Jaitley’s effort included many significant policy plans but had little to offer on reviving economic growth. Unless interest rates are lowered sharply, there is no possibility of recovery.
The Budget presented by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on Monday contains a number of new departures that merit unstinting praise. Chief of these are a national crop insurance scheme for farmers, a health insurance scheme to protect families from the impact of illnesses that incapacitate the breadwinner and a three-year programme to provide 50 million families in villages with cooking gas facilities.
But on the revival of economic growth, the central challenge facing the country today, the Budget has little to offer. Instead, Jaitley implicitly absolved the government of responsibility for it’s failure to revive growth, by laying the blame on the “serious crisis” in the global economy but said the Indian economy held its ground despite the global headwinds.
The bad debt problem
The self praise, however, is muted. Both the Budget and the Economic Survey have admitted that all is far from well in the economy. The 2014-15 Survey had estimated that 880,000 crore rupees of investment was locked up in stalled projects, concentrated mostly in the heavy industry, construction and infrastructure sectors, and this year’s Survey dealt at length on the mountain of bad debt that this has created in the banking system. On December 31, 2015 the non performing assets (NPAs) – debt on which banks are not able to recover their interest and amortisation – of 24 listed public sector banks, including the State Bank of India and its associates, stood at a whopping 3,93,035 crore rupees, or about 11% of their loans. Private banks had not done much better; although they accounted for less than 20% of outstanding loans, their NPAs added up to 45,000 crore rupees.
This mounting bad debt has reduced banks’ willingness and capacity to lend, slowed the growth of credit to less than half of what it was during its heyday a decade ago and locked the entire secondary economy in the jaws of stagnation. Not surprisingly, industrial growth has been stuck at just over 3% for the last five years. This is close to 2% lower than the growth it recorded in the 1960s and 1970s, during the worst period of the closed economy. Judging from the quarterly data collected by the labour ministry, the slowdown in the growth of employment has been equally sharp.
It is in suggesting a remedy for the crisis that North Block is strangely reticent. Both the Economic Survey and the Budget reflect the conviction that the remedy lies in drastically simplifying and speeding up the procedure for declaring firms bankrupt and liquidating their assets. The Survey has likened the Indian economy to the Chakravyuha in the Mahabharata – easy to get into but very hard to get out of. Enabling companies to exit easily will release what Joseph Schumpeter called “the gales of creative destruction,” for it will free land, buildings and other assets for sale, and bring the capital locked in them back into useful circulation. Citing academic studies, the Survey has claimed that this will improve the productivity of capital by 30-40% and trigger an economic revival.
Jaitley has taken his cue from the Economic Survey. In paras 90-94 of his Budget speech he unveiled a spate of measures that will make it easier to set up asset reconstruction companies, to speed up the working of debt recovery tribunals by digitising the collection of information and recapitalise public sector banks in order to free up the flow of credit.
Persistence of widespread insolvency
It was these announcements that sent the Sensex up by 800 points, the biggest one-day increase in seven years. But as a panacea for economic stagnation they will not suffice, for implicit in them is the belief that investment is going bad mainly because of the greed of investors who borrow too much and therefore run up very high interest costs, and because of cronyism and unprofessionalism in the management of public sector banks.
These are not the only, or even the main, causes of the malaise in the economy. One key indicator is the large number of companies with restructured loans that have once again become insolvent. In 2014-15, 57,000 crore rupees of restructured loans had gone bad, double the amount from the previous year.
The persistence of widespread insolvency despite the restructuring of debt shows that its cause is not episodic but systemic. Every single one of the economy’s problems can be traced back to the very high interest rate regime that has existed, with one short interlude, since 2007. This has drastically reduced demand by discouraging purchases made on instalment plans, including the purchases of housing and office space, automobiles, electronic and digital equipment, and home and office furnishings. These make up almost half of industrial production. It has also caused a collapse of the share market in all but a few sectors and a virtual disappearance of initial public offerings of shares since 2007. Finally, it has forced promoters to rely almost exclusively on bank loans to finance investment just when the cost of borrowing has gone up. This has greatly increased the risk of investment and is responsible for the large scale abandonment of infrastructure and heavy industrial projects that were highlighted in the 2014-15 Economic Survey.
The interest rate quagmire
Jaitley has urged the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) to lower interest rates on several occasions, and in July his chief economic adviser, Arvind Subramaniam, wrote an article in The Indian Express arguing that the cost of living index is no longer a satisfactory measure of inflation and urged the use of the GDP deflator instead. It is thus surprising that Jaitley did not say anything in his Budget speech about lowering interest rates, a point left out in the Economic Survey too.
This may be out of respect for the RBI’s autonomy in determining monetary policy. But central bank chief Raghuram Rajan has shown no inclination to lower the interest rate so far as he believes, with the cost of living index still averaging 5%, the RBI’s current policy rates – ranging 7.75-5.75% – are already low enough in real terms not to merit much further reduction. Additionally, he firmly believes that most of the problems of industry can be traced back to the mistakes of the promoters, who “do not have a divine right to stay in charge regardless of how badly they mismanage an enterprise, nor … have the right to use the banking system to recapitalize their failed ventures”.
But the RBI’s policy rates do not reflect the actual cost of borrowing. Today the average borrowing rate, including various bank charges, is over 11%. With inflation, measured by the GDP deflator, close to zero the real rate of interest for borrowers is prohibitive. Till it is brought down, and that too very sharply, there is no possibility of a revival of investment and an economic recovery.
The real test for the government will therefore come when the RBI announces its next policy review at the end of this month. If Rajan does not bring down interest rates substantially, Jaitley and Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have to choose between foregoing economic recovery or foregoing the services of Rajan. The choice, either way, will not be easy.
Prem Shankar Jha is the Managing Editor of Financial World and a senior journalist.