The Covid-19 pandemic has led to exceptionally challenging times.
Covid-19 afflicted India when the economy was already decelerating. After growing at an average of 7% a year in the previous decade, growth decelerated to 6% in 2018-19, and fell further to 4.2% in 2019-20. Pre-Covid-19 slowdown was due to a number of factors: longstanding structural rigidities in key input markets, stressed balance sheets compounded by greater risk aversion among banks and corporates, and, more recently, growing vulnerabilities in thThe pandemic has rendered the outlook even more sombre. So is India’s growth story over?
Two years ago, we analysed the long-term trends in India’s growth rates. Studying 50 years of data, we found that despite variations in the trend rate, growth accelerated steadily, with no prolonged reversals. Economic growth also became stable — both due to growth rates stabilising within each sector, and due to the economy’s transition toward the steadier services sector. Importantly, faster and more stable growth was evident across states without being concentrated, for the most part, in a few sectors or activities. Furthermore, periods of faster growth saw productivity gains and not just an increase in factor inputs. All these point to the long term resilience of India’s economy.
Several factors were instrumental in India’s growth story. First, India benefited from a growing working-age population. Second, its savings and investment rates continued to increase until the late 2000s. Third, the financial sector grew significantly, with a rising ratio of bank credit to GDP. Fourth, India was likely aided by its strong institutional base. Fifth, India’s trade-to-GDP ratio grew rapidly from the early 1990s, until world trade stalled due to the global financial crisis.
Finally, the macroeconomic policies, notably monetary and fiscal, were formulated under credible frameworks in the last decades, yielding impressive macroeconomic stability.
General State of Weakness
However, some of these factors have weakened in recent years. After the 2008-09 global financial crisis, specific weaknesses emerged in private investment, export performance and the banking sector. These have persisted for nearly a decade since. Investment rates and exports declined as a percentage of GDP. Worryingly, the vulnerability of the financial sector increased, resulting in anaemic credit growth.
Covid-19 has magnified these weaknesses. Disruption in economic activity has dented consumption, investment and exports. RBI’s financial stability report has cautioned that the financial sector is likely to bear a significant burden from the slowdown. What, then, is the short- and medium-term prognosis for India’s economy? How may the policy response be tailored?
As a response to Covid-19, extensive measures have been taken in the regulatory, fiscal and monetary policy areas. But there are limits to these relief and support measures, both in terms of their effectiveness and affordability. Recovery now will depend in equal measure upon unlocking the supply side, and on the containment of the virus itself.
Private investment in India is likely constrained by several factors, including financial sector inefficiencies, deleveraging, crowding out and regulatory policy framework. Removing these, and sector-specific constraints, and ensuring policy certainty will be important. While India has received healthy volumes of FDI, encouraging these further can spur both domestic investment and greater integration in global value chains (GVCs).
Exports were an important driver of growth prior to the global financial crisis. But its contribution has diminished since. The ratio of exports to GDP has been declining, with India’s share in global exports remaining stagnant, or even decreasing. India can improve its competitiveness in the world economy by boosting investment in infrastructure and bringing it at par with other global manufacturing hubs; further reforming land, labour and financial markets; upgrading the education system to equip its workforce with skills. Besides, a competitive exchange rate, deeper trade integration, and greater embedding into GVCs will assume significance.
In the financial sphere, Indian banks have seen subdued credit growth, and asset quality remains stressed. In the past few years, a number of measures have been announced — including the consolidation of banks, an asset quality review, timely resolution for specific institutions, strengthened oversight or forbearance (post-Covid-19) and equity infusions. These measures have improved the oversight of India’s financial sector and boosted financial inclusion. However, more needs to be done to improve the safety, depth and efficiency of financial intermediation.
Additional priorities include maintaining financial sector stability, undertaking specific reforms in the non-banking financial sector, deepening capital markets, enhancing the role of fintech and ensuring a more selective and strategic footprint for the public sector in the financial sphere.
Growth Rides on Reforms
There is nothing, however, that seems permanently broken in India’s growth model to warrant pessimism. Many of the deep-rooted structural factors that helped fuel the economy’s sustained growth during the past decades seem intact: demography, a large and diversified economy, still low-income levels that signify the potential to grow, a dynamic entrepreneurial class, political and geopolitical stability, a strong institutional base and credible policy frameworks.
With continued policy attention on reforms — which spur private investment, increase the economy’s competitiveness, promote greater integration into the global economy, and ensure an efficient financial sector — India can revert to the growth path of the past.
This opinion piece was first published by The Economic Times on August 27, 2020.