Why India’s GDP numbers may be right; but so are its doubters.

Why Arvind Subramaniam is right; but Government is not wrong.

Link to the article in Businessline: https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/gdp-both-subramanian-govt-may-be-right/article28657586.ece

The ex-CEA has argued that the figures of GDP growth are exaggerated. He may be right but equally right may be the government. The tension will ease if one recognizes that it is possible to grow for some period of time without the total amount of goods and services consumed by community not increasing at all. The reverse is also equally feasible. This can happen with increase and decrease in % terms in the domestic content in value addition, or better productivity (or fall) of natural resources, etc. The crucial bridge between the two sides may be the efficiency gains and shifts in the structure of economy in the last few years.

Let’s examine the impact from efficiency gains. Business line published a few weeks ago (GST on the Highway dtd June 4, 2019) the story of a reporter’s journey with a truck driver from Chennai to Bhiwadi. He reported reaching the destination in 42.35 hrs instead of the 4 days it used to take not so long ago. The driver saved 2 days for his owner and as a bonus pocketed the petrol he managed to save from the 400 litres allowance he was allowed for the trip.

This was confirmed to the writer by an official of a leading transport company who claimed it takes 44 hours to reach Madurai from Dharuhera (Haryana) these days instead of the 4 days previously carrying cars. Only 15% of potential savings have come from GST so far; balance has come from better roads and better driver crews who operate as a team. Let’s construct (with some lenience in calculations) the effect of such savings on GDP in different scenarios.

 

Impact on GDP from Logistics savings (of the reported case)
 

 

 

Scenario —>

Before After
1 2 3 4
Customers final bill remains same; Transport company’s profits go up. Customer takes the savings (other than Drivers bonus) Customer takes away all the savings
Petrol (assumed for illustration) Ltr 400 300 300 300
Lorry Hire (day) Days 4 2 2 2
Driver gets paid for (Days) Days 4 2 2 2
Drivers Bonus NIL Petrol savings of 100 litres (assumed) NIL
Petrol price Rs/Ltr 70 70 70 70
Driver’s wage rate Rs/day 1200 1200 1200 1200
Lorry Hire rate Rs/Day 5000 5000 5000 5000
Composition of GDP
Petrol Rs 28000 21000 21000 21000
Wages to Drivers Rs 4800 2400 2400 2400
Bonus to driver from Savings Rs 7000 7000
Lorry Hire Rs 20000 10000 10000 10000
Profits to Transport Company (say) Rs 20000 32400 20000 20000
GDP (Price Paid by Customer) Rs 72800 72800 60400 53400
Fall in GDP 0 (12400) (19400)
Fall in GDP in % 0% -17% -27%

 

The volume of final services (real GDP) has not gone down but the nominal GDP has fallen sharply. If the final price remains due to market demand and supply, both real and nominal GDP will remain same. If the consumer pays less, GDP will fall due to the efficiency gains, unless there is 50% increase in other economic activities to absorb the truck and driver’s time (unlikely) or we start measuring value of driver’s leisure as equivalent to value of wages.  Here the quantum of services enjoyed has not gone down and so the real GDP should not go down. But the real GDP this is usually measured by using deflators, even real GDP will show a decline.

Paradoxical but that’s the exact reason (but contrarian effect) why big earthquakes and natural disasters are big boosters for GDP growth.

How Arvind Subramaniam and Government may both be right

India’s new normal growth looks 7%. But there have been drop in the exports in the last 5 years of some commodities like rice, raw cotton, meat and oil cakes;  construction activities have been hit, GST and demonetization have hit some cash dependent or tax evading activities, China dumping has clipped the growth in steel and tyre industry. But these may have been made good by growth in insurance services in rural areas, banking services through Jan Dhan, massive spread of LED bulbs, construction of toilets on a massive scale, etc. These may well have compensated for the decline in other areas and the Government’s stance of 7% growth may well be true.

Revisions in the GDP calculation approach takes years and they lag changes in the structure of the economy by a considerable time. Hence it is quite likely that many new sources of growth are not captured properly. Without these services in the estimate samples, the ex-CEA’s estimates may well be true.

But the real joker in the pack may be the efficiency gains in the economy. The last few years have seen significant gains in several areas. LED bulbs have grown rapidly saving huge amounts of electricity. Industries have also invested significantly in energy and utility savings. Banking has gone largely digital  cutting down long queues and wasted time; so are airline and railway tickets. Solar energy has replaced capex with opex and led to vastly reduced levels of consumption of fossil fuel. Digital books vastly reduce the consumption of paper; Netflix reduces trips to the theatre.

As illustrated in the table, such efficiency gains have a dampening effect on the GDP. The greater the gains accrue to the final consumer lower will be the GDP and growth.

And the impact from reduction in corruption. DBT reach the beneficiaries without leakage alright. But they have also taken away the jobs of several intermediaries and fixers. This has contributed to loss of several layers of jobs, even as it resulted in convenience, reduced costs, and saved loads of time for beneficiaries.

With the impact from the above factors, the GDP may have fallen as contended by of ex-CEA.

But GDP calculation is not a perfect maths.  The entire GDP calculation of Zambia is done by a single individual. A minister in Robert Mugabe’s cabinet likened measuring GDP to “trying to use a tape measure to figure out how much Coke is in this glass.” GDP is not measured by double entry book keeping; it is based on sampling with all the deficiencies that come with it. The Ex CEA’s approach is even more remote. The rapid changes that have been observed in the last few years especially since 2008, the urbanization and formalization since GST cannot be captured or compared with static sampling approach, size or methodology.

One wishes that the ex-CEA had not adopted an alarmist approach and present India’s GDP as some kind of methodological fudge. Without an examination of reasons, chains of causation, Working Paper no 354 looks more like the statistical appendix in the Economic Survey. If he had examined the reason behind fall in electricity consumption ratio (for example) from pre 2011 period, he could perhaps have come up with appropriate suggestions for perfecting the system.

Nevertheless, assuming his figures are correct, if the 4.5% has come about due to efficiency gains, better ICORs, reduced project implementation times, cost savings, and lesser inconvenience to consumers why should we be ashamed of it. These would only improve the competitiveness of Indian industry and services.