Saturday, December 10, 2011

Business cycle conditions in India: It's mostly cycle, not trend

There is a lot of gloom in India today about the broad-based failure of the UPA strategy of combining left-of-centre populism, fiscal profligacy, theft, and a lack of interest in the foundations of India's growth. We learn from history that we learn nothing from history; India has clearly learned very little from its escape from the Hindu rate of growth. The moment we got a little bit of growth, the old style socialism and theft reared up again. In one of the many pessimistic articles of this theme, Shekhar Gupta in the Indian Express says:
What is the Hindu Rate of Growth two decades after reform? It certainly can’t be the 2-3 per cent of India’s socialist Brezhnev decades. The new Hindu Rate of Growth is 6 per cent, and on all evidence, from macroeconomic data to the empty billboards of Mumbai, we are headed there next year.
In thinking about GDP growth, it's always useful to think about both growth and fluctuations. Growth is about the underlying trend growth rate.  In the olden days, this was all you needed to worry about. The economy trundled along at roughly the trend growth rate (the Hindu rate of growth of 3.5 per cent), being kicked up or down by good or bad monsoons. In that period, macroeconomics in India required thinking in completely different ways, when compared with standard Western textbooks.

But from the early 1990s onwards, India changed. The market-oriented reforms, which began with the Janata Party in 1977 and gathered momentum in the 1980s, had started creating a market economy. And every market economy in the world experiences business cycle fluctuations. So, in addition to the trend, we got a cycle about the trend. There were good periods and bad periods, and the story running in there was much like that found in mainstream Western textbooks, with a prominent role being played by profitability, inventories and investment by firms.

From this viewpoint, it's useful to decompose two elements of what we are seeing after 2009. On one hand, trend growth has been influenced by decisions of the UPA. Any perceptive observer also tends to rage at the lost opportunities, of policy decisions that should have been taken, which would have accelerated trend growth. But the second big story is that of fluctuations. Corporate investment is a major driver of business cycle fluctuations in India, and there has been a certain deceleration in this. This may have set off a downturn.

The bulk of the drama that we're now seeing, and what will play out in 2012, is business cycle fluctuations. This is about fluctuations, not the trend. When trend growth is 7 per cent, the fluctuations make GDP growth range from 4 per cent to 10 per cent. Even if trend growth does not change by even a bit, business cycle fluctuations can take us from a high of 10 per cent to a low of 4 per cent, which is a huge swing of 6 percentage points.

Many elements of economic policy are pro-cyclical: when times are good, they make things better and when times are bad, they make things worse. The financial system tends to suffer from pro-cyclicality: when times are good, bankers lend exuberantly (thus expanding the boom) and when times are bad, bankers tend to be cautious (thus accentuating the bust). It is important to look for a framework for stabilisation, of tools that will counteract business cycle fluctuations. India has crossed one major milestone, in getting to a floating exchange rate. The floating exchange rate is stabilising, in and of itself. In addition, it opens up the possibility of stabilising monetary policy.

As of today, by and large, I think of both fiscal policy and monetary policy as being part of the problem and not part of the solution. While floating the exchange rate (decisions from 2007 to 2009) opened up the possibility of sound monetary policy, the logical next step did not materialise. As of yet, we do not have a sound monetary policy regime. We're going to require far-reaching surgery to laws and institutions, in order to craft frameworks for fiscal policy and monetary policy that do stabilisation. Until these changes are made, Indian GDP growth will have the high volatility that is characteristically found in countries with weak institutions.

A lot of our work in the Macro/Finance group at NIPFP is rooted in this conceptual framework. In particular, you might like to see two relatively non-technical articles: New issues in macroeconomic policy and Stabilising the Indian business cycle.


  1. I can sense your frustration. The feeling that in spite of all that you have done and written, the world and in particular India remains a screwed up place. But keep in mind, one battle does not lose the war. And over the years, you have influenced enough people like me to make a difference.

  2. Wow!! your observations are so true reflection on Indian psyche and human errs.


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