 7%, when the exports have fallen by 18%? In 2011-2012, exports grew by 21% to $303.7 billion. The GDP growth for that year was 6.5%. How does one explain this dichotomy?

Between April and December 2015, two wheeler sales went up by 1.05% to 1.42 crore, in comparison to a year earlier. Two-wheeler sales are an excellent indicator of consumer demand throughout the country. And given that the growth has been just 1.05%, it is a very clear indicator of overall consumer demand remaining weak.

In fact, the rural urban disconnect is clearly visible here. Motorcycle sales are down by 2.3% to 97.61 lakhs. Scooter sales are up 11.5% to 39 lakhs. Scooters are more of an urban product than a rural one. This is a clear indicator of weak consumer economic demand in rural and semi-urban parts of the country. Tractor sales fell by 13.1% between April to December 2015 to 4.12 lakh. This is another  indicator of the bad state of rural consumer demand.

One data point which has looked robust is the new car sales data. New car sales during the period April to December 2015, grew by 7.9% to 19.22 lakhs, in comparison to a year earlier. Between April to December 2014, new car sales had grown by 3.6% to 17.82 lakhs. The pickup in new car sales is a good indicator of robust consumer demand in urban areas.

Over and above this, not surprisingly, corporate earnings continue to remain dismal. If all the data that I have pointed up until now was positive, corporate earnings would have also been good.

The larger point is that if so many high frequency economic indicators are not in a good state, how is the economy growing at greater than 7% and how is it expected to grow by 7.6% during the course of this year. What is creating economic growth?

It is worth pointing out here that sometime early last year, the CSO moved to a new method of calculating the GDP. Since then robust economic growth numbers have been coming out, though the performance of high frequency economic indicators continues to remain bad. In fact, some economists have measured the economic growth rate between April and September 2015, as per the old method, and come to the conclusion that the growth is in the range of 5-5.2%, which sounds a little more believable.

To conclude, there is no way the Indian economy can possibly be growing at greater than 7%. Honestly, Indian economic growth data now seems to have gone the Chinese way—it’s totally unbelievable. And since we like to compete with the Chinese, at least on one count we are getting closer to them.

And there is more to come on this front in the time to come.

Stay tuned!

The column was originally published on the Vivek Kaul Diary on February 9, 2016

Why 7% economic growth looks difficult despite new GDP data

deflationVivek Kaul

Pessimism sells. For reasons I have never understood, people like to hear that the world is going to hell, and become huffy and scornful when some idiotic optimist intrudes on their pleasure.” Professor Deirdre McCloskey – Quoted in The Absolute Return Newsletter

Last Friday the ministry of statistics and programme implementation released a new way of measuring the gross domestic product. The ministry changed the base year for measuring GDP from 2004-2005 to 2011-2012.
The structure of an economy keeps changing. Further, the quality of data that the government has access to keeps improving as well. These changes need to be incorporated in the way the GDP is calculated.
As Crisil Research points out in a recent research note: “The revised series is much wider in scope. The coverage has now expanded to include trade carried out by manufacturing companies (this was earlier a part of trade under service sector), and, among others, partnership firms covered under Limited Liability Partnership Act.”
In fact, as per the new GDP data the Indian economy grew by 4.9% during 2012-13, and 6.6% during 2013-14. The earlier calculations had suggested that the Indian economy grew by 4.5% in 2012-2013 and 4.7% in 2013-2014.
The expected GDP numbers for 2014-2015 calculated as per the new method will be released on February 9, 2015. While the difference in GDP growth is not much in 2012-2013, the difference in 2013-2014 is significant. “Private consumption, government consumption and fixed investment growth were all understated in the old series,” points out Crisil Research explaining why the GDP growth in 2013-2014 jumped as per the new method.
This jump in growth has been questioned by Arvind Subramanian, the chief economic adviser to the ministry of finance.
In an interview to the Business Stanard he said: “This is mystifying because these numbers, especially the acceleration in 2013-14, are at odds with other features of the macro economy. The year 2013-14 was a crisis year – capital flowed out, interest rates were tightened and there was consolidation – and it is difficult to understand how an economy’s growth could be so high and accelerate so much under such circumstances.”
Raghuram Rajan, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India, also advised caution.
As he said in a press conference on February 3, 2015: “We do need to spend more time understanding the GDP numbers and we will be watching February 9 releases with great care and delve in deeply into what we see there. At this point, it is premature to take a strong view based on these GDP numbers. Most of the data that we have seen for 2013-2014, except inflation which was very strong, give us a sense that there was lack in the economy.”
Nevertheless, this jump has led to the belief that the economic growth during the current financial year will be much higher than the 5.5% economic growth that has been previously projected.
An editorial in the Business Standard newspaper pointed out: “The new numbers for 2014-15 will be published on February 9, but the expectation certainly now is that the number will be even higher, perhaps in excess of seven per cent.”
Other ground level data suggests that this is too optimistic. As economists Taimur Baig and Kaushik Das of Deutsche Bank Research point out: “Evidence at the ground level (i.e. sales and earnings data from corporates) and other high frequency macro indicators continue to indicate that the economy is yet to see a capex recovery and meaningful pick-up in activities.”
The quarterly results of companies for the period October to December 2014 have been very poor
As Swaminathan Aiyar writes in The Economic Times: “CNBC data show that for 664 companies that till last week had declared their financial results for the third quarter, sales are up just 1.3% and net profits by just 3.4% on a year-on-year basis. On a quarter-on-quarter basis, sales are down 2.8% and net profits by 6.1%.”
Inflation is not factored into corporate results. Nevertheless, if we do that it is safe to say that sales and profits of companies have fallen on a yearly basis as well. This is clear evidence of the fact that the overall economy is not doing well. It also gives an indication of the fact that consumers are not ready to spend freely.
Given that companies are not doing well, it has also led to a slow growth in tax revenues for the government. At the time the government presented its budget in July 2014, it had assumed that the tax revenues would grow by 16.9% in comparison to the last financial year. But the tax collected for the first nine months of the financial year between April and December 2014 grew by just 5.4% in comparison to the same period in the last financial year. In fact, the growth in excise duties has been more or less flat at 0.2%.
Another factor to look at are bank loans. Latest data released by the RBI shows that bank loans have grown by just 6.6% during the course of this financial year. They had grown by 10.1% during the same period in the last financial year. This is a clear indication of the fact that businesses as well as consumers are not in the mood to borrow.
Then there are stalled projects as well. As Arvind Subramanian, the chief economic adviser to the ministry of finance wrote in the Mid Year Economic Analysis released in December 2014: “Stalled projects to the tune of Rs 18 lake crore (about 13 percent of GDP) of which an estimated 60 percent are in infrastructure. In turn, this reflects low and declining corporate profitability as more than one-third firms have an interest coverage ratio of less than one (borrowing is used to cover interest payments).”
Unlike the GDP which is a theoretical construct, these are real numbers and they don’t look very good. Even the Reserve Bank of India remained sedate about the growth scenario. As it said in the latest
monetary policy statement released on February 3, 2015: “Advance indicators of industrial activity – indirect tax collections; non-oil non-gold import growth; expansion in order books; and new business reported in purchasing managers surveys – point to a modest improvement in the months ahead.”
Given these reasons I would be surprised if the GDP growth number to be released on February 9, 2015, will turn out to be close to 7% or more. If it does that will certainly be a huge surprise.

The article originally appeared on as a part of The Daily Reckoning on Feb 5, 2015