How fast-growing Indian economy now faces looming stagflation

A wholesale market in the old quarters of Delhi on Jan 7. At the heart of India's problems is a slump in consumption following a combination of policy missteps,
A wholesale market in the old quarters of Delhi on Jan 7. At the heart of India's problems is a slump in consumption following a combination of policy missteps.PHOTO: REUTERS

MUMBAI •Just two years ago, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was helming an economy expanding 8 per cent, spurring optimism India was on a path to become a major global growth driver.

Now, stagflation looms as the economy grinds towards its slowest expansion in more than a decade and inflation spikes above the central bank's target, driven by higher food prices. Social unrest against a restrictive new citizenship law is yet another challenge.

And there are few good options to deal with the slowdown. Dwindling government revenue and an already-stretched budget limit scope for fiscal support, while the shock 7.35 per cent surge in inflation last month and the threat of higher oil prices mean the door for further interest rate cuts is closing.

Sovereign bonds dropped after the inflation data.

The yield on the benchmark 10-year bond rose as much as 10 basis points to 6.7 per cent yesterday, the most since Dec 5.

So what went wrong?

At the heart of India's problems is a slump in consumption following a combination of policy missteps, from the unprecedented decision to ban high-value cash notes at the end of 2016, to the chaotic implementation of a unified goods and services tax the following year.

That was followed shortly after by a credit crunch, which triggered a crisis among shadow lenders - a key provider of small loans to hundreds of millions of consumers and businesses.

Consumption makes up about 60 per cent of gross domestic product, and spending has slumped as businesses shed jobs and put off investment plans. Consumer sentiment remains in the doldrums and the recent volatility in oil prices could be a further drag on spending.

Economic growth in the fiscal year through March 31 is set to slow to an estimated 5 per cent, the weakest pace in more than a decade.

"The recovery is likely to be very gradual and a stagflation scenario is likely," said economist Teresa John at Nirmal Bang Equities in Mumbai. Stagflation refers to a condition of accelerating inflation and weakening growth.

The central bank's five interest-rate cuts last year and billions of dollars of liquidity pumped into financial markets have done little to spur lending. That is because banks are already saddled with one of the worst stressed-asset ratios in the world and are neither lending much nor transmitting rate cuts to borrowers.

"We are really extremely close to a point where we could be dipping into a major recession," Dr Abhijit Banerjee, winner of the Nobel Prize for economics last year, said this month in Mumbai.

"The critical problem in the Indian economy is demand. You definitely want to stimulate demand," he said, urging the authorities to abandon their inflation and budget deficit targets.

There are some early signs that the economy may be bottoming out. The latest high-frequency indicators, such as the purchasing managers' indexes for manufacturing and services, show activity is picking up. Industrial production and capital expenditure also improved late last year.

Economists are forecasting a rebound in growth to 6.2 per cent in the fiscal year through next March, although much will depend on how quickly global demand and domestic spending recovers.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2020, with the headline 'How fast-growing Indian economy now faces looming stagflation'. Print Edition | Subscribe