Optimism about the New Year

Around this time last year, the country was recovering from the shock of demonetisation. It created economic hardship, but it was a political success. Around the country, two questions were routinely asked to people waiting in long queues at the bank branch or the ATM. These were: (a) “Are you facing any hardship?” to which the answer was “yes”. And (b) “Is demonetisation good for the country?” to which many people said, “Yes, some big fish are going to be caught with black money”.  This response didn’t change, and much of the credit for success of the narrative goes to the personal credibility of the Prime Minister. So as the New Year approached, there was some trepidation about the economic uncertainty caused by the note ban, as also whether some bigger dhamaka, or shocker, was also being planned. There was talk of a big bang move to eliminate benaami (anonymous or proxy) ownership of property, as a fresh attack on illicit wealth.

After five successive quarters of decline, the July to September GDP data has turned upward. The teething trouble of GST implementation is speedily addressed by numerous meetings of the GST council. Rates are being reduced, and slabs may be reduced, implying less scope for mis-classification, discretion or disputes. A new panel has been set up for reforming the Direct Taxes, which will presumably advocate lower tax rates, fewer exemptions and a wider tax net.

Compared to 12 months ago, the outlook for India’s economy is much more optimistic and there is much less uncertainty. The pain of demonetisation and the rollout of Goods and Services Tax (GST) are behind us. We did see that after five successive quarters of decline, the July to September GDP data has turned upward. The teething trouble of GST implementation is speedily addressed by numerous meetings of the GST council. Rates are being reduced, and slabs may be reduced, implying less scope for mis-classification, discretion or disputes. A new panel has been set up for reforming the Direct Taxes, which will presumably advocate lower tax rates, fewer exemptions and a wider tax net. The recommendations of the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management committee are also likely to be accepted, in terms of a target debt to GDP ratio and a time path to reducing the revenue deficit to zero. A new Finance Commission has been appointed which is the first one in the post GST era. The commission’s recommendations will apply to the five year period commencing 1 April 2020, and its terms of reference also include (for the first time), issues like promoting the digital economy, ease of doing business in the States, and direct benefit transfers. The new Bankruptcy and Insolvency Code is in full operation, and some big company delinquencies are being tackled, in a rule bound and transparent way. All these structural reforms will pay dividends in the medium term.

As this year will be the last budget before the general elections of 2019, it is expected to provide fiscal fuel to growth. One of the lessons of the Gujarat elections, to be applied nationwide, is the focus on the farm sector and farmer incomes. How creatively the Union Budget achieves this without bending the fiscal rules too much, is to be seen.

The most significant thing at the onset of 2018 is the global economy outlook. For the first time in more than six years, the latest projections of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have been revised upward. The pattern for the past several years, has been that IMF projects growth rates in January, these are progressively revised downward every three months. For the first time, the IMF is more optimistic than eleven months ago. This upward revision applies to North America, Europe, China, Japan and East Asia. Even Brazil which has been beset with many economic and political problems, is expected to do better.

China’s 13th five-year plan, currently in progress, aims for an average growth rate of 6.5 percent, which is slower than all their previous four plans.  This slowdown is deliberate, as the economy adjusts to a newer balance between industry and services, between exports and domestic, between investment and consumption, and between the old and the new economy. But the actual performance has exceeded to 6.8 percent in the most recent data. Since China is the second largest economy, this bodes well for its trading partners. The overall improved sentiment for the global economy is good news for India’s exporting and manufacturing sectors.

This brings us to the India specific situation. The economy already got a thumbs up from a rating upgrade by Moody’s and an improved rank by the World Bank on the ease of doing business. Thus the external positive perception remains strong. There is certain optimism that the GDP trajectory will move upward, perhaps not too rapidly. Early signs of a pick-up in bank credit, and sharply improved export performance in November are good signs. The increased spending on infrastructure, the various policy enablers to give a big push to affordable housing is sure to kick up demand. As this year will be the last budget before the general elections of 2019, it is expected to provide fiscal fuel to growth. One of the lessons of the Gujarat elections, to be applied nationwide, is the focus on the farm sector and farmer incomes. How creatively the Union Budget achieves this without bending the fiscal rules too much, is to be seen.