Time to move away from prescriptive macro policy making

Indian economy seems caught between tight fiscal targets prescribed under the FRBM review and a government which treats it as cast in stone despite being faced with the current crisis.

The best example of failure of the prescriptive approach is the Eurozone. The prolonged sluggishness of the Eurozone is caused mostly by the restrictive tight inflation targeting (influenced largely by Germany’s phobia for inflation given its post WWII memories), fiscal deficit targets and debt/GDP ratios which were good for a select few countries but out of context for most of the rest. Those who were already better gained in relative terms but those who were not aligned already have gone into prolonged sluggishness and some into economic coma. But on overall basis, Eurozone has not gained; it has been a massive loser – a sinkhole which the Chinese have expertly filled in to their advantage.

Prescriptive and market distorting intervention in agriculture products has been around in India for a long time along with minimum wages in labour markets. But in the recent years such an approach has been extended to other areas of macro management. Prohibitive pricing under Land Acquisition Act has virtually put it out of reach. Inflation management which was largely situational or contextual has become tightly prescriptive, where the midpoint 4% has operated more like a hard-stop cap. FRBM was loosely operated till 2016. With a rigid fiscal target and glide-path and Debt/GDP ratio, it has started impacting other macro variables like output and employment and government investments, besides putting breaks on response to a 6-sigma kind of event like Covid.

Such a prescriptive approach is born out of a lack of faith in markets’ efficiency and its self-correcting nature. Fixing targets for macro-economic variables like inflation, interest rates, fiscal deficits are as detrimental to the efficiency of free markets and its equilibrium seeking ways as fixing minimum or maximum prices in individual commodity markets or fixing quotas or tariffs, or licensing in micro markets.

A circuit breaker in stock markets at 10% and 20% might make sense, but at 3 and 4% they will affect free functioning of markets and its adjustments to new information or assimilation of the effect of other economic factors. The trouble with tight constraints is that they start affecting other factors and force them to operate at sub-optimal levels. As an example, anyone seeking air tickets or hotel rooms on internet will know that the more the conditions or filters one puts, the lesser the number of options that gets thrown up. The recent prescriptions have operated like ‘binding constraints’ in a linear programming language reducing the value of outcome than act as circuit breakers.

Free of any prescriptions major macro variables like inflation, investments, fiscal deficits, CAD, exchange rates, growth and output interact with each other influencing and being influenced by others so that the markets seek optimal or equilibrium ways. Such interplay also keeps the others in check so that they don’t escape their gravity. The experience of communist countries has proven that market based equilibrium have been far more enduring and self-sustaining with fewer glitches. Prescriptions should be like circuit breakers for extreme 3-sigma events like East Asian meltdown, Dotcom bubble and 2008 and Covid.

Are there risks in letting markets play

Will inflation, for example, run away to 20-30%. Or interest rates go sky high and snuff out all investments. Or Exchange rates break loose and settle at Rs 120/$. In an open economy where most commodities as well as finances can be imported or exported there is little risk in a general inflation shooting through the roof – import parity prices will ensure domestic prices cool down. Sudden swift exchange rate variations are to release pent up pressure. If the exchange rates fall far too steeply, higher exports and greater incentive for overseas Indians to bring back money will soon cool it down. Any spikes in interest rates will increase the investments attractiveness and bring in moneys from savings here and overseas and cool it down.

Unless the government resorts to absurd 30-70% increases in MSPs (as it did in 2008 and 2010) extreme food inflation is unlikely. With our excess stocks and production of food grains there is no need for food inflation fears; surely in contingencies we have enough forex reserves to import food and cool down prices – something markets will do anyway.

Safeguards

Safeguards if any should be limited to extreme events – specified or emerging- something that has a 1% or 2% chance. For some most essential items like food it may be necessary. But even in such areas it may be better to let the market find its level but compensate the vulnerable through cash transfers.

During the 10 years before 2013, we have had some of the best growth years when the inflation range has been 4-10% and fiscal deficits were in the range of 6.4% to 3.3% with an average of around 4.7%. Surely there was a causal connection between these various factors, when they were managed with caution than prescription. To aim 4% and 3% respectively tantamount to ignoring these causalities and give hygiene factors the status of main deity. These then operate as constraints which pull down the potential of others.

When the history of China’s stupendous rise from 1980 to 2020 is examined carefully 2 things might become clear. FED’s Volcker’s constricting inflation control during the 80s diluted US’ investment spurs and helped China to grow green shoots and the self-negating Eurozone policies of the last 2 decades helped consolidate it further. Europe, once the cauldron of new ideas in many facets of science and technology and corporate governance is regrettably having to shield itself from Chinese investment invasion now.

Before we learn about Chinese manufacturing excellence, we might learn some lessons on how they have managed their economy.

India seems fatally infatuated to Eurozone ways and replicating the resultant sluggishness.