GDP Blues: April-June (2012-13) Data Sums Up Economy’s Woes

The year has begun according to expectations. GDP growth figures for the April-June quarter of 2012-13 – at 5.5%, measured on a year-on-year basis — reveals that the slow growth trend thrown up by the final quarter of 2011-12 (at 5.3%) continues.
This is not entirely unexpected. In fact, many analysts had predicted the growth number close to the final number. For instance, Bloomberg and Reuters had predicted the growth number at 5.2% and 5.3% respectively. Rating agency ICRA had estimated 5.1% while Moody’s assessment clocked in at 5.2%. Some analysts have tweeted that at 5.5% Q1 GDP growth is actually better than expected.
However, there are a couple of issues that must be noted immediately. One, at this growth rate, India is no longer the second-fastest growing economy in the region. It now lags behind Indonesia and The Philippines, with Malaysia nipping at its heels. Niranjan Rajadhyaksha has a nice short piece on it in Mint (read here).
There are is another source of anxiety. Manufacturing growth during the quarter, measured on a year-on-year basis, comes in at a dismal 0.2%, continuing the trend from the previous quarters. So what really saved the economy seems to be a 10.9% growth in construction and 10.8% growth in the segment titled as “financing, insurance, real estate and business services”. This seems to be a bit of an anomaly: if construction grew by over 10%, then it must have consumed cement and steel. Yet, this does not reflect in the manufacturing numbers — unless, of course, the construction industry was running down its accumulated inventory of raw materials. Also, steel and cement combined have a decent weight in the index for industrial production.
The pathetic manufacturing data pretty much reflects the slowdown tightening its grip on the economy. Given that 0.2% growth also means people consumed almost exactly as much as they consumed during April-June 2011, does it also reflect slowing down demand? Could be true, given that private consumption expenditure grew by only 4.7%. This is lower than the growth registered by consumption expenditure in the past few quarters, particularly 6.% in the immediately preceding quarter. After all, wasn’t it the boast of policy wonks that the consumption story had kept the India story vibrant during the global slowdown? That engine of growth seems to be sputtering now.

The other engine of growth — investment — also throws up a depressing picture. Investment growth during Q1FY13 came in at a measly 0.7%. The Indian economy at this point seems like an aircraft with both its engines seizing up.

So, where is this 5.5% impetus coming from? Consumption of services? Perhaps, especially because of money distributed by the government in the form of social sector hand-outs. The segment “community, social and personal services”, which captures these payouts (or considered an euphemism for all kinds of social sector hand-outs), grew by almost 8%. The government’s own expenditure – under the head “government final consumption expenditure” – has also grown 9%.
This pretty much sums up the problem facing the economy: largesse distributed by the government is distorting income levels, creating a spike in aggregate demand without an accompanying boost in investment activity (or creation of sustainable assets). This, in turn, is leading to a situation of low growth and high inflation.
Rating agency Crisil has come up with two interesting reports, one of which states that rural consumption now out-strips urban consumption. This outcome is primarily a consequence of money doled out in the rural areas by the government, described by some economists as money thrown from a helicopter.
But, that still leaves many unanswered questions in this puzzle — for instance, if the rural consumption story is really so strong, and growing apace, why isn’t manufacturing responding by increasing capacity? Is it being discouraged by the current policy paralysis? Or, are expectations playing a major role: that this rural story may not be a secular trend and might peter out soon? Or, expectations that interest rates might not soften in the near future? Methinks it’s a combination of all the three expectations.

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