India’s back-series GDP (gross domestic product) data, released by the NITI Aayog just four months before the 2019 general elections, turns the basic laws of macroeconomics on their head.
Here’s one that is most intriguing. The data shows lower GDP growth during the UPA years, which is when the gross investment to GDP ratio was peaking at 38%. And conversely, it shows higher GDP figures during the four years of Modi-led NDA-II government, which is when the gross investment to GDP ratio was at its lowest, at 30.3%.
Economic theory has always held that higher investments lead to higher GDP. So how can GDP grow faster when the investment-to-GDP ratio has fallen?
Technically, the only circumstance in which this can happen is when the economy’s productivity or the ‘Incremental Capital Output Ratio’ (ICOR) improves equally dramatically. Simply put, it means the economy generates a lot more output for the same amount of capital employed. There is no sign of that happening during the Modi government’s four years in which productivity was in fact negatively impacted by the twin shocks of demonetisation and messy GST implementation. Besides this, much of the NDA-II period has also seen the largest quantum ever of unproductive assets locked up in the form of non-performing assets (NPAs). Banks are not lending because of unresolved bad loans. How can productivity surge in such circumstances?
Says Mahesh Vyas, CEO of the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, a reputed private data research firm, “The new GDP back series numbers show India to be a magical economy where when the investment ratio drops sharply, the economy accelerates sharply. During the period (2007-08 to 2010-11) when the investment to GDP ratio was peaking at average 37.4% the average GDP growth was 6.7%. And in the recent four years (2014-15 to 2017-18) when the investment ratio was down to 30.3% the economy was sailing at 7.2%. Is this productivity magic?” There is really no answer to this fundamental questIon.
Former head of the Central Statistics Office (CSO) and chairman of the National Statistical Commission, Pronab Sen, is known to have a great feel for data and has been one of India’s foremost economists and chief statisticians. Sen has been critical of the manner in which the back-series data was essentially released by NITI Aayog and not by the CSO alone, as has been the practice in the past. This is tantamount to politicising institutions which deal with national statistics.
That apart, Sen also agrees that the back-series data does not pass the basic smell test linked to ground realities. While better productivity can theoretically produce higher output with the same quantum of capital or labour, he argues that the period of 2005-2012 also saw a big communication revolution in India due to mobile penetration. Consequently, it would be difficult to argue lower productivity in the UPA era. The service sector overall – whether communications, banking, real estate or hotels – clearly boomed during the UPA period.
Significantly, average GDP growth has been lowered to 6.7% during the UPA period in the new series, from over 8% in the earlier series, largely based on adjusting the service sector output (which was the biggest contributor to GDP) to lower levels.
There are other basic common sense tests which the new series fails. For instance, UPA-era growth is supposed to be lower even though the country’s exports were booming at 20%-plus, bank credit to industry grew at over 20% and the corporate earnings of the top 1,100 companies grew at at over 20%.
In contrast, GDP growth in the NDA-II’s four years – according to the new series – was higher even though export growth was zero, bank credit to industry grew in the low single digits, private investment growth was next to nothing and corporate earnings of the top 1100 companies grew at about 2% a year. Most economic indicators have been down in the last four years.
Even if you adjust for inflation – some economists argue we should compare real not nominal growth indicators – how does 20% plus export growth in the UPA years compare with 0% growth in the first four years of the NDA-II?
Whichever way you look at this elephant, there is only one conclusion. The back series data lacks credibility.