The economic growth of 7.4% needs to be taken with a pinch of salt

The ministry of statistics and programme implementation published the gross domestic product (GDP) data for India for the period July and September 2015, a couple of days back. The GDP, a measure of the size of the economy, grew by 7.4% during the period in comparison to the same period in 2014.

If we just look at this number then we have to conclude that the Indian economy is doing fabulously well. But other economic data clearly suggests otherwise.

The exports have been going down for the last 11 months.

The corporate earnings for the three months ending September 2015 saw a growth of less than 1%.

The real estate sector is down in the dumps.

The loan growth of banks has been in single digits for some time now.

The bad loans of banks continue to grow.

Two wheeler and tractor sales, a reflection of rural demand, fell during the first six months of the year.

The vehicle sales, a good reflection of urban demand, grew at a very low rate during the first six months of the year.

The number of stalled industrial projects continue to grow.

The factories are running 30% below capacity.

And India has seen two deficient monsoons in a row.

So how is the economy still growing at 7.4%? The answer might very well lie in the way the GDP growth is calculated. The 7.4% economic growth that we are talking about here and which the economists, politicians and regulators also talk about, is essentially the real GDP growth. The real GDP growth is obtained by subtracting inflation from nominal GDP growth.

For example, if the nominal GDP growth is 11% and the inflation is 4%, then the real GDP growth is 7%, to put it in a very simple way. This is essentially done to ensure that the GDP numbers across different periods of time are comparable, by removing the inflation component from the growth numbers.

The inflation number used in this case is referred to as the GDP deflator and it deflates the nominal GDP growth to the real GDP growth. As the Chief Economic Adviser Arvind Subramanian said in a recent interview to a television channel: “They actually only measure the wholesale and consumer prices, the GDP deflator is just constructed.” The GDP deflator typically falls between the inflation measured by the wholesale price index and inflation as measured by the consumer price index. Also, given that it is a combination of both the consumer price index and the wholesale price index, it is the most broad based measure of inflation.

During the period July to September 2015, the nominal growth came in at 6%. The GDP deflator on the other hand was at − 1.4%. This was primarily because inflation as measured by the wholesale price index number has been in negative territory for a while now. For the months of July, August and September, it stood at −4.05%, −4.95% and −4.54%, respectively.

The consumer price inflation on the other hand stood at 3.78%, 3.66% and 4.41%, respectively. Given that, the GDP deflator falls somewhere in between the inflation as measured by the consumer price index and the inflation as measured by the wholesale price index, it was at −1.4%.

Real GDP as explained earlier is obtained by subtraction the GDP deflator from the nominal GDP. And this led to a real GDP growth of 7.4% (6% − (−1.4%). Given that the GDP deflator was in negative territory, instead of deflating the nominal GDP number, it has ended up inflating it. And this explains how an economic growth rate of 7.4% has been arrived at.

The question that crops up here is why has inflation as measured by the wholesale price index been in the negative territory? One reason for this has been a fall in commodity prices, which has benefited the Indian economy. India is a huge importer of commodities like oil. On the flip side, a fall in exports, stagnant consumer and industrial demand, low private investment, etc., are also reasons of falling inflation as measured by the wholesale price index.

Over and above this, the Reserve Bank of India governor, Raghuram Rajan recently talked about the capacity utilisation of the factories being at 70%. This has been falling from levels of over 75% in January to March 2013. This suggests a significant slack in the economy. And it means that businesses really do not have pricing power. This is reflected in the more or less flat corporate earnings.

All these reasons have led to a negative inflation number as measured by the wholesale price index. This negative number has led to a negative GDP deflator and that in turn has led to an inflated real GDP number.

In simple English many economic factors which are negative for the economy have ultimately ended up becoming positive for the real GDP number. That’s the long and short of it and perhaps explains why the economy is “supposedly” growing by 7.4%, even though all real economic indicators suggests otherwise.

Further, economists Pranjul Bhandari and Prithviraj Srinivas economists at HSBC Securities and Capital Markets India, have raised some doubt regarding the reliability of the GDP deflator. As they write in a research note: “Nominal GDP…grew at a much slower clip than real GDP…implying that deflators have fallen sharply into the negative territory. Parsing through details throws up more questions than answers. We find that growth in services deflator, which is infamous for high and sticky prices, was actually running below the industry deflator. This is odd because manufacturing and industry at large should be the prime beneficiaries of falling commodity prices and as such should run below services (which is largely non-tradable) inflation.”

What they mean here is that the inflation in services was higher than inflation in manufacturing. This seems odd given that manufacturing should have benefited more because of falling commodity prices.

Due to this anomaly the HSBC economists suggest that the “real growth is lower than the headline reading suggests.”

The column originally appeared on The Daily Reckoning on Dec 2, 2015


Busted: The ‘biggest’ myth about Indian exports

3D chrome Dollar symbolOne of the economic theories (I don’t know what else to call it) that often gets bandied around by almost anyone who has anything to say on the Indian economy, is that India’s economy is not as dependent on exports as the Chinese economy is. Honestly, given that China and the word “exports” are almost used interchangeably these days, it sounds true as well. Nevertheless, that is clearly not the case. While this may have been true in the 1990s, the most recent data does not bear this out.

Let’s look at exports of goods and services as a proportion of the gross domestic product (GDP, a measure of the size of the economy) of both these countries. In 1995, the Chinese exports to GDP ratio had stood at 20.4% of the GDP. The Indian exports to GDP ratio was around half of that of China at 10.7% of the GDP.

In 2014, the Chinese exports to GDP ratio had stood at 22.6% of the GDP. On the other hand, the Indian exports to GDP ratio was at 23.6% of the GDP. Hence, as a proportion of the size of the economy, Indian as well as Chinese exports are at a similar level. And that is indeed very surprising. It is not something that one expects.

As Rahul Anand, Kalpana Kochhar, and Saurabh Mishra write in an IMF Working Paper titled Make in India: Which Exports Can Drive the Next Wave of Growth?: “India’s exports have been increasing since the early-1990s – both as a share of GDP and as a share of world exports. Total exports as a share of GDP have risen to almost 25 percent in 2013 from around 10 percent in 1995. Likewise, Indian goods exports as a share of world goods exports have risen, with the share almost tripling to 1.7 percent during 1995-2013. A similar trend is visible in India’s services export – the share tripling to over 3 percent of world service exports during 2000-2013.” Computer services form around 70% of India’s services exports, which forms around one third of India’s total exports.

What these data points clearly show us is that the theory that India is not dependent on strong exports for a robust economic growth, is basically wrong, as exports now amount to nearly one-fourth the size of the Indian economy.

The Indian exports have been falling for the last nine months. In August 2015, the exports were down by 20.7% to $21.3 billion. Twenty three out of 30 sectors  monitored by the ministry of commerce saw a drop in exports in August 2015, in comparison to August 2014. Exports for the period of April and August 2015 stood at $111 billion and were down by 16.2% in comparison to the same period last year. Hence, there has been a huge slowdown in exports during the course of this financial year as well.

A major reason for the same has been a fall in commodity exports. As Chetan Ahya and Upasana Chachra of Morgan Stanley write in a recent research note titled What is Driving the Sharp Fall in India’s Exports?: “Persistent downward pressure from commodity prices has undoubtedly put pressure on commodity export growth (in value terms). Indeed, commodity exports (including oil), which account for 33% of India’s total exports, have been declining since Jul-14.”

Commodity prices have been falling because of a slowdown in the Chinese economic growth. China consumes a bulk of the world’s commodities.
Not many people would know that refined petroleum oil, much of which is exported out of the state of Gujarat, forms around one fifth of India’s exports.

Hence, while India benefits immensely due to a fall in the price of oil, given that we import 80% of what we consume, there is a flip-side to it as well.
Further, in India’s case, export of services, in particular computer services, has played a major role in driving up the exports over the years. The same cannot be said about India’s manufacturing exports. As Anand, Kochar and Mishra point out: “[India’s] services exports, as a share of total exports and in terms of sophistication, are comparable to high income countries, the share of manufacturing exports and their level of overall value content are still low compared to its peers, especially in Asia.”

The reasons for this are well discussed. They include an unpredictable tax regime (which the government keeps promising to correct), complicated labour laws and land acquisition policies, inspector-raj and a shaky physical infrastructure.

And this best explains why unlike China, India’s manufacturing exports are not a major part of its goods exports. As Anand, Kochar and Mishra point out: “For example, in 2013, manufacturing exports accounted for 90 percent of total exports in China, almost double the share during 1980-85. Indian exports have also undergone transformation during the decade of high growth, though to a lesser extent compared to peer emerging markets. The share of manufacturing in total merchandise exports has increased to 57 percent in 2013 from 41 percent in 1980.”

Also, given the problems an entrepreneur faces in India, in getting a manufacturing unit going, India’s share in global goods exports may have plateaued as far back as 2012. Data from Morgan Stanley suggests that India’s good exports as a proportion world goods exports has plateaued at around 1.7%.

As Ahya and Chachra of Morgan Stanley point out: “India’s market share in exports of goods for which we have monthly data has declined marginally over the last 12 months but has remained largely flat since 2012…The structural bottlenecks in the form of inadequate infrastructure, outmoded labour laws, a cumbersome taxation structure and systems, and poor ranking in terms of overall ease of doing business are probably making it harder to make gains in market share at a time when external demand has been weak and excess capacities in competitor economies have rise.”

And this is something that cannot be set right overnight.

The column originally appeared on The Daily Reckoning on Sep 28, 2015