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.

How high Real Interest Rates can trip Modi in 2019

this artcile of mine has appeared in Financial express today (29/sept, 2017). Link below.

http://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/here-is-what-can-trip-narendra-modi-in-general-elections-2019/875051/

Unedited Version:

RBI’s Interest Rates can trip Modi in 2019

V Kumaraswamy 

Ask any shop keeper, or the lonely looking private security guards, unemployed youth in urban slums or interior towns, or the taxi drivers as to what their main issue today is and pat comes the reply: be rozgari

Not many expected Vajpayee to lose 2004 with the groundswell of national passion over Kargil, Golden Quadrilateral, relative peace and quiet in domestic scenario, great government finances and the political networking he cultivated.  Yet he lost.

The voter at the booth is not going to be thankful for how much wholesale corruption has come down (retail is still alive and throbbing), degree of digitisation India has achieved, how benign inflation is, etc. These are at best hygiene factors which can easily be washed away if joblessness persists. Without a job, a stable one at that, he can’t proposer.

High Manufacturing Real Interest Rates (RIRs).

If more people have to be converted from being losers during the on-going reforms to gainers, we need rapid job creation. Services sector (IT, BPOs, Call Centres, and Telecom) created jobs by the buckets till about 2011-12 but have reached stagnation now and have even started becoming uncompetitive now threatening imminent job losses.  Agri sector is just incapable of creating further jobs; rather it would release lots that need to be absorbed.

Employment should come from only manufacturing and here is where the real interest rates facing Indian industry is proving an insurmountable barrier not just a hurdle. The accompanying chart compares the Real Interest Rates (RIRs) between China and RIRs facing Indian manufacturing.  Manufacturing RIRs are  derived by deducting manufacturing inflation from the nominal interests facing manufacturing sector. For the last over a decade Indian Mfg RIR is about 7.21% versus China’s 2.92% – (i.e 4.29% over China’s) a huge hole for anyone to be interested in investing in Indian manufacturing.

It is a mistake to compare the general RIR which is just 2.04% over China, the country with which we have maximum non-oil trade deficit. The General inflation is contaminated by Fuel oil, Food which have no bearing whatsoever for studying manufacturing investment competitiveness.

Why has it become important now?

Just but for one year, Indian Manufacturing RIRs have been higher than China since 1991. So why has it started affecting investment sentiments now. Starting Jan 2014, duties for imports from ASEAN has become Zero virtually (S Korea is not far behind) making India’s trade borders completely open. China (even with import duties) has cost structures lower than ASEAN for several commodities.

India’s capital account has also been steadily opening up and for practical purposes it is completely open. Even the per annum limits on debt are periodically reviewed and enhanced without even waiting for the year turns.

With open trade and capital flows one has to be more sharply competitive. Added to this is the 25-30% overall surplus capacity in Industry. Who would dare to invest with a huge handicap on interest rates and surplus capacities. It is better to source goods from China or set up facilities there and sell in India, which exports jobs.

Sources of competitiveness

As mentioned earlier, agriculture and services look spent forces as far as employment creation goes.  It rests on manufacturing to create jobs, for which it needs to be competitive, which has to come from any of the 4 factors of production or natural resource endowments (part of Land).

India has tied itself up in knots where land is concerned.  Our socialistic mindset has made a grand backdoor re-entry through LARR and a plethora of court rulings, restriction on land transfer and change in usage, etc. Any acquisition takes 5 years – far beyond the patience time for an entrepreneur to keeping waiting with his ideas.  India has 375 people per sqkm where China has 142 (2015), increasing the pressure on land. So land as a source of competitive strength is ruled out.

Labour can be a source of strength given the wage levels now. But for that to happen we need to repurpose our education. Instead of (or perhaps alongwith)  BE(Mechanical) and B Tech (Chemical) we need 8th Std (textile printing), 10th std (BPO assistant), 12th std (Source coders), etc. i.e. fit for purpose specialisation kicking in at far younger ages. This can perhaps reduce capital invested for turning an unemployed into productive force as well supply the skills that would increase productivity. Such increased productivity can make the labour cheap per output unit.

That leaves Interest rates. Even enterprise is a function of interest rates beyond a point, where it translates entrepreneurism into investments. With excess capacities and high RIRs in Manufacturing, no one will feel tempted to invest in India.

High real interest rates (when the whole of rest of world is underperforming) and an increasingly politically stable India is attracting excess of $s, that cannot be absorbed by a stalling investment economy. Oversupply / unutilised $s in the forex market causes its prices to decrease. With it, it brings down import prices and makes our exports un-remunerative. This causes imports to flare up. Sure we are also gaining in petrol, prices of Chinese goods, goods from ASEAN, etc. But then the jobs in making them is happening overseas. What’s more important now  – employment or lower inflation? People who are gloating at low inflation are looking at just one side of the equation

In the last 6-7 years our Monetary economists have been failing their equilibrium mathematics exams, with their highly out of context imported monetary theories. But the political student to be detained may be Modi’s Government in 2019.

(The writer is the Author of Making Growth Happen in India (Sage Publications))

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Land Acquisition Bill – has Modi bought into wrong legacies?

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Land Acquisition – breaking the deadlock

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