If the Union Budget looks ahead at the year and makes forecasts on how the government will gather revenue and spend it, the Economic Survey looks back to take stock of what happened and then lays out the big-picture goals, challenges and scenarios for the Indian economy. It is more of a vision statement than a to-do list. Just as the Budget document has the signature flavour of the finance minister, the Survey carries the DNA print of the chief economic advisor. The key message of Arvind Subramanian’s Economic Survey for 2017-18 can be summed up in one phrase: revival and risk, and he shows this in one chart on the behaviour of bond prices and stock prices. (See table)
The rise and rise of the stock market points to the revival in the economy and the rise in bond yields points to worries on deficit, inflation and oil prices going up. Why are the stock markets rising? The Survey finds that the revival part of the story is “robust and broad based”. With the shock of demonetization and the Goods and Services Tax behind us, gross domestic product (GDP) growth for the current year is estimated to be 6.75% and for the next year between 7 and 7.5 %, making India the fastest growing major economy in the world. The reason for the robustness is the implementation of several deep reform initiatives. GST reform has added another 3.4 million indirect tax payers and GST collections are on an upward trajectory. In fact, the overall trend for widening the tax net is positive. The Survey finds that post-demonetisation, there has been a 0.8% monthly increase in new direct tax filers—an annual growth of 10% or about 1.8 million new taxpayers.
A very irate 70-year-old spoke to me sometime back about his bugbear with the inflation stories he was reading in the papers. The inflation numbers had just been announced and the papers had stories about the rising real return on deposits. The stories celebrated the fall of inflation leading to positive real returns. This means that an inflation number of 4% and a deposit rate of 6% gives a ‘real’ return of 2%, as against an inflation number of 8% and deposit rates of 6% giving a negative real return of 2%. People don’t understand that they are better off, said the stories and comments, they just see the lower nominal return and feel poorer even when they are not. “It’s not as if the price of milk or vegetables has come down,” the septuagenarian grumbled. He’s right. The bite of inflation is such that even when inflation numbers go down, it just means that prices are still rising, but not as fast as before. What the commentators forget is that inflation too has a compounding effect. If compound interest on savings makes our money grow faster, the compounding of inflation makes our money buy less and less. For a retired person sitting on a fixed pot of savings and living off its interest, falling rates of inflation also mean falling deposit rates and that means insufficient funds to live on.
As a kid I remember getting irritated whenever the old people would get together. Now they’ll start talking about how expensive everything is, I used to mutter. Back in those days, kids couldn’t utter aloud all the insidious little comments that were swimming around in their heads when adults were around. “Arrey, on a salary of twenty rupees you could run the house and then have something left over? That shawl mamijee wears, no? That cost a full five rupees. Now toh, you can’t buy it for five thousand only.” Everybody shakes their heads. “Tch tch. Zamana hi kharab hai (these are bad times).” As a kid I remember buying sweets for 5 paise and bus tickets cost 25 paise (and I’m on my way to irritating the life out of kids in the family). My daughter has never seen coins below one rupee. Her daughter will probably say the same for fifty bucks. The fall in purchasing power is the reason that we worry about meeting our expenses when we retire.
A guy I know wanted to retire when he was 25. He just didn’t have the money. If I get Rs1 crore, he said, then I’ll retire. Now, 30 years later, he’s still working and still not done with gathering the corpus he needs to retire. Anyway, he’s wiser and agrees that financial security and going to work need not be either/or. People can continue to work even if they are financially secure. But how much do we really need to save out of our incomes to know that we will hit retirement with enough to maintain our lifestyle for another 30 years? Every time I speak to a friend about buying a life cover, he tells me—the risk we have is not of dying too soon, but of living too long.
This is the new inflation target for the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), with a floor of 2% and a ceiling of 6%. Remember that one of the reasons for inflation, or a rise in the prices, is that governments borrow too much to fund expenses.
Have you been feeling low lately? Generally pessimistic and grumpy? I met a colleague in the lift bay and swapped stories. A fund manager drops by to meet me and we discuss how everybody feels much older than before. That the last 10 years feel like 20. Many conversations over the past few months lead me to think that the urban mass affluent Indian is not feeling too happy. It’s a big come down since the go-go days of 9% growth. No wonder that the Misery Index for India is the highest since 1991. Nomura Research has tweaked the classic Arthur Okun method of adding the unemployment and inflation rate (higher levels of both, the argument goes, would cause higher economic and social distress) to take the difference of the Index of Industrial Production growth and the Consumer Price Index to construct the Indian Misery Index. The swap was made necessary by poor employment data in India. The greater this difference, the higher is the misery index. With inflation persistently high and industrial production and jobs falling, no wonder the lines of worry are settling in. Add to this the sheer persistent deluge of bad news across all fronts—economic, political, social, moral—and the picture looks even worse.